Saturday 31 October 2015

Trip to Colchester Zoo - Art

I love outdoor art, especially when it is unexpected and unpretencious.  Art that s colourful, fun, that you can get near to and don't have to worry that your kids will touch and get you told off.  Good examples have been at Kew Gardens or one of my favourite places, The Eden Project in Cornwall (Harlequin Sister also collects images of street art that I really like on her blog here).

Colchester Zoo had lots of examples of art in different mediums both sculpture and paintings, some with facts for kids.  I enjoyed spotting these and they also made good backdrops for photos of the kids to send to their grandparents. (including when they climbed up to sit on the cheetah).

Trip to Colchester Zoo

We wanted to take the kids out for a day during the autumn half term holidays.  One of the problems we are starting to face, is finding somewhere new that everyone can agree on.  The kids want theme parks, or at the very least "no more castles and old houses", I hate theme parks and have to keep an eye on budget.  So after aaaages of looking on the internet, we came up with Colchester Zoo.  The idea being that it is supposed to have a decent mix of animal, is a reasonable distance and because it is out of the city, there is parking (sorry eco-warriors, so not dragging five rowdy, squabbling kids on  public transport, especially after the time I managed to leave one behind).

On the way, I spotted this sign along with another that said there was a sharp cliff.  I wondered if it was a joke, until I saw signs saying there was some kind of quarry nearby.

We saved time and money by buying our tickets beforehand.  I booked them on the drive there and punched my reference into a ticket machine at the entrance.  We got the tickets printed off and didn't have to queue, we also saved about £10.

As with Diggerland and other places we've been to, I noticed the gift shop was right by the entrance - which me and the kids duly noted for later on.

On entering the zoo, there were a number of directions we could go in, so we picked one and decided to come back to the rest.  Sometimes you find attractions like this are laid out in a way that you follow the path and manage to work your way through all of the elements of the place.  Colchester Zoo didn't feel like this as much, this meant that we doubled up on ourselves sometimes and found that we missed some of the animals.

The leopard below was one of my favourites, mainly because I spotted it long before the kids, but also because it hides so beautifully in the foliage - can you spot it?

This red panda was my other favourite, beautiful and still:

We had lots of fun with this monkey (a gibbon I think), who showed off to the crowd on his swing, the kids were in hysterics when he started peeing as he swung and wanted me to send pictures of him to their grandparents there and then.

The fish were Darlings favourite because she could see them straight away through the glass and didn't have to be lifted up to get a look.

This is the best view we got of the tigers, the leopard was hiding in the tree and the cheetah was lazing behind a log so we didn't see him at all.  We also managed to miss the Lion completely and were too tired to go back.

Part of the zoo is dedicated to bugs and birds with a walk through trees and a marshy area, this area riminded me of similar dedicated areas at Groombridge in Kent and a larger area at the Gweek Seal Sanctuary in Cornall - peaceful, green and isolated compared to other busier areas of the site.

I have to say, I found some of the larger African animals quite thrilling: the elephants, rhino's, giraffes, zebra's and something called the greater kudu (which looked a bit like an antelope).

There were plenty of places to eat with different types of food, including one (Tiger Taiga Chip 'n Dip) that seemed to serve only vegetarian food (which means that it would likely not be cooked with meat, which is a consideration when eating halal, so worth asking).  We took our own picnic and found two areas with picnic benches, one was near the elephants and a bit smelly, but the other was fine and it was fun having ducks sneaking under the table whilst we were eating and making the kids freak out :)

The zoo was easy to navigate with Baby's pram for most places except areas which were a bit steeper, where hubby and I took turns and had to put our back into it a bit more.  We managed to miss some seeing some animals (lions, penguins, kangaroos) because we just got too tired and didn't want to double back.  The trip back took ages too, usually you wander through a site and find yourself back at the starting, but we ended up walking all the way back through the zoo.

In all our trip to the zoo was a nice day out, about the same price as other similar places.  I loved how child-friendly it was with staff that were friendly and answered our children's questions kindly, making it a nice day out for everyone in out family.

We had planned to visit nearby Colchester Castle and the Castle Park afterwards, but the kids were all fast asleep in the car within five minutes, so we headed home instead.

Friday 23 October 2015

The Value of my Unmarried Sisters

This is a topic close to my heart and one that has been on my mind the last year or so. I don’t write to be controversial as I don’t like to upset people and I certainly don’t like to encourage trolls. In the past when I have written about marriage I received a very mixed response (here) including comments around – “what do you know about it anyway, you’re married?” which I found a little galling (“oh ok then, I won’t have an opinion or even dare to think about it…”)

Yet this topic affects friends I care about and people I love. Each of them valuable, precious, with much to offer and many beautiful qualities. Each of them unmarried. I have been mulling over a conversation I had with a friend recently about being in her 30’s, not yet married and feeling a little fed up of being pressurised by those around her to hurry up and marry. It reminded me of an article I read recently by a Muslim sister who questioned whether she even wanted to get married and have children and in the absence of doing so, wanted to have something else in her life that gave her purpose and pleasure.

It made me think that we are in a position in the Muslim communities in the western world where there will be many women who will likely never end up being married, often not through their own choice or for lack of trying. How do we accord these women with the respect they deserve?

In the past, an unmarried Muslimah was often considered as an object of pity. People could especially not imagine how a women without children could ever be fulfilled. There was also the thinking that a women without a husband and then children her to care for her financially would be vulnerable and potentially a burden to her parents and then her extended family.

Times have changed for Muslim women I many ways. Out lives can be fulfilling and full of purpose outside of the traditional roles of wife and mother if we choose. We are able to become financially independent if we choose and we live in countries that are able to provide a safety net that should stop us from starving to death in old age in a worse case scenario (you would hope).

What doesn’t seem to have changed in tandem is our attitude as a community. We seem unable to discuss the issue of unmarried women in our community in a measured and mature way, or even include women in that discussion in a respectful way that seriously takes their opinions on board.

But the questions remain: What is the place of unmarried sisters in our community? I certainly don’t believe that they should be a source of embarrassment or pity as has been in the past. I believe that we have to face up to the fact that these women have immense value to add. I believe that if Allah (SWT) has decided that marriage and motherhood is not on the cards for some sisters, He has a deep purpose behind this.

The examples are there for us: Lady Aishah (RA) was widowed at 18 and spent her life into her 80’s teaching Islam as a great scholar. Rabia Al-Adawiyya of Basra (RA) never married despite offers from great scholars of her time such as Hassan Basri (RA), she was too engrossed in her love for her Beloved – her Lord (SWT).

In both of these examples there is no lack of spirituality, productivity and benefit to their communities and beyond. This doesn’t mean that I don’t value marriage and children. I still pray that Allah (SWT) blesses my sisters with kind loving spouses, and wonderful children. But I do so knowing that this is not His will for every woman. What I would like to see is the conversation around my single sisters change. An acceptance that some sisters may not marry. That this should not mean they are relegated to some dark corner of our community as spinsters, but respected, accepted as valuable and supported in living the purpose and path that Allah (SWT) has set them on for all of our benefit insh’Allah.

I dedicate this post to my cherished great-aunt. As a young women she found she could not conceive and was sent home by her husband with divorce papers sent swiftly after her, only to be replaced very quickly with another woman. She spent her life in her sisters home (my paternal grandmother) in prayer and helping with the household duties, squabbling with her sister but always loved by everyone. Now all my grandparents and almost all of their siblings are gone, she is left as a reminder of them, loved and respected by everyone in our clan – neither a burden nor without purpose. I often think of her and the sadness she endured and how the things we worry about for unmarried women: sustenance, companionship, lack of status were not the main things that were issues for her, but perhaps being treated with respect rather than pity by people outside of our family may have been.

Little Lady's First Canvas

Little Lady loves drawing and has been selling some of her sketches and drawings to girls at her school.  Recently a classmate asked her to create a canvas for her to give away as a gift.

She headed out to the garden with all of her materials and her winter coat to paint the background of her canvas and was barely finshed by the time the light was failing (the days are getting shorter here, and we are really feeling the difference in the mornings and evenings).

This was the colour wash effect she went with:

After lots of practising fonts and layouts, this was the message and style she went with.

I love encouraging children to do things that call to them, and for this girl it is her poetry and art.  I look forward to seeing what else she creates and watching her creative journey - she was asked to do another one the next day alhamdulillah, but I had to convince her to negotiate her commissions so that she could do then over weekends.

Monday 19 October 2015

Finding Balance (Again)

My mother-in-law went back to Pakistan last week after five months of us working together to keep everything running and a lovely send-off from my whole family. I realised how much we have gotten used to her and come to rely on her and also how happy she is here.

Her return means that we lose our childcare for both of my youngest and help with the school run. It also means that we have to adjust our routines to accommodate the things she helped with. making life a bit more challenging for both myself and my husband.

Her leaving left me a little stressed and anxious and as always my response to that is to look inwards and ask “What really matters?”, “Should we carry on as we are?”, “Do we have to?”. That makes me sound very philosophical and wise – but actually I didn’t jump from feeling anxious to getting straight to the serious questions. As always with me, there is a little journey in between that requires me to go round in circles, chasing my tail in my mind, making myself dizzy and bumping into something that makes me stop and think.

This time round it was a very nice colleague of mine at work, who also happens to be a good friend. She asked me why I was worrying about everything and trying to understand everything even when it was not my concern. She also noticed I was on my phone every few minutes, checking e-mails, whatsapps and random news stories when I was already on information overload mode as it is.

She had a point. I realised I wanted to do everything, to keep my finger in every pie, to not miss any opportunity or bit of important news. When in reality all of this is leading to achieving nothing. I feel bombarded by video’s that go viral, news that doesn’t differentiate between important and pointless fluff, constant streams of marketing e-mails promising to sort out my finances, make me rich, help me to find my purpose and get fit – if I just sign up, attend the webinar or download the free pdf.

I miss crafting, art, reading and writing. I miss feeling as if I am living well and getting things done. Being a mum of five and working four days is plenty of work, but in reality I have let time stealers such as social media, e-mail and Netflix sneak into my life in the chinks of free time.

I wondered if I needed to cut through all of the rubbish and focus (my word for 2014), as I can be very scatty and have a terrible concentration (my sisters will tell you I stop listening and wonder off mid-conversation). Or maybe I needed to be disciplined (my word for 2013 funnily enough) in the way I spend my time.

My lovely (if sometimes mean but with good intentions!) friend suggested that instead I needed to find balance. I am starting to admit she is right. There is no point in picking twenty things and trying to be disciplined and focus on getting them all done. I think the step to take is one well before that, which requires me to find a balance between the different parts of my life. So being 100% present with my husband and children, putting away my phone or book and being completely absorbed in them, but then being quite clear and selfish about my own time and not feeling guilty for doing things for myself and letting the children occupy themselves.

I feel like I have been here many times before. I suppose that’s what life is about – you find balance, something comes along to throw you off, or the circumstances of your life change drastically and to assuage the anxiety and chaos, you strive to find balance again.

So I am currently unsubscribing from most things in my inbox with the reminder to myself that its all just marketing that aims to create an anxiety in you and then offer to take your money away when you sign up to stuff. In reality I know for sure that the answer to your anxieties is almost never out there, but within you. I am preparing for a tech detox (i.e. get that damned smartphone out of sight!!), making the decision to keep off social media or have a controlled time for it (i.e. 15 minutes a day or week). I am signing out of Netflix and trying to think about when downtime should be and for how long. Most of all I am writing again, every morning if I can. Whenever I get my writing done, I feel as if everything else in life - children, housework, guests, work, it all becomes pleasurable. The resentment at the back of my mind disappears and I approach all of these things feeling light, positive and happy to do them, rather then desperate to get them out of the way so that I can do something else.

How do you find balance in your life?
How do you deal with the feeling of being bombarded by information and news 24 hours a day from every direction?
What questions would you ask yourself to guide you back to a more harmonious place?
What examples from the life of our beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) and his Companions (RA) have you found fruitful in finding balance in your life?

Mad Hatter Eid Tea Party

For Eid-al-Fitr this year, I agreed with my family that for those who don’t have time or budget for presents or wish to get creative, people could gift us with an experience rather than a material gift.

My youngest sister Harlequin Sister rose to the challenge earlier in the year and organised the coolest, most fun high tea for Eid. Her themes were a mix of Alice in Wonderland, a book theme and traditional English fete. All of the decorations and dessert table d├ęcor were handmade by her and took lots of work, imagination and creativity. I just realised that I never ended up sharing the pictures and they were just too much fun not to:

We had tons of good food with everyone bringing dishes. We had party games that I had to watch rather than participate in because all the food made me super sleepy and then we all lazed on the giant floor cushions (that hubby provided) and watched Captain America 2.  A very enjoyable afternoon alhamdulillah.

You can see more images of the day here at Shutterbug Sisters blog and here and here at Harlequins blogs and Instagram.