School: The Ultimate Desert Island

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  Another teenager ends her life after being bullied relentlessly by schoolmates, both in person and online. The heartrending story of Izzy Dix’s suicide, told by her mother – a single mum, for whom Izzy was her only child – has hit me at a particularly emotional moment: my kids are away and the house is thunderingly silent. God only knows how Izzy’s mother is coping with her solitude.
  And it makes me wonder – not for the first time – what the deal is with education. What good is a school if it teaches kids how to regurgitate facts for exams, which they will certainly have forgotten two weeks after finishing school, and yet is so blinkered to the facts before its eyes that it cannot see when a child is teetering on the edge?
  What, more to the point, are they teaching their students about social responsibility, ethics, compassion? At times it looks more like the mechanical imprinting of information than the careful nurturing that a bunch of insecure adolescents need.
  After blogging about my trepidation in taking Caveboy to state school, concluding that it wouldn’t harm him since, comparatively, we live in a beautiful, open, natural wonderland, by the end of term he’d come down with double pneumonia and ended up in hospital on an antibiotic drip for three days. (He did fine with treatment, thank God, and even went to the UK for Christmas).
  But he was still not back to peak health by the beginning of the spring term, so I took the executive decision to keep him out of school. It was only Infant’s, in any case, and therefore not obligatory, though if you don’t take up the offer of free state education most Spanish people look at you like one of those creepy mums who tell their kids that everyone is evil and probably still breastfeed their teenagers.
  Since I had to organise a babysitter to look after my daughter (then nearly three), I got together with two other mums and we had a babysitter-share at my house, three mornings a week. It worked a treat. There’s lots of space to play here, lots of sunshine to be out in, trees to climb, kittens, toys, craft materials…I think I can safely say they had a ball.

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  I was, meanwhile, optimistically planning a home school co-op for the following year. I could teach music! I thought. And poetry! And history! We could do whole theatre productions! And make up group stories! And plant things! If, that is, I could generate the extra six hours a day I needed to get everything else done…
  Thank heavens, then, that someone else did know that particular conjuring trick. Two wonderful friends got together and had a wooden cabin built in an olive and orange grove, filled it with Montessori equipment, kitted out a patio to the side with art things, and set up a Montessori-inspired playschool.

  Three days a week, too – the magic number I figured would work best with my kids, so I’d still get enough time to see them and be able to juggle all my other projects.
  It seems that in the two years since their dad and I split up, I’ve felt less like I needed my own space and more like I want to relish my time with my children. Partly that’s because they are growing older and more able to potter around with paints and playthings, without leaping on my back and pulling my hair or wailing over something inexplicable every five minutes.   
  And partly it’s that they go to their dad’s for days or even weeks at a time, and I realise that the house really isn’t so much fun without them in it. I don’t really inhabit it when I’m on my own here; I barely cook, which means the washing up pile is slow to accumulate, and the same could be said for the laundry too…which might sound like every housewife’s dream, but in a strange way, I appreciate these little daily tentpegs that moor my restless mind into something tangible and satisfying to finish.
  So the idea that next year Caveboy will be starting primary school leaves me feeling quite bereft. Before I know it he’ll be doing after school activities, going to friends’ to lunch, or having to contend with the increasing amount of homework that kids are being set – often, it seems, by blockheaded teachers who make them repeat the same inane tasks over and over, until all love of learning has been thoroughly stamped out of their tender heads.

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  Learning, I believe, is something that any child who has been encouraged to do so from an early age will do quite instinctively. And once they can read for themselves, the pedagogical world is their oyster. Some of the best read people I’ve met have not gone to school.
  “But it’s the social thing!” anti-homeschoolers rant. And they’re right: there are those kids whose parents, in their earnest wish not to see their kids being bullied, end up stymying their children’s own ability to work things out for themselves.
  However, it’s an argument that is just as valid in many schools, especially large, impersonal schools in which kids like Izzy Dix can fall through the net. Izzy had moved back to the UK from Australia two years before she died. She came into a high school eager to make friends, but instead found nothing but cliques with their backs turned to her, firing bitchy comments from behind their battlements to keep the stranger at bay.
  It makes me want to work hard to keep this Montessori project flourishing through to primary. Not just because the kids seem happy, interested, relaxed, engaged, alive, but because they would be fortified on all sides by a society they understand, people they know, kids whose parents meet and chat and laugh together in the street. I wonder if this isn’t really the secret ingredient to a successful school ingredient – the wider society being something that children do well to mirror.

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  I went to a state school, quite large (1500 at the time, and it’s grown a lot since I left). It was competitive; we had dozens of sports teams and dance shows and charity performances; people talked about Oxbridge at Sixth Form.
  But my parents had nothing to do with anyone from this microcosm of society, except on Parent’s Evening. There was not much point me telling them about things that happened to so-and-so; they didn’t know who they were. We were relative hermits, bookworms inhabiting a miniature classical Islamic library, or making music to ourselves. We had our own friends, other Sufis who’d come to our house to sing and do dhikr (the remembrance of God) together. We made sense among ourselves.
  Nobody from my school would have understood us. I know why my parents didn’t want to hang out with other parents; our lives ran on different runners. We didn’t drink alcohol, that ubiquitous social lubricant. We didn’t watch EastEnders. We didn’t take much of an interest in the usual English things (house prices, football, Jonathon Ross). The weather was about the only thing that affected us equally as our neighbours.

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That, of course, and our sense of humour.

  But growing up in this bisected way, with one outer life and another inner, was not much fun. I developed a hard shell to deal with everyday England that took many years of difficult work to emerge from. My interaction with people was premeditated, edited, cautious. Nobody got the full picture, which perhaps is what made me turn to writing and music with such passion.
  So in the imaginary schools of my children’s future, I hope I will always be there, brandishing trays of prawn blinis at every event, enthusiastically welcoming other parents and insisting on being their acquaintance, not just for the sake of appearances but so that my kids won’t feel that I am deserting them on a strange island every time I leave them off at the school gates.
  I intend to make it plain who I am, without shame, without fear of judgment, since if you have no shame about your real self, there is nowhere for any hater to pin their hate onto you. It’s as if you have become a transparent ball of light, melting their needles whenever they get close. And if you carry baggage around, writhing with embarrassing secrets, you can be sure that someone, bully or snark or spineless invertebrate, will take pleasure in opening them for you.
  Don’t let your light be barnacled by self-doubt. You are every bit as awesome as you wish you were. And you always have been.

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Song for the Crocodiles

London, 27th August 2013

 

  Crouched among biodynamic farms an ancient coppiced woodlands, like a child suppressing laughter in a game of hide-and-seek, is the breathtakingly lovely Emerson College in Sussex, whose festival of storytelling ‘Everything Under the Sun’ took place over Bank Holiday weekend. Improv, world folk tales, listening for the story that is waiting to emerge from the most forgettable object – the experience was so light, shocking in the simpleness of its fun, it felt like it was changing my approach to writing with every minute that passed.

  Reflecting on it over the past few days, the shock lay in remembering how alive I feel in the making of a story, or the performing – the telling – of one. It is about as far removed from the illusion that fiction appears to be as a ship so far from shore that only the ocean can be seen. 

  It’s something I’ve struggled with a little over the years; Sufism has everything to do with reality, with freedom from illusion, but story-crafting seems to be all about dipping into the imagination and even – when it’s a really good – being lost in it. Wahm, vain fantasy or illusion, is spoken about in derogative terms; I have read several prayers seeking protection from it.

  Meanwhile, another question – interconnected to the previous one – has been on my mind, more and more over the last few years: how can a child be raised in such a way that s/he does not lose that wondrous state of openness, of sensitivity and play, that children gift us with – when we can stop our frenetic activity and enjoy it with them? Or, put differently, is it possible to bring up children in such a way that their instinctive trust, their belief in what they cannot see, remains undimmed without stunting their growth into adulthood?

Etching made by my sister Hanna Whiteman - see her website www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.co.uk

Etching made by my sister Hanna Whiteman – see her website http://www.hannawhiteman.blogspot.co.uk

  The two questions came together at this festival. Well-known for having a strong Waldorf connection (storytelling is central to Steiner school education), the storytellers showed me very plainly that adults do not have to lose that sense of wonderment and playfulness, can remain free-spirited and open without falling into silliness, vain fantasy, or the kind of wimpy escapism that often gets associated with alternative education (or, indeed, a certain breed of religionists).

  On the contrary; these were deeply wise people, not in the way you’d perhaps envision wisdom (no long wispy beards or monk hats), but in a way that was integrated into adult competence and confidence, our ability to organise and lead and teach. 

  The impression I had, particularly from a creative nature walk I took with Malcolm Greene, veteran storyteller and teacher at Emerson (and elsewhere), was of an adult who welcomed every new idea without criticising for the sake of being bigger than the one criticised – yet that didn’t mean he wouldn’t call out a clanger.

  I was astonished at my own amazement that this was possible. I wonder where I got the idea that adults had to be cynical, that without this ‘healthy’ cynicism they would come across as childish – by which, I regret to say, I mean pathetically weedy? Instead I felt completely respected, heard, ‘met’ as an adult, but the inner playfulness I hardly ever dared to let out (except while playing with my kids) was fully met, too.

  One of the exercises we did was to find an object in the woods we had walked to and turn it into a story. So a fern became the original Christmas tree for early British people, who were really very small, and who would gather together at ritual times and dance around the fern plant, kicking away the damp humus on the floor, eating the tiny white pearly mushrooms that were actually drops of elf milk that had spilt from hazelnut shells carried by mothers who had rushed too quickly to their children at night, while the amber beech leaf was in fact the lost earring of the gossamer lady of the lake (a crumpled spiderweb), who was coming to the dance and dropped it…

  There is a huge difference between thinking a story like this and making it up together with other adults, telling it excitedly in bursts as each one thinks of a new thread. We are kids again. It’s a new game. The feeling is wonderful; the adults in us are still there, providing us with thesaurus searches when we need a good word, but the playfulness is back and as vivid as it was when we were six. You inner child is alive and realer than you’d think.

  Which brings me back to the education question. What causes a child to shut off that vivid reality, in which anything could be anything else? Is it really as simple as using plastic toys, playing video games, or watching television, as many a Steiner school will tell you?

  I don’t think those things help, especially. But I think there is something we do as parents that is far more influential in this sense. We tell our children to stop being so silly.

  Remember that? “Don’t be ridiculous.” “Act your age” (a real dose of adult idiocy there). “Stop crying.” “Be a big boy.” Or even the unforgivably cruel, “Grow up.” Is that the example we were expected to grow up to be? 

  Quite apart from the damage done in negating the things pictured in the technicolour showstopper of a child’s imagination, I would like to point out that being silly is really very amusing. I have a friend who recently admitted that she has a photo from her wedding night in which she and her new husband posed as the freakish inbred villagers from the League of Gentlemen. I am unashamed to admit I do a lot of silly walks, dances, faces, gibberish invented songs, partly to distract my kids from incipient brat-outs, and partly just to get a laugh. It’s cheaper than putting a family through psychotherapy in years to come. I see it as a sound investment.

  Perhaps we are so keen to cut off the imaginative drive because of the fears that so often brew in the cauldron of that wildly creative brain. My kids have told me on countless occasions that there is a monster in the house. At some point, I stopped saying ‘Don’t be silly’, and started listening to them. 

  It was hard at first, remembering the fear that rises like floodwater at the thought of these perceptions; many times I have also felt the presence of something peculiar, or benign,  or even protective, or simply a being who is sitting on the sofa, keeping me company. At times the feeling is suffocating (the toilets at my best friend’s studio are definitely home to something creepy, I can almost feel it closing a hand over my throat; no surprise her 3 year old son says there’s an octopus in there). 

  It might be difficult to believe what I’m saying; we’ve all been given so much conditioning that monsters don’t really exist in the closet, there are no crocodiles under the bed, nothing is looking in the window at night…yet horror films love to play on these fears, and if you remember being a child, I can guarantee you can remember the chill you felt of lying alone in a dark room, or going to the bathroom at night, or going into the garden at night – why was it always at night?

  Let me tell you story now, and you can choose to believe it or not. Last night, I was working on a translation. It was a book by Ibn ‘Arabi, the great 13th century scholar and mystic of Murcia, Al-Andalus. (I was working on the Spanish to English; it has already been translated from Arabic to Spanish).

  Something about translating a person’s words immediately makes me feel their presence. Sometimes it happens when reading their work, but often writers have been so edited, or were writing in such a detached way, that their essence doesn’t come across well at all. But translating a classical manuscript has a different feeling to it. It’s difficult, clumsy; often you feel you are blundering around in the dark.

Andalusian mystic and author, 1165-1240 CE

Andalusian mystic and author, 1165-1240 CE

  And out of the dark loom figures. I’m not sure if it is the spirit of the writer, or some other being come to help you work it out. But when I turned off the computer at 1.30 am, and went to pray before bed, there were people sitting on the sofa. They had their hands on their knees. I would say they were probably men, though gender didn’t have anything to do with it. They were aware of me. One of them, I felt, could have been Ibn ‘Arabi, summoned to help put me on track with this mind-numbingly difficult translation.

  It’s happened a few times recently, particularly during Ramadan, when I was often up in the night at strange hours praying. You might say it was a hallucination brought on by lack of sleep. I’ve slept much less and still not hallucinated, and in any case, there was nothing visual there – which is precisely what answered my question about imagination.

  There is a vision in the head, and a vision in the heart. Rarely do the twain meet – at least in the daytime, when there is enough light to distract the eyes of the head and so much activity for it to be getting on with. The heart’s vision usually takes a back seat – unless you make an effort to be reminded of it, or you are of a highly intuitive nature (in which case it can be paralysing).

  At night, when this intuitive state returns to many of us, especially children, those entities that we are too busy to notice in the daytime start to demand our attention. (You might want to call them energies, if that takes away the creepiness factor for you.) 

  But a while ago I realised that addressing my children’s fears directly, not by declaring those entities as non-existent but by calmly accepting their perception of them and offering them some practical way to deal with them, helps them cope with their fears without shutting off their heart’s vision. So we blow raspberries at monsters, shoo them out by shaking towels, make lots of noise, tell them to go home, sing songs loudly about how we’ll chop them up and put them in a peppery soup, squirt water at them, close curtains and light nightlights, sweep dusty neglected underbeds and air out stuffy wardrobes and bathrooms.

  The head doesn’t want to accept the possibility of these entities existing, partly because it doesn’t want the competition of the heart’s vision (heads are territorial like that), and partly because it just doesn’t have any way of dealing with it – which really is terrifying. How does the rational mind come up with a solution for an intuitive problem?

  You have to revert to play to find the solution. You have to go back into the child’s space of anything being possibly anything else to come up with the next page of the story, the next event. Sometimes it will seem quite crazy. Other times there will be so much wisdom to it your jaw will drop at your child’s perspicacity. 

  Cavegirl, who is now 3, remarked to me the other day, while I was on the computer sending emails, “Mummy, wake up!” I replied, “I am awake!” to which she said, “No. You’re asleep”.

  A commentary of technology’s habit of disconnecting us from other people aside, that showed me how well her heart vision was integrated with her head vision – as, I suppose, all children’s must be, up to a certain age. She described me as she saw me – yet she knew I was not literally asleep, because I was sitting up in a chair, typing. But I may as well have been. My heart-light was switched off, and only head activity remained. I was, to her, in a different world, detached from the reality she perceived. I certainly wasn’t sensing the presence of night visitors then, I can tell you. 

  In story, the two visions, heart and head, converge. Head is there offering adjectives, guiding story arcs, planning ahead a little, reminding not to waffle. But heart has taken centre stage. Heart is on the stage in fact, dressed in wild batiks with a staff in hand, enthralling the page with visions that may or may not ever have been but feel real – and that is true enough.

  When fears emerge, whether your child’s or yours, story offers access to your intuitive ability to problem-solve in the non-physical realm, where there certainly are crocodiles under your bed – or something that only the word ‘crocodiles’ can adequately describe. Write the crocodiles a letter to tell them to go away (politely – you don’t want to get them annoyed). Sing them a song, or play a tune on a penny whistle, à la the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and lead them out the front door (locking it shut afterwards). Send in a team of pirhanas to devour them…I don’t know, they’re your crocodiles, you make it up. (Add them in the comments when they seem to work!)

  Most of the time, it makes you laugh to play out these solutions, which itself acts as a detergent to fear. And the side-effect of getting rid of a crocodile infestation is appreciating those protectors, teachers, guards who appear when you need them. 

  Why is it always at night? Because that’s when the stories emerge from their dens.

The Night A Thief Showed Me Freedom

We were at a restaurant in Soho, one of those brightly-lit places with stylish wallpaper that lures designers and their ilk into this grimy crease on London’s streetmap, in which creep junkies, tourists in sunhats, reckless rickshaw riders, jazz joints and telephone boxes so filthy they make you clutch your mobile like a prayer book.

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S and I had been friends back in sixth form; she was about the only person I’d stayed in touch with since then, and had later moved to London herself to work. There is always something slightly giddy about meeting up with old friends. Each successive year intensifies the conversation you eventually have, compressing the changes into a solid mass, studded with events.

For my part (I’ll let her tell her own), I’d had my second child, got divorced, and fallen in love. See what I mean? So much upheaval and transformation – both painful and wonderful – condensed into one sentence. What is even more amazing is that after those potent little phrases pop out, with the shock and laughter that ensue, it feels like you can talk about anything, fluidly, easily. The stopper is wrenched off and the most intimate information pours out.

So engaged we must have been in our conversation that when it came to pay the bill, and I discovered a dusty corner where my bag should have been – right beneath my feet – I realised that it could have been an hour before that a thief had sneaked in the door and somehow (“Perhaps they used a crutch”, the policeman suggested afterwards) made off with my shoulder bag. It was a busy night. Soho is like that. The consolation, at the time, was that the restaurant owner said she’d let us off the bill.

We walked S’s bike, ticking, through the throngs of people getting progressively more smashed until we found a police station – checking the bins, fruitlessly, along the way, in case the thief had dumped the important stuff (i.e. my passport).

The police station was just closing up as we arrived, but an earnest, shortish man in uniform led us down to the basement where the graveyard shift was coming to life in order to make the report. Oh, that basement. If the theft alone wasn’t enough to deter me from visiting Soho again at night, the photos of criminals papering the walls along with details of what they were wanted for (dangerous dogs, rape, drug dealing, arson, assault, prostitution, mugging…) certainly would.

But like the dramas of the recent past that we had just been pondering over our wild mushroom risottos, this little drama, in comparison, was quite hilariously small. The immediacy of it brought our patience and good humour out in their most rarified forms. We must have sat for nearly an hour in that bunker of criminal terrors, listening to the amiable banter of the other policemen and being offered berry-flavoured tea, before strolling out – me significantly less encumbered – into the crisp night air.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

The risotto may or may not have looked like this one. This risotto is an actor to protect the identity of the risotto eaten on the night of the alleged robbery.

I remember it as being a summer night, but logically it must have been sometime in April. Yet the sense of lightness was pervasive and strong. It spread to my feet, which still had their shoes on; to my hands, which were now freed to swing about instead of anxiously clutching at a bag full of important documents; to my head, mercifully still not processing all the boring bureaucratic details of getting an emergency passport in the two days I had before my flight back to Spain.

In a strange sort of way, moments like these make me happy to be unfortunate. Crises are never so critical when you take away the stress of thinking about them. It’s just another situation that need to be dealt with, like mopping up a spilt juice or lump of porridge thrown by a toddler exercising her triceps.

Generosity surfaces when a friend is in trouble, too. I borrowed S’s phone to call ahead, and she lent me her Oyster card with just enough on it to get where I needed to go. (Thankyou S!) Then a friend of a friend, who I’d never met, came to meet me at the Tube station. I suppose it was hard to mistake the one person getting off the train without any personal belongings.

What made it all the more blissful was arriving at a Sufi gathering among delightful people, singing and drinking tea and eating Turkish delight into the wee hours. I had sailed from central London to the outskirts, to a dark recess of Tottenham, constantly amazed at how little I had to worry about now that everything had gone. What else could anyone take?

That was when I realised how much of a strain it is having objects, possessions, and especially gadgets, most of which are supposedly meant to make life easier.

How much more stressful is life when you are constantly having to check beeping machines dangling from your person? Or clutching at bags containing collections of mainly useless things in case someone makes off with them, wanting the two or three useful bits and throwing the rest away? How much grief is spared when those scenarios are not imaginatively played out, recurrently, like scenes from a bad, made-for-TV film in which the actors aren’t getting paid? (See this previous post for more on that.)

And once I was reunited with my kids a few days later, my secondary realisation was that I spent a lot of my time with them in much the same way as I had been attending to my supposedly helpful possessions. “Oh, my son just beeped” – “I think she’s running out of batteries, better get home and put her on charge” – “WHERE ARE MY – oh, there they are” etc. etc.

There is so much unnecessary anxiety surrounding possession. Once you bust the notion that anything is actually yours in the first place – especially a human being – then the issue becomes more one of maintenance. There are steps needed to be taken to get from situation A (passport stolen/kitchen window broken/someone on my car seat) to situation B (emergency passport is reissued/kitchen window is fixed/car seat is clean). It ends up getting done at some point. The steps involved aren’t that painful, really.

The stress in the middle comes from believing that something is YOUR PROPERTY, and therefore you should get enraged or upset when something happens to it. If, instead of freaking out when ‘something goes wrong’, you pause and consider that nobody is dead (unless they actually are – in which case there’s not much you can do anyway), and everything passes, including horrible family moments involving swearwords, spitting, hitting, excluding, crying, breaking toys, slamming doors and all the rest, then it is easier to feel free.

It is genuinely possible to be a mother and shrug your shoulders when someone has a minor wound, and even to discipline the offending child while remaining calm and practical. I have seen it happen. It sounds out of this world, but it is true.

My usual reaction, on the other hand, is to yell. Or groan. But – and here’s where the patient, non-attached mother has a better time of it – if you can pause and observe dispassionately, is having a hissy fit really going to achieve anything? Generally it does little more than cause headaches, give me a sore throat, deepen frown lines, hurt little ears and send kids into a sulk.

More to the point, though, what is causing that volcanic feeling in the first place? POSSESSION. IT’S MINE. In the case of having a mum-fit, THE FAMILY AMBIENCE IS MINE. I have envisaged it, read dozens of parenting books, and spent years cultivating it. Therefore, IT IS MINE. When it all goes pear-shaped, something has been stolen from me. I have lost control. The image of a perfect family that I have been dreaming of is gone, and now I am clutching after it as if it were a phantom purse, recently snatched by a serial scumbag.

As confessionals go, this might not be so enjoyable to read – especially if you hear yourself shrieking at your kids frequently, or saying incriminating thing your parents used to say to you. The good news is this: THERE IS FREEDOM AT THE OTHER END OF THE CRISIS.

When our baggage is too heavy, we instinctively want to rid ourselves of it – and sometimes it’ll break a few greenhouse windows as it goes down. But there is lightness, too, and that is the important thing. Detaching yourself from the concepts of who or how your kids (or you) should be creates room in your being for a lot of joy. That makes for a much more beautiful experience of parenthood, and of life.

In short, travel light. It’s not worth paying the lockers along the way.

Desire Vs. Need: A Very Grown-up Fistfight

This is a difficult subject to leap right into a blog post and write about, because there is no definite point in time when this phenomenon began. It is not tied to current affairs in particular, or to a book being published, or an event in my personal life – and yet it is there, painting the scenery, blocking out the movements, playing the soundtrack for all of these.

It is slowly becoming clear to me that there are two forces, perhaps two among many, underlying our decisions. If I am lying in bed, groggily listening to the birds tweeting (in the way that people used to think of when they heard the word), and trying to calculate exactly what shade of sunrise the sky must be, and therefore how urgent it is for me to get out of bed when I’ve only slept 6 hours, there are two opposing impulses at work:

There is my desire to go back to sleep, which is tussling – very subtly – with my deep need to see the sun as it glides into view above the mountains, to hear the dawn chorus and the orchestra of morning life, to feel the thud of my heart – yes, it is still in there – as the Scots pines on the opposite slope of the valley turn from green to gold. (I could add in all the things I wish I had the discipline to do as well, like half an hour of yoga, a bit of meditation, a little light levitation before a breakfast of carrot sticks and a strawberry smoothie, but as the list grows longer I get less likely to fulfil it.)

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More frequent is wanting to achieve a sh*tload of stuff in as little time as possible, which is in tension with my profound wish to get some perspective on all this rushing about, to step back and observe the little whirlwinds of activity that I whip up, while being as quiet and patient as a mountain myself. Desire impels me to notch up trophies, or scars; to have been someone, rather than to be what I am, prior to and beyond any kind of category.

This tension often makes my relationship with my kids slightly fraught. They understand Need very well. Babies smile when they enjoy something, but cry when they need it. There is no ratiocination to get in the way, or experiences to be compared, or theories to muddy this clarity. It is a totally straightforward expression of what is needed, and once the need has been achieved, the previous stress is completely forgotten.

An eye-opening example of this is the Tantrum. Holy shamoley. Once your kid is old enough to have desires, and not just needs, the whines and whimpers and tears and screams are converted into a force of nature powerful enough to shatter windows. He doesn’t really need to play ten more minutes with that toy train, when it’s really very late and he needs to go to sleep. He wants to play, dammit. And he’s going to show you what the argument between desire and need that is going on inside you all the time actually looks like when you take off the well-bred adult exterior.

The screaming bejeezus

The screaming bejeezus

See, we haven’t got Desire and Need equally fulfilled and playing a nice violin duet together in the background of our beings. They are pulling each other’s hair out, kicking shins and biting arms, squabbling over a doll that looks alarmingly like you.

Let’s imagine a woman with so many interests and strings to her bow and, very likely, education that the world appears as an infinite hallway of doors, all of which are tantalisingly open, and yet the sight of so many of them at once makes her run up and down this hallway in a panic, sticking her head in one door before being called by another. Behind one door she might see herself writing a book. Another might be doing a master’s degree. Another might be setting up a charity, another an enterprise, another a local seed bank, or time share organisation, or recycling network. Do you see how the hallway is beginning to spiral  out into the distance? Every one of those door represents a Desire, and each one is clamouring for the woman’s attention.

Now, let’s throw a couple of kids into the picture. (Onto a bouncy castle so they don’t get hurt.) These children, while being in every way the apples of her eye, are also the very embodiment of Need. From the moment they are born to the moment they move back home aged 33 and start demolishing the contents of her fridge, they will be needing her to do things for them. Feed. Burp. Change nappy. Coo over them. Tickle them. Get outside for some fresh air. Administer healthy foods. Nurse them when they are sick. Observe their development and seek advise from experts. Find them things to play with. Find them friends to play with. Teach them to read. Teach them why it is wrong to throw a rock at a dog. Teach them how to deal with unpleasant people in life. Do you see how the hallway is also spiralling out into infinity, in the opposite direction?

But after reading this great article by blogger and mother of two Kim Siegal, aka Mama Mzungu, about how Kenyan women seem so calm when it comes to children having tantrums, it is occurring to me how simple the mothering equation is – on paper, at least. You recognise the needs of whoever is around you, including yourself as one of them, but prioritising the needs of anyone who is, for whatever reason, unable to fulfil those needs themselves. You can always eat/sleep/do that master’s degree/read that novel later.

Nez Perce couple and child on exhibit - A-Y-P - 1909

I read recently in a book about Seneca Native American medicine that Seneca women wore their hair in braids to represent the way in which we are all interlinked with everybody else, and with the animal world, the plant world, the elements, the land, and the spiritual world. Every section is equally important.

This shift of perspective is not as easy as it sounds in practice. But it is surely the best decision we could ever make..

The more I look at my decisions in terms of what’s needed – in a broad sense – and what it is I desire, I am more likely to attend to my kids’ needs without groaning, more likely to get up early and listen to the birds celebrating the dawn, more likely to eat well instead of munching on crap, more likely to listen to a friend’s call for help without listening to my own desire to be a heroine in helping her.

A new view is opening out, similarly endless, but this time there are no doors from behind which possibilities caw. Instead it is a vast, open panorama in which family, friends, strangers, animals, plants, appear as they are: glorious beings, all of them equally worthy of life, and all of them, to some degree, in need.

My role becomes clearer. The clamour of the doors is transformed into the chatter of rooks on a telephone wire. When faced with the decision between reading just one more article online, and paying some proper attention to a loved one tugging at my sleeve, now I can see the polite battle happening between the forces pulling me either way. I know the places each one takes me. And I know which one my heart needs to live in.

(But still, another hour in bed wouldn’t hurt.)

The Elephant Sisterhood

A strange erosion seems to be happening in the togetherness of humankind. I cannot tell you how many women I know who, over the last few years, have seen their relationships with their children’s fathers disintegrate between their hands, like some decrepit sacred document worried to shreds by damp and worms.

The circumstances are almost identical; she, horrified at the idea of mothering alone, relinquishes almost all sense of self, does baby night shifts with the devotion of Florence Nightingale, changes nappies, mops floors, makes meals, cleans dishes, shops for food (oh, that endless circular mill of work!), and barely has the time or energy to comb her hair. He, confronted with this ratty-haired woman, whose clothes smell faintly of breastmilk and whose youth seems to have been extracted from her by the chubby creatures her body has painstakingly produced, this woman who was previously so attractive (for which read, used to have so much time for him), suddenly loses faith in the relationship. In her.

But despite being spurned, these women sacrifice what it is that makes them them in an attempt to win back that love. Smiled are rigid, unbalanced by grieving eyes. They believe in healing the rift by offering unconditional love, or by complying with his demands, and abandoning all hope of whatever might fulfil her . And as the spark of who she is sputters beneath this wet canopy of longing, he turns ever further away.

Sometimes the rejection takes an absurdly cruel twist. One friend of mine, unable to support herself with her two small children, is obliged to continue living with her ex (and doing all the wifely things he expects of her), because he does not believe that men should have to finanically support the mothers of their children. (He’s a lawyer.)

Another friend, who had arranged to get married to the man whose child she was carrying, even gave him money to buy a suit for the wedding; he didn’t show up. Yet another has to endure her son’s father sending him incessant abusive text messages about her. And now that I am thinking about it, another friend told me that the father of her son (the son has Asperger’s) is so hopeless she has to send him money.

One close friend has recently separated from a husband (and father of her two kids) who had constantly criticised, nitpicked, and told her how unattractive he found her – whilst pointing out to her women that he did find attractive. Apparently he was not the marriage type; it made me wonder if this was some prehistoric nomad gene in him spurring his heels out of domestic life, or if, perhaps, it was just a very stupid, immature, self-centred gene leaping out of his DNA.

My mind is drawn back to the moments after my own bombshell. We were on holiday in Portugal, a whole month, and in the last week my (then) husband announced that we had to end our relationship. Done. Over. Sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? But there were still the trips to the beach with the kids – might as well make the most of the holiday time, eh – and the lunches with friends, so glib in their acceptance, and the afternoons spent lounging in the rental house, with the owner’s books to pore through to keep my head from spinning.

One of those books was about elephants. I did not know, before that holiday, that a herd of elephants is entirely composed of females, the head of the herd being the oldest (the matriarch). Males are born, and at about ten or eleven years of age they leave (or are thrown out?) of the herd to live as loners, only approaching another herd to mate before disappearing.

The young are raised happily by mothers, aunts, sisters and grannies, who never worry about when the child benefit will come in or if Daddy will turn up this weekend. Things are so different for us in the human world. I bet there are a few female invertebrates looking at us right now, saying, “Poor things. After mating we just eat our mate’s head.”

The trouble is – apart from the slavery of needing money and things to spend it on – that woman in industrialised societies cannot exist like a herd of elephants, without the necessity of a male figure to help with disciplining, making the odd dinner, helping out with the rent. We feel embarrassed asking a husband to pay for things, as though we’re spongeing. Time spent child-rearing clearly isn’t measured the same way as paid work when you are the child’s mother.

It seems impossible to imagine kids growing up in a community of women, without the nuclear family units that break humanity up into house-shaped blocks. And yet this is exactly how women have always lived all over the world, and even in Europe if we look far back enough. Even where segregation is not imposed, men and women will naturally drift into groups of their own gender; think of how stilted it feels to attend a formal dinner party with name tags on plates alternating chap and chick. Conversely, men who support sisterhoods are rewarded with cheerful, belly-laughing, radiant women who give back to their relationships the joy they nurture there.

Fortunately for everyone, sisterhoods are alive and growing. You find them in mother-and-child groups, in choirs, in yoga and bellydance and zumba classes and languages lessons and art workshops and crafting groups and writing groups and basketmaking courses and even doing karate. Then there are the events that do not find a slot in the local listings paper, the picnics and group missions up the mountains to get fresh goat’s milk, or pot lucks thrown together on the barest pretext. (“Kazoo workshop?” “Wicked!”)

I am feeling tremendously thankful right now to be living in a place where such a sisterhood does exist. We are united by our extraneousness, people of a mind-boggling number of nationalities united by this peculiar and beautiful place we live, by compost loos and organic veggie plots, by the desire to live without money (Orgiva has its own alternative currency, the Olivo), by a rejection of the crushing grip of consumerism. But we are not so different from women elsewhere. Whenever the urgency of needing to have a cup of tea and a natter whilst kids play together arises, gangs of women gravitate towards one another with a common interest: to know themselves through loving others. How do you love others? By knowing their stories and being a part of them.

We laugh. We shake our stretch-marked hips. We lay down our pretenses at the door, along with the all-weather wellies. And a wave is created between us, a spiral of storytelling and listening that encircles us subtly, bringing us close. We might be scattered between houses and towns and countries, but the herd exists, and it’s calling us home.

“Hello, Armageddon/New Age of Abundance!*” *Delete as appropriate

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It’s been an emotional week. Possibly something to do with rushing to hospital with Caveboy, who turned out not to be having ecstatic hallucinatory fevers for fun, but because he had pneumonia. Or because immediately upon returning to pick up Cavegirl from Grandcaveparents we had to whip her down to Urgencias too, with an ear infection. And then sending them off to the UK, and later to Scotland, with their dad for Christmas with a couple of bottles of antibiotics in their case and a certain amount of trepidation in my heart.

These are small things, put into perspective. But where has perspective got to these days? Hello, Perspective, are you out there? – out there…out there…out there… Damn you, eerie cybernetic echo.

So when a friend sent me one of the usual mass mails, this time with some elaborate message about the world spinning faster and faster until eventually the poles will switch and bringing on massive catastrophes, which we have to overcome by thinking positive (thanks to giving me those catastrophic images to work on), I began with skeptical hoots of laughter and ended with frantically combing the net for a decent debunking of this myth.

37 million search results later, which I couldn’t be bothered to read fully (there’s only two more days of life as we know it, don’t ya know), it seems that there are virtually no sites properly demystifying this claim. If you haven’t already been pelted with the same email, I’ll sum up the premise briefly for you:

In 1953, the idea (previously vaunted in the 1830s) that the earth has a ‘pulse’ was mathematically proven by someone called Schumann; this pulse, which has for as long as we  know been set at 7.8 hz, is called the Schumann’s resonance after him.

Now, it appears – according to New Age gurus and their shadowy internetic propagandists – that this resonance has been rising since the 1980s, to the point where, in theory, the planet is spinning much faster than previously, meaning that we now live 16 hour days instead of 24 hour days. This is backed up by the well-known scientific fact that “time passes so much more quickly now than it used to!!!” Yes. And Walker’s Quavers used to be so much more cheesy, too.

Apparently (that all-important world), the earth’s resonance is currently at 12 hz; the limit on Schumann’s resonance is 13, at which point the poles will reverse and time will, technically, end.

How that will work in practice is a bit of a mystery. Would plane schedules no longer run as planned? Has Ryanair been secretly a harbinger of doom all this time? I wonder if school will just sort of happen, as some children arrive at random times throughout the 24 hour period, doing their sums very very quickly, while other children are playing with Lego at a different speed in another corner of the room. Are we going to stop ageing?

Supposedly we have caused this acceleration by placing things like railroads across the earth (scientists apparently found that Schumann’s resonance leaped to 17 hz next to a railroad), while greater and more invasive uses of technology create overlapping electromagnetic fields that cancel out the earth’s natural one, thus encroaching on the ordinary balance of resonances.

However, it is also thought that the change of poles has happened to the earth before, and may happen every few million years, just for a laugh. Hey, you lot! Thought you lived in the Northern hemisphere, eh! Look who’s laughing now!

So it’s not all our fault. On the other hand, as the doomladen email so helpfully pointed out, there is this concept of ‘Manifestation’ that is very prevalent in New Age (crop) circles, which is essentially that whatever you think or imagine will come true. John Lennon was an notable Western philosopher in the Manifestationism tradition.

I like to keep my skepticism sharp, just in case a massive chunk of indigestible Cheddar comes my way and needs slicing up for examining. Manifestation, though great in theory, has serious flaws.

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One, it puts a heavy burden on people whose brains are by now so full of Armageddon scenarios, mass shootings, earthquakes, unjust occupations, polluted biosphere etc. etc. that it makes us feel guilty for ever thinking something negative about the world. And two, paradoxically, it makes us appear to be far more powerful than, I believe, we need to feel.

My take on it is that it is our lens that makes life appear to be slanted in golden shafts towards us, or cruelly gloomy and empty. Lens half full, lens half empty. A person can be in the middle of an earthly paradise and still be complaining about being bitten by bugs, taxed, or ignored by their father as a child. By the same token, a person can experience their closest friend die young of cancer and find some way of redeeming the situation, with wisdom, with acceptance, with letting go.

Telling ourselves that what we imagine will come to be reality is, I think, not the whole story. I certainly never imagined I would be a single mother of two at the age of 28, running a small farm, living partly on a building site. Life sometimes throws you a curve ball, dripping with fetid goop, and what counts is what you do with it.

In so many cases, my own included, the most painful severances can be exactly what’s needed to clear the way for something so beautiful – unimaginably so – that you have to start wondering what other forces are in play in the universe. We aren’t just us.

Having said that, visualising a wonderful, peaceful, harmonious world in which children aren’t gunned down at school, mothers don’t brainwash their adolescents about the necessity of guns and (ahem) the fast approach of Armageddon, and life is sustainable for all, is still a great way to find some inner calm. As Rumi advised, replace a negative thought with a positive one. Basic 11th century Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

So here are the most gnomic responses to the 21st of December shrieking that I’ve come across, and I’d like to share them with you.

First, the girl in my local cyber cafe, who remarked: “Well, if it’s going to end, there’s not a lot we can do about it anyway, is there?” Mass meditations on world peace can’t harm, but whatever happens is, ultimately, beyond our control. Thinking otherwise gives us an inflated sense of importance that doesn’t help create above-mentioned wonderful harmonious world.

Second, a comment on a Sciforum thread on this subject, by a certain Marv, namely that if the earth has sped up in its rotations, thus causing clocks etc. to speed up with it, then surely our brains would have adapted to this process, too? Ah, yes. Somehow I had thought that my brain existed in a pocket of the time-space continuum that was unaffected by planetary movements.

And third, a long comment also posted on the same thread, summoning us to stop rushing carelessly through life, neglecting to be there for what’s actually happening here and now. Look up, Riathere says; look at the trees, or the vertiginous slopes of the cityscape’s canyon, and watch as other people see you and start looking up, too. Have a bag of cookies for dinner. Jump on the sofa. Laugh and grin at nothing special.

I would add, look into your family’s eyes for a long moment, aware of their returned gaze, instead of rushing them constantly to the table, the bathroom, the car, bed. Look into your lover’s eyes for a long moment, deeply, attentively. Look about you as if everything was new, and yet as if everything could fade away at any moment; as the Qur’an says: “Everywhere you look, there is His Face.” Live this moment now, in all its imperfect glory, and instead of reliving an imagined past or trying to force an unnatural future, there is calm and connection and clarity.

I wish you, dear Cavereaders, many of these moments. Or, perhaps, just one is enough.

The Cure for War: Sheep

Synchronised Sheep Judging. Not to be confused with synchronised swimming.

My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?

Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?

There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.

The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.

First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.

Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.

Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.

Fourth: Place bucket under udders.

Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)

Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.

It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.

What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).

Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.

However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.

Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.

Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…

The Cure for War: Sheep

Synchronised Sheep Judging. Not to be confused with synchronised swimming.

My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?

Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?

There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.

The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.

First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.

Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.

Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.

Fourth: Place bucket under udders.

Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)

Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.

It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.

What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).

Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.

However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.

Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.

Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…

The Cure for War: Sheep

Synchronised Sheep Judging. Not to be confused with synchronised swimming.

My new man (what shall I call him? Cavepainter?) and I were recently offered a housesit, with a small piece of land, three German milking ewes and five lambs to look after. The prospect of milking sheep every morning brought visions of pigtails, clogs and frilly aprons to my mind, so of course, like any sane person, I jumped at the idea. Who wouldn’t want to make their own yogurt?

Little did it matter that nobody in my family can tolerate dairy products. Hey, so what? We’ll adapt! Like cows whose milk changes flavour when they switch to hay in winter, we would likewise develop new, more resilient, farm-type moral fibre! These campesinos are made of tough stuff! And isn’t there meant to be all sorts of goodness in raw milk?

There was a small catch to this equation, which I didn’t think through very well. The principle issue here is that sheep are notoriously difficult to milk – and these ewes in particular are known for being quite feisty.

The trick to milking, so they all said, was to open your thumb and forefinger over the top of the teat, then – once the udder is massaged and the milk is dropping – close your thumb and forefinger, then each successive finger, a little like a slow flamenco hand movement. There is, however, another, rather peculiar aspect to the technique , which I shall detail below.

First: Offer the sheep some oat grains in a bucket to keep her occupied.

Second: Straddle the ewe, back to front.

Third: Tie one of her back legs firmly to a post.

Fourth: Place bucket under udders.

Fifth: Still straddling the sheep, lie down on her, head to tail. Yes, that’s right. You lie on top of a moving animal (which is thankfully padded with about four inches of wool) whilst blindly squirting the milk into a bucket hidden out of sight beneath. It would be quite hilarious were it not for the fact that your face is effectively buried in a raggedy sheep’s bottom. (Stop laughing!)

Sixth: Remove small bits of straw, flies, and occasional bits of poo from the milk using a strainer. Repeat frequently as your sheep will begin to buck when oats run out and may knock over all your hard-squirted milk.

It sounds pretty yucky, and I have to say that the smell of a sheep shed (or, more specifically, a sheep’s bum) is not especially alluring, and perhaps might even be described as, in the language of today’s youth, ‘gross’, but you know what? I’m down with the peasants. They might be bow-legged and dwarfish and lacking in numerous very useful teeth but good Golly, they work harder than any city slicker I’ve ever known, and those perpetually brown faces are just as wrinkled from the sun as from smiling.

What do they get out of it? The work is repetitive. The hours are long. It’s not glamorous, or well-paid. There are numerous shepherds and goatherds living in my neck of the woods; apparently, to supplement the little they earn selling milk (1 euro a litre), they actually earn a wage from the government (Note to self: check facts before publishing online).

Drivers in the Alpujarras are eternally at the mercy of the herds of goats and sheep that routinely plug up the one-lane tracks, slowly scrambling up either side of the path, nibbling at grass as you inch through their hordes until it seems as if you are forging a very goaty-smelling, hairy river.

However, when Cavepainter (no, still not quite there…let’s just call him Love-Man) and I first went to this house to learn how to milk the sheep, we found ourselves almost stupefied with a sense of peace. Later, my mother told me that when a person is on a farm a hormone is supposedly excreted in their brain that makes them feel peaceful.

Well, there you have it, folks. That is why the shepherds are so happy. They smell of lanolin and manure, they are eternally scruffy, they are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, but they know what peace is. Even if it does mean having to lie head to tail on a vigorously oat-snuffling beast for an hour every morning.

Ah, the countryside. At least we’ll have plenty of cheese…

The Battle to Surrender

Yesterday I felt first-hand the studded battlement walls of surrender. It was a shock; I had always thought I was doing rather well with the whole surrendering thing – I do my prayers, yadda yadda yadda – but now I’ve touched its actual perimeters and seen that no meek and compliant person could scale those walls.

That morning it had been my turn to lead our creative writing group; it went well, after much hassle of finding lifts (my car has kicked the bucket) and printing out worksheets (my printer is likewise pushing up paperchain daisies) and leaving kids in various places to be looked after. The class had gone well, with one person even commenting that I should run creativity retreats (something I have longed to do for many years). I was feeling rather grand.

With all this excitement, pride and caffeine swishing about my brain, however, I was on such a high that when it came time to calm down, return to a mumsier pace and make a meal, I nosedived. The urge to rush about, achieve things, create masterpieces and be ‘on my way’ (somewhere abstract and shiny) rendered the simplest task of welcoming my kids home and cooking something reasonably edible a crippling, outrageous imposition.

Needless to say, things went swiftly downhill. The tofu I’d just opened was so revoltingly off that I had to shower and change my clothes afterwards, the smell was so offensive (I did wonder afterwards if it was in fact a material expression of the interior stench made by my ego putrefying). Caveboy had a yelling fit. Cavebabe peed on the chair. I drizzled a supposedly über-healthy oil on my food (‘rich in alpha-linoleic oil!’) that made the whole plate taste of floor cleaner. I felt like throwing myself onto the floor and having a screaming fit myself.

The classic picture of the mother in Islam is a patient, obedient woman who devotes herself to her children and husband with unflinching self-abnegation. I don’t really match up to that image, and almost don’t believe that they can ever be real. But then I hear astonishing stories, for instance, of my Iranian friend’s mother who not only breastfed him (the youngest of nine), but also three or four other babies in the village. And then went out to work in the rice fields.

To live a life of conscience, one has to decide at every juncture whether some situation must be changed or endured, and it takes a great deal of wisdom to know which one is right. It is a truism passed down over many generations of Muslims (and many others besides) that the secret to happiness is being thankful when times are good and patient when times are hard. Motherhood is the real training ground for these skills; as Muhammad (s.) said, ‘Paradise lies beneath the feet of the mother’ (he might have added ‘because it ain’t a game of tiddlywinks’).

I suspect that the way we have been trained to think in the West has always been in terms of working, fixing, improving things outside of ourselves, developing technology, coming up with ingenious solutions to problems. It’s an approach that is ideally suited to a workshop, an office, a building site. But there are times when striving to make things better on the outside only drains our energy, creates frustration when nothing seems to work, feeds conflicts between differing opinions, and leaves us off-centre and wondering why our efforts aren’t making us any happier.

The answer isn’t to down tools, flop out into any easy chair and wait for the great Pizza Delivery Boy in the sky to bring dinner (well, maybe sometimes it works – think Rabi’a al-Basri and jugs of honey descending out the sky). But I think that it’s this word ‘surrender’ that catches most of us out.

Surrendering to what is necessary and unavoidable is not an easy ride. It might be domestic duties and creative frustrations; or it might be enduring a boring office job, or unemployment, or even going to war. When it is not a matter of ego but of clear need, an obligation made by life and not the command of any dominating authority, there is not need to dither or analyse, or to take pride in personal actions, individual skills, perceived genius.

Finding the clarity to see what needs to be done, and having the guts to do it isn’t ‘surrender’. It’s wisdom made tangible by courage.