Chromatography

image

The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

Like Gardener’s Hands on Silk

I am all elbows
leaning on ledges
strangers’ shoulders
eyelids falling involuntarily
after nights fractured
by screams as gums are
lacerated slowly by
a knife tip tooth

My corners catch on everyone
like gardener’s hands on silk
bunions build up on my edges
myelin thickens to muffle nerves
and stiffens my walk to a
peg doll pace
so I cease to bend
and instead
start to
cr
ack

How can a woman come apart
– limbs popped out like a doll
in the inquisitive hands of a 5 year old –
and drag the pieces along by
fibres of some unearthly substance
below the threshold of her vision
whereby lunches occur in spite of her
beans falling out of the ceiling
into pans that manoeuvre themselves
onto the stove
loo roll replenishes itself
the baby picks up crumbs and helpfully eats them
crayons roll off the edges of the floor
into holes that return them to their place
like balls under a pool table
bread grows back from crusts
rugs stretch out like a man in bed
teabags multiply in hollow boxes
the emptiness inside cupboards
solidifies into the shapes of
jam jars and pasta twirls

If children can meet on Minecraft
and throw ocelots at zombies
while being safe
in their pyjamas on the sofa
surely I can
make magic too.

The Inner Baby and Tweetaholism

It seems I have been singing so many qasidas* lately that new depths of my own vanity, ambition, immaturity, wounded pride and overall silliness are being clarified, like ghee simmering over a low heat.

Firstly there are the ambitions that don’t seem to disappear no matter how many steps closer I come, no matter how many achievements trickle into my life. It seems I’m not content to be the mother of three utterly hilarious beautiful creative inventive intelligent healthy beings (ALHAMDULILLAH!), nor that I am a writer as I’ve wanted to be since age 6, living in a beautiful place with no drizzle, and a community of amazing open-minded people who occasionally provide amusement with their bizarre antics.

No, there is always something else, always some other challenge that sets my jaw a-champing…and like a blindfold hamster believing it is going forward to some wondrous destination I am still always looking into an imaginary future where I’ll finally feel fulfilled by this, that or the other accolade.

Digging into this curious state of affairs I am finding that there is a very deep, childish sort of wound still being nursed by my unconscious being that lies behind my need to ‘be better’, one which goes back so far it has no visual clues to it, only a vague, pervasive, unsettling pain. My mother tells me that after my sister was born I refused to let her hug me for two years, just going all stiff (I was two at the time – I hasten to add that we have since become very close loving sisters, although it did take 22 years or so to get there).

It’s not like I was a neglected child – I was a longed-for baby who (according to my mum) received all the attention and adoration she could lavish on me, which was perhaps why it was such as shock when I was no longer the littlest one of the family. There is a photo of my mum holding my baby sister, aged 1 day, with our dear late grandmother cooing over them, and me in the foreground grimacing into the camera. She still bears a tiny scar on her cheek from where I was meant to kiss her as a baby but scratched her instead.

Could it really be that such an ancient, primary experience as losing first place in my parents’ affections has stayed with me all this time, morphing with age and accreting defenses to hide behind? Seeing how intensely my children react to seemingly small things like one getting 5 minutes more on the iPad than the other (these are the times we’re living in), I can imagine it might.

The emotions of children are all the more intense because they have no easy means of expressing themselves, other than through screaming or throwing things. The difficulty for us Brits is that such behaviour is generally totally out of the question, even if you’re 2. I suspect a lot of us have bottled up these pre-verbal angers and upsets, which have fermented over time and now provide a rich vintage of putrified infantile ire.

This then spirals forward into the present, either being channelled into other angers (xenophobia, racism, hating on Jeremy Corbyn…whatever’s the fad of the moment) or laying the foundations for a sensitivity to any similar kind of hurt (abandonment, isolation, criticism…).

Which makes me wonder this: is our collective attention-seeking, expressed through social media, merely an adult expression of the primary infantile experience of the loss of the mother’s adoring gaze, bathing her newborn in total love and devotion, making it sense that it is completely cared for and – well – interesting? Is this the root of the neediness that compels people like myself to perform, to ‘share’ compulsively, including on confessional blog posts like this one? Are we really just longing for the primordial breast??

So that is the resumé of my thoughts tonight. Facebook should be renamed Breastbook. The end.

*Sufi songs of love and longing for God, like the ones found in this book, which you need to buy: https://ianwhiteman.wordpress.com/2015/03/16/the-diwan-a-new-translation/

The Mother With No Mind

The angle he sees me at
makes me all triangles
jawbone, earlobe, nose
elbows everywhere

A table is an overhanging rock
on a wind-bitten mountain path
the room a cave cathedral
with electric stalactites
the stairs a Giant’s Causeway
our diminutive patio is a
basketball court, zones marked by
patches of cement
dogs are like elephants
except the neighbour’s pug
which is more like a chaise longue
that snores
children are Titans
and we adults are mobile skyscrapers
with the power to pick him up
and stride vast distances
yet he is not daunted
by his size. His reality is not
that he is 8 months small but
that we are infinitessimally tiny
and he is merely
one degree tinier

*

Writing with anything
on anything –
stubby felt tip in
older son’s school book –
grabbed at any time –
5.30 am after a night of
insomnia induced by
unidentifiable itching
(a flea, or incipient allergy to lentils,
or too much coffee and thrillers)
I wonder if this
mothering life
is what they call
No-Mind?
Get up – don’t think! –
set the mechanisms of family in motion
food made, mouths opening,
“WASH YOUR HANDS!”
clean dishes, break up fisticuffs,
hang out laundry
(there is ALWAYS laundry)
continue thus until the bedtime story
is garbled as mouth loses contact
with brain and I crash out anywhere,
on anything –
is this surfing the crest of ego,
always slipping just out of its sticky reach?
It is khidmah, for sure,
although maybe my complaining
nullifies its bounties, or am I just
not taking time to witness them?

*

He sleeps on my lap now.
Here are the gifts: glossy curls
forming at the back of his head;
his hand laid flat on my belly
fingers kneading as he dreams;
his warm velour’d weight on me
and the breathing
deep and restful
even if I am not.

Home Birth Hat Trick

Whenever I mention to people that I gave birth at home, the usual response is ‘¡Qué valiente!’ – or ‘That’s brave!’

The truth is less glorious: not being too fond of hospitals, especially labour wards with their somewhat notorious reputations, it was as much out of an aversion to going to hospital as bravery that kept me home.

With my third home birth under my (considerably loosened) belt, I have to admit that none of them would have happened were it not for a few key factors:

1) Excellent care from an independent midwife – an endangered species these days. Having a warm, grounded, experienced person who believes in your ability to birth naturally is a huge help. In a way, the less she interferes, the better a job she’s doing. It’s an expensive option (in the UK even more so than in Spain) but well worth it for the peace of mind and sense of confidence she conveys.

2) Having straightforward, healthy pregnancies. This I can’t claim any credit for. All my babies were head down, back to front (which is a lot less weird than it sounds), I had low blood pressure, and apart from minor complaints was generally OK throughout each pregnancy, thank God. Although I do know two women with chronic fatigue as well as one with severe Crohn’s disease, all of whom gave birth naturally at home, if you have complications in pregnancy it’s always wise to consult your doctor and midwife when considering a home birth.

3) Being born at home myself, and growing up hearing nostalgic stories of how my mum went into labour (unable to locate my dad, with no food in the house), and having ice cubes put in her mouth (it was mid-August in Granada, before the era of A/C) while she gazed at the Alhambra…alright, so only the last part sounds romantic. But I’m still convinced that hearing affirmations all my life that home birth was quite normal, safe, and actually filled with wonder programmed me to believe the same would be true for my own births. Even the weird stories were evocative somehow, like an ex-boyfriend who was born onto a picture of Ronald Reagan’s face in a newspaper. Come on, you don’t get that in a hospital.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse.

Ron. Not the first thing you want to see in this world, but could be worse. (Imagine if it was Ed Miliband!)

Then there are all the other elements that helped along the way: a crowd of home birth aficionados living in my town who enthusiastically supported my decision; having my parents nearby to look after my older kids while I gave birth; being well nourished (very important); having the kind of house that I actually wanted to give birth in; not sitting in an office chair for long hours or commuting during pregnancy (apart from being exhausting, sitting in a chair for long hours tends to misalign the uterus and contributes to more breech births); living in a hilly area where I had to do a lot of walking up and down steep slopes (apparently the best preparation for labour); and so on.

As you can see, none of this is really my own doing. I was incredibly lucky, or blessed, however you want to look at it. The only thing that I have to own up to is my stubbornness. I just never imagined myself giving birth in hospital. Some people say it is the naïvety of inexperience that makes women decide to have a baby at all first time around, let alone give birth at home, but second or third time – well, that’s just plain obstinacy.

To be sure, I am more aware now of things ‘going wrong’ (you’ve already heard the horror stories so I won’t drum them in). In these – rare – cases being in a hospital is preferable, but any midwife worth her/his spurs would get you there as soon as things started going pear-shaped. Another way to look at it, of course, is that things didn’t go pear-shaped at all: it’s just the way they went.

Still, in less dramatic cases, being at home with a sensitive, skilled caregiver is still preferable to being in an impersonal place where staff changes when shifts end and the itch to free up a bed might cause them to hurry things up (the classic ‘Pitocin – epidural – foetal monitor – obstetric delivery’ pattern). If you choose to give birth at home you won’t have a queue of students coming into the delivery room while you’ve got your legs in stirrups, that’s for sure.

Description      English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

Description
English: “Maternity Home in Yakutsk”. Maternity Home in Yakutsk, Russia. Not, as I first thought, septuplets. Wikicommons.

I can’t knock hospitals, though, for those times when they are necessary. Many a woman has had an excellent hospital birth, some angel of a midwife who appears at a crucial moment, or next-generation equipment that saved a baby’s life. The few times I’ve been treated for anything at a hospital, I’ve been immensely grateful particularly to the nurses, who used all the subtlety at their command to make light conversation to distract from a needle or other sharp proddy thing going in somewhere.

This kind of caregiver provides not just a service but also warmth, candour and intimacy at a time when you are vulnerable. However, this is also what a good home birth midwife will offer: she will help you trust that your body knows what it’s doing, with a little bag of kit to keep an eye on things just in case.

While I would encourage any woman who is of sound body and mind to go for a home birth if she wants one, the reasons for doing so must be more because of the benefits of birthing at home rather than the fear of going into hospital. The benefits are not just the lazy girl’s prime motivation, i.e. not having to get out of bed, but also being able to make your space as comfortable and familiar as you like. Third time around I actually managed to have the nice tea lights, essential oils burning, best friend massaging acupressure points with Neroli oil, and Calendula flowers floating in the birth pool (previous times I was focussing so much on the contractions I didn’t care two hoots about environment).

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

Birth Pool in a Box. I used a regular sized one for the first birth, a mini for the second (kind of cosier), and then a La Bassine pool for the third, which was also great.

All three of my children were born into water, in a birth pool like the one pictured above. This meant I didn’t need to use drugs: the warm water is a natural pain reliever and is really quite blissful. You need to be at least 5 cm dilated (some midwives will wait for more) to get into it as it can slow the labour down otherwise. But overall, drug-free labours tend to be shorter; epidurals, for instance, blind you to when your body is contracting and make it hard to push, slowing the process down and raising the likelihood of an assisted delivery.

Speaking of pain, I was recently told by a first-time mum-to-be that she wished her mother would stop telling her she wouldn’t be able to handle it. Really, you CAN handle it. A man would pass out, but you won’t. Women who claim to feel less or no pain in labour just recategorise the feeling mentally, describing it as ‘discomfort’ or some other sensation. In Ina May Gaskin’s game-changing Spiritual Midwifery (after reading which I was pregnant with Caveboy the 1st within about twenty seconds) contractions are described throughout as ‘rushes’.

Highly recommended if you aren't freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals.

Highly recommended if you aren’t freaked out by pictures of naked hippies with armpits like small furry mammals having their nipples tweaked by their equally hirsute menfolk.

I would say that only about a hour in each of my births was actually painful, and this time goes very fast. Breathing into it, embracing the feeling as one step closer to meeting your baby, riding this primordial, volcanic wave of a feeling will make it seem less like something to be fought, reducing the amount of adrenaline (produced by fear) in your body. Tensing up during the contractions creates lactic acid around your muscles, which is what causes cramp and increases the sensation of pain, hence relaxation being everything in labour .

And so much of giving birth, perhaps all of it, is just allowing something the deepest recesses of your brain already knows how to do. There have been cases of women in comas who have given birth. I thought of that as my midwife told my friend that my pushing was ‘involuntary’. That’s exactly how it felt: not forced in the slightest, just allowing this innately instinctual movement to take place (and despite having a 4.130 kilo baby I didn’t tear).

The greatest bonus to not using anaesthetics is that I was fully conscious all the way through the labour. All sorts of interesting insights drop into your brain between rushes. At one point it occurred to me that while it might not seem very spiritual while you’re going through it, what is spiritual about birth is that perhaps for the first time in your life, you willingly submit to going through fairly extreme levels of discomfort, purely out of love for another. Love is so huge, so brilliant, that it makes pain look transient and insignificant beside it.

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens this morning. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

Our cat Nelly who gave birth to three kittens recently. That grin tells you a lot about a natural birth!

This alertness continued afterwards; I remember being positively chatty with number 3 when he showed his head above the water. He was pretty perky as well – another benefit of not using drugs (babies born this way breastfeed better, too). Despite a day of some pretty heavy post-partum pains I was high as a kite for pretty much a month off the endorphins provided by a natural delivery.

But it’s uncomfortable for me to talk about these wonderful birth experiences, knowing that for so many women birth is traumatic. It breaks my heart that my experiences place me well into the minority among my peers. Fortunately, there are ways in which we can reclaim the beauty of birth, the empowerment it offers us (We did it! We brought another person into the world! That was us!). Part of this change is physical (the postmodern lifestyle, in which everything takes place virtually, is a disaster for birth preparation) but a larger part of it is psychological.

Both women and men need to turn our conditioning around and deliberately erase the negative messages seen in movies, or told to us by thoughtless older women whose own births didn’t go smoothly. A non-interventionist birth paves the way for the most intense endorphin high ever experienced in the human body – both for the mother and the baby – and creates the ideal conditions for bonding while protecting the mother from post-natal depression.

Rather than the question “Why make a woman experience pain in labour when she can have drugs?”, we can ask ourselves, “Why prevent women from having such a blissful connection to her body and her child?” Childbirth is a leap into the unknown: even women with dozen children say that every birth was different. What makes it amazing is seeing it not as falling, but as flying.

Rewild the Child (no Rewiring Required)

A quick thought while the baby is asleep in the sling…

It’s an ongoing thing for most of the mothers I know, the complaint that ‘my kids just don’t know how to play’. The blame usually gets put at the feet of gadgets, things that can be used to while away long hours on planes (those rubbery iPad covers with alien-like protuberances so kids can play car games spring to mind) or car journeys, or sitting in dentist’s waiting rooms, or just hanging out at home. The 3 month Spanish summer holidays are looming and the thought is troubling me as to what my kids will get up to all that time.

When there’s no toys or electronics to play with, any length of time seems unbearable; one friend recounted how her son (9 y.o.) had a tantrum at the thought of a 40-minute wait in an office yesterday, but once he’d finally accepted the reality of it he calmed down and waited patiently. It was the idea of having ‘nothing to do’ in all that time that freaked him out initially. “We used to be able to wait for much longer!” she recalled, “We didn’t need stuff to play with…we’d just play.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2015/apr/08/time-to-rewild-your-child-george-monbiot-video?CMP=fb_gu

Another contact, a city planner, gave a great resumé of how kids aren’t really able to play ‘wild’ as most of us used to do when we were kids: ‘Urbanist Enrique Peñelosa once said “The measure of a good city is one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can safely go anywhere. If a city is good for children, it will be good for everyone else. Over the last 80 years we have been making cities much more for car mobility than for children’s happiness.” And that’s the crux of it, cities are built for cars, not kids/people.’

Although I get a lot of ‘Muuuum…I’m bored” at our house, I’m relieved and delighted whenever I see my kids playing (always with other kids, or at the very least with each other) without anything in the way, not even a swing or a roundabout. Creative types often comment that boredom was essential to the development of their art when they were children. I’ll rehash an old theme by saying the same’s true for me: I grew up in a couple of small villages where I did a lot of reading, making up stories, fiddling about on the guitar and just daydreaming.

Visiting my son’s old Waldorf school recently, which has moved (strangely enough) to my parent’s old house, I noticed a breeze block with a large piece of wood on top in the garden. The teacher commented that they don’t put anything to play on in the yard so that the kids will invent things: the wood and brick were put there by the kids to balance on. In another corner was a teepee made of bamboo. Kind of cool, don’t you think?

What it really comes down to, and what makes me sad when my kids pester me for Lego et al (it’s been birthday week…always the cue for weeks of pre-emptive materialistic preoccupation) is that we’ve become so accustomed to seeking happiness outside of ourselves, in an object, a phone, a toy…even another person. Playing with friends isn’t deriving happiness exclusively from them – it’s finding it emerges spontaenously from the alchemy of toegtherness.

We were at the plaza yesterday for a reading of Don Quixote in 30 languages (the most exotic being Mongolian), Cavegirl buddied up with some English kids who were playing by some rocks, pretending it was a kitchen, and I was warmed by the thought that imaginaton isn’t dead, and kids’ society is still capable of pulling out fantastical games from the ether. Innocence isn’t dead; we just need to have the space sans gizmos, to remember it. That’s a comfort.

Sufism and Motherhood: To the Walrusnut!

The Prophet Muhammad (s.) once said that “Paradise lies at the foot of the mother”.
When I gaze down, mostly I see at my feet cake crumbs, bits of Ancient Egyptian Playmobil, ripped up paper, pens without lids, and the occasional puddle for which I shall not be held accountable.
I see his point, though. After having a few days in a row of luxurious kid-free time, in which I slept way past 8am, performed music, went on spontaneous wanders through London with friends and had uninterrupted conversations, it is all the clearer to me how much of a grind on the ego it is to spend all day every day with your own kids.
My irritability crept in after about 24 hours. I was unnerved by how fast my bachelorette turn had diminished my tolerance for screeching, spats, brat-outs over toys and their ilk. I could hear myself using that exasperated tone of voice that I would so hate to hear from anyone else. Does this sound familiar? “All this mess needs to be cleared up in five minutes or the My Little Pony gets given away. Come on, I want to see some movement here! Chop chop!”
However, when I really scrutinise my flashpoints, I recognise that they fell into four general categories:
1) Mess. Lego all over the floor. Rice, ditto. Pens left unlidded (see above). Generally, things not being in the place they should be.
2) Screeching. Theirs usually provokes mine, thus forming a vicious cycle.
3) Brat-outs, spoilt behaviour, over food, spoons, plates, toys…any action indicating that things mean more than people. Really gets my goat.
4) Fighting, hitting, bruising, throwing things (especially when it’s at my head). Often involves all of the above.
Essentially, all this is boils down to something happening that I don’t want to be happening.
This in no way means that it should not, in fact, be happening. I’m sure there is some psychologist out there who has definitive proof that children need to screech, leave Lego all over the floor, brutalise their siblings or freak out because the plate is the wrong shade of green as it’s essential to their brain development. Who am I to argue?
Now, the process of trying to simultaneously manage a household, not let your child die from eating poison berries, and stay remotely sane is a serious grind on your ego. Oh, the ego. That sumptuously curved, glossy-haired chick you see in the blurry periphery of a photo only to discover she is a warted frog with prickles all over its back that lives permanently in your spleen.
Our egos get a serious jolt when we have a baby. All our ideas about ourselves – so tenderly nurtured throughout our teenage and college years, attested to by thousands of photos at various stages of our well-staged lives – is thrown into the gutter, to be replaced by a shaky-legged, stretch-marked, tearful dairy cow who doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing.

And then heaven sends us one last chance to patch up our relationship to our old selves – Facebook! Here we can post selfies that have been Photoshopped to remove the black bags under eyes, wrinkles, grey hairs and look of raving desperation in our eyes.

Of course, there are lots of genuine benefits. (That’s the addict in me talking.) We can reconnect with old friends, send out requests for second-hand buggies, read endless articles about health, education, psychology, world politics and anything else that will fill us with fearful concern for our new baby’s future. And whereas the real world is full of dangerous, nasty people who sneer and criticise, Facebook language is almost always interspersed with hearts, emoticons, lols and lots of loves. So much emotion in so few characters.

In fact, we mums seem to spend an awful lot of time on FB. Quite a few mothers I have met who dash off to check their profile while the kids aren’t looking, race to the computer once the kids are in bed to post pics from that day, whose phones beep notifications which they check whilst boiling pasta.

I’ll save the platitudes about how none of this was necessary twenty years ago, when we still lived in communities and we had mums to tell us what to do about mastitis instead of Mumsnet, etc. etc…only, after reading this article about social media and narcissism, I can’t ignore the link between my FB use and my outbreaks of irritability any longer. Among the symptoms of narcissism – which were linked to excessive social media – along with believing oneself to be above the rules, hyperchondria and inability to accept criticism, was being quick to anger.

Oh dear. Not only is it a prerequisite to using social media, it’s actually making me MORE narcissistic. I was much calmer with my kids after reading that. Can’t have them thinking I’m a narcissist or something.

On a completely different spectrum of motherkind, the kind of mum whose example is passed around by Sufi-type women is the sort that has a dozen children, takes in waifs and strays too, teaches literacy and ethical values with compassion and patience, and reads Surat al-Baqarah in her spare time.

I’m not sure these women have ever existed. If they still do, I wonder if they don’t freak out when the kids are asleep and turn into vicious trolls, leaving scathing remarks on every YouTube video ever to be left open to comments.

And yet you do meet women who, eight or so children down the line, despite various health issues concomitant to those births, shrug off trouble quite well. Perhaps it’s because they’ve borne their fair share of it and have learned not to sweat the small stuff – or, indeed, any stuff. They have stories that would make your eyes pop out, or at the very least treasure your washing machine.

The allure of websites like Facebook (and to some extent WordPress, though I don’t find nearly so much time to write here) is that they present a window of opportunity to fly out of the mundane, hamster wheel existence in which your image means about as much as a raisin squashed into a sheepskin rug, and to relive, in some small measure, the lives we had before, when the world was a mirror of what people thought of us.

The thing is that in between issues 1), 2), 3) and 4) above, there are a whole host of moments spent with children that are riproaring fun without that old vampire bat, the ego, getting its feed.

Silly games or made-up words – just today we had walrusnuts, nasalnuts and toilet trees – provoke laughter that blocks the chattering mind for a few seconds at a time. Hugs do the same in a golden, peachy kind of way. Racing breathlessly through a puddly park. Painting, cutting random shapes out of paper, mucking around with clay, anything that gets you engrossed like them and not concerned with ensuring that they fulfil orders (unless you have a hard time letting go of order – in which case some messy paint is probably just the ticket).

The reason those moments are precious is because you were totally present, without the veil of your self-consciousness clouding the view. Once you’re there you access that limitless space in which imagination, innocence, and spiritual awareness become realities again. You can let go of the inner fascist and feel part of the infinite, beautiful harmony that is always in Divine hands.

Apart from all that, who wants to be remembered as that woman who cooked dinner and spent the rest of the time staring at a screen?

There’s always going to be more interesting stuff out there. It seems to me the only way to make any sense of it is to see what in here first.

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.

Image

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.