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.

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Here is the News (That Never Happened)

Oh, the peculiar fears I carry around with me.

A black and green dirty rucksack, for example, deposited on the floor by an empty table where I sit to have my coffee that gets me thinking: who does it belong to? I ask around politely, and nobody knows. Could – and this is the very first possibility that springs to mind – someone have left it there with a bomb inside?

This is how my imagination works. Let´s just say I can get quite creative with my paranoias. So I begin calculating what kind of rucksack a terrorist would use to leave a bomb in this haven of depravity – I mean, cake shop – in Plaza Larga, Granada. Would it be a slightly grubby one, like this specimen? You´d think that such a decisive moment in the life of a hardcore extremist would warrant a bit of spit and polish. Isn´t there something in the suicide bomber´s handbook that regulates nice, neat backpacks in order to avoid raising suspicions? Or it is more suspicious to carry a brand spanking new rucksack?

 

Already exhausted with these worries – which have raced through my head in the time it takes to open a packet of sugar – I start to think, if it is an explosive device, I am the nearest person to it. I´ll be obliterated. Balls. I should´ve sat round the other side of the biscuit display.

I wonder at the irony of it, a Muslim woman being the first one obliterated by a supposedly Islamic poke in the eye of Western consumerism. Damn those walnut-embellished cookies! Just thinking about the decadence of this chocolate-encrusted institution would make the average al-Qaeda neophyte turn crimson with fury. The irony, of course, is that they would see me, with my long blonde locks shamelessly exposed and assorted prints and patterns and fringed knits, looking more like a walking circus act than the kind of subdued woman they expect Muslim women to be, and I would be lumped in with all the other infidels.

Yet I would rather run that (admittedly infinitessimally small) risk than to succumb to the fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t. What I fear most is to wear my fear as a cape, not in order to protect my precious body from the rapacious gazes of the barbarian hordes, but for fear of what might happen to me if I didn´t.

Whichever way I turn, fear stands with its steel toe-capped boots blocking the doorway, an amalgam of Hollywood psychopaths (as Wednesday Addams said to explain her lack of a Halloween costume, “I´ve come as a homicidal maniac. They look like everyone else”), a cartoon demon, a cardboard ghoul, a carjacking kidnapper, an ideological lunatic bent on purging the world of evil by, er, blowing it up, and, inexplicably, my high school P.E. teacher, Ms Haversham.

All of these fears are constantly bubbling, morphing, accreting new dimensions with every newspaper I read, evolving into a vaster and more powerful tyrant with every day I allow it to reign.

The craziest thing of all is that all of these fears are completely and utterly hypothetical. I have never personally been kidnapped, or murdered by a Samurai sword wielding teeange mob, or blown to smithereens by anti-Westernisation madmen. I have never even been verbally condemned by a Muslim man for my Western appearance; on the contrary, being an Anglo-American Muslim sometimes generates a little too much interest for my liking.

 All of my fears are completely illogical, but the subconscious does not respond to logic unless you pin it down and shine a 1,000 candlelight torch down its throat. Until I do that, my head will continue to be the most dangerous place in the world.

In the meantime, a stubbly, student-type young man comes out of the loo, picks up his rucksack and leaves. The safety of my immediate surroundings remain unviolated. A million tiny acts of disinterested generosity, kindness, and love take place undocumented all over the world, while I have spent twenty minutes running through a worst case scenario so improbable that I am more likely to be struck by lightning whilst playing a flute on a mountaintop. Dressed as a blueberry.

Psychological studies show that bad news is more memorable than good news. So the 99% of the time in which no violent theft is taking place, no verbal abuse being slung, no building blown up, no airplane hijacked, no child bullied, no alien invasion happening, are not documented in any way. It just isn´t as interesting. That 99% of events remains, like the 99% of people with 1% of the wealth, anonymous.

I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule of non-newsworthy events to read this article, in which no brains were devoured by zombies, no old ladies were killed in their homes by burglars, and absolutely no animals were harmed in any way. Thankyou. Feel free to carry on living your lives, a little bit happier, I hope, for them to be non-newsworthy.

Parentnoia

It sounded just like a distant bird call, honest. A faint puling sound that decorated the summer countryside quiet, hiding beneath an engrossing conversation with a friend out on the patio. It was the friend who commented on it: Hey isn’t that your baby? And I listened and thought: No…probably just a bird. I’ll just check to be sure.

It grew louder and more urgent as I started to race into the bedroom through open French windows. And there was my three-month-old, red in the face and bawling his eyes out on the bed. It was an auditory illusion, of course, his voice muffled by a curtain…and he was teething – ridiculously early – a light sleeper, you understand…

My friend, innocently enough, inquired as to why I didn’t just let him sleep on my shoulder. He weighs a stone, for crying out loud! I protested. But sure enough, it made me feel like the most appallingly irresponsible mother on the planet. It was no good – parentnoia had set in.

It seems to be a universal curse: first-time parents, diligently reading parenting books – most of them obnoxiously regimented in their techniques and rules – suffering spontaneous collapses of belief in their own instincts, as though their new child were some sort of incomprehensible kitchen appliance whose instructions were written in Japanese.

No matter how much we want to protect our children, there is a certain point at which protection becomes cotton-woolling – as great a parenting sin as neglect in most people’s eyes. Brought up in a sterile environment, a child’s immune system hasn’t been taxed; likewise, without challenges to the perfection of a young baby’s worldview, he or she will surely grow up fearful, lacking in initiative, and incapable of coping with the trials of earthly existence.

But a first-time mother is perhaps the most susceptible person of all to the insinuation that she might not be good enough in her new maternal role, that she might be somehow damaging her offspring in some subtle way of which she will not be aware until it is too late. This insinuation doesn’t come from disapproving glares half as much as from within.

Where on earth has this absurd idea of parental perfection come from, this ideal to which none of us can possibly compare and against which everyone comes up short? It doesn’t get any easier as your baby grows older, either. The guilt we feel when mentioning to a new acquaintance that our toddler still wakes up in the night, as if we should have trained him better by now (Gina Ford would have a fit!) is outrageous, but still it stings like nettles.

What if we don’t mind getting up with our child in the night? One friend actually told me she relished her sixteen-month-old’s night feeds, the intimacy and peace that she knew would not last forever. There is something so intoxicating about that drowsy, tender proximity, which only a woman has the pleasure of experiencing with her baby. If only mothers didn’t feel so browbeaten about not stamping the habit out early so as to fit a nice, standardised model of family life.

I suspect it has something to do with conditioning women to get back to work as quickly as possible, even when we’d much rather enjoy the all-too-fleeting closeness with a child who will, before we know it, be asking to sleep over at their friend’s houses every night and barely registering our kisses as they come in the door from school.

It seems that somewhere along the line we have forgotten our instinctual ability to integrate children into our lives, whether it be our faith in our own ability to care for our kids adequately, our fears about the way they are growing up, or our cliquiness about parenting styles. Humans knew how to care for their children millennia before web forums and expert guides came along. Perhaps the cure for parentnoia is nothing more than telling those bossy, opinionated know-it-alls to stick a babygro in it.