Cartoon Squirrels: Why Kids’ TV is Where Feminism Goes to Die

We’ve got into a pretty bad habit with the TV this year. It’s a slippery slope: first only weekends, then a little at midday to let me make lunch in peace, then before we know it were having to hide the cables to stop them switching it on day and night. In between beating myself up for sacrificing my crunchy ideals, it’s providing quite a lot of food for thought.
One thing I’ve noticed about children’s cartoons in recent years is that the heroes and heroines of the stories succeed because they have either supernatural powers or magical creatures to help them. I’m starting to get the feeling that this doesn’t give a very good example of succeeding in the world, in which we have to rely on our own wits and a bit of luck to get by. I happen to love the fantasy genre, but the problem I find with it is that they don’t show children using their own innate abilities to solve problems to defeat baddies. Insane as it sounds, I’m actually feeling nostalgic for the Famous Five.
If you look at, for example, Pokémon, Doraemon, Mini Mighty Kids, Ben 10, Monsters Vs Aliens, Shimmer and Shine (thanks for trying to represent Indians, but no thanks), PJ Masks, The Miraculous Ladybug, Star Versus the Forces of Evil, Danger Mouse, any of the Marvel characters, King Fu Panda (who uses Chi in pretty magical ways), the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, or practically any of the cartoons out there, the protagonists either use magical powers (which are usually exclusive to a few characters) or have magical beings that help them to succeed.
So kids watching these programs are repeatedly given the impression that if you want to defeat your demons, you need to have magic on your side. And once the show’s over, the TV off, and the disbelief no longer suspended, the sensation of impotence – already a sticking point for most kids – the feeling of being too small and weak to be able to have a positive effect in the world floods back in full force.
The shows that don’t involve magic are all protagonised by animals (Sherlock Yak, Bing, The Octonauts, Peppa Pig – who solves everything by jumping up and down in muddy puddles). One of the few programmes I can think of that show the protagonist using their own skills and ingenuity to solve problems is Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse. In order to succeed, you just need to be white, blonde, six foot three with a waist the exact diameter of a chopstick, and have the privilege of fame, fortune, and wardrobe so vast you need to ride a horse to get to the other end of it.
Please don’t get me started on this show. The fact that the bitchy frenemy is a vaguely Mexican brunette called Raquel makes me start wondering if the alt-right funded it.
Which brings us to the representation of girls. Even more oh dear. Count the number of female puppies in Paw Patrol (1, occasionally 2 when they call on Everest with her snowmobile, to 6 male), you start to get royally pissed off with cartoon developers. Add the hapless mayoress (who, in a backfiring attempt to appear representative, is black), and the doe-eyed blonde pet pampering parlour girl, and you need to check your blood pressure. See also Superwings, where the only female superhero (among a bunch of, er, talking aeroplanes) is pink, annoying, and called Ditzy. Bob the Builder has a female sidekick who actually wears overalls (phew!) but only one ‘female’ machine, called Dizzy. Any more stereotypes of girls they want to throw in there?
This might sound like so much point scoring, but these images are etched deeply in kids’ minds. Story is a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected – and if the mirror is warped, so is our self image. My daughter invariably says “I’m her!” about female characters in cartoons. Her favourites are the Mini Mighty Kids, in which animal characters find their flaws turn into superpowers; The Miraculous Ladybug, which features one of the most powerful female characters on kids’ TV, but still relies on magical powers; and Elena of Avalor, which at least portrays a kick-ass Latina princess, but one who needs to use flying jaguars to get around. Sophia the First is a car crash of elitist values with a sprinkling of magic.
The trouble is that when powerful, successful female characters are still a minority in cartoons, the message they put across is that these women are the exception that proves the rule.
The only cartoons that subvert the whole magic-will-solve-all-my-problems are either too grownup for kids to understand (like the Simpsons) or totally surreal ones like Spongebob Squarepants (which, weirdly enough, is a lot better dubbed into Spanish). But even then the only regular female character, who is luckily just as quixotic and silly as the others, is a squirrel in an air suit. Forget female power figures for a minute, do we have to be so divorced from reality to accept a girl who is just as inane as a boy? Gender Equality for Nutters!
I don’t want to underestimate children’s ability to escape into fantasy, or the benefit it gives them to dress up or use toys to imagine they’re someone (or something) else. Imagination is absolutely vital for so many areas of adult life, not only creativity (useful in business, everyday problem-solving, cooking with random fridge items…) but also in compassion. How can you have empathy for others if you can’t imagine yourself in their shoes? I would even argue that the root of extremism and literalism in religion is a total lack of imagination out of fear that it leads the pious soul astray. Bring back art, bring back free creative thought, and extremism is banished like mound from the underside of a leaky sink.
Fairy tales worked on archetypes, so the knight in shining armour defeating the dragon to rescue the fair maiden and live happily ever after isn’t a literal narrative of an actual male rescuing an actual female, but of the ‘masculine’ element in any person (representing self-sacrifice, valour, strength) overcoming their demons and liberating their ‘feminine’ element (beauty, grace, kindness, gentleness, wisdom) and the two sides of the self being united.
Folktales don’t have the visceral detail of modern cartoons, particularly CG animation movies. The child’s imagination is left to wander freely, and while they might play act being knight and princess, the message is a much simpler one, imprinted in a much less literal way.
Some Hans Christian Andersen stories were rewritten in modern retellings to make the girls more pathetic. In the original version of The Little Mermaid, the mermaid doesn’t get the prince; he falls for another princess, and even though she has the opportunity to kill him with the sea witch’s stone knife in order to recover her mermaid body and 200 year life span, she throws the knife into the sea and herself after it. Expecting to turn to sea foam (as mermaids do when they die, didn’t you know?), she is surprised to find she doesn’t; hearing musical voices above, she is taken up by the ‘Daughters of the Air’, mermaids who sacrificed themselves for others and earned another 200 years in which to bring fresh, healing winds to people around the world, after which they earn themselves an immortal soul and go to heaven.
Then again, sometimes original versions needed to be, er, edited: in her first incarnation, Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds and kisses her. Feeling rather put out that he’s come all this way for nothing, he rapes her and leaves her still asleep, and it’s the sound of her baby crying when she gives birth that provides her rude awakening. A moral tale warning girls not to trust old women lest they get raped by strangers in their sleep? Not sure how to interpret that one.
Cartoons that revive traditional folktales can actually tap into their subconscious messages while layering on more direct, modern meanings about girls, and kids in general. Moana came close to being a politically correct film, attacking male chauvinism in the form of the narcissistic demigod Maui, and placing a girl as the plucky heroine – and, indeed, a female as the great villain AND source of life. The entire cast (the humans, at least) were indigenous, and the only voice talent that wasn’t native Polynesian was a brainless chicken. Disney has come a long way since Pocahontas, it’s got to be said.
Other films that consistently show girls as beings who know their own mind and aren’t batting their eyelashes to persuade people to do things for them are those by Hayao Miyazaki. Although it’s one of my all-time favourite flicks, I haven’t shown my kids Spirited Away yet; the vile monsters that appear in their CG animated cartoons aren’t anywhere near as frightening as No Face in my opinion, the way that the Mexican folk tale La Llorona still gives me the shivers – something to do with the archetypal fears these stories tap into. But Howl’s Moving Castle and Laputa, Castle in the Sky were right up their street, with just as many thoughtful, intelligent, brave female characters as male, and just as many female baddies as male ones.
In an ideal world we wouldn’t have to police the numbers of male and female characters, or those of minorities; we should be able to let our imaginations run wild with the palette of human existence without forcing anything. The trouble is that we are all carrying around a load of prejudices, positive and negative, that are at work even when we aren’t conscious of them. So until we are free of bias, which is unlikely to ever happen entirely, we need to reverse engineer stories to unpick their meta narratives.
Meanwhile, what can we do about the sorry state of stories? Write better ones. Stories that weave the archetypes of old into contemporary settings with positive portrayals of girls and minorities. I have one brewing myself, so I shall stop ranting and get on with it…ask me how I’m getting on with it so I don’t slack off!

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.

Jobs for the Boys

farm boy

From ‘The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes’, collected by Iona and Peter Opie, Puffin, 1963

Today is the eighth birthday of my eldest child. This time eight years ago, I was giddy with tiredness and wonder, nestling in bed with a round-faced little sun of a boy. The first night I noticed how his chin would shudder forward like a tortoise’s, with that newborn quality of skin that is lost so soon – softer than air, and slightly bath-wrinkled.

I still see the same boy when he is asleep, though now a thousand preoccupations flit through my head at various times that obscure the view: mostly it’s when he’s lounging about the house after school reading comics, pestering me to play videogames, or – my biggest bugbear – to watch YouTubers play Minecraft. Really. Blue-haired twenty-year-olds who probably still live with their mums but who are gods to squillions of kids who aren’t even bothering to playing the game themselves. Agh.

I am realising that I place so many expectations on my firstborn, which were perhaps placed on me as a firstborn, or which I place on myself. There are vague notions of integrity and resilience, thinking-outside-the-box – which is in tension with the need for respecting authority (i.e. MINE) – and all sorts of health issues, from not eating tons of gacky sweets and Cheeto-type polystrene-covered-in-cheese-powder to going to bed early, changing socks regularly, getting fresh air (do children even notice when air isn’t fresh?), not staring at screens for long periods, and doing ‘improving’ things such as learning to play musical instruments or doing sports. No wonder all he feels like doing is flopping out and reading comics.

(I have to say I read them too when I was young – I was the one who introduced him to them. They are very funny, if you like surreal slapstick Spanish violence.)

But I wonder how children, boys in particular, are meant to get a ‘healthy’ picture of work, when there is no-one around – particularly men, their prototypes – to show them how it’s done, until they’re already adolescents and way too interested in squeezing their spots to be learning how to use a radial saw.

Basically, work is either too dangerous, or too child-unfriendly to be able to involve kids in, which is all to the detriment of children’s future working lives. By contrast, both of my parents worked from home: my dad had an office in the attic where he did graphic design, and my mum ran a shop on the ground floor (part of our house) from which she also sold books mail order.

This gave me a strong image of self-employment, which seemed as attractive then as it does now. My dad would take breaks from tiresome computer work to go into the garden and dig up potatoes, while my mum would play Motown, soul and country on a tape recorder and sing along loudly whenever she could get away with it. It seemed like the perfect way to balance different interests without having to be overburdened by any of them for too long – just right for a person with a lot of interests. Who needs a steady income, right?

Now, though, my eldest son sees me working on a computer or iPad – emails, translations, etc. – and the only work he sees my husband (his stepdad) doing at home is emails too. (My husband manages a mobile restaurant which he takes to trance festivals…not really the ideal environment for an 8-year-old to do work experience in.)

His father, on the other hand, is a carpenter, which might offer plenty of wonderful imaginary opportunities to whittle things together, but in practice usually involves heavy machinery that could slice your arm off if you’re not careful, as well as late nights keeping to deadlines and dusty, noisy site work. It’s all a bit stymying for a kid who wants to get stuck in and learn first hand, quite the opposite of the bad old days where boys of six would be expected to look after herds of sheep (“Little Boy Blue, go blow your horn, the sheep’s in the meadow, the cow’s in the corn…”)

The general idea nowadays seems to be that kids should avoid all thought of adulthood until they near the end of school, by which time the classes themselves will have shaped their interests and nurtured their skills enough to give them a bash at choosing a career. But I don’t buy this one bit. I knew I wanted to be a writer, to live abroad and learn different languages, from my son’s age, and I never really wavered in that decision. Careers advice at GCSE told me I should be a prison warden.

Having time to daydream, play music, study, travel, make things, meet people…that always figured heavily in my career plan. Since leaving university I haven’t written a single CV. I can’t say I’m earning bags of money, of course…or that I even have that much time on my hands, with three kids on them too…but, you know, it’s the principle of the thing.

So how do we show children the realities of the adult world without stultifying them with computers from a tender age? I don’t really have any answers, but I get the feeling that we need to be less stultified by computer work ourselves, for a start. Maybe combine it with gardening jobs, or painting and decorating, all the manual labour jobs that self-made intellectuals look down on but which actually provide a neat bit of income, as well as mental space to stretch out in.

Then there are all those dreaded afternoon kid’s activities, which parents have to practically have a PA just to organise, especially with several kids who all want to go in different directions at once. Take my advice: have quintuplets, then you can just take them all to tennis and read a book in the stands.

Maybe what we need is activities that adults and kids take part in together (a tricky one to achieve when you have a toddler who rips everything to shreds, but one can dream). Perhaps pottery, or swimming, origami, or forest school outings where everyone can learn something and/or teach something to someone else. It all seems too separate, the pre-teen’s world and the adult’s, and yet there’s this terrifying gulf in the middle called Teenagehood to traverse without a canoe let alone a paddle in sight.

The blame often goes to peers luring kids off in the wrong direction, but peers only take the place of adult role models when those adult role models aren’t there, or when their lives are protected by plate glass. Apprenticeships could help for older kids, but the imprinting starts much younger. The very nature of modern adult work is at fault, and no-one can hope to change it but us.

Lone Wolves

Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
Good men turn lone wolves in failure’s mirror
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Where he was when mama cried while she cooked
Until shocks ran from the hob to her heart?
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

Spears are flung stupidly like porcupine
quills, harming backwards with poisonous ends
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Mothers’ arms become safety nests for the fled
Too necessary to crack with their weight
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels

In discomfort we are loved to an ache
There is bliss in being their world, and risk
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

The glitter of pristine snow was no lure
Hot coals of their need of him singed him raw
Running is falling when fear’s at your heels
It’s safe on the hills but one day they’ll ask

Love is a Traveller…For Sale Online Now!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that my first collection of poems is now available to buy online here!

LOVE IS TRAVELLER  FC Jan 28  copy

According to the publisher, Daniel ‘Abdal-Hayy Moore at Ecstatic Exchange:

“With Medina Whiteman’s lively, metamorphosing voice, we have here finely detailed poetic stances on whatever attracts her and her pen, and her heart is here, and its centripetal ripples edge out to our own world and wash over it as if with our own sensibilities — and it is a welcoming thing, a sweet and healing thing to know these enlightened trails.”

And from a review by Michael Sugich, author of Signs on the Horizons:

“Love is a Traveller and We are Its Path” is an astonishing, accomplished, heartbreakingly beautiful work. Ms. Whiteman writes as a girl, a woman, a mother, and a wide-eyed, reflective observer of her world — as seeker, believer and sage. For her God is truly in the details. Each observation, whether earthy or supernal, is internalized and suffused with a piercing awareness of meaning, and a deep, abiding faith that shines through a world full of mundane and transcendent particulars.”

Ain’t Lateefa Spiker‘s cover art lovely? Here‘s the link to buy a copy yourself and see if you agree with them. Pass on the news, and happy reading!

 

 

 

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.

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.

Two States

Two states compete
for my longing:
one, a room for living in with wood fire
burning behind smudged glass
a heap of books, some open
wet socks hung on the back of a chair
a bowl of fruit, some cut and not yet brown
shoes toed off and left at irreverent angles
something humming in a corner,
processing dried fruit or data and
even when the room is empty of people
it is thrumming with the echo of them.

The other is wall to wall cabinets
neatly closed, dust-free,
windows freshly Windexed
a bank of new steel iMacs
working glitchlessly
leather seats arranged to look casual
but there are no crescents of coffee
on the coffee table or
crumbs on the geometric rug
no scratches on the wooden floor
or piles of dry clothes to fold
no glasses waiting smearily
to be washed up.
A fug of central heating
closes throats to a polite silence. No ash!
Double glazing drowns out
the noise of the neighbour’s dog;
here one can concentrate
there are no cobwebs to sigh over
or interruptions by small children
thumping each other over felt tip pens
behind the cabinet doors are
stationery supplies to last
’til kingdom come
fresh orders of necessities
have been made weeks in advance
for there is no chaos here to hinder
business, no boring list of frets
to get on top of before projects
can fructify. This orchard
only yields polished apples
red and round
without pockmark or warp
grown under supervision
under daylight lamps
to industry standards.

The latter is where a half a million
is small change, where minds
boil and brew great schemes
reach nebular heights
dynamic people drop in
to ping ideas about
and everything occurs on time.

The former, though, is the only place
my mind will sink its toes
into soft soil, send down
taproots that drink from
hidden aquifers
and while my hands are
pairing socks
cutting paper snowflakes
making tea stains on the table
the real business is happening
on another schedule, one that
sees a calendar like any other piece of
earth-to-be
and gives misshapen fruits
that fall and lie embedded in nettles
edible gemstones
the ore of that ground called home.

The only guarantee
it gives me is that
nothing will be perfect
(at least I can’t be disappointed);
here the products hug me back
leave me love notes in scrambled English
and the day they leave
and my rug goes for weeks with
no hint of a crumb
I might finally get something done
if I can only stop myself
from spending all day blinking
in surprise at the quiet
and missing the mess.

An Addiction to Storms

  The wind is talking. There’s a thundering around, whistling in low, confiding tones between the orange trees and knocking a shower of fragrant petals to the floor. Of all the imaginary vehicles we’d devised over dinner – to escape a tantrum more than anything else – the wings on this wind seem the most powerful means of transport available: it is a brutal angel, muscular and singing unseen.
  There were no stories tonight, only bitter sobs, and meek children not understanding, stroking my shoulders and seeking peace. The peace came a minute before they dropped off, clinging to my hand and shoulder; it was so exquisite after the exasperation and outrage and despair that I had to turn the light off to savour it.
  I scoured my remembered psychology notes for what it added up to: with every petulant fit my inner parent raged, looking for vindication and respect, while my inner child threw toys out of the pram, causing my inner parent in turn to scold it for doing so. The correct terminology might be: ‘What’s the root cause of my own imbalance that’s playing itself out in our family dynamic?’
 Then I gave up trying to auto-analyse and worked instead on the practical means of handling two kids who’d been whipped into a giddy pair of hurricanes, fighting and flinging makeshift weapons, giggling and howling by turns, and giving me the most unbelievable lip. This time the jargon would have read: ‘What am I doing to spark this conflict, and what can I do to pull the rug on it once it’s already in motion?’

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  And then, hours after the crisis had been lulled into post-storm calm, my husband tells me, “Don’t try to analyse it, either what you’re doing or where it’s coming from. Just love your children, say ‘alhamdulillah’ that they’re healthy and well, give them a hug and a kiss when he gets angry. That’s all they need. The anger is coming from that need.”
  I am beginning to wonder if I don’t have an addiction to storms. The build-up, all excitement and nerves, then the physical lift off the ground as the gale builds up into a towering column of fury, and then the hollowing-out as the reason for its continuation is forgotten or falls through, and finally the crashing of all the chairs and trees and cars that had been lifted up into the arms of this torrent as they drop to the ground.
  Nothing seems stiller or more balmy than right at this moment, once the storm has blown itself out. The mental imbroglio that a brain with a reading habit gets itself into over any problem that surfaces suddenly falls quiet, like the sea at low tide. You look out at where the seagulls wheel and lurch without troubling yourself as to why they are doing it.
  These personal thunderstorms can have the rug pulled out from under them, if it is done by expert hands that are not shaking with a sympathetic rage. The guns that anger pulls all melt with the white heat of unconditional acceptance.
  All kinds of analyses run through my mind regarding Islam. It’s impossible to avoid it when you read the news, or have a Facebook newsfeed brimming with Muslim commenters. At every moment we seem to be stepping out of our shoes and assessing ourselves, our ‘community’, with an outsider’s eye.
  It’s an entertaining pastime, but when it comes down to it, the only way I can explain it is that Islam has a direct effect on a person’s heart. It’s like an adaptogen*: it will do whatever your heart needs. If it is rigid, it will shake it up. If it is lonely, it will give it solace. If it is wounded, it will heal. If it is hard, it will melt it. If it is to open, it will give it protection.
  So there is a kind of extreme optimism at work within a Muslim’s heart. ‘Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal’ was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.s.) favourite sayings. It means ‘Halleluyah in all conditions’, ‘May God be praised for every state’. It means streaking right past the raised fists and embracing the fighter with more than love – with gratitude. It is not merely saying ‘I forgive you’ but ‘I thank God for you’.
  What can outrage do with that kind of reaction but drop its weapon in surprise?

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*Adaptogen: a medicinal plant that will return the body to homeostasis, i.e. do whatever the body needs in order to regain balance

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.