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

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The Invisible Tantrum

The screaming bejeezus


We’ve all known them, and perhaps also been them – the children who, when denied a toy, turned out of their favourite trike or innocently poked in the eye, see red. They (we) stamp their feet, clench their fists, scream like the Incredible Hulk on a bad morning. Eyes bulge. Hard items are thrown against walls, foreheads. Terrified neighbours peep over the hedge to see if a real-life psychiatric ward escapee has taken you hostage, just like on telly.

Intervening tends to make you come away bruised and shaken, but the initial impulse is still usually to contain the child’s rage, limit the damage to the furniture and your face, keep the racket down. It’s mortifying to have your little one wig out in the queue at Safeways, and incur the glares of other shoppers whose shopping list dos not include being thwacked in the knee with a can of coconut milk by a two-year-old screaming for a lollipop.

The good news, as anyone with older kids tells you, is that it’s just a phase, and they grow out of it. I think it’s largely true, but a part of me wonders if they do grow out of it, or if it just goes underground; if they learn there are better ways to express their anger, or that expressing emotion is condemned by society.

My nephew is, as I hope my sister won’t mind me writing, one of those kids who is intelligent, engaged, funny, playful and creative most of the time…but there are those moments when, shall we say, you approach him at your peril. It’s getting rarer these days, as he grows out of it, or his mum learns ways of diverting the storm before it really hits full power. One of her many parenting insights has been that these conniption fits always seem to have a very basic trigger – hunger, thirst, overheating, tiredness.

Recently at our parents’ house, he started getting wound up, and it looked as though he was going to hit his full, cyclonic level of peace destruction, when he – quite of his own instigation – went to the fridge and ate an avocado. Belly full, tantrum abated. Genius!

His being slightly older than my own son, who is also not shy of the odd hissy fit, might be what equipped him with the initiative to get what he needed – food, and possibly even a more specific kind of food based on what his body lacked. Hey, why not credit him with as much wisdom?

All this has got me thinking. Those difficult moments of childrearing, when you have a baby screaming blue murder while the toddler wees deliberately on your handbag, and the dinner’s burning and you’re about to boink yourself silly with a rolling pin out of sheer frustration (can you tell I’ve had a hard summer?), those are the moments when enlightened parenting theories are about as much use as a frozen pea in a landslide. The tantrum (whether his or yours) always seems to have its roots in a primal need, water, blood sugar, or – though it’s not always possible, much to all our loss – another person to muck in.

And it may be more subtle: a cuddle. A bit of attention. Praise. Being listened to. I freely admit that I am just as immature in my need-expression as Caveboy’s. In fact in some ways I’m worse; I sigh, roll my eyes, stare listlessly out of windows, make reproachful little comments. Those are my invisible tantrums. I dare say they are much harder to understand for the people in my life (namely, long-suffering Caveman) than a good ole yell.

Knowing that tantrums, whether visible or otherwise, have as their touchpaper the most ordinary of needs makes the firestorm transparent, easier to handle, faster to quell. Though God knows I could do with remembering my own advice when Caveboy is screaming as I drag him away from a concrete mixer at lunchtime, or when, indeed, I am doing the dishes viciously, in a silent strop.

Please, remind me. Keep reminding me. Just think of the innocent, defenseless crockery.