Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In praise of death

I'm terrified of death. Some nights, I wake in the small hours and lie next to my beautiful warm husband, transfixed by the horror that he, I, we will one day be no more. All that will be left are a few stories, until they too fade away. I worry that my children will die young, and I become all teary; I fret that I'll be a young widow, and be unable to cope; I think about my own death, and hope I can go gracefully and generously, even as I feel sick with panic.

And yet, I want to sing death's praises. Not sudden death, or violent death, or death before time. Not death that is plotted and planned and controlled. But death after a good life - yes, I will sing its praises.

I sat with my mother as she died, after years of suffering. We made jokes, and cried, and sang, and said goodbye; and then we were quiet as she laboured at the end. The room was filled with a sense of generosity, of hope and love. And freedom.

Because when a sick person dies, they are liberated from their suffering. They, and we, are utterly relieved that they will have to endure no more. No more doctors, no more pain, no more pills. And when a sick person dies, they leave a space. For years it is a great yawning void, a space that can barely be endured. And yet, whether we tiptoe round the edges and pretend it's not there, or leap into the void and feel drowned by grief, we grow into it. Our lives expand and we experience liberation.

My mother was a gifted woman, a workaholic, a trailblazer. She was large; her spirit took up most of the room. There wasn't much space for the rest of us. After she died, we crumbled down to our hard cores, then slowly, unexpectedly blossomed, as her shadow faded and we had access to the sun. So I will sing praises, to the end of suffering and to the start of something new.

And I will sing of corpses. I have seen a few. I will sing praises, because death is hidden here. Sick people are shuttled off to hospital, or hospice. To visit them and spend time with them, we have to drive to strange suburbs and sit in strange rooms and have strange conversations. Death becomes foreign. It happens to other people, somewhere else. Bodies are whisked away, and reappear, by arrangement, at the funeral home. So I will sing the praises of corpses, of the right to see a loved one in their final state, of the chance to say one last goodbye to a strangely still and waxy face, familiar and foreign in death.

I keep a few skulls on my piano: a wallaby, a kangaroo. I caress a bird's nest made of down, a hawk's feather. These objects of beauty are reminders of transience, a sign of the wonders to come.

And because I sing praises, I sing praises of life. Since it is finite, let us fall down into ourselves and discover who we are, so that when our time comes we can say that we have lived. Let us become those people today. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Let us celebrate the life that is here, the life that is now, the life worth living. Let us turn up our stereos and dance round the kitchen. Make a cup of tea and watch the clouds scud across the sky. Plant some flowers in a surprising place. Write a letter to a loved one. Invite someone to dinner and open a bottle of wine. Start drawing, or writing, or singing like we mean it. Join a peace movement. Eat a juicy apple, and live extravagantly, generously, open-handedly today.

Because some day soon our bony friend will come knocking at the door. And when those hard knuckles go rat-a-tat-tat, I want to open it boldly, ready and able to welcome him in.

Fierce, bad and selfish

I'm a bad mummy.

I drank coffee and wine right through three pregnancies.

My babies all ate poo: rat, kangaroo or possum.

I can't remember my children's birthdays.

My baby slipped out the back door. I found her in the compost heap eating last week's vegetable peelings.

Sick kids annoy me.

I told my daughters to 'put it in the fucken rubbish bin'. A few days later, my five year old told her friend to do the same.

A crying baby in the night makes me want to scream.

In a fit of rage, I threw one daughter across a room onto her bed, then slammed the door and left the house.

When I'm furious, I shout so loud that flecks of saliva shoot out my mouth.

I've smacked.

I am a fierce, bad and selfish mum.

The wonder of it all is that my kids are fine. They cope with the occasional Vesuvian eruption, and I mostly leave the room when I feel it coming on. They've eaten compost and animal dung, dirt, leaves and potting mix, with nothing to show for it bar a gritty nappy. They've repeated rude words, and the sky never fell in; mummy just tried not to laugh. They've been smacked, and I've apologised, and we've had another go at the relationship.

When we began, I was so ignorant. I never held a baby until I had my own. My oldest was my training ground. None of our good friends had kids; none of our relatives. Our mothers had died, and our aunties are distant. We had our baby in a vacuum, and learned everything from health professionals and books. It took years for me to trust my instincts, to leave the books on the shelf and go with my gut.

I had to learn how little children are, how young - they really are new in the world. I'm still learning how to be gentle, and loving, and kind. I'm learning to apologise when I make mistakes, or lose my temper. I'm learning to share, to serve others first, to eat after the baby's fed and not just when I'm hungry. I'm learning to observe myself, even in the midst of chaos, to remove myself from a situation before I blow up. I'm learning.

And I'm trying to become more myself, less what other people think I should be. So much of the turmoil of the early years arose out of guilt, guilt for not being able to give up coffee and for regularly sharing a glass of wine during pregnancy; guilt for taking time out for reading, for writing, for chatting with friends so that the baby slips away unnoticed and falls down or eats poo; guilt for not being the ever present ever calm ever perfect mother. No wonder I got angry.

But in letting go of expectations, mine and other people's, I've learned something simple: I'm enough. Enough for my kids, and enough for me. My children are relaxed enough, happy enough, fed enough, clean enough. And I'm gentle enough, thoughtful enough, generous enough for them to thrive. This sense is growing, filling the house like a wandering breeze which drifts in through half open windows and chases out the stale air. And where once lay stagnation and frustration, sources of anger and self-blame, I am finding freshness and hope, playfulness and delight.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Knicker notes

Something very weird is happening in our street. Once upon a time, we were the yuppies. But the newer arrivals are wearing very expensive underpants, and put us to shame.

I know this because one morning I walked out the gate and found a pair of Calvin Kleins flung upon our car roof. It was gross and hilarious and intriguing - how did they get up there? I wondered. Why are they here? (When I tell the story, I like to add that those underpants were more expensive than our first car - but then I have to admit that our first car was actually a handmedown and cost us nothing. That car had been jumped upon by so many drunks that its roof had a great sag; our friends were pathetically grateful when we took it away.)

I assumed this underwear incident was a one-off, the mad capers of someone passing through our suburb. I mean, who would be crazy enough to own CK undies, let alone toss them onto our car?

But more recently, our street has been littered with boxes for Versace Y-fronts. Our garbos aren't too fussy about whether the recycling goes in the truck or onto the street, and these clearly missed. It occurred to me that kinder is always looking for small cardboard boxes, but I don't think this is what they have in mind.

Because I have nothing better to do, I googled Versace men's underwear. I found some on sale, marked down from $90 to a mere $60 a pair. My neighbours are spending more on their underpants than I spend on an entire outfit. Now I'm eyeballing my neighbours' posteriors, as if I had x-ray vision and could discern their underclothes. It makes me wonder. Are they that much more comfortable? Do they add lift, or come with free botox? How can they be so expensive?

Here I am with three leaky little kids, not to mention my menstruating self. One wears handmedown nappies - lovely fitted ones, for which I didn't pay a cent. The others wear a combination of el cheapo undies (I am yet find a fair trade option) and handmedowns. Perhaps second hand underwear is gross, but I'm at the stage where a poo is a poo is a poo. Friends' girls grow out of their knickers; we wash them, dry them in the sun, and on they go. Even I just wear plain black cotton bonds.

Rinsing out knickers, or finding soggy piles hidden behind the toilet door, is a big part of my life. So is dealing with a writhing baby who thinks it's hilarious to roll while I'm wiping the poo off her bottom. I can no longer think of underwear as anything other than functional, no matter who's wearing it, adult or child. Undies are for catching drips and spills, and to keep us nice when the wind blows up our skirts. When I want to be sexy, I take my clothes off.

In a world where millions of children have almost no food to eat, I'm amazed that people spend this much on their Y-fronts. More shocking by far is the realisation that these people look normal, and that they live on my street.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Going the distance

School's straight down a busy road. We walk there almost every day. It takes about half an hour at a fast clip with kids, or closer to an hour at the end of the day when everyone's tired, and there are railings to play on, phone boxes to make phantom calls in, and bread to buy.

The theory of walking is good. We walk to minimise petrol use; we walk so we can share our car two days a week; we walk to keep our car off the roads. We walk to contribute to a cheerful human presence on the street, with our bright red pram and the burst of colours that young girls wear - pink, orange, and green. We walk to make time to talk about the day ahead, or the day just gone. We walk to catch up with other families on our way, and to chat as we go along. We walk so my kids experience heat and cold and wind and rain, and notice buds and blossoms and browning leaves. We walk.

But most people drive. They drive to go fast, and to get there quick. And time and again, I have to pull my children back as a car accelerates to turn in front of us. For all the nice theory, the walk to school is stressful, care-ridden. I can't relax; I'm always on alert for a car shooting out of a side street, or turning across us at speed. We can never assume that a car will give way; we always assume that they will cut us off. And they usually do. Trucks make deliveries, parking across laneways and side streets so we cannot cross safely. From time to time, forklifts careen around; cars parked at the various mechanics abruptly reverse across the footpath in the eternal car shuffle. Despite the many walkers, drivers here don't look for pedestrians.

The traffic is heavy, and thunders. Trams roll past, rattling and clanging, and cars speed up to undertake them. There are always road works somewhere along the way. Jackhammers jabber. A fourteen story building is under construction; as the foundations are being dug, dump trucks are filled and roar out. When my children speak, I have to stop and bend down so I can hear them.

All the way, I shout like a segeant-major: Stop! Look! Wait! Very good... Remember the laneway! Stay with me here. Let's cross together. Are we safe? Good, walk! walk, don't run. That's right...

Every day, I get home exhausted, ratty beyond repair, often close to tears. But I want to walk. I want to create a street presence for more than just cars. This city belongs to me, too, even when I'm on foot. But it's so draining.

Just last week, after six months of this, I finally tried a new route. It's longer, by another half mile or so - a big ask for a five year old. But on the way to pick her up, I saw a car with a trailer turn at speed across two lanes of traffic into a street where girls were crossing with their mother; the car slammed on its brakes and skidded; my heart stopped; the car came to a standstill; the family finished the crossing; the driver shouted abuse and drove off; everyone was fine except their mother and I, who had aged about fifty years in that instant... and after that, something I had seen a dozen times this year, but which really got to me that day, I asked my kids to try a different way home.

The new route runs along side streets, through laneways, and across a large park. There are two playgrounds, and, well beyond my wildest imaginings, there is almost no traffic at all. Perhaps two cars drove past the first time we walked it. We stopped in each park for a play with school friends, and swapped phone numbers with one family. The streets were so quiet that we talked all the way home. It was what I had hoped for in the daily run, but which had proved so elusive.

My kids loved it. They decided that as long as I pack a bite for them to eat, then they want to walk it every day. Now, in the mornings, we scramble to get out the door fifteen minutes earlier so we can go this way. In the afternoons, I take a couple of bananas or a sandwich, and we have a picnic and a play in the park. All of us arrive home much more relaxed, and I realise what an ordeal the old walk has been. Sure, we still walk it when we're running late - but breaking it up, so that it's not day in day out, has made an enormous difference.

It makes me wonder what else I am doing the hard way. Where else is life difficult because I only see the road straight ahead? I was reluctant to try the new route, because of the extra distance. But I had not registered just how draining the noise and the stress of the busy way were. The longer quieter walk, through a large park and playgrounds, and under mature street trees, is restorative.

Which other parts of my life are so hard, so dangerous, I wonder. What else drives me to the brink of tears? Where are the better routes? If I am willing to give up the convenience of the main road, are there meandering paths, longer, narrower, but more kind and gentle by far, which will lead me into quietness and show me the way home?

Post script: I've commented on some books about street presence; if you're interested, click here!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dozing and dreaming

We had a furious shrieking day early last week, and now I know why. The day after, my baby and the three year old began to throw up. Then they went spotty. Meanwhile, I had a touch of flu. Picture this: a woman in a heated room, shaking with cold despite her woolly jumper, jacket, ugg boots and enormous woolly hat, holding a three year old's head as she vomits into a bucket. Then gagging herself at the stench. I don't think normal parenting gets much worse.

In a calm moment, bucket washed out ready for the next round, I and the three year old lay flat on the rug playing Memory. My headache made the cards spin, and the three year old wanted to chat through every pair we found - including animal noises for the very loud tigers. Then she asked to sing together. I taught her how to hold a note, then came in on the same tone to make a dense wall of sound. We did it over and over, finding the match, falling into the sound, laughing, and finding it again. It is a mystery to me how three year olds can be sick and chatty and hilarious all at the same time - or how a wall of sound felt healing to my headache.

Later, she and her baby sister broke out in spots. She's fine now, but the baby is still rashy from head to toe. She looks utterly ghastly, like the diseased thing that she is. But in these same few days, she's learned to play 'peekaboo'.

She finds a piece of cloth, or a small cushion, and holds it over her face. Then suddenly, off it comes, and 'Boo!' she crows. We all laugh riotously, her fat little tummy shaking with laughter - and then we start all over again. Or she hides behind a piece of furniture, then 'Boo!'. I look round, and a little spotty face is peeping round the edge of a chair or a doorjamb, waiting to be noticed, beaming with delight.

As I was recovering from the flu, others did the school run. I had no energy for walking or sweeping or shopping. Instead, my three year old and I made miniature books for the dolls' house, and a rhyming book about the colour orange. While she was absorbed in decorating her newly made books and arranging them on the dolls' shelf, I put together a tiny illustrated recipe collection.

We all want to be healthy, and serious illness is devastating. But I find it fascinating that in a time of mild sickness - vomiting, aching, shivering, and spots - we had an intense period of creativity. Singing games, peekaboo, papercraft, drawing, hand lettering... I was too tired to try to be some archetype of the good mother. The floor was covered in crumbs; books and toys and shoes were scattered around the house like a definition of entropy; dry clothes sat in washing baskets waiting to be folded. But my drivenness was stripped away, the desperate need to Get Things Done abated. Instead, I curled dozing and dreaming in a corner of the kitchen, and rose only to play: to staple, fold, cut, draw, sing.

And my kids loved it. They played alongside me, involved in their own projects and commenting on mine. In the end we had a great week, a happy week, vomiting and all. It makes me question how much time I spend housekeeping - so much time, that I can forget to play. After all, nobody cared about the mess, or the benches. They didn't even care about the crumbs on the floor. In fact, I think one in particular enjoyed it no end - with overlooked crusts clustered under the high chair, the baby savoured more than one illicit snack.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jostling, loud, and in your face

Everyone's home and screeching. My three year old's screeching at her five year old sister; her sister is screeching right back; and their daddy's just had a well-deserved shout at them both. The baby's providing a grizzly undercurrent, and I'm biting my lip not to join them all.

You see, I'm off duty; it's my writing time so I'm not allowed to get involved. Instead, I'm bunkered down with the study door shut, wincing at every piercing shriek and trying to reflect on the presence of the holy in the mundane. Hah. It's much easier to do when the mundane is asleep, or at school, or out for a walk.

I'm fascinated by the spirituality of everyday life. Like so many writers, I prose on and on about becoming like children in order to experience it. But we so often assume well-behaved, quiet, polite children. The sort of children who are entranced by a spider's web, or a particularly splashy puddle; who become absorbed digging in the sand pit or making a pattern of leaves.

But these same children, my children, can also be energetic ratty slightly sick children, grumpy children, selfish children, children going through a stage. They're full of an aggressive exuberance which drives us round the bend; they snatch and grab and squabble and yell; and their boundary testing makes me want to scream and reach for the red wine every night.

Are we only spiritually alive in moments of unconscious playfulness, like happy healthy relaxed children? Or is there something for us to learn here too? Should we also be like grumpy children, demanding children, screeching children? Jostling, loud, and in your face? Perhaps there are things we could learn if we would only let ourselves be fierce from time to time, if we'd only let our ambitions walk round naked and stop being so damn polite.
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