Friday, September 25, 2009

Annoyed by my dinner

My husband's taken two kids out for the evening, and I'm home with the baby. If I'd remembered in time, I'd have bought something nice for my dinner. But I forgot. I gaze into the fridge. The three turnips, two carrots and stick of celery that were there this morning became soup with friends at lunchtime. I have no onions; they went into the soup. So I'm left with an inch-long stump of cucumber and a bit of ginger. We've run out of bread and crushed tomatoes and frozen peas, and I'm grazing on the last of the olives as I fret about dinner.

Be simple, I think. There's nothing to eat anyhow, and it's pouring with rain, and the baby wants to go to bed so I can hardly go shopping or get take away. So I make a bowl of spaghetti with olive oil and parmesan and tell myself that this is a classic dish. It's too wet to pick lettuce, so I forego even a salad.

As I'm eating my spaghetti, I'm feeling ravenous for protein. I think of all the great burgers I have eaten... and tell myself firmly that this is a simple meal, much better for the world. And then I remember that the olive oil is my favourite oil from Crete, on sale this week at one sixth the price of the local olive oils and I couldn't pass it up. The spaghetti is Italian, as is the parmesan. I'm sitting there eating food from across the world, and I'm feeling ungrateful. And annoyed at myself for feeling ungrateful, even as I reflect that a good local spud with a pool of melting butter; a good local steak oozing blood onto my plate, is probably far better for the earth than tony Italian imports.

Annoyed at my dinner and how little I want it. Annoyed that I was disorganized, and had no better option. Annoyed at my hunger, and how much it dominates my mood. Annoyed at my family, who will be well fed at their party. Annoyed at food miles and vegetarianism and every other restriction on eating that I want to live by but just find too hard much of the time. And annoyed that I'm annoyed.

I'd like to think I'm growing in maturity - and then this, this frustration at a single meal, the way a meal shapes my self-image, my worldview, my evening, makes me want to shriek with exasperation. We're such physical beings, so affected by weather and food and exercise and illness. A late meal, and I'm shouting at the kids. Not enough protein, and I slump in fatigue, overwhelmed by the demands of a young family. Too little exercise, and I get the blues. Repeatedly broken sleep, and I weep into my muesli. But get those things right, and I'm cheerfully confident, full of energy and ideas.

How would it shape my thinking if I didn't have access to good food? What sort of crank would I become? My slow growth in the ways of gentleness and kindness, my attempts at patience, my ability to think and muse and wonder - are they nothing more than the product of sourdough rye and buttery avocadoes at lunchtime?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


My five year old can read fluently, and has no problem with numbers. But she mostly can't be bothered to draw. So, in the interests of balance, we settled down yesterday afternoon to play some games.

First, we did blindfold drawings. Blindfold on, or eyes shut, and draw whatever you want. So she scribbled a few love hearts and flower symbols. Then she tried a face, and yelled with frustration that the eyes and nose ended up two inches to the left of the circle head.

So we moved on to contour drawings: eyes on an object, pencil stays on the page, and draw in one fluid line. She drew a hand symbol four times in a minute, tight and boring: four fingers, a thumb, and done. I spent two minutes doing a slow drawing of my hand, and it was loose, scribbly and hilarious. So my daughter flounced and slammed down her pen because her drawings 'weren't as good as' mine.

Clearly, I was doing this wrong. I reflected. My parents said I used to paint at kinder, then immediately wash over the painting with black paint so noone could see it. I remember being teased in early primary school because my drawings didn't look right (I drew in perspective), so I quickly shifted to symbols: green grass, blue strip of sky, and little stick figures looking straight at the viewer. Even in high school, I kept to symbols until I could avoid art altogether. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I had the confidence to sit down one holiday and play with contour drawings, and in doing so, re-discovered something lost to me since kindergarten: the beauty of drawing.

My inner critic is still powerful, and I'm still learning how to keep it under control; my daughter's inner critic can be as constricting as mine. Like me at the same age, she draws conventional symbols because any other attempts are immediately blasted, by herself and others, as being too wobbly, too wiggly, too weird, too strange.

So we put on some music, and I described the pleasure of drawing. I talked about the satisfying feel of a good pencil moving across heavy paper; I tried to describe the dreamy state when one's thinking moves from the left to the right side of the brain; and I gave her some ideas to keep her inner critic quiet. I told her that some artists take years to complete a painting; that a good drawing takes more than a minute, and it isn't a race. Then I set up a still life of apples and bananas and a cup, and she did another contour drawing, then filled it in with crazy colours. We left her purple and yellow apples on the table, and had a long bath.

While she was in the bath, she commented that she always drew her flowers with a stick, two leaves and some petals, but real flowers don't look like that. So I talked about the difference between drawing symbols, and drawing what one actually sees, and how when one becomes absorbed the sensation of running one's eyes over the shape of a tree, a hand, a leaf feels like a pencil running over paper. Even days after a session, one can look at something and immediately know how it would feel to draw it. Find a good pencil, I suggested. Try different ones and see which you like the best.

Grandpa came over. As I bathed her sisters, she announced she was going to do his portrait. She sat in the back room, drawing away. I came out as she muttered, No! he needs more wrinkles!, and added a series of wavy lines to his face. Quietly absorbed, my daughter, who an hour earlier had managed nothing more than a heart and a flower with five petals, added the chair behind and around him, and the shape of the chair suggested bulk. Totally relaxed, she filled in the plaid of the chair's fabric. She drew in the lamp behind his shoulder, and shaded in rays of light; she drew in the bookcase. Grandpa's jumper bulged in all the right places. It was recognisable, joyful, exuberant.

I fret that her critic is as loud as mine; it grieves me to watch her curtail what she can do for fear of failure or being different. My heart sinks when I see her tight little hearts and flowers, all coloured in regulation pink. But some of the sadness is projected. I spent years at school, head down, trying to be invisible, when I instead could have been writing, drawing, learning; thinking about those years still makes me feel lonely and small. And yet, perhaps my experience is a gift: now I can help my daughter name and defuse the power of that critical voice; now I can choose a school for her which is a little more gentle, a little more encouraging of difference; now I can describe the joy of writing, drawing, making something beautiful.

And for all my worry, in one hushed evening, with a few suggestions, a few pointers, my daughter drew something delightful. She beams with satisfaction, and presents her drawing to Grandpa. We crowd around and admire her work. She grins, then wanders off to do something else. And my heart leaps as I realise that perhaps I need not be so anxious. She's not me, but another child, of a new generation; she's proud of her effort, but relaxed enough to leave it and go play when it's done. Her parents are different; her school is different; and with a good dose of luck, she'll explore whatever fascinates her without being governed by fear. Quick to learn, interested in the world; parents who give her reflective tools: perhaps, just perhaps, her guiding force might not be a crippling self consciousness, but instead an effervescent joy.

Even if not, even if, like me, she decides in the next year or two to bow down to fear and shrink back for a while, there is still hope. Because I have found, in growing up, that the fear means nothing; and the joy has been there all along. In time it will find the cracks in her defences, in time it will slowly seep in and fill her up, so that sooner or later she will be radiant again.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Racing cars and muddy puddles

Every week, I spend an hour or two at a local primary school listening to kids read.* All the kids are refugees, all from the Horn of Africa. All but one are Muslim. Elsewhere I have reflected that African and Muslim kids, in fact kids from anything other than white middle class backgrounds, are rarely represented in children's story books. Not only are most kids in stories white, but most families have mums AND dads, both parents are around whenever the story takes place, and everyone lives in a house. In contrast, of course, in the world of this school kids are black; families have one parent, two parents, several aunties, or an older sibling in charge; and everyone lives in a flat.

These kids don't look like the kids in storybooks. Not only that, but before I was given a copy of the class roll, I had never seen these kids' names in print. How will it affect these children, I wondered, to never see their own names in stories? Will the lack of familiar names or situations be a stumbling block to those who are struggling to read? Will they see stories as always being about 'other' children, white children with English names? Will it create in them a longing to assimilate, to make their names and their lives more English; or will it create a desire to hold back from the dominant culture?

With these questions and no answers in mind, I wrote a set of (really really bad) rhymes which incorporate the names of all the kids in the class. Two boys go for a ride in a racing car; four girls climb a tree; a group of boys slide and fall in a muddy puddle. I've tested the rhymes on my daughters, who asked me to read them over and again, so that counts as a pass in my book; I only hope they'll meet the classroom test, where the kids can't sit still and don't like to be impressed!

This class in particular is extremely high energy. I feel like I'm in a room with 19 rubber balls, all bouncing randomly. A few weeks ago they had an emergency teacher, and it was like watching a man carrying too many oranges. First one slipped, then the next, and before you knew it there were oranges rolling everywhere. It was total chaos; I found it hilarious. I'm riding the energy of these little kids, even as I set boundaries and demand certain behaviours. And I'm falling in love with the lot of them. One by one, these children have found the cracks in my heart and crept right in.

In this surprise development, this unlooked-for falling in love, I find myself tapping into a whole new source of energy. Bleary exhaustion is my usual state, what with three small children of my own who often ALL wake at night; and yet I have all sorts of small ideas for these kids, nudging my attention and demanding to be heard. Little things, anything, which may get one kid or another stuck into books.

A few weeks ago I took in a teddy dressed up as a character from a story they had read and re-told the story aloud. I fed them cake to congratulate them on their work so far and discovered they know how to be quiet if there's cake involved. One bright boy, slippery as an eel and as hard to draw close, refuses to get out his reader, so I make him read the first paragraph of whatever book is in my bag - Patrick O'Brian, William Gibson, whatever. Last week, to his disgust, he had to read the first paragraph of a book about marriage; this week I suspect he'll bring his own! I'm dreaming up short poems about giggling girls and boys peeking in cupboards; and I'm quietly, gratefully wondering what's next.

You see, the small act of reading with children has led to all sorts of playfulness, a minor blossoming. I get home each Friday and flop in a chair with a cup of tea. With any luck, my 1 and 3 year olds are both resting and I have twenty minutes to doze, and listen for the next prompt, the next nudge. After this story, this cake, these poems, what? I wait. Some new idea, some surprise is just around the corner; my job is simply to recognise it, accept it, however silly it seems, and put it into action.

*If you want to read about how I got myself into this, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My hard heart

A block down my street lives a woman I'll call Jenny. It's hard to tell her age, maybe 35, maybe 45. Her face is ravaged. She's a heavy smoker; she's had a stroke, and now she lives in supported accommodation. As far as I can tell, the stroke wiped out mood inhibitors, as well as some motor control. Jenny spends her days sloping along the streets, bent like a question mark, muttering. She repeats phrases obsessively, 'need money, need money, need money' for blocks on end. When she sees a passer-by, she stops in their path and, almost incoherently, demands change. She uses it to buy more cigarettes. On bad days, she shrieks and wails and moans as she walks. Some days, she sobs.

My children are terrified of her. For all my words about illness, and acting with sympathy and kindness, they tense up when they see her, hide behind my leg, and beg to cross the road. Jenny's clothes hang in loose folds around her warped and skinny little frame. When she sees the kids, she swoops towards them like a slow ungainly bat. She stands too close, way too close, and jabbers her almost unintelligible demands: 'money, money, money'. No wonder the kids are frightened; she scares the bejeezus out of me.

Sitting at home, I hear her go past shouting, shrieking, sobbing several times a day. This is a wreck of a woman, physically and mentally devastated, driven to pound our footpaths and scab cigarettes.

And do I have pity? No, I do not. Instead, I think, For goodness' sake shut up already!

My hard heart frightens me. Jenny frightens me. Every major faith tradition tells us to love our neighbour, and care for the outcast. I find this easy enough with the retired midwife across the road: she's playful, sensible, and she gives us lemons. But the neighbour who stands at our gate, wailing and moaning? Who veers her path to intersect ours and block our way? Who curses me when I say 'no' and refuse to open my wallet? Who makes my children cry?

What do I do with a neighbour like this? How do I love her? Give her money so she can smoke herself into oblivion? Invite her in for a cup of tea? Or, as a warm hearted woman at the tramstop once said, do I 'sedate her, and give her a great big cuddle'?

Instead, 'No, Jenny,' I say. 'No.' I don't want to give her change and thereby cigarettes; my kids are anxiously hanging off my legs; we have places to go. But I hope that one day, maybe when my children are older and I don't feel so protective, I can find a way to become less scared and more open, and turn that 'no' into a 'yes'. For now, however, the best my hard heart can manage is to look her in the eyes, say 'no', speak her name, and move on.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chocolate, anyone?

I love a square of chocolate. Last night I ate seven. So did my partner. My children ate one, one and a half, and two depending on their weight. Then we changed the sheets and towels, threw everyone's clothes in the wash, and put the kids to bed. As the strange metallic taste unfolded in our throats, we vacuumed and mopped the floors, scrubbed the toilet, and hung out the next load of washing.

Worm medication comes in chocolate squares, these days.

I discovered it tastes like ordinary chocolate. Not quite the fair trade organic dark chocolate that I usually enjoy, but the chocolate of cheap easter eggs. My kids thought it was good.

What else did I learn? Usually, I hurl bedding and dirty clothes across the room into the laundry basket. This time, I carried them at arms' length, walking sedately and placing them gently into the basket - because, according to the packet, worm eggs can be airborne. Shaking sheets or clothes can dislodge them and send them drifting through the house.

Everything is now suspect. I am sure that every long fingernail, every gap in the floorboards, every grain of sand in the sandpit is harboring parasites, just waiting for a new host.

Living with young children is a deeply bodily experience. Forget the birth, it's the next five years of minor illnesses, poo, and parasites that wear me down. Worms, headlice, vomiting, rivers of snot, slapped cheek, flu, conjunctivitis, croup... this is the year so far. Is our family particularly putrid, I wonder, or does no one else talk about this much?

And the small physical injuries: I'm forever being elbowed in the boobs by someone scrambling for another book. I've spent hours at the physio and the gym treating child-related damage: a wrist so strained from holding down powerfully writhing babies that I was going dizzy with pain; a nerve so pinched from carrying heavy children that I bent double, at times. The skin on my hands peels off in strips: despite slathering on the fancy moisturizer and swallowing countless capsules of fish oil and selenium, fatigue and handwashing triggered eczema and I'm stuck with it until my baby goes to kinder. That's what the specialist says.

The washing machine trills. The fourth load is ready to hang out, and the fifth, sixth and seventh await. It's no wonder that I eat a small square of chocolate in the mid-afternoon, a quiet reward for getting through the day so far, an encouragement to pack the pram and head off to school. But perhaps I'll have to find a new pick-me-up. Because for the next few weeks, a square of chocolate will remind me of an itchy bottom, a mountain of laundry, and a little box illustrated with cartoon worms.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...