Sunday, November 22, 2009

Let's pretend this is a craft blog

It was so hot last week that I gave up writing and thinking, and did cutting and pasting instead. Nothing like an effortless and totally absorbing activity on a hot day. Gotta love it. So let's pretend this is a craft blog for a change.

Because here comes Christmas. I hate Christmas. I hate the shrieking signs in the shop windows and the fake snow spray paint when it's 35C. I hate the tinny Christmas carols that begin in October, and the urge to buy buy buy. I hate the plastic toys and the wrapping that bowls down the street when the northerly blows. I hate not having a big extended family or cousins with children and thereby an automatic Christmas crowd. I hate not knowing quite what we'll do on Christmas Day, or who we will spend it with. I hate Christmas trees in a hot climate, and roast meats in summer, and the obligatory Christmas pudding. And, probably, I hate that I had a minister for a parent. Christmas Day was always a work day, and the weeks leading up to it were unbelievably busy and stressful. Thinking about those days can make me still feel a little sick.

For the last few years, we've done everything we can to ignore it. We go to church on Christmas Eve (and I do like that); have lunch with family and friends (organised last minute so I don't stress too much about it); and give each child a book, another gift and a few hair ties and chocolates. That's about it.

But the holiday season still looms. And, really, it's not Christmas that I hate but all the gross consumerism around it. It's loud, powerful, insistent. And I'm beginning to realise that ignoring it isn't working; it just makes me depressed. Instead, my family needs some rituals which will help us challenge the dominant ethos.

Going to church is one ritual. Our church is thoughtful about how it approaches Christmas or, indeed, any church season, and has given us the language and opportunity to think and talk about Christmas in ways that aren't absolutely mindless fake joy.

But since we are pretending momentarily that this is a craft blog, I want to tell you about another ritual. I was thinking about Advent calendars, and how I loathe them too - at least, the ones with gifts or chocolate in every pocket. How much junk do my kids need?, I wonder.

But it occurred to me that we could have a different type of Advent calendar. We could make our own and, in each pocket, slip a suggestion for an activity which will help us anticipate Christmas. Some ideas I have are: read a story; write a letter together; choose a gift from the TEAR gift catalogue; set up a Christmas tableau; make cookies (because hey! we have kids and we can't be too earnest); shop for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre; and so on and so forth.

I had a look online and found a suggestion for a gorgeous Advent calendar here. It's right up my alley: easy peasy, and 100% recycled. The backing is a paper grocery bag, and the pockets (with gussets!) are decorated from our scrap paper tub. I will write the activities on little luggage style tags and slip them in the pockets; and my kids can take one out each day and act on it.

Heading up this post is a photo of my very own creation. I feel like a little kid with a painting on the fridge: inordinately proud, tugging at the adults' legs to come take a look. I particularly like pocket 21, decorated with a square from a road map which includes our street, my sister's street, and our favourite park. And my kids love the idea. They recognise the provenance of most of the pictures: paper which enclosed a gift from a friend; the tag from our favourite muslin baby wrap; a special card; strips from a torn paper lantern. They gently touch the calendar, and beg me to fill the pockets with activities right now. My children are joyfully anticipating Advent, and so, for once, am I. And for that, I am grateful.

PS Click here for some creative ways to consume less at Christmas.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Growing up, moving out

My daughter just turned six. When she's good, she's very very good. And when she's bad, well... But yesterday, as we were ambling home from school, she was good. More than good; she was farsighted, thoughtful, generous, compassionate.

We were walking and talking, when she suddenly leaned into me. 'I love you, Mama,' she said. She went on to say that when she gets older, she might go and live near the beach for a while, or perhaps go away and 'have some adventures'. But, she warned, even after she left she still wanted her father and me to stay in our house 'because we're doing such good things with the garden' - and because after her adventures she'd like to come home and live with us again and look after us in our old age.

Only a month ago we visited my grandparents. They live in another city, so we rarely see them. My grandfather is very frail; my grandmother has advanced Alzheimers, and scarcely moves, let alone speaks. She sits in a dream, flashing out a random smile now and then on a good day, but otherwise completely passive. My daughters watched me feed her with a spoon, and wipe her nose, and clean up her dribble. And my six year old notices and remembers everything.

I found myself wondering, does she mean this? even this? would she really want to feed me and wipe at my snot and dab at my dribble? Even if she imagines a more benign aging process, will she really cook for me one day?

And it raised other memories, painful memories. My mother had a very aggressive form of multiple sclerosis and was quadriplegic for a couple of years before she died. She needed people to brush her hair and clean her teeth, wipe her nose, wash her, dress her, and do everything else. My father and a carer did most of the work, all praise to them.

My mother and I had a fraught relationship; always at war, I had moved out. Even then, we struggled to negotiate the most basic aspects of care. If I came over and brushed her hair, I'd do it too soft or too hard or in some way other wrong. I couldn't even wipe her nose right. I fled to the kitchen and cooked, instead.

When the disease became acute, I suggested that I move home to help out in a bigger way. It seemed the only thing to do. But she, very rightly, refused. We had never got along when she was well; the chances of us negotiating her dependency were close to zilch. More importantly, for her, she believed I had to become fully adult and would be warped by returning home. It was crucial to her that I had space to expand and grow, and she couldn't see that happening under her roof.

My daughter's comment yesterday recalled all this. And it made me wonder, will she and I end up in a fraught relationship, too? She is brittle and fragile, like me, and could easily freeze over for a decade, like me. I already see the shoals ahead. Then again, I have learned some things my mother never knew: that when my daughter's aggressive and rude, pushing me away, the best thing I can do is give her a hug. She thaws every time. Maybe, just maybe we can negotiate a softer, more generous relationship. Maybe she could brush my hair, and I could enjoy it.

We've often made jokes that when she grows up, she and her family can live downstairs and cook for me, and I'll live upstairs and play with all the babies - she says she wants five. And I'm touched by her suggestion, and thrilled that she thinks of me as a person who ages and changes and will one day need care. It means that I'm not just mum to her.

Given all this, if we can find a gentle way to be together, would I want her to look after me? Would I really want my daughter to move back home to cook, clean and attend to my personal needs? And I realise that, at this stage, I wouldn't. No matter how bad things get, and I've sat with my mother through years of pain and suffering so I've a fair idea, I can't imagine I would want my daughter to shrink her life back down to me.

Like my mother, I want my daughter to grow up and out. I want her to explore the world, ever expanding her circles of experience. I want her to go live by her beach, or travel and 'have some adventures'; I want her to form independent relationships and build her own tribe; I want her to move out from under my shadow and grow tall and true. When I enter my doddery old age, I don't want my daughter to be warped, submissive or thwarted by me. I prefer to think of her picking grapes on an Italian hillside, or hiking through the jungle, or sitting on a mountain top, reflecting. And as I sit in my quiet room, I will flick through her postcards and smile.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Body thoughts

I am churned up by competing thoughts. Well, not thoughts really, more those amorphous senses or emotions that are thrown up by my heart and my guts. They are body thoughts, ideas and words floating around somewhere below my neck. They're not head thoughts. Writing about them is difficult, because writing begins in my head and only sometimes manages to send its roots down and draw from the rest of my body.

And these body thoughts are at war. On the one hand, I am tired of being thoughtful, responsible, hard working, a good girl. I'm tired of being the adult around here. I'm tired of cleaning up the mess, and reading the labels in the supermarket, and sitting on my temper. I'm tired of looking after everyone, and cooking for everyone, and doing the dishes afterwards. I'm sick of analysing, weighing things up, trying to make every choice a good choice. I'm fed up with the critical Protestant in me, whose black clothes are tightly buttoned up to her chin, and whose black umbrella jabs me in the guts in constant reproach. I'm sick of being modest, and self conscious, and nice. I don't know what I want; maybe it's just a week to myself; maybe it's something else. Something larger, something more like generosity to myself. Which, to a good Protestant girl, feels a lot like selfishness.

After feeling like this for months, I broke out and bought an obscenely extravagant pair of red high heels. I think it was a good decision; I couldn't bear to wear any of my sensible shoes to the wedding of friends, and celebrating marriage is a wonderful thing. Finding a safe outlet to feel outrageously selfish is another. Now I sleep with the shoes in a box on my bedside table. I love them madly; they've invaded my dreams, and I'm wondering if I've entered the fairytale where the red shoes will dance me to my destruction.

So there's that.

On the other hand, the question Why not? swirls around too. This question, this invitation, rises up and asks me: Why not become the person you want to be? And that person is a woman in her forties who knows herself, who is calm and faithful and powerful. I want to grow into one of those radiant people, whose faces shine out with love and hope and generosity. I want the self-assurance to be assertive and gentle - the assurance that doesn't need to prove itself, but which comes with self-knowledge. I think of Kathleen Norris's comparison of the committed life - monasticism or marriage or, I would add, parenting - to a rock tumbler. It may hurt like hell, but you come out beautifully polished. And that is what I want to be - beautifully polished at the end of this life.

Somehow, the two gut senses feel at war. One part of me wants to run away, to stop being so responsible, to get selfish for a while. Another part of me wants to become the sort of person who is graceful, generous, loving. And I feel like doing both is impossible.

But lately it occurs to me that perhaps they are not exclusive. Perhaps, just perhaps, I wonder, could they be different faces of the same coin? Because if I lose myself too completely in the mundanity of jobs and responsibility and parenting, I forget how to play. I become puffed up, thinking the tasks at hand are more important than they really are. I become boring. I forget how to laugh, how to analyse, how to criticise myself - and worse, I begin to judge others. Soon I resemble that pointy-faced Protestant with a sharp umbrella.

But if I get selfish, in a good way - take the time for myself to listen, reflect and pray; shut the study door and write, ignoring the cries of children who are being looked after most capably by their daddy; do what I can to live well and accept it as enough, for now; even buy those outrageous shoes to celebrate a friend's wedding - then I come to know myself better. And I have no doubt that a growing self-knowledge has already enabled me to become a better parent, wife and friend.

So perhaps the body thoughts aren't at war; perhaps they're inviting me to take what I need to look after myself and not just everyone else. Perhaps they're suggesting that I can be generous to myself, and that might lead to a new generosity towards others. If I listen to these gut feelings, and, consistent with my commitments, trust in them, then is it possible that maybe, just maybe, I might one day become that polished person I so long to be?

Monday, November 9, 2009

We're off!

We're trialling a Christiania delivery bike this week, thanks to the lovely Peter at psbikes. Yesterday, day 1, we toddled around the back streets getting used to the feel of it. We dropped in on my sister and shocked her neighbours by riding circles around her street - one neighbour stared at the bike with his mouth hanging open. Then we went to the supermarket, dumped a big bag of groceries on the floor of the delivery cart, and cruised home.

Today was day 2, our first morning school run. My kids usually need me to hassle them to get ready in the morning. Our routine is as follows: I ask and then ask more firmly and then really ask very firmly indeed and then shout and then on bad days screech and yell to get them to dress, brush their teeth, do their hair, apply sunscreen, get their hats, put on shoes and go out the door. After this ordeal, we burst out the door at 8.25am, and hustle and bustle down the busy road to get to school on time - only on a good day do we get out early and go the longer, quieter back way.

This morning, my big girls, aged 3 and 5, were standing at the front door, dressed, shod, teeth brushed, hair in ponytails, begging to leave at 7.14am. That's one hour and 19 minutes earlier than usual. The three year old cried when I said it would be more than an hour before we could go in the bicycle.

At 8.10, I took pity on my forlorn daughters again hovering near the front door. So we left to have a play at a local park on the way to school. When we got to the park, they ran around for two minutes then asked to go back in the bike. So off we went to school, nice and early.

It was hot, over 30 by the time we left the house, so I had the bike's sunshade set up. It looked like something out of the British Raj; the sunshade reminded me of a howdah. I said something to that effect out loud, and then had to explain the culture of the British Raj - nothing about oppression or exploitation, I'm afraid - to my five year old. A bit intense for 8.30am.

I was concerned that we'd have less opportunity to chat with each other or exchange greetings with other pedestrians because we were on a bike and not on foot. But because we rode the quiet way, we chatted all the way to school - we could hear each other perfectly well. And on this, our very first school ride, two cyclists - strangers - slowed and rode along with us, at different times, to ask about the bike. Both were very excited to see it - one of them had even been to Christiania, the town where the bike was made. When we arrived at school, a bunch of kids came over to check it out. And when I went to leave again, a group of parents wanted to ask about the seatbelts and the pivot system - the cart bit pivots, which makes cornering a breeze. So we had more conversation than ever.

We have two more days to trial it. But I'm sold already. It's cruisy, it's shady, it fits three kids and groceries, and we look cheerfully eccentric. What else could we want from a mode of transport?!

PS - Thanks for your comments. Brenda: Living locally sure costs more in the short term - like trying to buy local, or even Victorian, produce. It kills me that Victorian olive oil costs more than stuff from Italy! Mandy: I saw a photo of a family from Georgia with a Christiania bike, but I don't know where they got it. Here's a link to a conversation about the availability of cargo bikes in the US. Heather: Thanks for the Yuba tip - but I'm in love with this bike and will definitely go with it! And I loved the photo of your custom wheelchair bike. I saw too that Christiania also do a wheelchair bike; the floor of the cart inclines, you roll on, and as you roll the weight of the chair pushes the floor back up flat again!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Give us a wave!

Because I am committed to simple living - that is, I attempt to be committed - I am looking at a four thousand dollar bike.

It's true.

Walking to school takes hours every day. It has its merits, many merits, that I don't deny. We go different ways, and stop off in playgrounds, and observe all the gardens, and make new friends. But my double pram is only so big. My kids keep getting heavier. And we have a double decker style pram, so the baby sits staring at the back of the top seat. (A side-by-side pram would never fit in my suburb.) My baby, who is suddenly not a baby but an inquisitive child of fifteen months, is fed up with the view. She shrieks when I put her in, then twists her body and shoves her head out at all angles to get a better look at things. One of these days, I'm going to knock her block off with a rubbish bin or fire hydrant. I could put her in the top part of the pram, but then my three year old would have to walk - and it's just too far for a three year old. She even struggles on a scooter.

The tram costs five dollars just to get there and back; that's ten dollars a day, drop off and pick up, and at this time of year I'd prefer to spend that sort of money on blueberries. Not to mention that it's impossible to fit on a tram at peak hour, my kids fall over when it accelerates and brakes, and the motion makes my baby throw up.

Driving to school is a nightmare. We live in a crowded area with narrow streets and kamikaze drivers; it's what some friends refer to as the Beirut end of the city. And our car is a big, smelly, petrol guzzling behemoth. We bought it to drive up the creekbed into a friend's country block, but to transport a small child to school - well, using the car feels grossly excessive. I do, of course, when everyone's ratty and tired, or it's stinking hot or raining torrentially. But it's not my favourite option. I read of the abominable goings on of Trafigura and other petroleum companies; and little things like oil wars, global warming and my city's filthy air bother me, too. I try to avoid driving as much as possible.

So, what's my brainwave? A new bike! A four thousand dollar bike, in fact. We're looking at a Christiania cycle. It's a Danish delivery bike, and fits up to four children - with seatbelts - in the delivery cart. It has a sunshade and a rain cover, which will make it look like a covered wagon. We can still go through the parks and stop off at the playgrounds, and travel slowly enough to notice the trees in bud. We can chat all the way to school, but without the tears too much walking entails. And when my five year old becomes more confident, she can ride alongside.

It's taken me a long time to recognise that 'green' living might mean spending a bit of money. It doesn't all have to be so terribly difficult - I can go to school petrol free without making it a forced march for tired hot and hungry kids. And, as expensive as the bike is, most families spend much more than that on a second car. So I'm arranging a test ride, and then we'll organise our finances, and then... if you see a woman with three gorgeous girls cycling a delivery bike through Brunswick, give us a wave!
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