Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The great unspoken

You know, I love my kids, but they drive me up the wall. I don't know that a day goes by without me feeling annoyed. I often shove down my temper, take a deep breath, relax my shoulders, tell myself to keep my big mouth shut – and still I end up shouting. I lack patience, always have.

My toddler opens cupboards. She's mastered the child locks which still foil my friends, and empties the contents onto the floor. Dozens of things, hundreds of things in a day. I pick up plastic lids, cake tins and duplo from wherever she's dumped them: in her bed, on the bathroom floor, under the couch cushions. I've been keeping the toilet door open so I can keep more of an eye on her, but yesterday she brought her stool into the loo, positioned it at my feet, and stood on it so she could stare into my eyes. When I asked her to go away, she turned around and tried to back onto my lap. I found myself laughing and shouting and crying in the space of ten seconds, able to see the funny side but so starved of privacy that I wept.

My four year old is terribly shrill; I hope it's a stage. She fights with her sister and shrieks and wails; they squabble and snap and drive me to distraction. Kicking, punching and slapping have become daily events in our household. I don't know why it has to be this way; I'm totally fed up. I try to talk them through it, but then they do it again and again. And at some point, I yell.

My six year old has moody days. She ignores simple reminders – brush your teeth; you need shoes; we're going to be late for school – and when I repeat myself, then raise my voice, she puts her hands over her ears and makes this harsh prehistoric shriek, the sort of noise I'd expect from a pterodactyl. It's like fingers on a blackboard, but it's scratching at my soul.

I'm bigger than this, I tell myself. I'm the adult around here – I should behave like one. My kids are little, testing the boundaries, expressing strong emotions that they can't navigate. My job is to help them.

On good days, I do. But so often, I snap.

Recently, we had our worst encounter ever. Over many hours, my six year old had said no so often and so forcefully, utterly refusing to do anything or listen to anyone and continually making that prehistoric shriek that drives into my skull and drowns out all softly spoken words of reason, that I literally saw red. The world went soft and hazy like it was backlit by fire, my ears started ringing and I started to scream. As she ran from me, the bitch mother from hell, I kicked her behind then grabbed her by the plait and yanked her back. I'm forever grateful that my husband was around, because I don't know would have happened next. But he took her away and I, completely appalled by my violence, took my horrible self to my room where I lay face down on the bed and sobbed.

I would hide this from you all – I should, if I want you to respect me – but I know I'm not alone. I know a woman who, regularly enraged by her children's fighting and the chaos while she's trying to cook, slams down her chopping knife and runs out the door. The alternative is unthinkable. One of my friends met some new neighbours recently. "Oh yes," they said, "we know your voice." They'd heard her screaming at her sons. Yet another exhausted friend was so vexed by her baby's crying in the depths of the night, she shook it. The baby, now 20, is fine, but it's a scary thing to have done. Myself, I once threw my child across a room and onto her bed, slammed the door and left home for a while.

It's possible that we are the worst women in the world. At times, it feels like it. But I suspect not. We're certainly no paragons, but I don't think we're alone.

The thing is, we're all human. We're all of us fragile and tired and pre-menstrual at times; we have all sorts of things going on. We fight with our partners and mothers and feel lonely and afraid and our kids shriek in our faces when we already feel like hell. No wonder we explode.

I sometimes think the miracle is that we erupt so rarely. Particularly in this world of small families, where a lone adult cares for children; where kids aren't allowed to roam the neighbourhood and are under parental supervision all the time; where they are often inside and underfoot instead of outside and out of earshot; where there is no grandparent or elderly aunt in the home who breaks up tension and provides a different focus; where the adult has no peer to talk with; where neighbours are strangers, transient, at work, invisible – it's no wonder we go berserk.

A friend grew up at a time and place when kids had much more freedom. He tells of riding within earshot of the family dinner bell. He'd roam his town, by himself or with friends, exploring, hanging out, away from the watchful eyes of parents. He was free after school until he heard the bell, when he'd jump on his bike and pelt home.

I hear that story and am filled with longing for a place and a time where kids go exploring while we cook in blissful peace; where our lives are not so entangled that we drive each other wild; where a community of adults takes responsibility for children, so they are safe as they wander; where adults don't hover and kids roam free.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Two pounds of potatoes

We've never been big potato eaters; we eat rice and pasta instead. But over the last few years we've been trying to eat more locally – and we live in potato country. More recently I've been feeling so disconnected from my home that it was time for some positive action. So I signed up for a veggie box scheme. Each Saturday, boxes are delivered from a local organic farm to a house nearby; and each Saturday, we go pick up our box, have a chat, and heft our box home.

My hope was that the veggie box will make me feel more in touch with the land and the seasons – and it will compel us to eat local food. But I realised at our first pick up that it's better than that: just by dropping in once a week to pick up my box, I will feel more connected to my suburb. The scheme is run by two lovely people, and other participants come and go. Soon there will be a dozen more people whose faces I might recognise as I walk along the streets.

And as for the box: wow! Our first box was incredible. On top lay cobs of corn. We demolished them for lunch. They were so sweet they needed neither salt nor butter; they exploded with juice. We ate them with a beet and mint salad, and raw summer squash sliced paper thin, drizzled with olive oil and lemon. I exclaimed and sighed and licked my fingers and reached for more. Saturday lunch became a feast.

What else was in the box? So many veggies: turnip and tomatoes, beets and broccoli, snow peas and summer squash, cucumbers and capsicum and cabbage, celery, lettuces and a solitary onion, and two pounds of potatoes. Various apples, sweet and crisp and enough to make sauce, and nashis sized small for a lunchbox. A centipede, a slater and a dun coloured beetle, which I tossed into the garden. I washed the veggies and loaded the fridge. Combined with the fruit, herbs and veggies in our own garden, we won't need to buy any more produce.

I'm feeling inspired, but it requires a different approach. Instead of shopping for ingredients, I'm reading for recipes. I made a simple beetroot soup which will brighten my lunch – but potatoes? My kids have never loved them, 'not even mash'*, but I guess it's time to learn. And this is where it gets difficult. We live in a culture where we can have what we want whenever we want it; everything is always available. So this choice to limit our options to what's in the box feels challenging. After all, my family prefers rice to potatoes, even if rice cannot be grown here. It's hard to relegate it to a treat.

And I think of my friends who race from work to aftercare to home and throw dinner together – this is where local organic eating so often falls flat. The veggies in the box were wonderful, the genuine article: muddy, unprocessed, with the occasional peck. But my friends don't have time to tease mud out of lettuce leaves or find recipes to use up a box. They buy clean potatoes, washed leaves and frozen peas; they cook in twenty minutes. Until fresh local produce means scrubbed veggies and choice – or people are willing to trade shopping for cooking and that probably means cooking ahead – it's not going to take deep hold.

For myself, I figure we'll do what we can. Perhaps in this challenge, I'll find a new sort of freedom. I may be hemmed in by what's in the box, but I'll be free from concerns of distance or land care. Anyway, I have to admit I like a puzzle – even if it means cooking potatoes.

*Lola: "And I don't like potatoes, not even mash, so don't even try." (Lauren Child, I will not ever never eat a tomato, a most excellent book for a fussy eater.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The line beckons

How is it that my kitchen bench is the regulation height, so I can comfortably peel carrots and wash dishes for hours; but when I write my back aches? I write on a laptop on a card table tucked into a corner upstairs; I sit on an old wooden chair. Downstairs is the family computer, with an adjustable chair and a proper desk. But after years of enduring, I've admitted I can't write there. My children run up and down the corridor and shriek just outside the door and burst into the room halfway through a tricky paragraph; and I have to share the computer. I've finally given up and retreated heavenwards, twenty steps, a child safety gate, and two solid doors between us.

I can't blame anyone but myself for the furniture. Several times, my husband has suggested we go shopping for a good desk, a better chair, a rug to brighten the room. I refuse. I say that the time we spend shopping is time I could be writing, and I guard that time jealously. Also, I am weighed down by the acquisition of stuff. I don't know where to buy a rug that is fair trade but beautiful; and how can I have something on my floor that was made by debt slaves in Pakistan? So I make my excuses and sit at a card table, while my lower back aches in protest.

I skirt around the other issue: that I'm writing at all. If I buy a desk and a chair, then I'm committing to the endeavour, and that's frightening. Because if I'm writing, then what of it? What if I'm never able to find the time and space to write something really good? Will I ever do more than notes on a webpage? And what will be the effect on my kids?

When I write too long I am stroppy with my children; I resent them and the demands they make on me. I don't want to cook or clean or have anything else to do with the household. Yet there is a paradox. It wasn't until I had children that I began to write. In having them I came to know myself enough, grew enough courage, to begin. They are both impetus and impediment. I don't want to disappear into the world of words, failing as a mother as I dream always of the next image, the next sentence, when I am with them; but I can't stop telling our stories.

And at some stage my aching back will force me to go shopping, and admit that this tapping away, these words on the page, are as necessary as breathing, as vital as eating, as important as washing the dishes.

And maybe there's a clue. Not all of us were born to write great works of literature. Maybe some of us, one of us, was born to wash dishes, to watch and observe the daily and to write about it, to remind her and you of what it's all about. I think of myself as telling you stories, stories of me which are stories of you, about who we are and who we were and who we will become. Stories that remind us how abundant life is, how the mundane can crackle and bounce if we only make the effort to notice.

As I type, the washing machine trills. In a moment, I will stand and stretch my aching back. I will go downstairs and fill my mother's ancient basket with cool clean clothes and carry it outside. The morning sun is just clearing the fence. As I lift up the washing and peg, it will shine into my eyes. I will bend to the basket and stand again, bend and stand, the back of my neck cooled then warmed as I duck in and out of the shadows. There is beauty here, a small sacred dance offered by countless women to the light, to the dark, to their household, to the god of the daily. I will dance, and I will notice, and I will tell you, because it is my story and your story and the story of generations stretching back beyond memory and surging forward past imagining, the story of all of us who wash and cook and work and clean in the cool quiet stillness of home.

I will wash and I will write. The line beckons.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Darkness. I wake with a jolt, completely disoriented. In front of me, a looming shadow. I have no idea where I am. Heart pounding, I concentrate, try to remember through the jetlag.

Slowly, it comes to me.

I'm home.

I've been away for nine weeks. We've stayed in ten locations, ten different hotels or bedrooms or basement floors, and I have not woken once without knowing exactly where I am. Now, only now, am I completely disoriented.

When we arrived, I headed straight for the kitchen. And was staggered by the floor. "Is this our floor?" I asked. "Is this really it?" I didn't recognise it, couldn't reconcile it with my memory of the place. Later, preparing food, I found myself staring at the bench top. "Has it always been this colour?" I wondered. Everything, but everything, feels unfamiliar. I have to stop and think; I can't remember where I keep the tea towels, and I'm wandering around the kitchen with my hands dripping wet, searching like a stranger.

I'm shocked by the decor. As my girls shriek in play, the sound drills into my skull. The floors are bare, the walls empty, the windows in the public rooms naked. Noise bounces around. Our house is cool, spare to the point of being dismal. "Am I just camping here?" I think. "Where are the rugs?"

They say home is where the heart is. I thought that meant we longed for our houses, but as I walk around my own house, a house that my friends love, a house that I've written about, I wonder what I'm doing here – and I realise I had it all back-to-front. It's not that our hearts are linked to our houses; it's that our home is where our hearts yearn to be. And this is what made our trip so wonderful: my heart delighted in every rural location, every little town, every river bank, every muddy puddle and glistening stone and gnarled oak tree . After a lifetime of living in big cities, negotiating traffic and broken glass, ambition and consumption, appointments to see friends and rush hurry bustle, my whole self was exhausted. Away, my heart expanded. I felt at home almost every place we went.

So now where is my heart? Is it with me in Melbourne? Perhaps, given time, it will come back to me here as we devour ripe figs and eat sweet grapes from the vine. The pears are ready to be picked; the almonds are dropping from the tree. Eating food from the garden always helps me feel grounded. Perhaps, too, as we share wine and stories with people we love, I will remember who I am and with whom I belong.

But at times I think I left it in Cornwall. A month ago, I sat in Glasgow Cathedral and prayed for home. Thinking of my own city, I was instead flooded with yearning for a grey town of stone and water, threaded through with lanes like crooked fingers. In the hazy light of the cathedral, blurred further by my unexpected tears, I saw before me sea and sky merged into one. Above me, I heard gulls.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A shell, a cup, a shoe

My youngest daughter is 18 months old. She walks around the house tapping on a coaster, pretending it's an iPhone. She holds a shell, a cup, a shoe to her ear. 'Hi!' she says, 'yes, yes, yes, bye!'. My not-quite-four year old places a book face down on the table. 'This is my laptop,' she says, and taps away on the cover. She draws little circles on sheets of paper, and types on those too.

My six year old watched my husband closely, figured out his passwords, and now uses the iPhone whenever she can find it. She has, on occasion, quietly shut the study door, booted the computer and found her favourite website, hoping I won't notice her absence for a little while.

I worry about my children growing up in a world of bells and whistles and zippy little gadgets. I worry that they won't play and instead will rely on electronic toys for entertainment. I worry that they will forget how to be quiet, and how to drop into that perfect space where they are unaware of anything in the world except the story they are telling themselves as they move small twigs around. I worry that they will be infected by acquisitiveness, always wanting the latest this or that, always wanting more. We're already fielding requests for video games and Wii and all the other things owned by kids at school.

Perhaps one of the attractions of travelling is that it gets us out of the house, out of the city, and well away from most gadgets. Last week, we were visiting friends in rural Maine. Our house overlooked the vast Passagassawakeag River; the yard sloped down to the river bank. On a typical morning, we'd watch the tide ebb. As the shore became exposed, the gulls drifted in. They floated down, carried mussels up into the sky, dropped them onto the rocks, then swooped back to pick out the flesh. As more land appeared, my girls climbed down the wooden steps at the end of the garden and collected pretty stones and shells. They arranged them in patterns on the damp driftwood for us to admire; choice specimens were brought inside.

Around the river bend we found a lobster pot, washed up in a tangle of ropes and netting; we found a faded oar. We clambered on rocks, and in an act of glorious giggling destruction, smashed up slabs of ice the size of coffee tables beached by the receding tide. My girls sucked on the shards. The shore was covered with loose shale, and the flakes of stone were perfect for skipping across the water – and the more rounded rocks made a satisfying splash.

All very simple, all utterly glorious. There's something about wind and water and rocks and seaweed and the infinitely changing landscape that keeps us endlessly entertained. Life feels so simple when travelling. We have five people and three bags, and want for nothing. Our entertainment is the world outside; or, when it's wet, a few pens, a bit of paper, a book. But next week we go home, back to the phone and the telly and the desktop, back to work, school, kinder, volunteer jobs, back to crazy traffic and crowded lives. I feel exhausted just thinking about it.

But last week, I saw a loon glide past, surprisingly low in the water. A seagull bathed, arching as it splashed. As I watched, I congratulated myself that my kids are still absorbed by the simple things: rivers and rocks, waves, seaweed and gulls. Snow to throw, ice to slide on, puddles to jump, rocks to climb – such joy! Here, I think, we don't need the iPod, the laptop, the telly, the DVD player. Here, the world is enough.

Smugly satisfied, I wandered inside. Framed by the picture windows, the mighty river flowed, the snow lay in drifts in the yard, the shore beckoned. I found my not-quite-four year old curled into a corner of the couch. She started, looking guilty. 'I have a screen,' she said with a big embarrassed smile, 'I stole it from dad when he wasn't looking.' I glanced down. She was playing on the iPhone.

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