Friday, October 22, 2010

A fistful of poo

Yesterday morning began when a toddler came crying into my room, holding a moist and squishy turd in her hand. 'My done a poo!' she was sobbing, aghast as it oozed between her fingers. She's been experimenting with nappy off time lately, and this is the first time it's coincided with a bowel movement. 'Well, that's one way to learn,' I thought, as I somewhat gingerly knelt to cuddle her, then called for the other girls to bring me some wipes immediately.

'We can't find them,' they called in singsong unison. I told them exactly where they were, but again they sang, 'We can't find them. They're not here.'

So I left my two year old with instructions to Stand Still Don't Move!, and fetched them myself from exactly where I said they were, where they have indeed been for six years and eleven months now; and cleaning up the mess I fumed at four and six year olds and their selective blindness.

Twenty minutes later my four year old traipsed chicken poo through the back room.

And that's when I began to shout. I shouted and shouted as I dug out the paper towels and picked up stinky chicken droppings from the mat and the rug, and collected a great green-tinged ball from under the kitchen table.

And then I had to say, 'I'm sorry.'

I've been exhausted lately, tired and flat and sick of the kids and life at home. I feel like I had one child too many. I'm more than ready for them all to be out of the house six hours a day while I do other things. I'm tired of watching 'ballet concerts' and puppet shows and tired of picking up the mess or corralling them into doing it. I'm fed up with their squabbling, and the two year old's tantrums, and hearing her shout 'no' every minute of the day. I'm tired of being the adult, understanding and mature; and I'm tired of failing to be the adult, of losing my temper or just shutting the kids out. I'm sick of being patient, of tricking a two year old into keeping her shoes on or sitting in a car seat. I just want to slap her.

My two and four year olds squabble over who gets to sit in my lap; who gets to listen to a story. 'Go away!' screams the two year old at her sister, 'Don't listen!'. I talk about sharing until I'm blue in the face; I talk about the expansiveness of love. And then one of them hits the other. I'm so sick of them fighting over the pecking order, I could scream.

And I'm totally fed up with faeces, human or otherwise.

I've felt this way for months, on and off. Yet I do have a two year old. I can't park her in day care five days a week just because I'm fed up; yet I wonder how I got to the point that I even daydream such a thing.

I can't really believe I made the wrong decision to have a third child.

I had been certain we should have only two kids and yet was devastated by the thought. In private I cried time and again; and late one night, after I picked up a friend from the airport and we talked the way you do when it's dark outside and you're driving fast, I started sobbing, blinded by tears as I roared on at 110. I wiped my streaming eyes and nose with my sleeve, and glanced at her. She was looking at me oddly; then she said kindly, quietly, 'You can have three, you know.' It was a thunderbolt, a revelation, a gift; and I snuffled and wept in pathetic gratitude as I turned onto Bell Street and steered the way home.

And I had such clear visions, such beautiful images when I sat with the idea. I saw a group of children running up the stairs into the sky, colourful skirts swirling and voices laughing; I saw loving arms extended towards me, and a baby lying between us, and knew that to enter into the presence of love was to pick the baby up.

How did I get from that to this? Is my two year old really so hard, so devastating, that I don't want to be home with my children anymore? Well, no. She may be flexing her independence, but even in my jaded state I can see she's an absolute delight. Maybe it's just that, after almost seven years at home, I've had enough. And yet I have no choice; I must find ways to cherish it or I'll go mad.

After school today I put on a video, too flat to encourage another option – my kids don't fight when they're hypnotized by tv. But instead of using it as a babysitter while I rushed around and did things, for once I sat in the lounge room and watched with them. My four year old came and curled up in my lap; my two year old snuggled into my side. After the movie, my six year old wandered over for a hug and a kiss.

And maybe, just maybe, there's a clue. Maybe it was okay for the floor to stay crunchy; the second load of washing can wait. Maybe the garden can stay weedy; the papers can stay in a heap on the bench; my inbox can load up unread emails while I watch Mary Poppins. Maybe if I could sit with my kids more often, rather than forever Organising and Doing, things might feel a little easier.

How to manage it, I don't quite know. The washing can't wait forever; kids still have to get to kinder and school; the floor really is disgusting most nights. But a latte and a babycino in a coffee shop; a long play in a shady park; a lazy morning with books or friends; a slow visit to the library; a shared cooking activity: perhaps these ways of taking time, of drifting at a childlike pace – exactly the activities that are so easily axed when it all feels too grindingly tedious and the drive to be busy dominates – perhaps, just perhaps, they are as necessary to our family's health as the prompt cleaning up of the poo.

Notes from the periphery

Yet again I am flicking through the real estate guide, looking for something. I watch myself searching, and I wonder at the persistence of illusion. Why, oh why, do I still seek something that I know isn't there?

I often feel like I am not quite living my life, but instead observing it. I watch myself do things, foolish and wise; I stand on the edge of a ring of mums, listening to them talk in the playground; I eavesdrop on conversations in shops and on the tram; I forever watch my friends, my family, even my kids. With all this observing going on, it's hard to get out of my head, to feel unselfconsciously at home.

Instead, I always feel on the edge of things, always outside looking in. And I feel this about where I live. If only our house was closer to the city, or closer to school; or perhaps in a bigger city where more things happened; or perhaps in a smaller town where I could really sink my teeth into things, well, then I might not feel on the periphery. I might feel in the centre instead.

But I've lived in big important cities. I lived in Washington, where I met the Clintons and lunched at the Cosmos Club from time to time. I knew people who worked at the White House and NASA and even the CIA – and I still felt my nose pressed against the glass as those interesting important people swam around the fishbowl that is DC. I realised then that it wouldn't matter where I lived or what I did; if I didn't feel at the centre of things there, I never will.

As for the other end of the scale, I grew up in churches and imagine small towns might be similar. There is no centre in a church, just people who care and people who don't. And those who care, the ones who look like the centre don't feel like the centre; they usually just feel exasperated, and tired.

If I take a moment to think about how people might perceive me – hosting drinks on a summer evening; braying a cheerful if somewhat flat alto in the choir; telling stories in the schoolyard; listening to kids as they share their news; making suggestions and watching in surprise as a church takes them seriously; connecting A, B and C and having them all for dinner; writing pieces which are beginning to appear in this publication and that: I'm not sure many people would think of me as lurking around the periphery.

This feeling of being outside is not about who my friends are, or where I live. It's certainly not worth changing city, suburb or house for; I know by now it won't go away. Instead, the feeling is about me.

We are all alone; and at times when I watch myself on the outside looking in, this self-awareness, this knowledge of our fundamental loneliness, suffocates me.

When it weighs too heavily I get restless, and flip through the real estate guide in an attempt to avoid it; I talk too loudly and drink too much as I try to fill the space; I panic about all the things I have not done; my demons assail me.

But if I accept its weight, let it settle onto me, and sit with it a while, if I let myself fall into the darkness, I find something else: grace, perhaps, in the recognition that this loneliness is a gift.

The observer's stance, the self-awareness that makes it so hard to settle is what enables me to notice and appreciate what is before me. It motivates me to send love letters into the world; it is the distance I need to write.

And for this gift, so elusive and yet so fundamental; this thing for which I live and breathe: for this, I am overwhelmed by gratitude.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

House Hunting

From time to time, quite often actually, I think about moving house. I flick through the real estate ads and try to find a house closer to school, with fewer roads to cross and bounded by quiet streets. Or I dream about living on a hillside somewhere damp and fertile, somewhere with a view. I check out houses in country towns or on their outskirts; and occasionally I even go to inspections, and imagine living here, or here, or here.

Earlier this year, my partner and I so thoroughly investigated one country town that we even checked out the primary school, the yoga studio, and the train times to the city; and dragged our kids and a friend to inspect a romantic-looking cottage. Perhaps fortunately, the house backed into a mine; it was dark and poky and stank of cigarette smoke; the bathtub was not plumbed; the lounge was lit only by a candle chandelier; and the 'orchard' was a single tired quince tree standing in a field.

It wasn't quite what I wanted – but what, really, was I looking for? The thing is, there's nothing wrong with where we live, and so much that is right. Sure, the traffic's heavy, but other than that, it's perfect. My husband can cycle to work downtown in twenty minutes. We are serviced by ample public transport. We have a supermarket at each end of our street, and an organic market a mile down the road. We can buy anything we need, from almost any country on earth; we can buy many things made locally. We can walk or ride to the library, the pool, the kinder, the school, the gym and most of our friend's houses. We have a hundred restaurants or coffee shops nearby; half a dozen bookshops; a dozen op shops; and several ethical clothing studios where garments are made on site.

Our neighbourhood is dotted with guerrilla street art: brightly coloured pole warmers; a life-size stencil of Red Riding Hood feeding the wolf; snatches of poetry scribbled onto walls; trompe l'oeil gardens painted onto brick; and up a nearby laneway, a large blue dinosaur.

Our across-the-road neighbours give me lemons and the kids cuddles; the guys at our veggie shop laugh at my jokes. Our Lebanese pastry shop is decorated by pictures drawn by my daughters and the guys there wave as we walk by every day. My four-year-old buys pita bread by herself while I stand around outside; she chats with the owners who have watched her grow up. The men at the hardware store give free advice and carry stuff to the car when I cannot wrangle it into the pram; the ladies at the Italian wholesalers admire my toddler's cheeks and offer bread and olives for her to snack on. The waiters at our favourite coffee shop kneel to chat with my children before taking our order. This is our neighbourhood; in a quiet way we are recognised, and we belong.

And our house is wonderful. We chose it for the block – small for our city, but large for our suburb – and have been working on the garden ever since. Now our study is shaded by a ten foot high tamarillo tree, its leaves like elephant ears cooling the room. We have a dozen fruit trees, and in the pantry lies a sack of almonds that we picked. My girls spend summer afternoons on the trampoline nibbling on grapes from the vine that insinuates itself through the netting; I come home, wheeling my bike down the path, and pause to snack on figs plucked from overhanging branches. We have just acquired four chickens, who happily scratch and peck at the bottom of the garden under the old pear tree – and right now the tree is covered with blossom like a bridal veil. In just over a week, the crab apple will bloom and the air will be filled with drifting petals.

We live in a bountiful garden only five miles from the CBD among shops and services many can only dream of. Why, oh why, would I look to move?

I suspect two things are going on.

For one, we live in a deeply consumerist society. The constant message is that we never have enough. If we have three t-shirts, why not four? If our jeans are unfashionable, why not buy a new pair? If our house is a mile from school down a busy road, why not move? Forget travelling the long way – just upgrade, update, renew! Make it bigger, better, more convenient! Amen!

Yet while a new house might be closer to school, it will be further away from everything else; any imagined convenience, and its transforming power, is an illusion. And as for moving to a house in the country – well, living in an Australian town is like living in a spread-out suburb; living on a hillside means a twenty mile drive to school. Two weeks ago I spent the day in a fashionable town where the traffic noise was louder than where I live, and we couldn't cross the road for the cars. If I want peace and quiet, I'm better off sitting in my own kitchen, where during the day I can hear the wind sing through the sheoak and listen to the chuckle of happy hens.

I wonder too whether, if a house is like a skin, then perhaps I am trying on different skins, different ways of being. There are days when I'm uncomfortable in my skin. I'm tired and grumpy and fed up with the drudgery of being home with kids. I'd like to work again, and be paid for it; I'd like a little less vomit and a little more dignity.

I suspect that I look at houses because, at some deep level, I imagine that if I lived elsewhere then things might be different. If the walk to school were easier, or the house a little smaller or arranged a little better, or the street a little quieter, then perhaps I'd feel more at home – in my skin and in the world.

But whatever constitutes this idea of home, I reckon that the dream of finding it in a different house is just that: a dream. Our suburb is terrific; our house is comfortable; our garden getting better all the time. There is no perfect house, or perfect life, waiting for me to slot in to. Instead, this is my house, this is my life.

And when I pull my eyes from the real estate guide and draw a deep breath, when I look around and notice the delicate stars of jasmine flowers clustered on the fence, when I realise that the pear tree is in full bloom and the almond's heavy with nuts; when my four-year-old walks around with a chicken under her arm and my two-year-old finds an egg, then I have to admit that, from where I'm sitting, it's a damn sight more than good enough.

Right here in my own backyard, for all its messiness and imperfection, we have life in abundance already.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Sick of scratching your head?

Sick of scratching your head? Tired of staring at a grid until your eyes are fuzzy and your brain is numb?

Help is at hand! The solutions to my very own cryptic crossword are now on Spike. Click here and all will be revealed...

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