Wednesday, May 28, 2014
We drove to school. When we arrived, my five-year-old daughter asked, ‘Where’s my backpack?’
‘Don’t you have it?’ I asked. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I left it on the footpath for you to put in the car.’
‘But you didn’t tell me,’ I said, ‘and I didn’t see it. Wasn’t I in the driver’s seat already?’
Her face began to crumple. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘let’s go in to class. And then I’ll drive home and get the backpack and bring it to school.’
Inside I fumed. I was meeting someone at 9.30; and I had better things to do than drive back and forth between home and school. But I gave her a hug, explained what had happened to her teacher, grumbled to another parent, and headed home.
I checked the house. No backpack, and I remembered having seen her carry it out of the house that morning. I checked the car again, and the veranda, and the front garden, and asked the neighbours. Still no backpack. So I made a second lunch, filled up a spare water bottle, found another dollar for the canteen, put it all in an old bag, and dropped it at school. Then I went to my meeting, half an hour late.
Later that day I searched again, to no avail. If it had been stolen, I thought it would probably have been emptied out and dumped near the railway line. So I walked to the dodgiest spot and there on the ground among the broken glass lay two forlorn loom bands. They were from a pack that she had wanted to share with friends at school. I checked a dozen or so dumpsters, hoping to find the bag itself, before I gave up.
What sort of person would steal a little kid’s backpack? It had the name of our primary school emblazoned on it; there was no way it belonged to a teenager, let alone an adult. And as I began the inventory of what had been lost, I felt more and more bewildered. What had they gained? A scuffed school backpack, useful for one school only. A dented water bottle. A grubby lunch sack. A gluten free soy free lunch: corn cakes with cheese, and a mandarin. A prep reader. A school library book. A bike lock. A little girl’s raincoat. Her favourite, irreplaceable, cardigan. And a dollar for the canteen.
It would cost us well over a hundred dollars to replace everything. And for that, someone gained a single dollar.
My bemusement turned to fury before dwindling into sadness. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be so desperate, and have so little empathy, that I’d steal what was clearly a young child’s bag. The thief had big issues to deal with. We, on the other hand, could easily replace what had been taken, and even find a new favourite cardigan. The only thing that mattered was how we handled it with our kids.
That afternoon, when they were home from school, I explained to my daughter that someone had stolen her backpack. We’d have to replace it, and everything that had been inside.
She had a cry, and a big cuddle. ‘Meanie bum,’ she said. I agreed, and said that it was right that she was angry. Nobody should take anyone’s stuff.
She was quiet for a few minutes. Then she asked, ‘Why are bad people made?’
And so I told her how I understand theodicy. All of us are sometimes good and sometimes bad, I said. Every time we make a choice for good, we strengthen that part of us. Every time we make a choice to be mean, or dishonest, or violent, we strengthen that part of us. The person who stole her bag would have made lots of choices for bad, and so that part of them was very strong; they probably just took her bag without even thinking. It wasn’t personal, I said. It wasn’t about her. And we don’t know why they made those choices; maybe things had happened in their lives that made it hard for them to choose good. I told her we could be angry at what they did, but we didn’t have to hate the person who did it. In a few days or weeks, we might even feel a bit sorry for them.
She thought for a while. Then she said, ‘Maybe they took it because they miss their mummy. Or maybe because my bag reminded them how happy they had been at primary school. But they’re still a meanie bum.’
‘They sure are,’ I said, and gave her an extra squeeze and a kiss on the top of her beloved head.
The next morning, as they were getting dressed, one of her sisters pulled out a hoodie that was getting a bit small. She turned to her younger sister and asked if she would like to have it. My five-year-old beamed and pulled it on, and it immediately became the new favourite. We bought a new backpack, lunch sack, bag tag, and everything else, and life has moved on.
Well, almost. I had left my daughter’s loom bands where they lay among the broken glass; they are slowly fading. Now I walk past them several times a week, and whenever I see them, I think about the person who stole the bag. I wonder if they miss their mummy; I wonder if they were ever happy at primary school. I give thanks for my youngest daughter’s empathic nature, so ready to think about why someone would be mean. I give thanks for my middle daughter’s thoughtful and spontaneous handing over of a hoodie when her sister needed to wear a hug. And I pray that one day the thief will experience such empathy and generosity, and be able to recognise it as gift.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
It is rare that one reads a soliloquy on a long term of relationship, but Life Drawing is just that. Gus (short for Augusta) and Owen have been together for a quarter of a century, and their relationship is coloured by grief, a betrayal, and their inability to have children.
The novel begins with the fact of Owen’s death, then goes back in time to tell the story which lead up to it. A new neighbour has moved in, disrupting their rural solitude, and the resulting relationships have deep ramifications. This structure gives the book the shape of a thriller, if a rather beautiful and sedate one. (And I predicted the ending less than halfway through: not very thrilling, perhaps.)
However, the plot is not the point of this book. What makes it special is the portrait of a long marriage, seen through the eyes of Gus. Intimacy and solitude are woven together; the partners negotiate with and allow for each other in a careful, thoughtful dance. Gus observes her husband and herself with an acute eye, moving between love and anger, guilt and frustration, affection and jealousy. At times she has the eye of a lover, at other times, a maternal eye. Their sex life ebbs and flows, from non-existent to raunchy; from passionate connection to ‘the sex that’s like the decent enough music you listen to because the drive is so long and it’s the only radio station you can pick up’. Like every marriage, they navigate difficult emotional terrain; they interpret each other’s behaviour; they talk and keep quiet; they makes mistakes and choose kindness; they eat lunch.
As well as the marriage, Gus’s relationships with their new neighbour, Alison; a former student, Laine; and her father and sister are charted with intelligence and restraint. So too are the long-term effects of betrayal, guilt and grief. These depictions felt very true: closely observed, honest, and wise, and it is for this that I recommend the book.
My only wish was that it had ended differently. The denouement felt unnecessary, pandering to the more sensational expectations of a television audience rather than hewing to the quiet wisdom of the rest of the book. It detracted from what was otherwise a very thoughtful meditation. I’d have loved to have read this book one page short of chapter 21, and had the preceding story shaped accordingly. However, in the final chapter, Gus posits different ways the story might have continued. This reader, then, suggests reading this otherwise moving novel, but deciding on one’s own, preferred, outcome. I’d go with the last paragraph of the novel, perhaps.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
My daughters are losers. They play for a soccer club which focusses on teamwork, fair play, cheerful attitude and making up really cool chants – and neither of them has yet won a game.
Recently one of my daughters played against a side that was surprisingly tall. My daughter’s team kept things to a nil-all draw for the first half, but in the second half, they ran out of steam.
Losing didn’t seem to bother the team too much. Instead, they congratulated each other on keeping this bigger team to a draw for the first half. But the parents and coach looked at the other team, and sighed.
Quietly, the adults applied to the football federation for an assessment of the other team. The federation found that the other team contained a number of older girls, and so that team was re-graded. When the decision was made, our club notified us calmly, with a hint of an eye-roll and a smile. No railing at the other team, no suggestion that things were unfair, just a note that this was so and which way the ruling went.
I wondered to my husband whether the other team had made a mistake. He looked at me disbelievingly. Then he told me that when he was 11, he had been in a team which regularly played against teams stacked with older kids. Even in his own team, there was some suggestion that kids might lie about their age so they could play down a grade and win more. And, like my daughters’ teams, his team too always lost.
But imagine what sort of parents they have, he said, and what sort of adults those kids will grow up to be: taking advantage at every step, lying on their taxes, cheating on their partners, all driven by their pathetic egos.
I thought about the girls on the other team, and their coaches and parents, and felt sad. What sort of world do we live in, that the outcome of a child’s game matters so much to adults? Why is winning so important to parents that they ask the kids to lie? And what sort of hollow victory is that?
Surely it is much more important for kids to learn fair play, and teamwork, and how to keep your chin up when the odds are stacked against you? Surely they need to learn how to deal with frustration and disappointment? Because if they do it well, they will also learn to be steadfast, resilient and honest, qualities that will stand them in good stead as human beings.
And as for losing all the time, well, if either of my daughters’ teams ever win, you’ll hear the victory dance from here to Timbuktu. It won’t be some empty victory which leaves a bitter taste in their mouths. Instead, it will be something really worth celebrating.
Neither of my daughters has won a game yet, and because of the vagaries of the fixture, my older daughter’s team had to play the surprisingly tall team a second time before the re-grading took effect. My daughter’s team put on a good show, but of course they were beaten. Even so, I reckon I know which team was losing out.