Friday, March 27, 2009

Vomit, lice, pus and snot

It's hard to be philosophical this week. We've had conjunctivitis, gastro, headlice, colds - and even house guests! It's hard to make play out of combing a child's hair with a nit comb (we set up mirrors a la the hairdresser); it's hard to feel amused by a happy-sounding washing machine when it's loaded to the gills with putrid sheets; it's hard to feel loving when a child vomits on you (although we did heartily congratulate any child who threw up into the bucket - I'm thinking of starting a vomit star chart). And any precious minutes alone have vanished in washing clothes and scrubbing buckets, putting in eyedrops, combing hair, changing pillow cases, wiping noses, and mopping the floor. The days have filled with tasks that our society deems valueless.

Why am I doing this, I wonder as I hold a hot forehead and turn my nose. Why did I get myself into this mess?

Last night I left my husband in the laundry stripping off his soiled clothes and shoes, and escaped to choir. After laughing and singing and laughing some more, we polished off the wine and talked about fantasies. One woman said it was to come home to a clean house, sweet smelling pajama'ed children, and dinner hot on the table. Another said it was to sleep. And I realised mine was a cool white hotel room, a big bed, a do not disturb sign, and no one. No one to wake me, no one asking for a tissue or a bucket, no one making any claims on me at all. Fantasy indeed!

Yet even this week there are infinite consolations. The baby noticing a spectrum on the wall and trying to grab it. My three year old snuggled against me, stroking my hair, as she falls asleep. My five year old stopping on the way home from school to say, I love you mama!

And I wonder too whether there's something valuable about losing oneself to others, for a time. Losing oneself, and realising in the process what is being lost, and how valuable it is. I never knew who I was or what I wanted until I had children. In having them I lost time, opportunity, status and dignity; my self as I knew it was shattered. Yet the gains in self-knowledge are immeasurable. Paradoxically, now that I don't have time, I know how I want to spend it. Now that I have spent countless hours doing apparently worthless tasks - cleaning up vomit, combing out headlice, wiping off poo - I begin to see what worth I have. Caring for children and reflecting on it has given shape to my dreaming, my thinking, my growing; out of manure - or vomit, lice, pus and snot - good things blossom.

Monday, March 23, 2009


When I am up to my elbows in poo, life can feel a bit ho-hum, a series of jobs to get through rather than an experience to be fully lived. The tasks become ends in themselves; I get grumpy with the kids when they get 'in the way' of the washing, the dishes, the cooking.

Yet when all is well, these seemingly meaningless tasks can become a joyful interaction, a form of play. My three year old loves to load the washing machine, and to turn it on. Our machine trills cheerfully when you press the buttons, and the pretty sounds and flashing lights delight her. She washes dishes, splashing in the sink for an hour or more, measuring, pouring, mixing and occasionally even cleaning the bowls and cups. Both older daughters garden with me, digging and weeding and watering. We look at garden books together, and dream of jungle vines and walnut trees; then we go plant beets. My kids shell peas, and peel potatoes, and press the button on the food processor and watch the food whizz round. On Sunday mornings, my five year old makes pancakes from scratch, measuring flour and milk and cracking eggs carefully into a bowl.

We draw up shopping lists, sometimes with pictures, and my daughters pick out apples, carrots and beans. I read out the list at the supermarket; they check off the contents of their baskets, and get what we missed the first time round. They hand over the money, and claim the change.

Living so intentionally, making games out of the daily round and inviting my children's participation, certainly takes longer. It's part of a bigger choice to live slow, very slow; I couldn't do this and work a job, too. And this slow life is not at all showy. It's no glamorous movement.

Then again, living so slowly, so attentively, means finding beauty in surprising places, appreciating the here and now. We were created to work and play; it is part of our nature. Why not claim it, and turn our work into play? We need to cook, clean, and launder; why not find ways of celebrating these tasks? Like monks, our lives too might be graced by the dignity of doing small jobs well; like children, we too could be delighted when we hear a happy washing machine trill, or when we fill a sink with opalescent bubbles and splash the dishes clean.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A vase of flowers

Beautiful spaces don't guarantee beautiful thoughts and actions. Terrible people love beautiful things. Good people are forced to live in squalor.

And yet, and yet... Every time I see the old wheelbarrow overflowing with lime-green lettuces and darkly foliaged marigolds; every time I glimpse almond blossom; every time persimmons are bright against the sky, I am elated. God created the world, and it was good. It still is good. God never went away, never stopped creating, but continues to work among us even now.

Small reminders, glimpses of goodness, recall me to this. They lift my heart, fill my spirit with joy.

When I am downcast and the day feels too hard, when my life feels meagre and thin, I treasure these signs. They catch my eye and give me pause; they invite me to change direction, convert. A vase of flowers can tip the balance. The nighttime sky restores my soul.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Listen. Can you hear it? Over there, in the patch of sunlight. That's right, the bowl covered with a towel. Can you hear it yet? Put your head closer. Hold your breath. Listen. Thousands of tiny bubbles, heavy and viscous, are growing. Hear them fizz. Hear them pop. It's the sound of bread rising.

Out in the garden, dusk. All is quiet. No cars drive past; no neighbours chat. All is still. Can you hear it? The damp rustle? The wet crunch? So soft you can only just catch it? It can't be - it isn't - it is: caterpillars. Caterpillars on the lettuce, caterpillars on the chard, chewing their way through the leaves. So many, they form the evening's gentle undertone.

Just last week - did you hear it? What was it? The lounge room swayed, the crockery rattled, an infinitely deep rumble and it was over in a second. Sound so low, more felt than heard. The earth groaned, and rippled, and shook. So quick, so soft, did you hear it too?

Where is the still small voice? So quiet, it's carried on a gentle breeze; so low, it's more felt than heard? What does it say? Can you hear it?

Bend your head. Still your breath. Close your eyes.


Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cutting away

My almost-three-year-old just cut her hair. The only blonde in the family, her long golden curls tumble down her back. She gets to be Goldilocks, Rapunzel and the fairy in family plays, and she wants her hair in matching plaits just like her big sister. And today, while I was in another room, she cut it.

It's not too bad. Now she has a short asymmetrical fringe, tapering round to a longer sweep past her ear. She sawed right into one plait, so most of the ringlets on one side of her head are gone, but the other side is fairly intact. If I want her to look symmetrical, I'll probably have to cut off the rest of the ringlets, but given that her hair has never been cut previously and was already pretty random, we might just get away with it. We'll give it a wash and see how it looks.

I sound very calm about it. Actually, when I came in and saw the long tufts and curls littering the floor, I sobbed. As I undid her plaits and removed the clumps of loose hair, then brushed out the single strands, my eyes were so full of tears I could barely see what I was doing. When I took off her clothes and shook them outside; when I fetched the broom and swept the floor; when I brushed her beautiful hair into the dustpan and put it in the bin, I just cried and cried.

It's hard to know why it upset me so. Partly, it reminded me of when we cut our oldest daughter's hair. I didn't want to, but a point came when we had no choice. Dreadlocks were beginning to form; but, far worse, a three year old with waist length plaits finds it difficult not to dangle her hair in the toilet. One day she found it too hard and we were faced with an unsavoury emergency hair wash. Soon afterwards, her hair was cut.

I don't want to cut this daughter's hair either. It's beautiful. I am constantly awed that my husband and I could produce something like this. My children's grace and beauty shock me, and I find myself focussing on the specifics of golden curls, eyebrows curved like a bird's wing, a smile which catches my breath, because the whole is too vast to comprehend.

It's an old family joke that a woman who was admiring my baby sister said to my mother, "Isn't it funny how the plainest people often have the most beautiful children?". We laugh about it; but at some level, it is always true. We adults are drooping and fatigued. Our babies make us fat and give us bags under our eyes and pendulous breasts. Our hair grows coarse and grey; our faces sprout lines; our moles, hairs; we develop fedoobedahs and our skin dries out. And then out of these crusty old adults come these fresh faced, fresh skinned, curly haired babies whose softness breaks our hearts.

I want them to retain this baby perfection for as long as possible. I want to hold on to this stage of deep intimacy, before they move on out of the home and out of our lives. And yet, of course, I can't. The whole process of having children is a balancing act of holding them close, but letting them go. Giving them roots and wings.

Over time, this will mean seeing them cut their beautiful hair and pierce their perfect noses and wear ripped up tights; allowing them to read awful books and watch inane movies and listen to peurile music; accepting that they'll eat fast food (the perfect rebellion in our organic vegetarian granola kind of household); and letting them try all the things that I did and probably more.

Being a parent means encouraging them to form their identities separate from us, hoping only that, one day, they will choose to come home. Ringlets, shaved heads, pink mohawks or conservative bobs, we'll still be startled by their beauty. The traces of heaven linger; it is only for want of looking that we fail to see them behind liver spots and wrinkles, too.
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