Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Searching for Small

Growing up in social-justice-y type circles, I thought that one day, I should save the world. Anything less would fall short of the mark. The only puzzle was who, or what, to focus on. After all, there are thousands of issues which need urgent attention: indigenous health, war games, Iraq, mandatory detention, water usage, expanding cities... the list is endless. But which was I to work for? Which would be my Big Cause?

These situations are desperately important, but none of them felt close to my heart. I volunteered with this organisation and that, and wrote lots of letters, and longed for a different world. But I never relaxed into any cause. Instead, I had kids.

The polar ice caps are melting, and overpopulation looms. Perhaps we shouldn't have had them. But for the most part I've delighted in them, positively wallowed in the experience. I love to watch them grow. And they've been the catalyst for my own growing up, my blossoming. I never published an essay until I had a baby; I never even thought to try. But with the shattered self, the re-building, and the newfound confidence that a baby engenders, I found myself attempting different things, asking more of myself and of life.

And also less. For at one level, I still feel niggles of doubt. Is raising kids really so important? Are small actions each week enough? Or should we all be leading great movements a la Martin Luther King Jr or Gandhi? I have often heard Buechner's suggestion that our call, or vocation, lies at the intersection of our greatest joy and the world's deepest need. But most of us struggle to name our greatest joy, let alone align it with the world's needs. And the world's needs are so big, so desperate, that it is impossible to see how we might have an impact. No one of us will be able to effect drastic change, but rather than think small, we give up.

Yet we are mortal. We are all of us little people, frail people. How else should we think, but small?

Surely, just as our lives are small but good, so might our deeds be small but good. Whether it's a moment's hospitality or graciousness, or something more intentional, perhaps there are little spaces where our happiness overlaps with the needs of others.

Let me tell you a story. Over the last few years, in reading to my own children, I have realised that reading children's stories gives me enormous pleasure. After a long time, it occurred to me that children other than my own might like having stories read with them. I wondered about school reading, but my daughter's class has so many parent volunteers, at least one of whom is working on her PhD, that I had no real interest in offering to help. I wondered about reading at other places, but nothing really worked out. I even thought about reading at another school, where most of the students are refugees. But I didn't know how to approach it, or who to ask. I sat on the idea, like a chicken with an egg, and waited.

One day, a friend forwarded me an email from this school. They were seeking new books for the kids, because most of the students had no books in their homes. I wept for these kids who had so little, and the egg began to crack. Then I contacted the coordinator, and told her about my idea. She was delighted, and so now I go in to listen to kids reading. The egg has hatched.

For an hour or so each week, I lie on the carpet at the back of a classroom and get quizzed on Harry Potter by boys with gappy teeth, and share naughty smiles with shy girls over the antics of the father Berenstein bear. We struggle to spell out long words, and talk about meaning, irony, irregular verbs and whatever else crops up - in very simple language, of course. Meanwhile my baby empties the classroom rubbish bin, eats pencil shavings, and is adored by 20 little kids.

It's small, very small, and so much fun that I can't believe it's useful. I get to listen to children's stories, and make jokes, and laugh. The kids get one on one attention with an odd lady in stripy socks, and a baby to play peekaboo with. My love of stories overlaps with the kids' need for someone to listen. It's not big. It won't make shockwaves or change the world. I'm not the only volunteer there; I'm not necessary. But if I can be just one link in a chain of people who welcome a young boy into the world of books, if it makes school just that little bit easier for a traumatised girl, then it is more than enough. I don't even need to know if it has these hoped-for effects; given the joy of the weekly encounter, the sheer fun of it, it must be good.

I figure that, all things considered, this is what I am called to do - on Friday mornings, at least. It's not much. But it meshes my love for books with a child's need for a reading partner. And it is particular, local, small.

I hope that in doing this one small thing, and seeing where it takes me, then I too might grow. And if, as they say, one thing leads to another, I reckon a thousand small things might lead to a life transformed. And who knows where a few lives transformed might lead? Perhaps... but that's another story.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Watching the shadows

Does everyone feel so short of time these days? I find myself lurching from one task to the next: washing, dishes, nappies, floors, school run, paperwork, quick cuddle and dinner time. In between there somewhere I set up activities and help put them away, hang up paintings to dry, tidy plaits, brush everyone's teeth, help kids with buckles and buttons, wipe snotty noses, wipe down the bench, buy our groceries, put away everything the baby's pulled out of a cupboard... Recently, friends were over for a visit. I'd made scones and cuppas and we were eating and chatting while I cleaned the kitchen, put away dishes, folded socks. 'Just sit down,' someone said. And I looked at them, only half laughing, saying 'Sit down?! I only sit down for breakfast, lunch and tea!'. And kept at my tasks as we talked.

I don't mind being busy most of the time. I enjoy a bit of bustle. But I don't seem to be able to rest even when I should. I have a few hours today, and am having an internal battle over how to spend the time. Write, read, go to the gym, weed the garden, go out for coffee. If I weed the garden, I can't go to the gym. If I read, I feel I should be doing something more productive. If, God forbid, I went to a cafe, I'd feel like I'd wasted my time off, even although I need a little downtime. Especially now, especially today - it's the first day of my period, and I'm wrecked. I should go lie on my bed and watch the shadows of the wattle tree dance across the wall. I tricked myself into keeping away from the gym by having a shower this morning (I have eczema, and can't have two showers in a day, ergo can't go to the gym where I'll end up stinking to high heaven). But I don't seem to be able to stop myself from Doing.

Because there is so much to do, a world full of interesting things I want to learn about, investigate, experience, explore. But when's the last time I went for a stroll along the creek? Sat down with a sketchbook? Watched the clouds?

I tell myself again and again that everyone has the same amount of time: 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week. This is what it is to be human, to live on Earth. It must be enough time for me, because it's enough time for everyone, and it's all we're ever going to get anyway. But how do I decide how to spend this hour, or that? When is the housework paramount, when is reading aloud more important? When should I write, or read, or draw? Garden? Stay fit? Sit still for a moment??? How do I find ways to rest that are renewing, re-creating, restorative?

Like all decisions, the parameters change daily. I'm forever weighing up this choice or that, or feeling guilty about a moment's idleness, or apologising for a task enjoyed, as if somehow my enjoyment means the task is not valuable. I drive my partner mad with my struggle to learn to kick back and do nothing. Protestant roots go deep. They should and can be nourishing, but at times they have a stranglehold that drives out life and suffocates. I don't want to look back on my life and see nothing but a whirlwind; I want to recall a life dappled with moments of calm, moments of delight. Moments observable only when there is a little breathing room.

Which brings me back to now, and the internal battle raging. Reading back, it is clear what I should do. It is time to go and lie on my bed, and watch the shadows dance.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Just call me Aunty

At the playground yesterday, a little boy pointed at me, saying 'Eye-a, eye-a'. I nodded and smiled and said, 'Yes! That's my eye! and here are my sunglasses too!' We did this several times until his father, grinning, told me that the boy was actually saying 'Aunty'. In their culture, and their language, all older women are aunty.

I've heard of this before. Friends of mine who lived in Papua New Guinea speak of the way a crying baby is passed around, even down the line in a crowded airport. Nobody holds a screaming kid for long; you take a turn, and then hand them on. Everyone is woven into the web of care.

But hearing is not the same as experiencing, and yesterday I was thunderstruck. This little boy, who had never met me before, was claiming me in relationship. Claiming me, and making claims on me. For if a little kid calls me 'aunty', then I am going to make damn sure that he doesn't fall off the monkey bars.

Time and again, my white middle class neighbours, mothers pushing prams and looking just like me, start and hurry by when I greet them in the street. Ditto at the playground. After all, what would mothers pushing prams have in common?! It took a year to get past the deep reserve of most of the kinder mums; at least at school the daily drop off means the barriers are breaking down a little more quickly.

I get so tired of it. So tired that at times I can't be bothered making the effort to say hi, only to be rebuffed again. I wonder about the future of a culture where we all pretend we don't need one another, and that our lives don't intersect. How much easier our lives would be if the three families who lived on our street opened their doors to one another, had kids move back and forth between the houses, even shared occasional meals. How much easier if parents at school accept that our lives will overlap for the next decade, so why not at least exchange names? Instead, so many blink like startled rabbits when I greet them, and quickly step away.

In this cultural context, the little boy's greeting was even more special. His word bound me to him, for the moment, and I felt deeply honoured. And I felt responsible. I will help him down the slide, as his father pushes my daughter on the swing. If he runs toward the road, I'll give chase. If he wants to chat, I'll make the time to do so.

I can only hope and pray that, as he grows up here, he retains this sense that we belong to one another. And may I be open enough to learn from him and others like him, as he offers us a vision of a world in which our lives are interlinked, and we depend on, and are enriched by, each other.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Love letters

I changed the linen. Wanton leaves had insinuated themselves into the clean sheets. They fell out onto the beds, and tickled my hands as I collected them.

The scent of violets wafts through the air, seducing me into the garden.

Buds are forming on the almond tree. On this cold gray day, one burst into flower.

A cheeky pink salvia peeps around the house. She winks and smiles as I walk down the side.

I was pinned to a path, tantalised. Breathing heavily, I turned my head, looked down: daphne.

What are these but love letters? Written by the earth, mailed by the wind, seized from the air by me and opened. Ravishing, sensual, I hold them close to my heart. My day is pierced with delight.
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