Thursday, December 27, 2012

A Taste of the Kingdom

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 114 (Autumn 2012). The Summer edition is out now, with my reflection on learning to live with enough.


A few months ago, my husband and I had that rare and precious thing: the spontaneous offer of a babysitter. We decided to go out for dinner. We lucked upon the last table at a lively restaurant and shared a fantastic meal, with wine to match each course.

As the evening drew to a close, I sat there turning my glass in my hand and reflecting on how well we have eaten over the years. Before we had children, we dined out several times a week. Since then, we have visited Europe twice with young kids and eaten our way around Italy, Germany and even, surprisingly deliciously, Great Britain, while at home we buy nectarines, mangoes, avocadoes and all sorts of other foods that neither of us had much as children; they were far too expensive back then.

Flooded with gratitude, I said to my husband, “I have had so many good things to eat in my lifetime, it really wouldn’t matter if I never ate another decent meal again.”

As is the way of fate, a couple of days after I made this claim I went to a natural therapist to try and tackle years of fatigue and constant illness, and in particular the development of debilitating arthritis; and, as I wrote in last quarter’s Zadok Perspectives, I was immediately placed on a very restrictive diet for four months (no sugar, gluten, fruit, dairy, alcohol or caffeine), with the additional caution that I should strictly limit my intake of these foods for the rest of my life.

The timing was impeccable. I had just made a big claim about food; here was my opportunity to test it. In any case, I was so desperate to feel better that I quickly adopted, and have largely stuck to, the diet; but I soon found myself wondering what to do about eating with others. How would we celebrate a birthday if I couldn’t eat cake? What would we have for a friendly afternoon tea if I wasn’t eating scones? Who would come for dinner if I didn’t make dessert or pour out the wine?

Clearly, hospitality wasn’t going to work if the sweetest thing on offer was a carrot stick. On reflection, however, I realised that the restrictive diet was only about eating. I could still cook whatever I liked; whether or not I ate the food was a separate issue. So I stuck to my usual pattern of whipping up banana loaves on Mondays, when Grandpa comes to visit; baking cakes on birthdays and grumpy days; and making cookies to take to friends.

I thought I might resent cooking food that I could not eat myself, but I also thought it would be a good test of my generosity. To my surprise, however, far from resenting the situation, I have discovered that I still love to make special things. Previously, I hadn’t realised just how much the act of preparing and offering food gives me pleasure; I had thought a great deal of the pleasure was in the eating. But seeing friends and family savour and relish what I have cooked, and watching them grow expansive after the second glass of wine, makes me tremendously happy; and, as my taste buds shift to a more savoury palate, my desire to eat the food myself grows less and less.

It’s the opposite of most advertising messages, which encourage us to satisfy ourselves and make ourselves happy because, we’re told, we’re worth it. Instead, as I chomp my way through yet another handful of nuts or celery sticks, or perhaps crunch into some rice crackers which are, I admit, growing rather tiresome, I recall that others are worth it; and in seeing them respond to the loving care that is communicated through a slice of cake or a basket of scones or perhaps a pot of soup I cannot eat, I find myself expansively happy and deeply satisfied, having never even taken a bite.

PS - For those who are curious, a year or so later I am now drinking wine (you gotta live) and caffeine (which helped me limp through the debilitating fatigue I experienced during a month of eating gluten prior to a test for coeliac disease). I aim to wean myself off caffeine again when things have settled down. I still eat very little cane sugar, fruit, gluten and cow's milk.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Silence Speaks Again: Next Year


Next year, I've been invited to undertake some postgraduate research in a field I am passionate about. I am over the moon. Well, part of me is. That part of me has spent hours reading in the area months before I plan to enrol. That part hears my potential supervisor saying that something I have already written would make a fine start to a thesis. That part has already joined a research group, and met some delightful people doing interesting things. That part of me can confidently say, I know how to structure my time; I know how to write; I am very self-motivated: I can certainly do this.

That part of me can also recognise the great gift of the invitation. After nine years at home with kids, I am more than a little bored. I still have fifteen months before my youngest starts school, and while I am happy to be home with her for some of it, the thought of staying home full time until then is, to put it bluntly, excruciating.

I had been wondering what I could add to next year's mix – more volunteer work? more writing? a course? – when out of the blue I was invited to study. It's everything I could want: a reason to read and write, mentors asking difficult questions and pointing me in new directions, training in how to structure a large piece of work. The project is perfect, the timing is perfect: what a gift! I should be over the moon – and part of me is.

But there's another part of me, too. It's the part which is dragging her feet on the enrolment; which worries about how to fit it all in with a little girl still at home; which looks at the PhD students she knows and wonders how on earth she thinks she can do it; which gets a churning stomach at the very thought. And now that the initial excitement of the invitation has worn off, this part is making itself heard. It is so convincing that I have wondered about turning down the invitation.

I've been going round in circles for weeks. Finally, I decided to sit with the idea in silence, that infinite scary place where things bubble up that are difficult to hear. So I sat, took a deep breath, exhaled, and began to listen. My mind chattered on. I thought about dinner and a new idea for packed lunches, and put the thoughts on a mental shelf. I wondered about a sick friend, and put her on the shelf, too. I had an image of me teaching at a tertiary level. I wondered where that lunatic idea came from, and as I was putting it up next to the food and the friend, a voice came to me clear as a bell: You're almost forty, and you still believe you are not capable of such work.

I burst into tears; as usual the silence spoke truth. I don't believe I can do it. Yet I'm hardly an idiot. I love ideas and people and talking and writing. Most of my friends have higher degrees, more than a few are academics, and among them I usually hold my own. Of course I should be able to study and write and teach at that level.

Even so, the internal soundtrack which says I'm not competent is still very powerful, and it's been reinforced by decisions we made about how to raise our children. I chose to stay home and suddenly I'm a decade out of the workforce. Everyone else has forged ahead, and I'm left with a head full of ideas, reasonably happy kids – and an incredible lack of confidence. Sure, I'm getting pretty good at the washing and shopping, cooking and cleaning. At some deep level, however, I'm not convinced I could do much more.

Now, being competent at domestic tasks and child raising is no shame. These are important things, necessary to a family's health and wellbeing, and there is dignity in sustaining one's household. In and of itself, it is good work. Yet other work is good, too. And here am I invited, by what feels like the right person and at what feels like the right time, to engage in something more, and I am reluctant. I am sure I cannot do it, and I want to opt out.

Thanks to the silence, however, I now recognise my reluctance for what it is: old soundtracks and fear. And so, since a life ruled by such masters is no life at all, I am going to have to listen to the other voices, the ones which recognise what I might be able to do and urge me to give it a go.

As for what I want to do? Well, the silence showed me an image of me teaching. Perhaps it was a clue.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New House, New Neighbours


Somewhat oddly for a blog devoted to the idea of home, I haven't mentioned an enormous change in my own home life. Events happened too quickly for me to assimilate and write about them before now, but this is the news: we have moved. Yes, moved.

I know this comes as a shock to many who know us; it certainly wasn't something we had planned to do. So how did it come about?

I have written before about our street, and how I have struggled to make much headway with the neighbours. I have one excellent neighbour; one neighbour who is civil when we bump into each other on the street; and that is the extent of it. Everyone else is emotionally absent. I say, rather brightly, 'hello!' and the other neighbours duck their heads and avoid my eyes – even the ones with kids.

They don't seem to talk with each other, either. I have come up with all sorts of justifications for their behaviour; I have wondered if there's something wrong with me; finally, I have decided they are just city dwellers – or rude.

Meanwhile, for years we'd floated the idea of buying neighbouring houses with close friends, but it never panned out. It was something I had given up on; and when I gave up, I found the energy to fix our own house. In the last twelve months I have had the eternal leak in the roof fixed; painted the house; and even put in a big veggie garden.

And like the couples I know who relinquished the dream of conceiving a child and adopted, only to fall pregnant minutes later, once the garden was finished a house came up for sale in our friends' street. We looked at it out of curiosity, thinking there was no way we'd move – especially now our roof was fixed and the garden done.

But we fell in love. The house was old, ramshackle and airy, with roses in the front and fruit trees out the back. We looked again with family and my father said, 'Now is the time to decide what you value more highly: your nicely renovated house and garden, or friendship.' Nothing like putting our values on the line, dad.

We looked a third time. I wailed to one friend, 'surely I am supposed to develop relationships with the neighbours that I have, not become neighbours with my friends'. She pointed out that I had tried for over a decade in my street, and encouraged me to move on.

My husband and I worried and fretted and moaned for a fortnight, going back and forth. It was closer to some friends, further from others. It was smaller than our house, and not in such great condition. Our fridge would never fit. We could walk to the library and pool, but no longer to our favourite shops. Perhaps the floor plan would work better for us? Every night we talked and teetered back and forth like one of those wobble toys. Then the house went to early auction and, hearts thumping wildly, we bought it.

We moved just over a week ago. Within two days I had met eleven neighbours, not counting the friends I already knew. The neighbours on one side have a very large extended family which convenes regularly for meals. During last week's gathering, my kids climbed up the fence and peered over at the party, had a good chat with whoever was down there, and were handed fragrant shishkebabs over the fence. (Rather irritatingly, although they usually gag and moan at anything new, especially meat, they demolished them and begged for more.)

The kids and I also spent an hour with the family across the street, drinking tea (me) and climbing on the cubby house roof (the kids). And we've been invited in by two other households. Meanwhile, we've eaten with our longstanding friends twice in a week, meaning we've each had a night off cooking and our kids have run around very happily together. And our friend's son, an only child, has come over after school.

Boy, is this street different. I've spent more time in other people's kitchens after a week here than after a decade in the old; I already know more people's names.

When I looked at the new house, I felt shaky. I was uncomfortable with the idea of change; I didn't want to pack up my house; everything was changing focus and it felt very difficult. And yet for many reasons, moving felt like the right thing to do. Our kids loved the house and wanted to be closer to their friends; we loved the house and wanted to be closer to our friends; and, although it is further from the city, the new house is more convenient for almost every aspect of our family's life.

An astute friend suggested that my collywobbles were like birth pangs, overwhelming and painful, but not to be confused with real doubts. Instead, he thought they were the harbinger of new life to come. A week after the move, I am sure he was right. We fit with this house very, very well; we have roses in the garden; and, without a doubt, we have neighbours.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Christmas Shopping

Christmas looms and I'm beginning to worry about presents. Our house is already full of stuff: dolls and blocks and textas and jigsaws and marbles and puppets and books. We have so much more than enough. We certainly don't need another pile of toys; it's just more to pick up at the end of the day.

I hear other parents talking, even complaining, about the latest electronic gadget or plastic toy they've just bought their kids. Because I've never quite worked out how the giving of expensive and unnecessary things made for the most part in appalling conditions relates to the birth of a man who said 'Blessed are the poor', I refuse to play this game, and resent the pressure to acquire the latest thing. Even so, failing to participate in the excess can make me feel mean: my kids are kids, after all. They like to unwrap things; they like presents.

Stepping off the consumer treadmill is easy enough with adults. I make jam, put together a mix tape, or pass on a choice op shop plate to someone who likes a bit of retro. Yet my kids are another story. Do I deprive them of the overabundance that they see in other families? Do I withhold expensive gifts from them and stand my ground? Well, to some extent, yes – especially while they're young. And yet I am also of my culture; I like to give gifts. The difficulty is deciding what.

It seems to me that for the giving to be any kind of celebration, then the things I give must be celebratory – and this means that there's no guilt attached. So I'll avoid items made in unregulated factories and sweatshops wherever possible; avoid ostentatious status symbols; and avoid useless things that will wear out quickly. More positively, I'll look for things which are practical, second hand, fair trade, homemade, or charitable, and which together give a sense of that most intangible of concepts, 'enough'.

When I think back to earlier Christmases and what my daughters have most enjoyed, I recall them running around a park where we have held Christmas lunch. A friend had given them new umbrellas, and they spent the afternoon dancing around spinning their brollies; holding them up and pretending it was raining; and wandering off to the far reaches of the park together, chatting under their portable shade. One brolly had an elephant trunk; another, panda ears, and they hid behind bushes, holding them up and roaring as if wild beasts were lurking. Those umbrellas provided hours of fun; and years later are still in regular use.

Remembering this, I know my girls will survive without Wii and a DS, even if they want them. I can stand firm. So Christmas for my three will be as usual: a few trinkets from the kinder fete to fill our foot-not-pillow-sized stockings: pretty hair bands, a nice pen, a little notebook. I'll get them a new fair trade hat and a pair of bathers each to replace the faded things they've grown out of. I'll get three favourite books, borrowed time and again from the library and now ours to keep; and buy some songs online and burn a new CD with music we'll all enjoy. Together, we'll choose a few gifts from a community development agency: a goat, perhaps, or some chickens.

And so each child will get bathers, a hat, a book, a hair band, a theoretical goat and a bit of dancing round the lounge room: practical, fair trade, homemade, charitable, joyful. To celebrate the birth of a man two thousand years ago who loved kids and told us to look out for the poor, it may still be an imperfect list, but for three little girls living in the here and now, it feels just about right.


Can't think of a gift?

*Pass on an unused treasure (lamp, book, rug, canisters, wine glasses, leather jacket, bracelet, platter).

*Make something (frame a photo, bottle some chutney, get baking, collate a recipe book).

*Give a plant (pot up lavender, pelargonium or daisy cuttings, or hen and chicks, or sow seed).

*Spend thoughtfully (dedicate a gift to charity, draw names instead of buying for everyone in a family, shop second hand, buy an edible fair trade gift (coffee or chocolate), buy something necessary but fun (bathers for kids, organic fair trade underpants for adults!)) For a list of fair trade places to shop which I have used, click here.

For more good ideas on how to celebrate Christmas without the ostentatious consumerism, visit

(Of course, you could just get them a really cool cardboard box; it can be a shop, a car, a cubby, or even a little bed!)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Response: The Idle Parent

The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

The kids and I were at the local pool, playing ring-a-rosy. I was having a ball pulling them underwater; judging from their giggles and shrieks, they were having a ball too. Behind us some older kids were fooling around, aged maybe nine, ten and eleven. Above us strode an anxious lined middle class mother, watching them like a hawk and shouting an instruction every few seconds. ‘Stop that! Leave him alone! Go left! Watch out! Be careful! Move to the right!’. On and on and on it went.

I felt myself cringing at her, and then at myself as I rebuked my six-year-old for launching herself into a group of toddlers. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ I wanted to shout – both at her and myself – , ‘leave them alone!’

How can kids enjoy themselves when their every move is noticed and critiqued? How can parents enjoy themselves when they are convinced that every move their kids make will result in disaster? And yet that is the tone of so much middle-class parenting, and so much parenting material. For the most part I avoid parenting books. Sanctimonious and puritanical things, I want nothing of them. But at right angles to the essay section of my local bookshop is the parenting shelf; and catching my eye the other week was The Idle Parent.

What a title! It sang out to me. I have three kids, aged nine, six and four, and I just can’t be bothered being a proper energetically hovering middle class parent like the woman at the pool. As all the other mums rush their kids off to karate / jazz ballet / Chinese / drawing / whatever, I certainly do feel idle; even so, I don’t have the energy or interest to do likewise. The thought of watching some six-year-old learn a dance move makes me want to scream with boredom; worse, standing over them as they leap about the local swimming pool makes me want to slit my throat. I want to fool around in the pool myself, or I want to read a book; either way, moderating their fun is not my idea of a good time. So I picked up The Idle Parent, and devoured it overnight.

The book’s thesis is simple: Leave them alone! We are not kids, and kids are not adults. Our interests only sometimes overlap. So, suggests the author, the simplest recipe for a healthy happy family life is to give your kids the freedom to do their thing while you go and do your thing. Be there when they need you, but don’t hover. Just let them be. His ideal parenting situation is a large field, many kids romping at one end and many parents drinking beer at the other. Everyone’s safe, and everyone’s happy!

Such a scenario brought a big smile to my face, because I have often thought that my ideal parenting situation is a house party, with twenty kids running around and twenty adults drinking wine and talking their heads off. My kids tend to agree, which is why they beg for such events. Who are you inviting over? they ask most Saturdays, There must be someone!

(For that matter, our other favourite parenting environment is a large field at a friend’s block, as long as we have a couple of extra kids with us. The kids run down the hill and over the next ridge, and we can talk, enjoy the view and inspect the new growth while they’re gone. Last time the horde came charging back up the hill, screeching and laughing themselves silly, dangling leeches from the ends of their fingers and waggling them about. It was hilarious.)

By now any non-parents must be rolling their eyes; do we really need a book to be told to leave the kids alone, even if it is to get sucked by leeches? But those among us with children know just how hard it is. Our culture highly values present and attentive parents, lest little Johnny have his fragile ego squashed because Mummy is more interested in a book than in him, or lest little Cindy have her hopes of being a professional ballerina dashed because Mummy couldn’t be bothered with dancing lessons. Even the author of one of the more interesting recent books about child raising, Last Child in the Woods, which is about the urgent need to get children back in touch with the natural world, admits that he never lets his sons out of sight when they’re hiking. (When I read that, I didn’t know whether to throw the book across the room, or cry.)

In that light, I am a wicked mummy. I have friends and interests that have nothing to do with my kids; I remind the kids about snakes then let them roam through field and forest; and so it is a great relief to read a book which backs up my more carefree approach.

Of course, Hodkingson doesn’t advocate absolute freedom. He has strong ideas about what is and is not helpful as kids explore the world. Television gets the thumbs down, as do plastic toys and having too much stuff; inside isn’t the best place; and neat clean tidy places aren’t ideal, either. He argues kids need space to roam, lots of access to trees, bushes and wild spaces, and things to make stuff with. Good books, wrestling on the floor, a bit of dirt and mess... it all sounds about right to me. The result of such an approach is resilient, creative, competent children (and parents) who are resistant to the lies of consumerism.

The book draws from a broad range of thinkers, from John Locke, Rousseau and DH Lawrence to AS Neill (Summerhill School); ideas from more recent authors, including Skenazy (Free Range Kids) and Louv also surface. The synthesis is cheerful, intelligent and convincing. Above all, I appreciate that it is not just about kids (and therefore about what parents should do (and fail to do) in raising them); instead, The Idle Parent is really about families. Hodgkinson asks good questions about what parents want from life, and encourages the reader to critique his or her own approach, and to recognise and critique the at times suffocating limitations of the dominant culture.

For example, he asks what is enough – do both parents need to work full time or could they both be home with kids more? Why do we live where we do: could we live elsewhere and pay less rent or mortgage? Could we live in a smaller house closer to work and spend less time commuting? What do we spend our money on, and why – do kids really need or want manicured houses, expensive holidays, amusement parks and fancy toys, or are they consumerist furphies? What do we enjoy doing as a family, and what do we hate doing together? Do we enjoy holidaying together, or are there times when separate vacations would be more restorative? Do we need more adults around to contribute to family life, and if so, who can we call on: friends, family, paid employees? In short, he questions how we adults constrain our lives (particularly with regards to happiness) and how we might liberate ourselves, using a refreshingly utilitarian approach.

It’s a lovely book and terrifically opinionated. It opens with a manifesto ‘We pledge to leave our children alone / We reject the rampant consumerism that invades our children’s lives from the moment they are born / We drink alcohol without guilt / We reject the inner Puritan...’, and follows with chapters including ‘Seek not Perfection’, ‘The Myth of Toys’, ‘Down with School’, and ‘Let Us Sleep’, familiar territory for most parents. Best of all, he offers no one-size-fits-all solution, but encourages each family to find what works – or, in the words of the Manifesto, ‘There are many paths’. Hodgkinson has strong opinions about what doesn’t work – long hours at work, large mortgages, too many toys and bits of plastic, guilt – and many suggestions about what could.

I happened to go on a family holiday right after reading the book. I was going to spend the first week largely alone with my girls in a beach house twenty minutes’ walk from town, with no car. It had the potential to be fantastic, which is why I had organised it so; but it also had the potential to collapse into nightmare. I’m not overly fond of the beach. I’ve had little kids for so long that it feels like I spend my whole time hovering there. I don’t get to sit, and I don’t get to swim; and I don’t like building sand castles or helping anyone else do so, either. But this time, I was determined it would be different. The kids are a bit older, the beach was on a shallow bay, and I was going to be Idle. The holiday wasn’t going to be just for my kids – I was going to have a holiday too.

Day One. Resolve and book firmly in hand I sat in the sand, ignored my girls, and read while they built sandcastles and splashed in the shallows. Nobody drowned. I was so relaxed that after fifty pages I shut my book and went and dreamily dug a moat out of pleasure, not duty. My girls were delighted. We went home for lunch, then I taught them how to do the dishes, explaining that I would do the cooking and the dinner dishes and this was a fair division of labour. When they kicked up, I pointed out I would take them back to the beach after the dishes were done, then walked out. I lay on my bed and read my novel; and after a while I heard the sounds of them washing, drying and putting things away. I also heard them make up a dishes song that lasted them through every batch of dishes for the entire two week holiday. And then I heard them each find a book and a quiet corner and read too, for an hour. Bliss.

So each day went. They did stuff they wanted to do; they did a bit of housework; I did stuff I wanted to do; I did a bit of housework; and sometimes we overlapped. I didn’t shout at them or watch over them closely; and because I was reading and dozing and feeling relaxed, when I did spend time with them it wasn’t a duty but a pleasure – and so it was fun.

And this, I think, is Hodgkinson’s point. We are born free, and everywhere we are in chains. Parenting is a prime example of this; it sometimes feels impossible to have a conversation about parenting without whinging or listening to others whinge. But Hodgkinson reminds us that we in the Western world are free. We choose to partner and we choose to have children; we choose where we live and how we work; and so on. As free adults we should take responsibility for our choices, stop whining about them, and start finding ways to enjoy ourselves while we and the kids co-exist. And if we do so, we will all find ourselves having a lot more fun.

With his words (‘I am free! We are all free! I am being Idle!!’) ringing in my ears I found many ways to enjoy myself that holiday. I read a dozen books, and we all caught up on a heap of Japanese anime. My legs lost their ghostly winter pallor. The kids learned French cricket and how to dig for crabs, catch, cook and eat a fish, and wash the dishes afterwards. There was very little yelling by anyone. I came home renewed and ready to step even further back as a parent. It mostly works, and that’s good enough. Oh idle me!

Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Childern from Nature-deficit Disorder Summerhill School

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Just leave them to it!

I hate to break it to you, but there is no right way for a three-year-old to colour in and cut out a picture of a shoe. I know you’re trying very hard to be the best mummy that you can be, but let it go. Just let it go.

At the library today I watched you at story time. My daughter was there too, listening and singing along. When they passed out the activity, she collected a pack, plonked herself down, chose some crayons, and coloured in her shoe just the way she wanted. Then she picked up the safety scissors, stuck out her tongue, and snip snip snipped her way around the edge. While she was occupied I sent a few text messages, sitting alone because you were sitting on the floor, showing your kid how to do it properly.

My daughter finished and grinned. It wasn’t the world’s neatest colouring in, and it wasn’t the slickest bit of cutting out. But she was happy. She picked up her shoe, and brought it over to me. She asked me to thread in the frayed lace, which really was too tricky for her, so I did. 'Good,' she said. Then she stuck her shoe in our bag and chose a couple of books, and we read some stories.

Meanwhile you were still on the floor. You were making sure the colours were blocked in nicely, checking with your child which colours you should use. And your child was looking at anything but the shoe that you had taken for yourself. You kept trying to bring your child’s attention back to the activity, so they did a quick scribble to feign interest, but their heart wasn’t in it.

Your kid glimpsed the scissors, and picked them up. ‘No!’ you said, ‘sharp!’. But I can tell you that those scissors don’t cut fingers. They are safety scissors, for little people to cut paper. It takes real dexterity and determination to use them to cut fingers; and your child appears to have had so little practice that there is no fear of that. I watched you pick up the scissors and cut out the picture, very neatly; you’re almost 40, and you’re getting pretty good at it. You deserve a gold star!

But your kid was bored – and it is not your kid’s shoe. You took it away from them the moment you picked up a crayon. You might stick it on the fridge for a week or two, but your kid won’t be showing it to anyone. They know it was your work.

Trust me, there really is no right way to colour in. If your kid needs to practice their fine motor skills, they might try and colour in very neatly. If your kid is feeling joyful, they might cover the drawing with bright swirls. If they’re grumpy, they might scribble over it in black, or ignore the activity altogether. They might turn the paper over and draw a robot on the blank side; they might take the scissors and cut the paper into a thousand little bits; they might snip a fringe into the side of the sheet. Or they might ask to go for a walk. But you will never know if you don’t give them freedom.

This activity wasn’t a test. Your child won’t be getting into law school because their shoe was beautifully coloured in and cut out at the local library when they were three. In fact I suspect your efforts were counterproductive. Your kid learned some things today. They didn’t learn what colours they like; they didn’t find out what happens when they swirl colours together; they didn’t get to practice their fine motor skills; they didn’t make a choice about what they wanted to do, or how. But they learned to get with the program. They discovered that there is only one way to do an activity; they saw that it is best left to 40 year olds; they were taught to be an audience; and they were shown that they can’t be trusted with scissors.

If you want your kids to have any skills, let alone creativity, you need to let them do stuff. Kids have to do a thousand drawings and make a thousand cuts to learn how their fingers work and how paper and crayons and scissors interact. They need to try lots of things to work out what they like to do. It’s not just drawing and cutting. Kids need practice at everything. They need to spread too much butter on their bread and pour the milk to overflowing and put too much cereal in the bowl if they are going to learn to make their own breakfast. I’m tired of eight year olds coming to my house who can’t hold a butter knife or make their own sandwich. So let your kids do their own drawings. Let them make their breakfast and their lunch, put away the dishes, pack up the crayons, and be useful. Let them make messes and mistakes. They will thrive.

And so will you - because aren’t you bored? Aren’t you tired of making their lunch and clearing up their mess? Do you really want to spend your morning colouring in and cutting out, trying to make your kid interested in something that you yourself find tedious? Your three year old could make it interesting, if you let them. Left alone to colour and cut, they will do something you really don’t expect; often, it will be delightful.

Even better, they can pick up their toys and put them away; they can spread a sandwich; they make their own beds. They just need practice, which they will never get while you do everything for them. So let it all go, just let it all go. And if you do, and let your child work things out, you could sit in the library at the edge of the circle, and have a good chat with me.

Centipede's 100 Shoes (This story from today made me laugh until I had tears in my eyes. Thanks to Brunswick Library storytime for introducing it to us all!)

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A little humiliation is good for the soul

I was on my old bike, pulling a trailer heavy with child and labouring uphill when I saw that the council in its wisdom was watering the bike path. Eight rotating sprinklers ensured that two sections of path were being soaked at any given time; yet a sudden veer into the grass would take me straight into another line of sprinklers. The only way was through. I tried to time it to wet only my calves but misjudged a sprinkler’s rotation, and was promptly sodden from my crotch to my knees. I had to ride home looking for all the world like I had wet my pants; even my underwear was soaked.

Some mystics suggest that a little humiliation is good for the soul. It reminds one of one’s place in the world; it punctures one’s pretensions; it keeps one humble.

Lucky me – I am humiliated all the time. Like so many parents, I have generally relied on young children for my daily dose. It began at childbirth – the little poo that came out with the baby – and was quickly matched by the baby’s far greater poonami in a public place that shot up to her shoulder blades and smeared over my hands as I discreetly tried to clean it up. There were so many little episodes: the pregnant woman’s desperate need to pee seventeen times in an hour and the toddler who absolutely must piddle in the gutter right now; the mother screaming at the three year old and the three year old screaming at the supermarket. My oldest daughter was two when she first asked me to ‘dress more stylish’; how humiliating, to be chastened for one’s fashion sense by a person who had recently dangled her plaits in the toilet. I might have looked more chic had I not gone out so many times with a smear of snot on my black-clad shoulder, unseen until I left the house.

It reminds me of a local mum, when she and her husband first left the kids overnight. For the first time in years, she wore a strapless dress and dined at an elegant restaurant with friends. Halfway through the meal, someone pointed to her bare shoulder and asked, ‘What’s that?’. She turned and discovered a parting gift from her children: a louse. Humiliations galore!

Of course, these are only the physical embarrassments that children bring. More toxic, there have been times when my behaviour has been so abominable that I have felt sick with shame. My frustration, my filthy temper, even my violence – and always over the little things – have shown me how frail I am. Without enough sleep, without food at very regular intervals, without a bit of peace and quiet, I am absolutely unbearable – and without children, I might not have learned just how low I can go.

So I am grateful to the kids for the small humiliations, and the ways they have shown me up; and I am grateful to have learned that despite it all, I am loved. Yet the kids are growing up. I get more sleep, less snot and have better learned how to regulate my mood; and the humiliations seem to have dwindled. Am I at risk of being overtaken by pride?

On reflection, whether it’s wobbling on my bicycle and falling in slow motion into the gutter (my six year old laughed so hard she was nearly sick); or eating a rare candy, losing my temper, and having my eight year old ask quietly, ‘Have you eaten sugar?’ – well, I find I am quite able to humiliate myself without the children’s help.

It takes very little to tip me over: a steep camber on a road, a teaspoon of sugar on an empty stomach; clearly, I am unbalanced. It’s embarrassing, but what’s a girl to do other than look in the mirror, recognise the fact, and sigh?

A good humiliation used to make me feel physically ill; I suspect it was because it was so challenging. I had a puffed up ego but was empty inside; to burst the bubble was terrifying. These days, I feel more grounded, more humble. I am beginning to know who I am. I’m no giant, just a little person pottering along close to the earth; I have less distance to fall.

And so humiliation is losing its power over me. These days, I tend to see it as an opportunity. If I am humiliated by my own behaviour, it’s a chance to apologise, and learn. If I am humiliated by something that happened to me, it’s a chance to let go of my sense of self-importance: who am I that I can’t look silly sometimes? Often, I even find myself laughing.

A humble person can’t really be humiliated; and by taking the humiliations on board and letting them break through my pretences bit by bit, I am slowly getting there. Even wet from the crotch down, I wasn’t really embarrassed; instead, I imagined with delight the gales of laughter as I would tell a particular friend. So I think the ancients were right: a little humiliation has been good for my soul.

I was out walking, pondering these things and thinking I should write them down, when a bird anointed my forehead with crap.

(Disclaimer: Of course, this doesn’t mean that humiliating others is ever okay, nor does it mean that one should remain in an abusive relationship where humiliation is the norm. On the one hand, the world provides plenty of humiliating moments without our help; on the other, we do not need to seek out humiliations in some kind of cosmic self-flagellation. But those that do come our way... well, we can use them.)

The Princess Bride (Deluxe Edition) "Humiliations galore!"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Sun: Forgetting

The following piece appeared in the Readers Write section of The Sun last month. The Sun is my favourite magazine, jam-packed with strong writing. I recommend it very, very highly. You can read excerpts from each issue on the website, and also find subscription details there – yes, they do post to Australia. If you want to hear the piece below read as a podcast by the kind folk at the Audio Internet Reading Service of Los Angeles, click here; then click on 'The Internet Part 3 / Forgetting Part 1'. My piece begins at 10.33 – but why not listen to the whole thing!


At my mother's funeral, a family friend took me aside, gave me a hug, and said, "You'll soon forget all the illness and be left with just happy memories."

She's a good friend, but she was wrong.

When I was a teenager, my mother worked seventy- and eighty-hour weeks, and I went days on end without seeing her. At the age of seventeen I moved out, feeling I barely knew her at all. A year later I went home for my first visit. While I was there, my mother woke one morning to find she had no feeling in her left leg.

Within eight years she was dead from a particularly vicious form of multiple sclerosis: Eight years of burning pain, progressive numbness, and creeping paralysis. Five years of wheelchairs. Two years of quadriplegia. More than a year of hearing loss and vision impairment. And, at the end, nothing but a tiny voice squeezed out of lungs so weakened by paralysis that they finally stopped expanding.

I'm now thirty-six, and I can barely remember my mother when she was well. When I try to think of her walking, it's a blur; images of her standing are summoned from photographs. Instead I remember crooked hands, swollen feet in orthopedic shoes resting on the footplates of a wheelchair. Her skin was dry and sloughing off (a side effect of her medication). The bright-eyed, inquisitive mother of my childhood had become lethargic, heavy, and dulled by pain. I can't even remember her original voice. The illness was all-encompassing. In frustration and grief I have largely given up trying to remember; instead I look for her in me.

When I wash dishes, there are her hands, setting the dish rag out to dry. When I hang laundry, there are her fingers, clipping pins to the corners of my sheets. I sit at my desk and feel the resolute set of her jaw. I look in the mirror and see her eyes looking back at me, kinder now than they often were.

It's not quite remembering, these little glimpses of my mother in me, but it's enough. I think of it as a friendly haunting — painful at times but infinitely better than no memories of her at all.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why we no longer watch television


A witch visited our house. She was delivering her teenage daughter, who came for a week to do work experience in my husband’s office. On her way out the witch said with a wink, ‘Now, these people don’t have a television...’. It was clearly a suggestion that the daughter could find better ways to relax than to immerse herself in the big screen; we laughed, and waved the witch off into the night.

The next evening we had organised to go out; the daughter was to babysit. As we were leaving, we showed her where the TV is shut in a cupboard, and went to turn it on. Dead screen. We fiddled with switches, we checked the plugs, we swapped around cords and power boards. Nothing.

Realising that the witch had done her work, we shrugged, handed over the iPad, and left.

Now, our television is pretty old; we’ve had it fixed before. And it is analogue. Our city has introduced digital channels, which we don’t get; and in 2013 the analogue system will be switched off altogether. Calling the repair man seems pretty pointless. So what should we do? Should we rush out and buy a new TV, finally getting a flat screen, digital channels, and a bit of equality with the Joneses?

Probably not. My husband and I have mixed feelings about television. We have used it perhaps more than we would have hoped with young children; but as a babysitter when the kids are squabbling and the baby’s crying and I’m alone in the house and it’s time to cook dinner, it has been tremendously useful. Our kids watch little TV, but a fair few videos and DVDs – at least one or two nights a week.

When we first heard that the analogue system was being phased out, we decided that we wouldn’t get a digital box. We’d still be able to watch DVDs and videos; we could access iView and YouTube on the iPad; and the kids didn’t need to be bombarded with advertisements for cheap plastic crap. Too, we adults didn’t want to be distracted by all the things we could watch on the extra digital channels; we find it easier to choose to talk or read when there’s nothing on.

And next year seemed like good timing. The kids are getting older. They are more able to entertain themselves when they are tired; and they are also more likely to ask to see those adult programs that so many of their peers seem to watch. But we don’t want to watch those shows, and we don’t want them to absorb the ads: for beauty products and flat tummies which create dissatisfaction and desire where none previously existed; for homicide shows with their victims carved into pieces for our nightly entertainment; for beauty pageants and celebrity crap. It’s all lies dressed up as entertainment; all the violence and vacuity of our culture beamed right into our living room.

So we’re happy enough to get rid of the beast; we were preparing for its demise; but it died a few months early. Suddenly I’m catapulted into a slight panic, acutely aware of just how weird our kids already are, and knowing they will remain slightly marginalised as long as they have such limited access to popular culture. I think I’m okay with that... I suspect it’s in their long term best interests... and they are so energetic and creative... In any case, getting rid of the TV is hardly the radical option of fifteen years ago, before DVDs and the internet were so entertaining.

And yet, like every choice that goes against the cultural grain, I have to question our decision and wonder if it’s wrong – even when I know so deep in my bones that, for our family, it is absolutely right.

Photo shows self-portrait with abandoned tv - not ours. I have counted twelve dumped tvs in our suburb in the few weeks since ours died. Many of them have signs saying 'still working'. Who are these people who are throwing them out? And why do they dump them in the streets and local parks???

Monday, October 15, 2012

Just being and birds in the local park


She asked to go to the park.

We’d dropped her sisters at school and were on our way home. Someone was coming for lunch. The floor needed vacuuming. The bathroom needed scrubbing. The washing needed hanging out. I wanted to make soup and deliver it to a friend. The day was cold and damp, and I’d forgotten my scarf. We were on the bike. I almost said no. But...

Fifteen minutes, I said. Fifteen minutes, then home.

And at the park we found six rainbow lorikeets, learning to fly. Hop, jump, flutter, flap; they bumbled back and forth. Up on a pole, and onto the roof of the play fort. Back to a branch, and whoops-a-daisy, a bird chose a twig too weak and was flopped upside down, raucously indignant as it hung. We stood in a patch of weak sunlight, entranced.

Like little children, the birds fell into a wrestling match. They tumbled over and over the grass, shrieking and beating their wings. Watching the whirlwind of bright feathers and squawks, we hollered and laughed.

Then up they flew for more flying practice. In a moment of quiet, she rested her head against my chest and listened. Kerthump kerthump, is that your heart? she asked, while the lorikeets flapped higher and higher, into the very treetops.

The birds were gone. She hugged me, then walked to the bike trailer and popped on her helmet.

Home now, she said.

To think I’d almost said no.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Domestic Violence


A couple of weeks ago, a woman walking home after a night out with friends was abducted, raped and murdered; the abduction took place near the end of my street. It is, of course, the talk of my social circle; it could have been any of us. Like so many women, I go out with friends at least once a week and often walk or cycle home late. I like to be out alone at night, breathing the scents of the evening. Windows flicker with the light of the television, music drifts through the air, and I move quietly through the darkness, dreaming my suburb.

I have some concerns for my safety, of course; I've had too many encounters to be entirely comfortable. Sometimes I wear a hoodie; I'm always in flat shoes; I never use headphones. I avoid groups of men, crossing the road or ducking into shadows if necessary; and I'm not afraid of kneeing a man in the balls if he gets too close – and I've done it, too. But I also refuse to be confined to my home at night. I don't live in Saudi Arabia, and I won't act like I do.

As I get older and greyer, I take fewer precautions; sexual violence is more often directed towards younger women. Yet the woman who was snatched was not much younger than me, and I am shocked. I'm not the only one: hundreds of people have placed bouquets and candles outside the shop where she was last seen, and on the steps of the local church just down the hill. There has been a march to 'reclaim' the street, and informal nightly vigils as people stand and ponder, perhaps to pray.

This is all well and good. The crime was terrible, and it is right to think about how and why it happened; but I also find myself wondering why this very rare crime has led to such an outpouring of public grief when domestic violence is so common. A friend was telling me of a woman she met last year who was murdered by her partner soon afterwards; and of another woman, whose partner attempted to kill her and is now in prison. These crimes also happened in my suburb, but there were no public vigils and flowers in the street.

On a lesser scale, a different friend lives between two households where domestic violence is a regular event; on bad nights, she calls the police then sticks her pillow over her head to block out the screams. This year, three women I know have left verbally abusive and controlling, if not physically violent, relationships; other friends still live in such marriages.

It's not that I live among depraved people. We're all nice, well-educated, thoroughly middle-class women who know our rights; and the men involved are personable and charming – in public at least. Instead, these glimpses illustrate an awful reality: violence against women is all too common.

Feelings of violence against women, whether or not the feelings are physically expressed, are also common. Our society has a sick desire to see women harmed, and sexually promiscuous women, especially prostitutes, slaughtered; you cannot turn on the television any night of the week without seeing at least one murdered woman. It's gussied up as drama with a few twists to keep you guessing, but the fact that women are killed, and often found dismembered or rotting, night after night for the sake of entertainment is hardly benign.

And so I wonder about the flowers and the vigil. Was it really all about the terrible death of one woman walking home late at night? Or was it a safe way for women to express grief over the violence that so many experience in their own homes? Perhaps it is a bit of both.

I also wonder how much has been spent on the flowers; and how much has been donated to women's shelters, or to men's behavioural change programs? Because if we are truly concerned by violence, we will do more than attend vigils and buy flowers for a dead woman. We will also look closely at our society and what simmers beneath the surface. As friends, we will make safe places for others to talk about what is happening at home, and we will defend and support them if they decide to leave; as parents, we will teach our sons to recognise their feelings and to express anger, frustration and shame in healthy and constructive ways; and as citizens, we will direct resources towards the living women and children who experience violence every day, who dread the sounds of His car rolling into the driveway and His key fumbling in the lock, because He is coming home.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

City Life, and a Conversation


I have lived in the city my whole life, and it has made me defensive. I avoid people’s eyes when I’m walking down the street; I avert my face from the stranger on the train. You never know when you will be asked if you have been saved (correct answer: yes, thank you, and hallelujah! This is my stop...); asked if you have a dollar; or told at great length about tedious grandchildren. Perhaps this is why so many of us drive – it’s a great way to stay in one’s bubble.

This regular practice of avoidance takes its toll, however. I’ve done it for so long that it has become a habit of mind; and I realise that, rather than it being a deliberate strategy I adopt when necessary, it has become my starting point. I now find myself avoiding people when I have no need to: in the playground, on the footpath, sometimes even at home without really meaning to. It’s not that I don’t want to talk. It’s just that somehow it’s all a bit hard, and the sense of risk outweighs the possible benefit.

Not long ago, I climbed onto a bus. There was a vacant seat next to a crinkly old man. His crumpled face was dotted with liver spots and skin tags. He had grown too small for his clothes and they hung from his skinny little frame. One glance, and my alarm bells began to ring. Would he insist on telling me about his long life? Would he be smelly, perhaps even incontinent? Would he be very strange?

I didn’t know, but I am sick of that constant companion, trepidation. So I sat next to him – coward that I am, however, I armed myself with a book.

But buses and books don’t agree with me, so I soon shut it again. And the man, whom I had felt reading over my shoulder, asked me what I thought of it. ‘I knew the author,’ he said, ‘when he was at Melbourne University. His wife and mine were great friends. But I haven’t read that one.’

‘Oh?’ I asked, ‘and what did you study?’

‘I was a teacher,’ he said. ‘I taught a lot of new migrants. Had a terrific time. They called me il Professore!’

I read with refugee kids each week, so I mentioned that. And we suddenly launched into one of those great big life-giving conversations, ranging from refugee kids, ghetto schools and educational practices, to the process of writing and action research. ‘Life,’ I suggested, ‘is one big action research project’ and he nodded emphatically, and laughed.

He told me about volunteering with older boys at the youth remand centre. He encouraged them to write stories about their life ‘behind the roller door’, and arranged to have their work published. ‘You’re authors now,’ he’d say to them, ‘so write more! Write more!’

‘What a man!’ I thought. It was the best conversation I’d had in weeks, the sort of I’d hope for at a good party.

The burden of living in a city is also its great gift: the daily interactions with strangers. It takes time and energy, and the bypassing of caution, to engage in these friendly encounters. But when I do, there is one thing I’ve learned: I am surprised and delighted time and again, even on the local bus.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Reaping the Inner Harvest

Gardens are bountiful places, and more things grow than just plants: gentleness, perhaps, and patience, and the bright green shoots of hope.


To read more, click on the embedded link below and flick to the back; or click here and follow the link to download the issue to your iPad.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Witch Doctor

This piece first appeared in Zadok Perspectives No. 113 (Summer 2012). The Winter edition is out now, with my reflection on the houses in my dreams.


What would it have been like to be healed by Jesus? I have largely regarded the healing stories to be about the restoration of people to their community; but more recently I have had such a strange experience of physical healing that I find myself revisiting them.

For many years now, I have been tired, very tired, so that I always feel like I am wading through molasses. I have mentioned this to several GPs, who have all patted me on the head and told me it's grief / I have young children / it'll go away.

For many years, too, I have had mild twinges in my joints whenever I stood up, brushed my teeth, or turned around too sharply. I have put on weight; felt bloated; caught every bug that went around; and experienced many other small niggles, all of which I dismissed as signs of aging. Until recently. Recently, the twinges in the joints became screaming pain, so that for a few days I could barely turn on a tap, pick up a pen, or go up or down a step. This was clearly not right for someone in her middle thirties, so I went to the doctor.

Blood tests established that I didn't have rheumatoid arthritis, or any of a dozen other conditions. The doctor announced it must be viral arthritis, handed me a script for anti-inflammatories, and told me to prepare for the next few months as the virus slowly worked its way through my system.

But the diagnosis didn't fit. I explained that this pain wasn't new; instead, it was an exacerbation of my normal. I had experienced aches and pains in my joints for years, and blaming a virus didn't make sense; however, the doctor was unmoved. So off I went, clutching my script and wondering.

A couple of painful weeks later, someone recommended a natural therapist who had a knack with odd conditions. In desperation, I arranged a visit. The therapist greeted me but asked no questions about my symptoms. Instead, he looked into my eyes with a torch for about thirty seconds, then said that I had a deeply depressed adrenal gland. So, he said matter-of-factly, I expect you've been having severe arthritis; lethargy and fatigue; chronic dermatitis; weight gain; lots of colds, flus and gastro; bloating especially after eating wheat; heavier periods; anxiety; and perhaps depression. You've been suffering most of these symptoms for years now. What was the traumatic event five to ten years ago that triggered it?

Once I had scraped my chin off the floor, I confirmed that I had all the symptoms bar full on depression, although I had certainly lost my spark; and that, among a cluster of major events about a decade ago, my mother had died.

'That would be it,' he said, 'but don't worry, this is easy to treat', and he prescribed a four month program of meditation, stringent dietary restrictions, herbal tablets and exercise; he told me I'd be right as rain in no time, with more energy than I'd had in years.

I went home and ate forbidden bread and butter, then polished off some forbidden chocolate. That evening, I sucked down a pint or two of forbidden beer, and reflected on the course of treatment.

What I began to realise was that I was reluctant even to try it.

Of course I longed to feel energetic, of course I didn't want to feel joint pain, of course I was fed up with being sick, of course I wanted to lose weight. And yet how much of my writing has come out of a slow approach to life that is a physical result of lethargy? How much of my reflective nature is a gift that comes out of pain? How many of my friendships are based on a personality which is shaped, to some extent, by being in this particular body that feels this particular way?

I was scared to follow the regimen because I didn't want it to work. I knew how to be an exhausted, flat, mildly depressive person who feels slightly sick every time she eats a sandwich. I barely remembered the playful, mischievous person I once was; and I didn't know how to integrate her into my relationships with my husband, my children, or anyone else.

I had felt old for such a long time. I didn't know what it would be like to feel young again; long ago I had accepted that I was aging, and modified my life and expectations accordingly.

Too, I'm a cook with a blog about local food. I knew how to use spelt and apples and cream; I didn't know how to cook and write about a gluten free, fruit free, dairy free, sugar free diet necessarily reliant on grains from thousands of miles away.

The concerns were ridiculous, of course – how much more joyful would life be if my energy and playfulness were restored? – but knowing this didn't make them go away.

It made me wonder about the people Jesus healed: was it all plain sailing for them? Or did they, too, struggle to give up some aspects of their self-definition as a cripple, a bleeding woman, a blind man, an outsider? And it caused me to reflect on other aspects of life. How often do we compromise or even refuse healing – physical, emotional or spiritual – because we're too scared of change, even if it's change for good?

I couldn't answer these questions, but I needed to make a choice. Would I opt for the comforting familiarity of pain and fatigue, and the person I had become; or would I take a punt on the mysterious promise of naturopathic healing and all that might unfold?

A day or two later, I grit my teeth and went shopping, stocking up on nuts, corn cakes and vegetables. At the time of writing, I've been on the program for a week and am already feeling a little better: like a crippled man throwing away his crutches, I have hurled the anti-inflammatories into the deep recesses of the medicine cabinet and am running up and down the stairs again.

As a child, I longed for Jesus to cure all my ills. Now I wonder if the Great Healer is to be found in an uncanny iridologist nicknamed the Witch Doctor. He looked into my eyes and perceived my pain, both physical and emotional; he saw me as an integrated whole. It is possible that what was promised has come, once again, to pass: I have encountered Christ in the stranger, and a very strange one at that.

(To those lovely people who first read this in Zadok and wrote to me about coeliac disease – put your minds at rest. I have had a gastroscopy and I do not have coeliac disease, just a nasty gluten intolerance.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A short conversation which makes it abundantly clear why we need to spend time with different people

The kid: Not many Muslim teachers, in fact only one at this school.

Me: When you and your cousins and your friends grow up, some of you can become teachers and then there will be more Muslim teachers in the schools.

The kid: Yes! And then one day they will all be Muslim teachers inshallah.

Me: Well, that rules me out.

The kid (long pause as he cocks his head to one side and looks at me, then): Maybe we could work together.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In which I discover my bedroom is an unnecessary luxury


There was something rotten in our bedroom. I am not talking about my love life, but about the smell of putrefaction which emanated from the wall just behind the headboard of our bed. Something had died in there, and it stank.

The first night, we had just returned from holidays. I walked in, blenched, and wondered what terrible food the house sitters had been cooking. The second night it was stronger, so I blamed my husband's gym shoes and banished them to the hall. The stench grew worse. I sniffed around and located the smell, then we reversed the pillows, remade the bed, and tried to sleep with our toes to the headboard. Fifteen minutes later I was trying not to gag, so we rolled up our futon, carried it into the lounge room, and camped for a week.

Lying there at night, my thoughts turned to Tokyo. Many people in Japan sleep in the same room in which they spend time during the day; the futon is rolled away each morning. Millions, perhaps billions, of people sleep in their living rooms; and so did our forebears, whether in tiny huts or larger Saxon halls.

I have grown up in a wealthy bubble of human history, the modern West, and have always had a designated bedroom; but now I am wondering why. It was so comfortable to sleep low on the floor, where our beautiful woollen rug lay at eye level; it was so cosy to gaze up at the shelves of books lining one wall of the room. Sounds were muted by the books and soft furniture, and I slept and made love very well. Meanwhile, our kids came in early for cuddles in bed, something that hadn't happened for a long time.

Each morning my husband rolled up the mattress and tucked it between couch and cupboard; the floor was freed up for play. Each evening he unrolled it again and, after a moment's ritualistic re-tucking of the sheets, we slipped into bed. It was hardly onerous.

Meanwhile, our once warm bedroom felt empty and cold, and I began to realise it was not the room designation but the presence of the mattress which made it a good place to sleep.

It led me to wonder why we have separate rooms for sleeping and reading and playing. Is it habit? Culture? Class? Is it a statement of wealth? Since I spent a week sleeping in the lounge room, my house has felt ridiculously big.

We're not about to downsize in a hurry, but it raises questions about the norm. Our house is smaller than the average Australian new home; even so it often echoes. Are there ways of living so we have privacy and elbow room, and yet use most of the space most of the time? Must some rooms remain vacant all day and others empty all night, or could we remain comfortable were they to double in purpose?

It was liberating to realise we don't need such a large house, that we are flexible enough to adapt. If we want to downsize or change how we live, if we want to go live in a shack, we can; and we can hold these ideas loosely until their time comes.

As I pondered these things, the ants kept busy behind the skirting board, and I became intrigued by this unseen catalyst. In making us uncomfortable enough to move, in provoking questions about how we live and what we need, even the death of a small hidden thing became a gift.

Now we are back in our bedroom and a perfect skeleton, picked clean, lies invisible to me just inches from my head. What further ideas will grow out of it? What dreams will it bring? What mysteries does it hold? I will find out by lying quietly in the darkness, and listening to the silence.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Response: Stuart Brown's Play

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul

I have long noticed that when I am flat I become obsessed by Getting Things Done. The dishes, the floors and the dinners become important and difficult and time consuming and I find it hard to enjoy my children or anything else. The old adage suggests that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and a lack of play certainly makes me very dull indeed – but work and play are not, I find, in opposition. When I regularly engage in play, I work better and life goes rather more swimmingly. The jobs get done quickly, my kids are delightful, and I find the time to play even more. I recently read a book which, rather gratifyingly, supports my observations: Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul suggests that the opposite of play is not work, but depression.

The triggers for depression, of course, are another thing. Our society’s frenzied and selfish pursuit of financial success and personal happiness is a major trigger; so are the self-help books which encourage these twin and very tedious foci, and Play toes the party line. According to the blurb, ‘our ability to play through life is the single most important factor in determining our success and happiness’, which suggests to me that Play is designed to be picked up at the airport and read on the plane by middle management. As a result, many claims in the book are justified by the suggestion that they might increase one’s marketability, profit margin and, of course, happiness – whatever that is.

It would irritate me more but for my many crappy experiences of work which suggest that middle management has much to learn about how to set up interesting, rewarding and effective workplaces, and if Play will help them with that task, then it has my blessing. In any case, being pitched at middle management makes it a quick and easy read. Meanwhile, those of us not in middle management who are willing to overlook the success-and-happiness formula (and a few gross generalisations, such as which are playful thus creative countries) will find many interesting and salutary points.

Brown has studied play for many decades, and this book outlines his understanding of the nature of play, its necessity to human health and development, and the benefits of a playful approach to the whole of one’s life. An activity not just for children, Brown defines play as a state of mind: ‘an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time’. Thus it might range from filling in the cryptic crossword to kicking a ball to going for an aimless wander. Play is vital because it is in this unconscious absorption we tune into the world and are freed from our limitations; and it provides an outlet for our deepest most creative selves.

As a result, Brown claims that people who play are more creative, energetic and insightful; they are better at solving problems and negotiating difficulties and conflicts; and they continue to grow intellectually and emotionally.

Of course this is good for the workplace, but it is also good for everything else, and Brown writes convincingly about the importance of play in child development, parenting, marriage and old age, as well as in education and vocational discernment. When so many of us are bogged down in the rat race, it is helpful to be reminded just how invigorating it can be to step out of the rut and play with one’s kids, one’s spouse, one’s friends, one’s neighbours, or even, shock horror, alone.

Brown does not specifically mention meditation, but as I read I found myself reflecting on the relationship between it and play. They are, to me, two sides of a coin, as good play, particularly solitary play, often precipitates in me a meditative stance. For example, letting the busy part of my mind wander through the cryptic crossword can provide the space for deeper insights than simple anagrams.

Much of what Brown says is common sense: of course your marriage is more interesting if you have a playful approach to it; of course playful people are better at solving problems. But sometimes common sense is not so obvious, and our natural desire to play is often suffocated by societal pressures to act ‘grown up’, as if being adult requires that one become stultifyingly dull. Therefore, despite my reservations about the success/happiness paradigm and my dislike of a few generalisations, I recommend Play to you, along with a good game of Scrabble, an evening of parlour games, or a thrilling round of hide and seek.

Parlour Games for Modern Families

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Why I no longer draw with my children


So many children are easily discouraged about their creative abilities. Even my own.

I first realised this while drawing. I love to draw, but for all my resolutions, I rarely make the time to do it. Every now and then, however, when my kids were drawing and I had a few minutes, I would sit down at the end of the table, pull over a piece of paper, and begin to sketch. Within minutes they would stop, every time; and it took me years to notice.

Why are you stopping? I'd ask.

Because I can’t draw, they'd say.

And so I'd say useless things like, We all draw differently just as we all have different singing voices; what you’re doing is fantastic; and if you’re looking at mine you need to remember I’ve had 30 years’ more practice. But it was too late; they’d have shoved the paper away by then.

Worse still, they might then ask me to draw an elephant or whatever, because they ‘couldn’t’. Sometimes I did, but then I felt like I’d failed them; sometimes I didn’t, and they made me feel so mean. Yet I couldn't see how me doing their drawing helped them to develop a style or build confidence, so I finally solved the problem by refusing to draw with them at all.

I ran into a similar issue at school. I read and write with school kids in a one on one program. During first semester of this year, I thought we could play with journaling. Each week I read out a story, we asked wondering questions, then we sat side by side writing a response to the questions raised by the story. And week after week, despite the constraints of shaping my handwriting to Victorian standard cursive, I’d still fall into my own little world and get lost in a story; and the kid would look over at some stage and sigh. Yes? I’d say, Would you like to share what you’ve done?

Nah, the kid would say; and then sometimes they’d exclaim that they couldn’t write. No matter what I said, and no matter how much praise I lavished on them, if the kid looked at my page of neat handwriting, discouragement would set in. Yet I was so desperate to write with anyone, even a seven year old, that it took me a while to realise what was happening.

Finally, I began to wonder about how I related to people who were ‘better’ than me. I have a very competitive streak, held firmly in check, and so I have always found it difficult to make friends with people who are smarter / more qualified / better at everything. Because I know this about myself and have worked on it for years, most of my friends are indeed smarter / more qualified / better at everything and my life has been enormously enriched by this; but it has taken me a long time to get to this place.

Even now, I struggle to go out on a limb in front of anyone except a child. I can write, sketch, sing loudly and do a dance if there’s a child needing to be drawn out; but never, never for an adult. I wouldn’t want to draw in front of a ‘real’ artist or write in front of a ‘real’ writer, so how could I expect a child to?

So I began opting out at school just as I did at home. Because I hate the idea of sitting there idly or, worse, watching, while a kid dreams and writes awhile, I take in the cryptic crossword. Now we do the reading and wondering together, then the kid is cut loose to respond while I scratch my head and fill in a few clues. They glance over from time to time and see my pathetic scratchings, and the mistakes crossed out, and all the empty boxes, and grin to themselves, then stick their nose back into their own story. At the end of the session my puzzle is still only a quarter filled in while their story, about something in which they are the only expert, is an accomplished piece: something to be really proud of; and the only one left feeling like an idiot is, very happily, me.

PS - I came across this piece on *not* drawing for children; it clearly articulates that towards which I am fumbling.

Pictures show my oldest daughter's portrait of 'Sam' from Sam and the Tigers, a gorgeous Black reclamation of the story of Little Black Sambo by Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney, drawn when she was three; and a spinning top, which she drew at 8 - the things she gets up to when I'm not looking!

Sam and the Tigers: A New Telling of Little Black Sambo

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Becoming childlike


There is nothing more relaxing than resting in my daughter’s bed. While she’s at school, I often slip into her room and have a little lie down. From where I am nestled into the bedclothes, the ceiling looks far off. I feel safe and small, and my worries drift away. For a few precious minutes I am no longer the adult, with all the responsibilities it entails; instead I am a little girl with nothing on her mind. I watch the shadows dance on the wall; I listen to the wind; I may even have a nap. Fifteen minutes later I rise, refreshed, and get back to work.

There’s something about her bed that aids this. My own bed is an adult bed, and I share it with my husband. Our three children were all conceived in the bed, and the work of childbirth began there every time. At night, we lie there and talk about our hopes, our frustrations, our fears. In sad times, we’ve sobbed there and held each other tight; in hard times, we’ve lain there wondering who we have married, and why; and often, of course, we make love. There’s nothing wrong with our bed, but it’s full of adult memories.

On the other hand, my daughter’s bed is a child’s bed. It smells of sleep, and reminds me of flannelette pyjamas and stories, cuddles and night time songs. Nothing much to think about, nothing much to worry about, just gentleness and love. Through the physical act of lying there, I feel myself becoming receptive, trusting, hopeful, content.

Jesus said that to enter the mystery you must become childlike once again. Lying in my daughter’s bed, for those few precious minutes, I feel like I can almost let go.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The serious rider


The Tour de France is over, once again, and my husband, my father and even my hairdresser are no longer sitting up late each night watching the stage until they fall asleep. Throughout the Tour I was given little morsels about tacks on the road, breathtaking challenges, mind games that were being played out as serious riders charged straight up mountains and hurled themselves down the other side. Apparently, it was riveting stuff.

I had a haircut, and while my hairdresser snipped away we had a long conversation about the Tour and bikes. Bless his soul, he wears Lycra as he rides his ten thousand dollar training machine up hill and down dale four days a week. He has two other bikes, one for racing and one for fun. Is he a serious rider? You bet.

Me, I ride to school and tootle around our suburb on a sturdy grey thing, and that’s about it. Every morning my three year old asks, ‘how are we travelling mama?’; and when I say ‘bike’ she runs to get her pink helmet then climbs into the trailer.

Sometimes she takes a book or toy; on cold days she grabs a rug. She’s unsuccessfully campaigned to bring my laptop so she can look at photos while we’re riding along, and she provides a running commentary on the state of the road and which potholes to avoid. She has strong opinions about which route I should take and is not afraid to voice them.

Her voice fills the air as I pedal and think to myself that pink helmets are not much defence against a collision and the trailer’s orange flag could be easily missed. I am always aware that something small and oh! so precious is tagging along behind me.

Meanwhile, my six and eight year old daughters are alongside and I never stop calculating. As we ride I call instructions: stop, that’s great, move to the left, give them a wide berth, turn right here, wait! Good job.

I block a dangerous corner and they ride past, then I race ahead to check the next crossing. We go the quiet route, but even so cars shoot out of driveways, turn without indicating and overtake in alarming ways. Riding with kids is work, very enjoyable when all goes well but not really a game.

I’m not remotely fanatical. We catch the tram on rainy days and we never go far. There are no hill climbs on our route, no breakaways, no peloton; we have no Lycra or ten thousand dollar bikes. You see people like me in every suburb on a school morning: a constantly vigilant parent drilling children in the patterns of traffic, the exceptions to watch out for, and the ways to ride well. We may cycle for hours every week but there will never be a television show, or even a bike shop, devoted to us. We’re low profile; yet as you drive past you can’t ignore the cavalcade as we shepherd it safely to school.

Listening to talk about the Tour de France I smile and nod my head sagely; but to myself I wonder who, exactly, is the serious rider?

Room on the Broom

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why every marriage proposal should be vetted by an 8 year old

I was sitting in a classroom reading with a kid. He's not a terrible reader, but he's much more interested in motorbikes and planes. As we tried to focus on a boring book about dogs, I happened to glance up and saw a skywriter working above us. I showed the kid, and we stopped and watched as the plane looped and turned.



What could he be writing, we wondered. Made? Match? Ma....








Marry Me!

We wondered who.



Could it be the teacher, Ellie???? The kid was very excited for a minute.






Marry Me Elaine

What sort of name is that? asked the kid.

I dunno, I said. But maybe a woman named Elaine is sitting in a fancy restaurant and some man is telling her to look out the window.


It keeps going!



I *heart* you!!!


Should she marry him?, I asked the kid. I reckon the skywriting cost as much as a second hand car.

Hmmm, he said as he rubbed his chin. That man's a show off. Maybe it would be better if she didn't marry him.

Then he shrugged, turned away from the window, and drew the plane.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Practicing Gratitude


The following piece appeared in The Sunday Age faith column yesterday.


My six year old recently fractured her wrist. It could have felt like a disaster, but to my surprise the day was a study in gratitude.

My daughter is a monkey, forever up a tree or perched atop a netball pole, and a fall and break were practically inevitable. Luckily, she sustained only a minor fracture, needing no more than a slab cast strapped to her wrist, and for that I was grateful. We spent the day together, a rare treat now she's at school, and she nestled quietly into my lap in each waiting room. I brought along her favourite book and we cuddled, chatted, and read folktales while we waited. What a privilege, I thought, and said a prayer of thanks.

Meanwhile, her younger sister was collected from kinder by a woman who, I realised that day, is beginning to be a friend; and this realisation dawned on me with the gentle caress of a blessing.

How we experience life is so dependent on our attitude: do we regard life as a gift, or a curse? I certainly used to experience most things as a curse, and life was a painful burden; but over the last ten years, I've been practicing gratitude.

I started small, looking for a tiny flower in the crack of a grim stretch of pavement, a smile from a stranger's baby, a word of kindness between two women on a train, and tried to feel grateful for those little things. I discovered that the more I looked and the more I practiced, the more grateful I became. Even better, as I sought to find blessings in small things, I learned to recognise blessings at times where once I would have struggled – when my daughter broke her arm, for example.

Between one thing and another, I spend a lot of time with young children, and I am often reminded that the skills which most of us take for granted – walking, talking, writing, reading, counting – are learned only very slowly. Babies cruise the furniture for months before walking; toddlers need countless interactions with parents and neighbours and ladies at the post office before they begin to chat. It takes months, even years, of solid hard work as children try, try and try again to master these basic skills.

As adults we often forget this, and forget our own capacity to learn. But just imagine what we could accomplish if we really put our minds to it! Patience, kindness, self-control, peacefulness, gentleness and, of course, gratitude could all be ours, if only we are prepared to take small steps and put in the hours of practice.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Not unique at all

I was hanging around my daughter’s classroom when I saw a large board with the statement ‘My family is unique because...’. Pasted around the statement were folded slips of paper. On the flap of each slip in wobbly letters was the reason a family was unique; unfolded, it revealed a child’s name. My curiosity piqued, I took a closer look.

In my daughter’s handwriting I saw ‘We have chickens (ones of our own)’, and smiled. Not unique in our suburb, but perhaps in her class it’s a contender.

Some kids felt unique because of the languages they speak at home: Somali, Maori, Hungarian, Bengali. Some felt it for sad reasons: ‘I live with my mum one week and my dad the next’ / ‘because we are separated’.

Others were unique because: ‘We wach TV in the middel of the day some times’ (shock horror); ‘We do not like foote’ (in the footy loving city of Melbourne, gasp); and ‘We like to walk everywhere’ (note the emphasis, poor kid!).

The prize for most left of field went to: ‘We go to the chiropractor on Saturdays.’ (every Saturday???).

And my favourite, although I’m not sure it makes the whole family unique: ‘I open the tapse. I ptend to have a shawa and I stand out of the bathroom.’

It got me to thinking. What makes my family unique? We eat a lot of wholegrains, but so do most people I know. I love red meat but my husband is vegetarian, like two other families in my choir. I write, my husband’s a lawyer: well, there are lots of lawyers and writers at our school. Our family laughs hysterically whenever someone falls down, but then Buster Keaton would never have been famous if it weren’t for people like us. We have too many books, like half our suburb. There is stuff about us on a blog, as for several other school families. We go to church with a bunch of other people. I couldn’t think of a single thing that made us unique.

On my way home, I visited a second hand bookshop and got talking to the owner. He’s a writer, as am I; and somehow it came out that we both grew up in the Baptist church. I glanced at the business card on his desk and realised I knew his father, a minister, who once worked with my mother, also a minister. Another customer joined the conversation; he was from the same milieu. ‘It’s like a Baptist revival meeting,’ I said, and came to the conclusion that we are not unique, not at all.

It felt like a heresy. We are barraged daily by advertising which suggests we are so terribly special that we are entitled to countless privileges; yet when I realised just how far we are from original I felt profoundly relieved. It means we have found a cohort in which we can be whoever it is we need to be. We can eat wholegrains and ride everywhere and have too many books and write about our lives and keep chickens and laugh ourselves silly when we see someone fall over, and nobody much will ever blink an eyelid. How liberating. The Genius of Buster Keaton

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mrs Brown and Olivia

Once, in a doodling around sort of conversation with a four-year-old, I asked where milk came from. ‘The supermarket,’ he said. ‘Before that,’ I prompted. ‘The supermarket,’ he said firmly. ‘Before that,’ I said, ‘milk comes from cows.’ ‘Oh, gross!’ he cried. ‘And I don't believe you. It comes from the supermarket, silly.’


To read more, click on the embedded link below and flick to page 53; or click here and follow the link to download the issue to your iPad.

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