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
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