A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Pt 2

June 27, 2015

There are children everywhere. More than half of the 60 000 refugees who have flooded into this camp in recent weeks are children. Some have come alone; some as young as five.

They scamper after us. Intrigued by the camera crew – the videographer is tall, towers above the rest of us, he wears a panama which elevates his presence further. He engages with the children with grace, stooping to their height when he speaks to them. They trail him excitedly; a Pied Piper line straggled behind him.

Later he instructs me on how to interview two small boys to camera.

Stick to my side, he says, so that they don’t need to work to watch your face.

And get down, he urges, get down to your knees so that you are level with their faces. I sink and kneel on red dust and begin my questioning.

This is the hardest bit. Untangling untold trauma. I battle to maintain professional dry-eyed poise when they tell me about the loss of their parents, murdered by militia.

I struggle almost as much when they tell about their aspirations, to be doctors, teachers, journalists, to go to London, New York, to see the world.

I expected to fight tears as they recounted nightmares. I didn’t expect to have to do so when they told me of their dreams.

I say to the crew, ‘that’s enough now, they’ve done well, that’s enough now’.

Where is this resilience grown? I see it in smiles and hear in voices that question me in Kiswahili, French, English as the children try to find some common ground to connect. I watch it in toys they have fashioned from nothing: a truck created from wire with little wooden wheels, ‘did you make that?’ I ask the child towing it. He nods bashfully.  It’s a perfect piece of engineering, observed to tiniest detail. A little boy, his hair patchy and his scalp scaled from malnutrition, clutches an almost perfectly round football made from paper and string. Another holds a kite cast of scraps of plastic sheeting. When the wind tosses it skywards, his head tips back and he laughs up into the blue.

Where is this resilience born? And what sustains it in the face of such horror?

We interview a young mother. Her toddler objects to our intrusion and howls. The crew tells me that sometimes long lenses frighten small children – for they prompt terrifying recent memories of the barrels of brandished guns. The mother is torn, needing to tell her story and wanting to shush her child. A little girl of 8 or 9 steps calmly in and scoops the crying baby up. He is hushed immediately. I turn to motion thanks and she smiles, a beatific smile, white, white teeth, a smile that touches her eyes. I give her a thumbs up and mouth, ‘asante’. She returns the gesture.  And I smile back.

But inside I weep.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words Pt 1

June 21, 2015

I ought to be in bed.  I have been up at five every day for a week.

I readied myself. Soaked in a bath up to my chin, so that the suds blushed pinkly as the water rinsed deeply engrained red, red earth from my skin, my hair, beneath my nails.

I tried to watch mindless television. Eat a bowl of pasta, post prandial carb high guaranteed to have me nodding off on the sofa in no time. Normally.

But my week hasn’t been normal. Thoughts jangle and nag and tug and pull. I cannot settle. I haul my laptop from my desk and sit on the floor in front of the fire where the dogs normally curl. They’re briefly indignant to be ousted but return to rest heads upon my lap as I tap.

We debated this in the car one day on the way to the camp – the boys with their cameras and I: which tells the better story – an image or a narrative? A picture is worth a thousand words, they said. I concurred. Because I was outnumbered. But now, now home, I still struggle to find the right ones. The right words to do justice to a big story.

Can I paint the scene with language?  Select each word – a thousand of them – as the artist does his colours? Carefully. Pause. Stand back. Consider my work?

The camp is in the middle of nowhere. A three hour drive on a dirt road from a town flung so far to the west of Tanzania that it almost drops off the map into the great lake that spills all around.  An aid official tells me, ‘governments are not known for granting the best land to those that seek refuge from violence in their own countries. They must make do with what they’re given’.

So we drive towards the middle of nowhere where the skinny earth is ribbed with gullies gouged by rushing rain during the wet,  and where the miombo forests dwindle because humanity has needed to swarm through here before and people need food and fuel and the wood was there.

The land cruiser we are in kicks up dust.  Great suffocating plumes of it. We are tightly packed. Six of us in all, with filming paraphernalia for the boys piled high, cameras, tripods, reflectors, lights. And a satchel, a Dictaphone, and a hat for the pretendwriter.  Vehicles drive with their lights on. It’s two hours past dawn but the dust chokes visibility dangerously.

We know where to turn off for the camp. It’s well marked, this place, this home to 100 000 homeless; signs jostle for attention, as if pushing the other out of the way to be first in line. I read only Nyarugusu Refugee Camp UNHCR.

Five miles later and you encounter row upon row upon row of tents, once – and so recently – they were white and emblazoned with the logos of humanitarian rescue agencies. Now they are dredged with ochre dust, like sieved cinnamon powder.  It is quieter than you imagine, normal Africa wakingup sounds; I cannot hear despair. I think I can hear laughter.

Wood smoke from hundreds of cooking fires rises softly to kiss an early morning haze and they embrace as a pall that hangs low and smudges the ends of my view.

And it is as if the ranks of tents march unto eternity.

When the Words are too Small

June 20, 2015

Sometimes the words you need are too small for the story you have to tell.

I’ll try.

We arrived, the crew and I, on the far western edge of Tanzania on a morning brittle with justgone dawn air. Smoke from woodfires rose to mix with low cloud and the two conspired to smudge the edge of a great lake. We only knew it was below us as the aircraft swung in low to land.

We ate chapatis and drank masala chai whilst we waited for our vehicle. It broke the ice. I’d never met any of them before. We recognized one another only because each of us that bundled off that plane seemed prepared for a similar mission. Cameramen are easy to spot; they come with hefty paraphernalia. The pretendwriter only bore a satchel and a hat.

We were headed, once we got going, to Nyarugusu. Because there were stories to tell, films to make, pictures to take.

It is an enormous sprawl of humanity – the Congolese have been here for two decades, the Burundians less than two months, they number more than 100 000 now. There is despair and sadness and untold trauma. And there is happiness and hope and, astonishingly, lives are picked up so that among the dozens and dozens and dozens of tents, there are small businesses being pitched: a tailor, a barber, a sugar cane vendor.

So I asked my questions and I considered story telling strategies with the crew and I slept in alien beds with cheap linen and rock hard pillows, and bathed in a bucket of cold water. (And amongst the delicious chapatis and mugs of masala chai, I ate something bad enough to have me heaving into a plastic bag for an entire afternoon).

I am on my way home now. Tonight in a big, wide, white, soft bed after a steaming power shower. I am returning unscathed.

But for the scar that has seared my soul; the experience that has branded me.

As I said. Sometimes the words are too small for the story you need to tell.

In time I will find better ones.

Fear

June 15, 2015

Not long ago I stood on my verandah and screamed. I opened my mouth and howled. Out loud. To the forest and the sky and the silence and the mildly, briefly, astonished dogs. And then I burst into tears.  So much time, so many hours, slipping through my fingers.

I said to Ant, ‘sometimes’ I said, ‘I feel as if my life is passing me by? As if I ought to have more to show for this, for all my time’. Sorry he said. I’m not sure why. It’s not his fault. But I suppose it was a safe thing to say: Sorry. Later, after supper and wine and telly in front of the fire with a contented cat stretched, purring, on my lap and two still faintly nervous dogs at my feet, I said to Ant, ‘is it enough?’ Is what enough? He asked, ‘is it enough?’  I said again, ‘to just be married and raise children?’ What else is there, he asked, his brow creased with bewildered concern. And I smiled, ‘nothing, there’s nothing else’.

But I still worried, worry, that my time weighs too heavily, that I wantonly waste hours which will slide by and into oblivion. I do. God, do I do. I write remotely, for deadlines that help to punctuate weeks, I organize my children. Remotely. Student loans, applications, flights – nagging in the ether dilutes the urgency, ‘I haven’t done it yet, mama, I will though …’ I cook supper. I walk the dogs. I mark time. I make jam. I am afraid to sit still though I cannot articulate why? That I be deemed lazy? useless?  that I think too much? that I go mad.

“We must not think too much,” cries Euripides’ Medea. “People go mad if they think too much.”

But be careful what you wish for. ‘I want to be useful’, I screamed at the sky that day, to the dogs’ alarm as the cat skittered for cover.

A pitch I had forgotten about entirely. Could you do with a writer, I asked, as I ask any number of people in the syrupy anonymity of the ether where it is easy to bluff and feign confidence, never imagining that somebody will demand much more of me than a bit of research, a few words here and there.

And so today – because last week somebody said, ‘actually, yes, we could do – with a writer’ – I found myself bidding Ant and my son, home post grad, goodbye as I was bundled onto a small plane. Normally we’d be sardine-squished in a 12 seater bound for the city and big smoke and sea. Today we were only four; ‘today’, said the pilot, ‘you’re travelling business class’. I smiled nervously. Small plane travelling is not unfamiliar given my dislocated geography of recent years, but it remains uncomfortable; I am not a happy flier. Business class or otherwise. I hunkered down in my seat and dug a distracting podcast deep into my ears and closed my eyes for 90 minutes until shortly before landing so that I mostly missed the wide white empty sky where horizons were dredged with longgonerain dust. Until the sea shore and the city rose to meet us and I hurtled through traffic with a kamikaze taxi driver as the sun collapsed so that buildings were daubed pinkly and street lights began to sputter to life.

A week at work in the Real World.  This is what you wanted; Ant says, but kindly, ‘to be busy, useful, engaged’. But now that I’m here, ready to write, to travel, to accompany professional teams on tough assignments, I’m not so sure. I’m a wife and mum. I know how to cook, to nag, to worry about children who don’t Skype when they promised to. I know how to walk dogs, to tell myself stories in my head, to fill ballooning hours with dreams.

Do I know how to be a Professional? To work with a crew who are my son’s age? Who are used to the harrowing turbulence we must face? It would have been so easy to say, ‘no, sorry, would have loved to but I’m busy that week’ (walking dogs, telling myself stories in my head, dreaming, marking time, making jam …) but this feels like a challenge. I must do this. I must grow and learn and lean and stretch.

I’m more afraid of staying still than not.

I tell my daughters of my assignment. Hat says, ‘oh man Ma, my dream job’. Amelia says, ‘cool man mama’. And later, when I confide in her that I am afraid. Nervous. So far out of my comfort zone as to be utterly alien (except for the words, i keep telling myself, the words will be not be strangers).

She says, ‘we are always afraid before, Mum, never during’. So I will hold onto that for now.

Reasons to Fly

March 18, 2015

photo (5) Istanbul. The airport a hub – a conduit, funneling people of every creed and colour to all four corners of the world. Mixed tongues are white noise here; I can recognize some languages by the lilt, the odd word, but many are too alien. A fellow passenger wonders at the tighter security; ‘I don’t remember having to go through security between connections last time’, he observes, ‘are you sure you’re right’. I point to the sign which clearly indicates, ‘international transfers’ and I remind him that Turkey has been placed upon the map and dragged into the news for reasons that might well put a noose around the security in this huge airport. I must pull off every single one of the dozen silver bangles on my wrist before I walk through the machine; at home I always make a show of trying to tug them off and explain that they are tighter in the heat and please can’t they let me off and – depending on their mood – the airport staff either laugh and wave me through or snort and roll their eyes and let me through anyway. I daren’t try that here. I wonder, as I always wonder when I travel, what presses people to move such vast distances. I thought nobody had any money anymore? Is long distance travel a luxury. Or a necessity? A bit of both for me this time. Is it necessary that I see my children? Or am I just lucky enough to luxuriate in their presence for a few precious days? Where are all these people going? Why? Business? Pleasure? Love? Life? Death? I have flown expectant with child, heavy and round, and nervous to drag a suitcase from a carousel in case my waters broke.  I have flown thin and haggard with a daughter that needed urgent medical attention in London. I have flown home brimming with tears and sadness – on the news of my dad’s death. I fell into deep slumber on the flight, exhausted by days of too little sleep, too much crying, and woke over Africa as the early light stole into the cabin. For the briefest moment I was elated at homecoming. Until I remembered why. I have flown as a new bride. On the cusp of adventure as I feigned grownupness and confidence. I’m in ubiquitous Costas as I write. Harshly lit so that the fluorescent light washes complexions of the tans we may have collected as souvenirs. Not me, of course, tans are old hat when you’ve always lived in the sun. SPF 50 for me. A slightly laughable case of closing the stable door long, long after the horse has bolted. When I was eighteen and travelling between home and college, I flew back to januarynipped London the colour of toast and my skin crumbed on the way so that even as I arrived I was miserably paler than when I left home. I am in toohot, washed of colour Costas for tea. Because I’m English. Or masquerading as English for the purposes of travel. That’s what it says in my passport; it’s what I must be. Despite what my taxi driver in Dar es Salaam said as I transited through a city breathing heavily and hotly close to rain. The parking attendant in the domestic terminal – for I had bounced through the sky from my highland home to this sultry, seaside capital in a tiny plane, as an empty Coke can caught in a wind so that we were buffeted and tipped and I, an exceedingly nervous flyer, was white knuckled with fear and focusing on the podcast I had dug into my ears at volume 10 – gave my driver lip, I interjected in Swahili, please don’t hold us up, I have a plane to catch from international. Laughter all round. They weren’t expecting that: impatient Kiswahili, ‘Really mama, you are an African!’ Memoirist Alexandra Fuller doesn’t believe we can be African if we have white skins, if our heritage is muddied and smudged by the movements of itinerant grandparents. But if I’m not African, if I’m not African when my family has called this continent Home for 111 years, what am I? English today. It is as an unfamiliar and slightly ill-fitting overcoat that I wriggle into from time to time. I know it doesn’t suit me. Drinking tea because I’m masquerading as English and because it seems the decorous thing to do at 10 in the morning. Ten in the morning where though? Where I’m headed – it’s ten in the morning in England. Where I am as I sit to write and sip my tea, it’s past noon – at home it’s after lunch – but it seems impolite to ask for a beer. Reckless. I wonder – by others’ orders – what time it is for them. Eclectic tastes and scrambled time zones – that’s the essence of airports isn’t it: lives suspended, between one world and the next. A bubble. My world is greenfieldtea and mist and dogs and my darling, darling Ant and filling hours the fullest I can with whatever I can find to hand. For the next two weeks, time will be tight. I won’t be able to amble through its wide corridors awash with silence and space so that I can hear myself think. I already anticipate the hurly-burly of the next fortnight with some trepidation. Except for the weekend with my children. That will be as a pillow beneath my head. I have rented a cottage so that I can scoop them up, cook them generous meals, listen to their stories, hear their laughter, reassure, hug, hold, kiss, scold. And there, in the cocoon that we will carve of a stranger’s home for a precious few days, we can be whoever we feel we really are.

Darkness Visible

March 3, 2015

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self—to the mediating intellect—as to verge close to being beyond description.
William Styron, Darkness Visible

 

Mum has been mired in this episode of depression for fourteen months.

I nag her with Skyped texts.

Mum?

Have not seen you today. hope you are ok?

Maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarm?!

Or I issue stern warnings:

If you are idle, be not solitary;

If you are solitary, be not idle.

you can have one or the other ma. not both

She describes feeling fearful and I try to calm her by instructing her how to breath deep and slow, to stop her heart from beating so quickly, butterfly wings trapped in a chest , to bring back into  line the rogue chemicals in her system that are exacerbating such disabling panic.

I copy pages of text from sites that may help and paste them into messages to her. I don’t know if they help. I don’t know how much of it she reads.

The madness of depression is, generally speaking, the antithesis of violence. It is a storm indeed, but a storm of murk. Soon evident are the slowed-down responses, near paralysis, psychic energy throttled back close to zero. Ultimately, the body is affected and feels sapped, drained.

I try to discover new ways that she might learn to cope,  I want to unearth an innovative, novel weapon in the arsenal she has deployed over the years in battling this demon Depression, but Google doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know: there is no silver bullet.

I type the same question into a dozen search engines ‘how to get get going out of a depression?’

And I get 222 000 000 hits.

Everybody has an opinion. But nobody has the answer.

Some of the suggestions are sound: walk, eat, sleep, breathe, read.

At any rate, during the few hours when the depressive state itself eased off long enough to permit the luxury of concentration, I had recently filled this vacuum with fairly extensive reading and I had absorbed many fascinating and troubling facts.

Some are facile and patronizing: “make yourself a fancy dinner, maybe invite somebody over; take a perfumed bubble bath; rent comedy videos.”

If only you could shoo a stubborn Black Dog from your door because you ate asparagus for supper, or smelt prettily of Lily of the Valley or watched 100 minutes of Friends?

If only it were that easy.

It has to be emphasized that if the pain were readily describable most of the countless sufferers from this ancient affliction would have been able to confidently depict for their friends and loved ones (even their physicians) some of the actual dimensions of their torment, and perhaps elicit a comprehension that has been generally lacking; such incomprehension has usually been due not to a failure of sympathy but to the basic inability of healthy people to imagine a form of torment so alien to everyday experience.

Nothing that I say, nothing that I do will alleviate mum’s pain. I have learned this over time.

In the end I resort to Styron. And in his beautiful anguished words there is, oddly, comfort. I am reminded that though I, mercifully, cannot comprehend the measure of this horrid illness, it is enormous, nontheless.  It is real and all the more awful for its intangibility.

Perhaps in understanding that, in endorsing Mum’s illess as appalling and all-consuming, that is the best I can do.

Perhaps it is all she needs me to do?

 

 

What Would you Choose?

March 1, 2015

A week ago I returned from a four day writing gig in Dar es Salaam; the remit, to highlight areas of need for a large UK charity. I loved the work – I learned so much, I spoke to so many different people. I interviewed an albino woman, her albino child, a snowwhite baby boy, strapped to her back. I learned about her mothers’ fears to keep her safe in a country where albino body parts are prized in black magic and voodoo. I met newly successful entrepreneurs. I marveled at a man who volunteered in protecting his – and his community’s – environment. And then I came home and scribbled for days, submitting my commissioned case studies, articulating my reflections.

And I thought that for the horror, for the disappointment, for the poverty and the disease,  Africa never fails to amaze me with her ability to unfurl her palm and reveal the brightest gems.  That even in the godforsaken slum I describe below,  I met hope in the volunteer and I met humour.

 ********************************************

The valley is strewn with rubbish. Feet deep. I can smell it. Fetid and warm in temperatures that rise above 30 degrees.

It’s not bad yet though. Not as bad as it could be. When the rains come – as they will, in March and April when tropical storms sweep in and out and lash so that mud slides and corrugated iron roofs clatter with the downpour – the humidity will sweatily, steadily soar and the garbage will ease upwards and down the valley towards the single source of water that this community relies upon.

And flies will rise as steam.

I contemplate, as I walk and watch and witness conversations: there’s a lethal cocktail here, waiting for the shaker that the wet weather will be.

I don’t know what’s in these bags of rubbish, some have split open to reveal seeping innards – I’m not about to delve too deeply. I pick my way gingerly through the tip (in closed shoes:’ wear your trainers’, urged my partner on the gig, ‘not Birkenstocks’) as we make our way carefully down the incline towards the water. But I can imagine. I can imagine what’s in these bags.  There are no recycling bins here. No safe, monitored, managed, tidy system of rubbish collection and disposal. No modern sanitation. There will be bags of rotting food. Bags of plastic bags, bags of newsprint that will be picked up by the wind and tossed as confetti to add to the sea of litter that swims the streets.

Bags of shit.

If you wonder why disease is rife in places like this you only need to picture the ‘dumpo’ – its Kiswahili name translates, literally, as Valley of Water. An appalling misnomer. It’s not the shaded glades and dappled brooks and streams that its name conjures. It’s a place where the earth has been gouged by erosion so that it sinks, where ramshackle buildings teeter precariously, their shallow foundations visible, like the roots of old men’s toolong teeth.   Loosened. Accidents waiting to happen: like the structures that collapsed last year. Including two latrines, which toppled as rain fell, to be washed up the valley. Taking their toxic cargo with them.

Everything about this place seems precarious. Not just the houses. The proximity of water to waste.  Life to death. Skinny kids, unshod, snotty nosed, yellow eyed, huddle to eavesdrop on conversations they don’t understand; they are intrigued by our hair. Our shoes.   Healthy children in Africa – children whose skin shines glossily (the children here have lost their lustre) often scamper after palefaces and shout ‘mzungu, mzungu’. Not here.  Here they can’t be bothered. Don’t have the energy. Here the air is oppressive with apathy and exhaustion.

I’m dying for a drink. I think of the cool box in the car, full to the brim with Coke and cold water. They need some Coke-Adds-Life here I think. They need water. I’ll wait to slake my thirst. Swigging from a bottle as I walk seems impossibly, unbearably, tauntingly, cruel. I must drink 2 litres, 3, maybe 4, in this enervating heat. These kids won’t be drinking enough. Their pee will be jaundiced too. And what they  do drink won’t be Evian-safe.   When they get sick, sicker, when their tummies begin to run they won’t have the reserves of fat, or fluid, to sustain them for long.

I think about that for a long time. I think about the thoughtless way I turn on a tap to wash my hands and run it as I lather my palms lavishly.  I remember the local doctor’s words, ‘we tell them to wash their hands, the mothers, we tell them to wash their children’s hands’. How? How will they do that when there is no tap? How will a child remember – as we have urged our own children since they were little – to wash their hands after they’ve been to the loo. How would our children remember if there was no tap in evidence to nudge a reminder? How will a safe habit develop?  The doctor says, ‘these mothers, they are ignorant’. But prompts – like taps beside a loo that always obligingly deliver water – are a luxury. Would we remember – would we bother – to wash our hands, rinse our fruit clean, wipe our children’s faces down if the water wasn’t there. If we had to clamber over hundreds, thousands, of kilos of suppurating bags of rubbish to get it to it. And if when we got to it, it was foul and spoiled anyway.

I know I wouldn’t go to the trouble.

At the bottom of the valley, where the waste and the water reach out to touch one another so that you just know there is a noxious leaching, you don’t need the water to be analyzed to tell you that, and I know I wouldn’t touch it in a million years, there is a young boy scooping handfuls to drink from a pond dammed with a truck tyre.  His palm is cupped, his head thrown back. He drinks thirstily. It doesn’t matter if he didn’t wash his hands before he put them to his mouth; the water’s filthy. I can discern a smell. In the rains it will rise to a stench.

It dribbles from a spring and the further it gets from the source, the shallower it becomes. In the dry weather, now, people dig to get water. A gaggle of girls have mined a basin in the sand and are doing their laundry. Bubbles of detergent rise and pop.  A sick man is supported up the valley, his feet only just touch the ground, his arms are slung over the shoulders of a young girl and her father, he’s too weak to bear his own weight. The sick man’s flip-flopped feet trail in the water all the way down the thinning stream.

I wonder where they’ll take him – when they’ve dragged him up the steep sided valley and to the main road. They’ll flag down a boda-boda, a motorbike, they’ll grapple about for some change to cover the fare.  The nearest hospital to this community is a Mother and Baby unit. Not much use if you’re a man with malaria or cholera or dysentery or a bit of everything. But they’ll shore him up for a few hours. Until he stabilizes, when he’ll be ferried across to the district hospital.

Or until he dies.

The doctor tells me, ‘sometimes the mothers leave it too late’.  They do. Small bodies desiccate with speed, and dangerously.  An ill-educated African woman from the ‘valley’, on a dollar a day, if she’s lucky (and the boda-boda fare to the hospital is half that at least) is going to leave it as long as she dares. And whilst daring she won’t know to examine the child’s fontanel, is it sunken? Won’t gently pinch the skin to check for elasticity, wont’ sweep the inside of her baby’s mouth with a (clean) finger to register how wet – or dry – it is. She will not notice when the child cries that there is no longer enough liquid within to create tears to fall. She doesn’t know about electrolytes. She is unlikely to have a sterilized mug or bottle to hand filled with rehydrate to coax the child to sip.  She may heave a sigh of relief when her child falls asleep. She won’t know that it may never wake up.

More than 2 million children die every year from dehydration.  Most of them in Africa.

I have water at home – there’s no excuse not to wash my hands – and an education.

The women I met had neither.

If you had to choose – had to – what would be your choice?

And then remind yourself that the women I met had none.

Water. Education. Choice.

Abundance

February 13, 2015

Somebody remarks, in response to a brief bio that I must deliver, in which I refer to growing up children, Ant and his veg garden, ducks and bantams, ‘what an abundant life’. I re read the message. Over and over. Abundant? And try the word out on my tongue. It fills my mouth. Appropriately.

abundance 2

I have considered the comment often since.  Tried out the word for size again and again.

What constitutes abundance, I wonder?  In so many ways my life is lean: strung taut with isolation so that every sound rings louder, every occasion is more deliciously wrung for a last lingering drop , every rare guest celebrated.

abundance 3

Can you call my life abundant when time lies so weightily upon my hands that I must eke it out into manageable chunks and plot my days so that there are no idle hours. When for so much of the time I am not doing anything important or urgent?

abundance 4

I remind mum, who is battling a depression, of Samuel Johnson’s words: If you are idle, be not solitary; If you are solitary, be not idle. You can’t have both. You can’t Have It All.  In my necessarily lonely life (I would not chose this), I dare not lounge, unoccupied. I would ruminate and fret and stamp my feet and weep (as I have done). And allow demons the space to clamber in. So I work – mostly to futile end in reality – feverishly. Busily. On nothing of any significance. Paddling to propel myself from one end of the day to the other.

abundance 5

But it is into those solitary, silent hours that the abundance creeps.

My children remain connected via the intangible, invisible umbilical cord of the ether. They are worried. They are tired. They are sick. They need an opinion.They are elated. I am happy to be the first to be alerted, to be asked, sometimes several times a day, with little electronic ticks and bleats and beeps. Even when they are broke. For it amplifies a quietening role. I am still their mother. I can still offer advice, salve, reassure, praise. And yes, inevitably, put money into their accounts.

abundance 8

And it is in the acceptance of my role of wife that abundance presents again: come and look at the veggie garden with me, Ant will say in the evening when he gets home and I will walk admiringly through neat, greening rows, my bare ankles tickled as I brush past lacy parsley bursting enthusiastically from its bed.   I could not do this: grow things well. And if he could not – If Ant could not – we would not dine so lavishly: broccoli, plumply podded broad beans, big headed, snow-white cauliflower, tiny yellow pear tomatoes, huge purplebruised artichokes which we eat with buttery fingers. And when the vegetable garden is done I must usher my bantam hens to their pen and I always laugh loudly when I do, for their scuttle in feathered harem pant legs is so comical. We gather quail eggs – forty of them, tiny greyandwhite and pebble-like with yolks of smilingsunshine yellow; they look for all the world like sugar coated mini Marks and Spencer Easter eggs.

abundance 9

We sit by a roaring fire to eat a chive omelette for supper, with peppery rocket salad pinked with red Swiss chard stems.

And I roll that fat word around my mouth again, trying it out for size. Abundant. It makes me think of adventure and simplicity, fatsalted tears and love, and loud, loud unladylike laughter.

Is it the perfect word. To describe my life as it is now? I don’t know. There is abundance. And satiety. Certainly.

And when there is not, it’s what I must strive for.  It is a word I must remember.

Abundance.

abundance 7

Mothers: Making the Right Choice. Or Advice for Alice.

January 16, 2015

I’m going to pose a dilemma.

It’s one that might present in clearly defined black and white – as it has in my experience and in my protagonist’s, let’s call her Alice – or it might have emerged in blurredlines and shades of grey.

But it’s one that is faced, to some degree, at some point, in some shape, by almost all the women I know. Our flaky job descriptions mean there are always hard choices to make.

Here goes.

Alice is married with young children; she is a Good Mother, that much is evident in the way she stoops to speak to her small son, answers her daughters’ interminable answers. Alice gave up a career in London, ‘I was good at it’, she says, a little forlornly, so that I am in no doubt that she misses the camaraderie, dressing up for the office, the daily need for mascara, a slick of lippe, the clearly defined parameters of her ninetofive day.

But Alice’s husband has a bigimportant job that has taken them to a remote corner of the world. His Career takes precedence over hers, because he gets paid more, because the children are little, because it’s just the way it has to be.

Alice, though, questions the fait accompli that has been thrust before her. She isn’t sure what to do; isn’t sure of the Right Thing To Do. In the briefest passage of time she has gone from single career girl to wifeandmother. Her role has been picked up and shaken so vigorously she feels disorientated: which way is up, which way is down.

She asks my advice.

What ought I tell her?

Put the Kids’ needs first: that’s the right thing to do

kids first 3

Listen Alice, honey, you’re a mother right? Your first responsibility must be to the kids. They’re small and defenseless and can’t effect change themselves; they can’t make the choice you know they’d make if they had the voice, the muscle, to do so: you’ve got to make the right choice for them.

And they can’t be expected to live in the sticks, with no exposure to other little people; they need the opportunity to develop social skills or god knows what they’ll be like when they get back to the real world! They’ll be awkward and withdrawn and you’ll be left picking up the pieces and end up in some shrink’s office as you weep about being a bad mother.

Your husband’s job is to support his family financially, yours is to support your children emotionally. And anyway, what on earth are you going to do about school stuck out there! No, they need to go mainstream school so you need to make a plan. And don’t’ even think about home school – they’ll drive you mad when they won’t sit still or refuse to do set tasks. You’ll just end up fighting with them and upsetting yourself. And anyway people who home school always end up wearing really bad shoes and ghastly elasticated waist bands in their skirts. Homeschooled means Homemade. Hobbled together.  You won’t be able to lay on Competitive Sport – who is your son going to play cricket with? Your daughters won’t be able to have ballet classes. Besides, homeschooled kids are just plain weird.

What your children need is a well rounded and recognizable education that sustains them throughout their lives; they need the very best start.

Your job is to make sure they get it.

kids first

Put your Husband first; that’s definitely the way to go

marriage first

Listen Alice, honey, you were a wife before you were a mother, right? He came along first and the kids second. He’s going to be around long after they vanish to boarding school or university. Long after they’ve grown up and flown the nest.

If you make a child centric choice now you’re in serious danger of finding yourself unable to give them space later, you’ll be forever striving for attachment to the kids, your apron strings at risk of strangling the life out of them. And you’ll look needy. God. Don’t look needy.

And imagine if whilst you’re living away so the children can go to school he takes up with some other woman. Have you considered that? Absence may well make the heart grow fonder, in the short term, but ultimately, inevitably, it will make the attentions wander. Men are just like that. You’ll grow apart and he’ll always remember that he played second fiddle; he’ll never get over that – men have chinafragile egos. You’ll never be able to make up for what you took from him – from your partnership – when you made the decision to put the kids first. You need to stay connected and you won’t if you move to the other end of the country/world just to make sure your kids get the accepted prescribed education.

If you gouge a gap in your relationship now, for the children’s sake, you’ll never be able to plug it; there will forever be a hole, a space, when you ought to have been together, raising the kids as a team, a proper family. Imagine all the important lost moments, the conversations you could have, should have, had but never did because your separate lives meant what you had to say to each other began to lose context.

And kids learn anywhere. Home school them!  Don’t be bullied into believing there’s only one way to skin a cat. Think outside the box. Imagine the adventure! Your husband will be so proud of you; demonstrating you can be wife, mother and teacher! You’ll lend your kids CVs such an unusual slant; give them the edge at their Oxbridge interviews.

This is an opportunity to extend yourself. And anyway, the kids would much prefer to have mum and dad together in one home than go to conventional school.

Break the mould; what better lesson could you give your kids?

putting marriage first

Put yourself first. Numero Uno.  It’s a No Brainer

happy mama

Listen Alice, honey, you were YOU first, long before you were wife and mother, right?

Don’t let either role define you entirely or you’ll find yourself swallowed whole, your identity compromised and – over time – and trust me on this – your sense of direction and selfworth eroded. Hang onto a bit of yourself. Hang on hard.

And whilst you’re at it, practice saying No. Out loud. In front of the mirror. Articulate the word clearly. As if you mean it. No I can’t play Lego with you now I am going to have a nice hot bath. No I cannot help you with that report now, I am catching up on the news. No you cannot watch the cricket, I’m watching this.

Sure the kids need you when they’re small, but they need a mother who’s going to stand well as a self-contained role model in the long term, not one that’s going to cling because she hasn’t got a clue what else to do with herself because this, this business of mothering, is all she remembers how to do.  You want your kids to know as the cool person you were.  You want them to proud of you, your achievements, you don’t want them ushering you off the phone when they’re 22 because you have nothing interesting to relate?

And your husband? Hang onto his every word, be at his perpetual beck and call and I promise you there’ll come a time when the kids have grown up and flown off and you’ll find you don’t have a fulfilling role at home anymore and nor do you have the attention of the man you married.

And you are too old/out of touch/riddled with self doubt to find engagement in the workplace.

You’ll have lost your looks (Alice is young and beautiful, the question mark that creases her brow as a frown as she ponders her dilemma hasn’t get ironed itself firmly to her complexion, there is no grey at her temples, the backs of her hands are smooth) and your figure (Alice is thin. Bitch) and all of that will conspire to further pick at your confidence.

Your husband will have grown accustomed to Taking You For Granted (if you made it that easy), he’ll have stopped hearing what you say (mostly because you don’t have anything new to tell). He’ll thumb texts whilst you respond to the question he has asked. The obligatory How Was Your Day. Why does he ask, you think to yourself sadly? He’s not listening. Tell him you seduced the milkman/postman/gardener and he won’t register. He’ll mumble, ‘hmmm … hmmm … hmmm?’ and then he’ll get up and say, ‘Sorry Darling I must just make this call’. And you hadn’t even got to the climax.

So consider the Big Picture and do what works for you in the long run; nurture your own sense of self and you will forever remain interesting and enigmatic, self assured and self contained. You’ll be glad you did. And so, I imagine, will your husband and kids.

soul food

PS This is my 500th post. For so many reasons, on so many levels, and in the context of this blog and who I am, this is exactly the right post for that milestone.

Bridges

January 11, 2015

My eldest daughter has a difficult conundrum at work. A conundrum that would not have presented in my world at her age. I’m not even sure the right language was there then. She is too young for this dilemma and I too old to know exactly what to say: how can I relate when I know nothing of this particular quandary. It would be patronizing to even try.

This is the first time that this has happened to me. In every other respect I have been able to empathize with my children’s experiences: I failed exams as they sometimes have; I had my heart broken as a girl, several times, so I recognize what the splintering fall out feels like when they tearfully articulate it through sobs and snot and hiccups; I say, ‘I know, darling, I know’ and I mean it. I understand about bad friendships and good ones. I get being broke; I’ve been there too.  And when my daughters fret that they don’t look as beautiful as they’d like to, I feel the sting again when I felt the dumpiest, dreariest at a party. My mother must have told me I looked lovely as I do them; must have meant it as I do now.

So, until my daughter called me last night and said, ‘Mum, there’s this thing … I don’t know if I’m going mad … what do you think’, I always knew what to say.

But her New World presents with experiences my old one never delivered, not in any shape – her dilemma was as far away from my 21 year old world as the internet and smart phones – so for the first time I don’t know what to say.  And that is a difficult thing as a mother; we ought to have the answers. We always used to.

I ponder all night and find myself in hack-mode. If in doubt Google it. So I do the research and plough through opinion pieces and Facebook pages and readers’ comments and small answers are revealed as tiny gems through the soupiness of the ether. If I sieve them out, will that help I wonder?

And then I consider another obstacle. My daughter is full of young-freshly ironed Save The World idealism. Mine is old and crumpled and faded with cynicism. Somehow we must build a bridge across the two to a Happy Medium and perhaps on that island we will find a treasure map that leads to a solution that satisfies us both: her youthful desire to fix all things and mine as a mother to just mend what worries her.

This, I think, this uncertainty, this loss of bearings, must be what defines a parent who is tentatively handing her baby across a generation to the big teethed world of Grown upness.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 76 other followers