HelenHayward

life writing

Month: January, 2013

Keep calm school holidays will soon be over

photo

 

Before having children I never understood what friends with children were on about when they complained of not having enough time to themselves. Now, of course, with two children of my own and nearly seven weeks of summer holidays, I know only too well.

After seven weeks of motherhood I can’t quite believe that this time next week I’ll be liberated from it. This time next week I’ll be able to attend the morning yoga class I’ve missed these last two months. During term-time, 9.30am is almost mid-morning. This morning – after an evening building sandcastles with friends at their beach shack – we’re still in the kitchen eating breakfast in the kitchen.

And yet there’s a way in which I don’t want these holidays to end. This is a new feeling. Last summer holidays I didn’t feel it. By the beginning of February last year I was panting for the holidays to end so that I could pick up the reins of my own life. But not this year. It’s as if this year I’ve suddenly got it. I finally understand how much being a mother means to me, just when I can catch a glint my life without children.

I feel in no hurry to get to the light I can see at the end of the tunnel. What, after all, is the rush? What’s so good, I wonder, about no longer being needed? More to the point, what’s so good about no longer having children to make sandcastles on the beach with on long summer’s evenings?

My son is busy weaning himself off family. These days he physically towers over me, his diminutive mother. In a few months’ time he’ll be behind the wheel of a car. Wheeling his broken bike to the bike shop just now – trashed at the waterfront a few nights ago – I had to walk my fastest just to keep up with his ambling pace.

The man at the bike shop looks straight at my son. ‘You’ll have to ride your old beaten-up bike to the waterfront’, he says, surveying the damage. ‘This one will always be an easy target for young men who’ll never get to own a bike like yours’. My son holds his hands together in front of him, and looks directly into the man’s eyes.

My daughter, on the other hand, isn’t about to wean herself off me any time soon. Given her brother’s passion for crewing on a tall ship, she and I have been together more than ever these holidays. Sensing her loss, I’ve made up for the slack of his absence by giving her more of me. Over these past weeks we’ve been on adventures together, lots of them – kayaking in a lagoon, riding Segways through the forest, and enjoying a bumpy cruise as far as the Southern Ocean. And, when the bushfires were burning and the burning heat made staying indoors the only place to be, we made an animal patchwork quilt for her bed.

In between times I’ve fretted that I should be spending more time in my study. I should, I tell myself, be taking my career more seriously. I should be working properly late at night – rather than, as I’ve tended to do, falling asleep on my desk and sleeping in the next morning.

Frustrated with my inability not to put family first, I turn to my husband – who has no trouble putting his work before family. Never one to reassure he tells me shortly that if I were a bus driver, say, with a full-time job, there would be no conflict. I would be into my uniform and off with first light – leaving my kids to their own devices whether they were on holiday or not. I’d have no choice, he points out. That’s just the way it would be.

But I’m not a bus driver. I’m a writer who works from home. And a mother who finds it impossible to shut my kids out of my head – even when, as I occasionally do, I shut my study door.

Besides, my kids know that I’m not a bus driver. They know that throughout their childhood I’ve put them first. Each morning at breakfast, over these last weeks, my daughter has asked me, ‘What are we doing today?’ Not, ‘What am I doing today?’

This is not what the young people who trashed my son’s bike after leaving the pub would have said to their mother during school holidays. They, I expect, had to fend from themselves from a very young age.

The man in the bike shop stares at my son’s new bike, and then down at the concrete floor. He looks up again. ‘Really sorry, but that smashed up derailer is the most expensive bit on the bike. It’s been made especially for that model. I’ll have to order it in from overseas. Could take weeks and will cost a good few hundred. Sorry’.

A pause follows, during which I have that ‘Oh God’ feeling that parents feel when faced with unexpected costs. (Like the cost of my daughter’s new runners for her flat feet – but don’t let me start on that.) Then the man laughs aloud. ‘Got you’, he says, grinning.

Exactly a week ago I ran out of things to do with my daughter in the school holidays. Yesterday, after heavy rain, I suggested a visit to the Botanical Gardens – a favourite place for us both. But I could sense that something was wrong as soon as we turned off the highway. There was smoke in the air.

‘Not another fire’, I say to Emma.We skirt the Botanical Gardens and drive up a road that snakes on to the Domain. Seven weeks have passed since I last headed up the path that I take into the bush after school drop-off. The bush is drier than ever. Even the leaves look thirsty. ‘Please no’, I say to myself, as we drive up the hill. ‘Please don’t let my walk be burnt’.

But it is burnt. Young people who have nothing better to do with their lives have set alight an area of bush that for two years I’ve walked through, losing myself in thought – shrugging off the mother I am before school and slipping into the writer I am when my kids aren’t around.

My bike has been trashed too, I think to myself. Why should my bushwalk be spared? My daughter, noticing the tears in my eyes, tells me the arsonists should be hung, drawn and quartered – sounding sterner than her thirteen years.

It takes a village to raise a child – of course it does. However this begs a stark question. Who has raised the all young people, in this small city, for whom destructiveness is a toy? Who has convinced them that their lives are worth nothing more than a few kicks and, if caught, years in jail?

My son is outside putting together his old bashed-up bike – currently scattered in bits on the bricks. My daughter is upstairs learning Morse code – yes really. This is their childhood. Not for that much longer, but still their childhood. Unlike the young people looking for trouble on the waterfront, or playing with matches on the Domain, my children haven’t had to grow up too quickly. They’re among the lucky ones. They are loved, and know themselves to be. Their lives won’t be one long summer holiday. They have a whole life ahead of them. Already my son has a hint of things to come.

Now that they’re old enough to cook lunch for themselves, they are reluctant to ask me, ‘What’s for lunch?’ Or, more abruptly,‘When’s lunch?’ Instead they’ll come into the kitchen, or open my study door, and give me that ‘I’m hungry’ look. They are giving it to me now.

Religion for angels

ldvpg_01

‘I would describe myself as a Christian

who doesn’t believe in God’

Dame Helen Mirren

 

The tide, Alain de Botton suggests in Religion for Atheists, is turning. More and more people are drawn to values that lie closer to the heart of religion, than to cultural liberalism, or the democratic process. Recently Helen Mirren said in the press that although she doesn’t believe in God, she does believe in Christian values that transcend politics, culture and institutionalised knowledge. This strikes a chord in the hearts of many.

 

For all its boldness, Helen Mirren’s comment may strike some as naïve. And yet often it’s this fear of sounding naive that, de Botton points out, prevents us from asking the most pressing human questions. And the most pressing of all, the one he sets out to answer in Religion for Atheists, is this. How best should we live?

 

The art of living has, de Botton suggests, been left for too long in the hands of the established church, on the one hand, and university humanities departments on the other. De Botton is refreshingly open in his admiration of the church. In his view they get many things right – services that weave music and beauty and touch the soul, sermons that makes human truths digestible for our quickly forgetful minds, the shaking of hands designed to overcome our instinctive defenses against strangers. And yet for all these virtues, regular church-going assumes a set of beliefs that, for de Botton and most others, make weekly attendance untenable.

 

University humanities departments haven’t done much better, in de Botton’s opinion. They have failed at their central mission of keeping central cultural values – like a belief in community and kindness towards others – alive, both in the public mind and our individual souls. Set up at the time of the decline of the church, inspired by reformers Matthew Arnold and JS Mill, modern humanities departments no longer convey ‘the best that has been said and thought in the world’. Instead, de Botton hints, they busy themselves with research assessments, internal bickering and jockeying for power.

 

Most modern humanities departments have lost interest in the liberal mission that led to their being set up in the first place. They no longer pursue, as JS Mill described it, the ‘noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it’. An open defender of Arnold and Mill, de Botton maintains a tone of calm appraisal throughout this discussion. But now and again his sharp fluency comes together to hit his target – the ‘guardians of culture’ within universities.

When confronted by those who demand of culture that it should be relevant and useful, that it should offer up advice on how to choose a career or survive the end of a marriage, how to contain sexual impulses or cope with the news of a medical death sentence, the guardians of culture become disdainful. Their ideal audiences are students who are uninclined to drama and self-involvement, who are mature, independent, temperamentally able to live with questions rather than answers and ready to put aside their own needs for the sake of years of disinterested study of agricultural yields in eighteenth-century Normandy or the presence of the infinite in Kant’s noumenal realm. p.112

De Botton’s sarcasm is clear. Relevance, utility and emotional needs are paramount, and should never be subordinated to make way for years of disinterested study in anything.

 

Black and white photographs sprinkle the text of Religion for Atheists. In the ‘Education’ chapter, the book’s pivot, an Oxford student in Medieval Literature lies asleep with his head on his opened books – the sun streaming through the stained glass window of the Bodleian Library behind.

 

It’s not, de Botton quickly points out, that Medieval Literature is boring. He doesn’t want the subject morphed into a vocational course on thatched roofing or feudal farming. It’s rather, he suggests, that a subject like Medieval Literature might be taught differently. Instead of studying the use of vellum for sacred manuscripts, or positing abstruse metaphysical questions, enlightened lecturers might use medieval texts to raise questions relating to the art of living, using the past to illuminate the present.

 

There is, de Botton suggests, no problem with the Western cultural canon – pretty well everything we need to know to live well lies within it. Taught in the right spirit, this canon might even be called ‘into service to replace the holy texts.’ He treads softly yet determinedly here. ‘We are’, he writes, ‘unwilling to consider secular culture religiously enough, in other words, as a source of guidance. So opposed have many atheists been to the content of religious belief that they have omitted to appreciate its inspiring and still valid overall object: to provide us with well-structured advice on how to lead our lives.’ p.111

 

Alain de Botton’s project is large – larger than the compass of this book. He would reform the whole of society, and not just churches and universities. He would have us listen to sermons that encourage us to relate warmly to our neighbours and chat attentively to our children. He would have us eat at communal tables in restaurants, separated from our kin, with the aim of getting to know the joys and troubles that lie beneath the surface of others. And he would have us be kinder to the stranger in ourselves, and to release him or her in yearly bursts of ritualised folly.

 

For all our liberal values and democratic freedoms, de Botton believes that, deep within, most of us are but children who quite like being told how best to act. And, not least, how to think. Instead of scaling the heights of intellectual endeavour, de Botton would bring us all back down to base camp in order to learn how to think better first. He would have us become as spiritually fit as we are physically fit – through spiritual exercises, or whatever method that temperamentally suits us. In order that we might become less monkey mind, and more capable of refined awareness.

 

None of this need be difficult, de Botton urges. What is difficult is persuading enough people that these reforms are worth making. Because, as he somewhat forlornly points out, just like the student of Medieval Literature asleep on his desk, it’s part of human nature to forget our most valuable lessons and to resist awkward emotional truths. As he keeps reminding the reader – in what becomes a familiar chant – it’s not more knowledge that we need, but more wisdom and courage so that we can act on it.

 

The revolutionary would change the world from without, storming the Bastille with a thrusting bayonet. The rebel would change it – just as deftly but less aggressively – from within. Alain de Botton has chosen the latter path, and is keen to reform just about everything – from the way corporations work, the way public art is chosen, to the way we relate socially – from the ground up.

 

If de Botton had his way there would be secular angels devoted to the care of our souls. These angels would be appointed, not from on high – he’s an ardent unbeliever – but from deep within ourselves. And their primary role would be to help us in the art of living. They would sing in chorus – like the African-American Pentacostal preachers he so admires – in the tongue of collective wisdom. Not as an end in itself, but so that we might ‘coalesce the scattered efforts of individuals interested in the care of souls and organise them under the aegis of institutions’.

 

Do tellyless children play more?

Recently I agreed to a Census interview. When I mentioned that my children didn’t watch commercial television the interviewer’s eyes lit up. Could they be questioned separately, so rare was it to speak to children who hadn’t been influenced by commercial television?

A questionnaire duly arrived, causing my son and daughter to chew on their pencils, as if faced with some kind of weird homework. Pages and pages of questions about magazines and foods and television programs they’d never heard of. After ten pages of questions, there was only one question that they could tick a YES for – ‘Do you consider yourself happy?’

What the Census never probed was what my children did spend their time doing. Did they stare at the space in the sitting room where the plasma television should be? Or did not having commercial television give them time to do the kind of things that the men and women who wrote the Census probably spent their own childhood doing?

A lot of fuss is made about children no longer playing in the street or climbing trees in the park. Much less fuss is made about their not being able to play at home either. So many children can’t play on their own. Of course they need toys, and parents who are interested in playing. But much more they need to just mess about on their own, and to find out what really interests them in a dilatory way.

So why has this incredibly simple thing, of children playing, become so elusive? My hunch is that unhurried children need unhurried parents. You can’t have a slow childhood if you have fast parents. I’m as guilty as the next mother. I find it hard to pull back on activities and to recognise that ‘having nothing after school’ is a wonderful resource, rather than a gap in need of filling.

I’ll finish by listing what I love about not watching commercial television – without, I hope, sounding too Julie Andrewsish. I love walking round our house and not hearing the television streaming by a nearby room. I love watching DVDs without having to fast-forward through the ads. I love tuning our television off when a program has ended, without being tempted by whatever is to come. I love that my children have got through childhood without witnessing the twin towers collapsing, bombs going off in Iraqi Market places, or Sudanese mothers carrying malnourished babies. But most of all I love going into one of their bedrooms, arms full of folded washing, to find one of them on the floor, quietly playing. Or perhaps sitting with legs curled under them in a corner of my study, cutting something like this house from a piece of paper.paper house