Saturday, 30 January 2016

'When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry', Deborah Levy redux

I asked myself another question. Should I accept my lot? If I was to buy a ticket and travel all the way to acceptance, if I was to greet it and shake its hand, if I was to entwine my fingers with acceptance and walk hand in hand with acceptance every day, what would that feel like? After a while I realized I could not accept my question. A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly.
She will write in a rage when she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929). 

Deborah Levy, Things I Don't Want to Know (2013)


I have gone on loving Deborah Levy's essays on why she writes, although 'loving' seems hardly the word for the world of pain she is illuminating in each essay. 

Without ever saying so directly (because 'a female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly'), it becomes clear through the essays that she writes because she had to find a voice to speak about a world that she experiences as cruel and depraved. 

Things happened to Levy and her family when she was a child, because they were trying to answer the question: 'If a white man sets his dog on a black child and everyone says that's okay, if the neighbours and and police and judges and teachers say, 'that's fine by me', is life worth living?' (p. 99). For them, life was not worth living if it was unjust for half the population, and this extends, for Levy, in her adult life, to other disenfranchised halves, like women and children.

However, she cannot write directly about the fear, misery and incomprehension she experienced as she was growing up, because if she does, she 'will write in a rage when she should write calmly', and be 'at war with her lot'. So part of the spinning out of Levy's thought is always a teasing out of her fury, a way of blending it with the gathered wool of the everyday, the tiny details that fashion her life, and the lives of people she observes, an ongoing attempt to detach herself from her rage:
'When a female writer walks a female character into the centre of her literary enquiry (or a forest) and this character starts to project shadow and light all over the place, she will have to find a language that is in part to do with learning how to become a subject rather than a delusion, and in part with unknotting the ways in which she has been put together by the Societal System in the first place.' (p. 26)
Levy's words are a silent, unvoiced answer to a Chinese man who says to her, in a bar, in a snowstorm, in Majorca, 'You're a writer, aren't you?' The question is not a question at all, it is a statement, a rhetorical question, which therefore does not invite an answer, but announces a piece of knowledge, for which the speaker demands a kind of prize. She knows he knows that she is a writer, because she has seen him reading one of her books. She gives voice to her answer in her head, and for our benefit, within quotation marks. It is Levy's literary theory.

I love this quotation, because it reminds me of what it is to write a story – you walk a character into a question, or a setting, and let her walk around inside that question. It reminds me that the writing down of what happens next is a process of finding a language for something purely imaginary. Each sentence brings the subject of the story (and perhaps, partially, the subjectivity of the writer) into being on the page. And each sentence also unravels and unpicks the way the subjectivity of the writer (and perhaps, partially, the story) has been compressed, and manhandled, and sewn together, and discarded, in the world at large.

The imprisonment and torture of her father in South Africa, because of his ANC membership under Apartheid, his five-year absence, and the family's subsequent move to England – and disintegration, are the reasons why Levy writes. She writes as an adult because she cannot undo what was done to her, has had to find a way to articulate it, and her 'political purpose', her 'historical impulse', her 'sheer egoism' and her 'aesthetic enthusiasm' – the terms she is taking from Orwell's Why I Write essay – are all bound up with what formed her. 

Her 'political purpose' – the way she identifies women's lives as being lived under Neo-patriarchy – is an adult version of her father's purpose, to help to end Apartheid. 

Her 'historical impulse' is a sense that we cannot get away from the historical moment in which we are born, and must seek to understand it. 

Her 'sheer egoism' is the (always doomed, comical, and narcissistic) attempt to escape that historical moment.

And her 'aesthetic enthusiasm' is her boundless capacity to see beauty even at the heart of misery, and thus, possibly, to redeem it.

Although Levy's writing is unquestionably hard to read – not because of the style, which is crystalline, but because of the subject matter – what I take from her is that the whole point of writing is never to stop, never to give up, reculer pour mieux sauter, but never, never to give up. 

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Open letter to my dance teacher

Dear Dance Teacher,

Sorry to keep boring on with these times, but wanted to tell you! 

My third Parkrun today was 30:34, so 40 secs faster than last week. Managed to run 2 out of 3 laps, and walked twice in the final lap, but came in with a sprint, so inching closer to actually running the whole distance. 

I was planning to come to pilates, but our washing machine is on the blink and had to give hubby moral support! I am determined to keep going – it’s hard and painful, but I let myself walk when I really have to, and then find I can get started again. Doing it in honour of that seventeen-year-old girl who hurt herself so much. Now I can look after her better.

Thank you for the lovely, lovely, thoughtful, kind messages you have sent me this week. It’s actually been a very strange and rather horrible week, that includes the way the Mumsnet commentariat reacted to my story about letting our son keep walking to school, even though he was approached by a weirdo. 

Do you know, I found myself standing at the end of the road that leads up to son's school yesterday, clutching some fondant fancies, lurking for all the world like a weirdo myself, other parents walking past, eyeing me and wondering what I was doing, waiting for our boy, to surprise him (but there, in reality, because the Mumsnet comments made me feel so shit). 

When you think about it, the word ‘paedophile’ actually just means ‘lover of children’. So, by that definition, we are all paedophiles. We all love our kids and try to do the very best for them. 

I wouldn't like to be in the mind of a paedophile, who doesn't know when to stop.

We talked a lot about my father last week, you and I, but I know that my mother is in there too. She finds my 'search for happiness' difficult to cope with (too self-indulgent for her liking). When I finished my doctorate, I was just exhausted, and so much did not want to become an academic. I was in tears, and she told me I was having a 'nervous breakdown'. I wasn’t, I was just too tired not to get sucked into a career pathway I passionately knew was the wrong one for me. I allowed myself to be sucked in, because I just didn’t know how not to keep pleasing others, and I kept winning post-doctoral research funding, which is like gold dust. So I took the wise and sensible option, while dying inside. 

Plus I did need a job – let's not be too romantic here. How could I refuse to apply for and take a post at Cambridge, even though I felt terribly ambivalent, and mistrustful of the place, when everyone else thought it was the best thing for me? In the end, I went because you 'don’t turn Cambridge down', but I was right, it was a miserable experience. And so crushing, because it was the exact opposite of being an undergraduate there, which had been the happiest, most intense years of my life. Someone should do some change management in Cambridge – it's supposed to be the best university in the world, but there are an awful lot of very unhappy academics. Maybe they're just the ones I met. Maybe that's what I wanted to see. So I could let myself leave.

I had to go that way, the hard way. Doing the hardest qualification, a Phd, on the most difficult author in the French language, Marcel Proust, at the hardest university, Oxford, would prove to me whether I was a writer or not. And it did: even after all of that I still wanted to write. I just didn’t have the confidence or the strength or the income to keep going at the end of the Phd. 

I don’t actually regret leaving Cambridge and academia after the birth of my baby. I only regret not taking my bullying head of department to a tribunal. No one in a position of authority should get away with what she was doing. I only didn't because we were moving to Australia, and I wanted to write, and thought I might as well get on with it.

I didn't realise that her bullying was like a tapeworm that fed itself on the fact that I hated myself. 

When I was achieving academic success, it never meant anything to me, except insofar as it involved being out ahead on my own, where I couldn't be caught and hurt any more. Being kicked out of Cambridge really hurt, but now I know I can cope with being criticised.

That I could survive criticism (rather than suffer from it) was not something I learnt through being a critic.

I once saw a poster at our kids' school that terrified me. I felt it had looked into my very soul and seen my evil. It said, ‘Character is what you do when you think no one is watching’. 

I knew that a lot of my so-called 'brilliance' was actually a performance of deeply-held anger in sublimated form. Actually, anyone with an ounce of intuition who saw my acting back in the day could have told me what it's taken me thirty years to tell myself. But I digress. I think I was held together by anger. Controlled anger was key to my success as an academic, it was my body armour. 

After I had children, anger started to come out as what it is – uncontrolled reaction – and my god, how I hated myself then. I was no better than anyone else under pressure, despite all those fine exam results. No better than my enraged father. It turned out that I could only cope with one kind of pressure, and life, apparently, wasn't just a set of exams. But I had learnt no way to measure what was reasonable and what was not, where to draw the line – that a little anger, or angry thoughts, are perfectly acceptable if your kids are acting up, but that you are the adult and they are tiny, and you can terrify them with anger, unless you find a better way to express it than just yelling or spanking. 

Because I saw such a lot of anger (both expressed and repressed, both physical and verbal) growing up, it was so, so upsetting to see that coming out, helplessly, in me, in the next generation. I felt I had not been able to outrun my father. There he was, lurking inside me, waiting for his chance to come out in me. 

But. I have made many, many changes to how I live. The whole point in life, it seems to me, is the idea of both setting an intention, but going easy if you can’t match that intention at first. I have learnt this, very, very slowly, through the dance and then through pilates, then yoga, and now running – the running which takes me back to when it all went wrong, and I split myself in two, all those years ago, when I was trying to get into Cambridge. I have accepted that there are things I cannot do, as well as started to celebrate the things I know I can do well. I have accepted that there are limits to what I should expect myself to do, and that modelling this is the best gift I could give my kids (apart from loving them). I have come to love those limits, and see how they could work for me.

I think there are some lovely ways I am like my father. At his very best he had a quirky sense of humour. He adored Sinterklaas, and was always thinking up new ways for Sint to deliver the gifts. He was very intelligent, very good at systems, very loyal to my mother, and remarkably unprejudiced, given his life story. He walked around in his pants and didn't care, and he loved cats. The only time I ever saw him cry was when our cat Jackanory was hit by a car. I know that he loved me, I just wish he could have found it easier to express. 

My favourite memory of both my parents is the day I got into Cambridge, and we danced together round the sitting room. 

We danced.

With much love, and without any Dutch Courage,


Ingrid xx

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Things I Don't Want To Know, Deborah Levy

Sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose are George Orwell's four motivations for writing, as he articulates them in Why I Write.

In Things I Don't Want To Know, Deborah Levy takes these four apocalyptic horsemen and reorders them, tossing them about like pizza dough, as she offers her own, uncompromisingly female, version of why she writes.

In the first essay, 'Political Purpose', she reopens a notebook she has held on to, but not written in since 1988, when she went to Poland to write about an avant-garde actress. Irresistibly we are reminded of Doris Lessing's four notebooks, and wonder which one this is most like – black, red, yellow or blue (old depression, Communism, new depression, dreams)?

The title of that first essay might draw us towards Orwell or Lessing's Communism, particularly as Levy's own father was a member of the ANC, and particularly as she explicitly calls this her 'Polish notebook' and talks of Gdansk shipyards.

Yet the essay seems at first sight apolitical. It recounts a trip made to Majorca to try to come to terms with a personal crisis, and makes forays into motherhood, not politics:
I found myself thinking about some of the women, the mothers who had waited with me in the school playground while we collected our children. Now that we were mothers we were all shadows of our former selves, chased by the women we used to be before we had children (p. 14).
It is impossible, says Levy, to explain to these pursuing younger selves, these Furies, that we, we mothers, have metamorphosed 'into someone we did not entirely understand'.

In agreement with Kristeva, the Franco-Bulgarian literary critic, linguist and psychoanalyst, she speculates that the idea of 'the Mother' is a version of the Woman that 'the whole world had imagined to death'. It is well-nigh impossible, Levy feels, to get around this fantasy, and tell the truth about what it is to be a mother, because 'The world loved the delusion more than it loved the mother' (p. 15).

Part of the mystery of this deluded fantasy, for mothers themselves, is the feeling that 'the male world and its political arrangements […] was actually jealous of the passion we felt for our babies'. For this, it seems, women are to be punished: 'our children made us happy beyond measure – and unhappy too – but never as miserable as the twenty-first century Neo-Patriarchy made us feel'.

Ah..... here's the 'political purpose': Neo-Patriarchy – gosh! what a term, so lightly and casually thrown away, so brilliant in its coinage, with its dark threat that patriarchy simply cannot be done away with, that it will always manage to give birth to itself again, a sinister parthenogenesis like Frankenstein's monster made of body parts – the eternal return. Neo-Patriarchy, argues Levy, 'required us to be passive but ambitious, maternal but erotically energetic, self-sacrificing but fulfilled'. This sentence, when I read it, made me feel physically sick. It named, acutely, the paradox facing 'Strong Modern Women' – the impossible struggle to achieve your personal happiness while attending to the needs and happiness of others as though it were your only purpose.

How else could a paradox be formulated except acutely? I used to enjoy naming paradoxes, and did it all the time. Before children. Nothing seems to get to the heart of a matter better than pithy paradoxes. Paradoxes name contradictions and conflicts. They name madness – the impossible possibility of holding two opposing thoughts in our minds – think of Medea, killing her children, but not mad. They are the very structure of tragedy, the flaw that will flip the hero into the victim. They foreclose debate, and invoke the gods of Pity and Awe, Fear and Retribution. They dominate political discourse triumphantly – Anti-Austerity Measures! Quantitative Easing! They define what it is to be alive and simultaneously to know that you will die. Paradoxes name that human pain of longing for freedom and… yet… craving security, all at once. Paradoxes conquer time itself, allowing us neither to have our cake, nor to eat it, but still to see it through the window and slaver for it.

And Levy's paradoxes, her poetic contradictions, reinforced by quotations exclusively from French female writers and intellectuals, that most self-riven of types (Duras, Kristeva, de Beauvoir), name over and over again what I feel every single day.

These women, these writers, are not wrong. They put their finger on the painful wound that is becoming a mother under Neo-Patriarchy. I have experienced, every day since giving birth, how impossible it is to be a Good Girl once you have a baby. It is no longer possible to hide in plain sight, to escape censure by doing everything society asks of you perfectly. You are caught out constantly, by having to infringe rules, codes, norms, conventions, boundaries, as your child screams lustily for its needs to be met, and you run before those screams, running from the equally outraged screams of your employer, your children's school, your doctor, your cafe owner, your handyman, your dentist… Oh – not loud screams (we're adults), but screams of disapproval, nonetheless, taking the form of averted eyes, curt emails, pursed lips, blocked promotions, social blanking, overly loud comments, trolling.

I read Deborah Levy's few pages and put down the slim volume, thinking in despair that I will never write about motherhood again.

And yet I must go on. I cannot give up the idea that mothers can find happiness, despite the impossible paradoxes they are asked to swaddle, clean, feed and nurture, without ever having signed a contract or receiving a pay cheque for the work they did not know was going to be asked of them – the work of looking after everybody's needs, not just the baby's.

Just as I was supposed to be grateful to Cambridge for allowing me a place and later a job – I was a supplicant and not an applicant – I was supposed to be Grateful to have a baby, because somehow, this was my greatest symbol of becoming, the most visible sign that I had been properly tamed, my impregnation by society itself. In fact, the almost exclusively male Fellowship at my former Cambridge college were pleased as punch when I and two other colleagues became pregnant at the same time. You'd have thought they were all responsible. It didn't stop them kicking one of those women out of her college rooms, even though she had nowhere else to live once her baby was born (because her partner taught at a boarding school the other side of London). Meanwhile, I was being done over by a female emissary of my Alma Mater. The third was abandoned by her husband, and left academia because she couldn't afford to raise two children, alone, on a college lecturer's salary. One way or another, they got rid of all three of us. No way of being a Fellow if you're a Mother.

Yet I will go on. Here is my own paradox: although it is, in theory, impossible to be happy as a mother, I will be happy, in practice, as a mother. How will I do it? Through dancing, listening, learning to love myself, doing what I want (I might as well be a bad girl), and cheering on others to do the same.

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Still dancing

I started both anti-depressants and dancing, back in Autumn 2009. I had come back from a summer holiday to see my husband's parents in Oz as depressed as I had ever been as an ill-treated lecturer at Cambridge. All I knew was that I had to do something to change the terrible way I was feeling.

This was also when I embarked on the idea for a book called Motherload. What I thought was going to be a year's work extended and multiplied, because, of course, I was still living Motherload as well as analysing it – because the children were still very young, because my husband's employment was so unstable for so long, because there was a global recession. I couldn't just sit down and research and write, and let everything else take care of itself. Well, I could and did for two glorious years in Australia. But that's another story.

After I was kicked out of Cambridge (for having a baby), I was forced to keep thinking up new ways to earn a living. First of all I switched careers completely. When management consultancy, although fast-paced and thrilling, proved impossible because of the hours, the workload, the travel and the cost of the nanny, I tried full-time employment, but at a much lower level than I was qualified for. I thought this would allow me the balance I needed (even if it did nothing for my self-esteem). When it resulted in bullying, mistrust, and resentment (oh, and crippling boredom), I gave up completely on the formal working world, and went it alone. I finally worked out that what I'd loved about being an academic was behaving a bit like a barrister: running my own portfolio of students, while contributing to a greater good through lecturing and research. So that's what I've based my consultancy on. But again, that's another story.

All the time – and we're talking years here – I was trying to balance the needs of the kids in terms of education, development, entertainment, love, while my husband was struggling to keep the ground under his feet (and helping out at home. Good man). 

*

It feels at the moment as if that hard past is in the past (fingers crossed): my husband has a great job now. For now. Who knows when the dark times might come again? I hope never. But that would be naive. The really tough times seem to be physically behind us – those years will never come again, and I am grateful for that – but of course it makes me sad, because the time I wish never to live again also covers the whole of our children's childhood. And that is a terrible truth to face.

From the moment we returned to the UK, in September 2006, from those two happy years in Australia, with our son aged 3 months and our girl aged 3, until roughly… now, our lives were blighted and strained, largely because of money, and British life. 

I found it so difficult to stay steady when I never knew where I was financially, and my husband was having to cope with change all the time, either in a job that wasn't ideally suited to him, or trying to start a company. We got through it because we just had to. You just have to, when you're an adult.

Right now, we are in the best shape we have ever been in – everyone is flourishing, I have the house to myself during the day, so no longer need to dream about an external office or how to fund extortionate childcare. I know what I'm doing and can manage the juggle because I'm not overloaded. I'm able to balance the exercise I absolutely have to have, with teaching, and crawling along on the writing. Hubby is happy because he's flying at work. The children are enjoying school and life. Please, please let it last. 

It's an amazing feeling – it's what I've always wanted. The only thing I want to change is to have written about five books, but I'm no longer prepared to jeopardise the family balance for that, until it's 'safe' to do so, i.e. the kids are 'independent'. I don't yet know what the kind of 'independence' I mean would actually look like, whether I can push harder for more for myself and my own personal fulfilment before they are done with school, or not. Time will tell. All I know is that this is my sweet spot, and I have to bring everything back to this feeling of balance and contentment every day, in order to function. 

*

Everyone's Motherload is different, coming at them for different reasons, their past, their ambitions, Lady Luck and the vicissitudes of the economy. You can't do away with the hard work of raising children – it just is hard work, however much money you've got.

Where Motherload is absolutely toxic, however, lies in the weight of negative, critical judgement and assumption brought to bear almost wholly on women for the way they mother, in amongst all the other duties they take on, whether at home or at work, which are taken utterly for granted. This is what is completely out of control, and needs to be outed and killed off.

Women feel so flayed in their vulnerability about their children, that it is a piece of cake for others to walk all over them, beating them up for perceived failures that women in fact have no control over. Mothers are made to carry all of society's ills, without support. 

Try to put your finger on where this pressure and negativity and abjection comes from, and you find it fleeing to the corners – it is an ideological force, born of capitalism's boom and bust nature, and the ill-formed way that patriarchy was both born of capitalism and is disintegrating as capitalism proceeds. Because, ultimately, it is to the advantage, not of society and families, but of Capital, that everyone should be working, all the time, and that the definition of 'work' should continue to expand and morph. 

It's the easiest thing in the world to disregard labour that is unpaid, and then punish people who are emerging from a hitherto disenfranchised group for not working hard enough. If you don't recognise half of what they do as work, then you can demand a whole lot more from them, and they won't fight back (they'll moan, but they won't fight back). And if you tell a group they are worthless for a few centuries, surprise surprise, you have a very compliant workforce when you do allow them into it. 

That's where we are in history – a state of total confusion about what women are for, what role they should play, how many roles they should play, in what kind of time frame (all at once, or one at a time). 

The narrative for women, across the classes, has not evolved, it has broken, and we are all paying the price. 

But no single woman, and no single policy change, is going to put this chronic toxicity right. We all know what ought to change: 

If you want women to bear and raise children, you need to give them better support to do it. 

If you want women to get an education, have a career AND bear and raise children, you have to give them even more support, and men have to give up some of their freedom, lower their expectations and lose their sense of entitlement, and start doing more within the family. 

You have to have social policies in place that support this. Like free wraparound care so that children can be looked after well during working hours.

You have to cut the culture of presenteeism, and reduce working hours so that men and women can return to their homes and be with their children at a reasonable time. 

You need less, not more, parental engagement in schools, and no in-term 'training days' for teachers, and you need better provision for school holiday care. 

You need to remind anxious parents that children actually thrive on boredom and don't need to be ferried about to extra activities or pushed through umpteen music grades, or given everything they demand. What they need are books, boxes, pens and paper, playgrounds, beaches, occasional sweeties, wellingtons and cuddles. Oh all right, a bit of maths. You get my drift.

Let's not even start on the healthcare. 

This kind of joined-up thinking is massively beyond any government, mainly because, of course, it SUITS half the population to have the other half running around like a blue-arsed fly, at the operations level, while at the strategic level, whoever is lucky enough to have got there can swan about, talking shop. Germaine Greer pointed out that the desks of senior executives are always clear, because they don't actually DO anything. They talk about doing, and they tell others what to do.

We no longer live in an era dominated by ideologies such as the Divine Right of Kings or the Great Chain of Being. 

We no longer condone labour systems predicated on slavery.

We have emancipated women (thanks very much: strange thought that women ever needed emancipating).

But now we have to learn to live with them, moving about in public society, with children or without children, with careers or without them, with jobs or without them, and stop treating them as undesirables who ought really to be locked in a kitchen, out of sight and out of their minds, whom we are just doing a favour by allowing out, and who are fair game for any amount of criticism whether it makes sense or not. 

It's a strange thing to use the pronoun 'we' under such conditions, but I mean it – I include myself and everyone else, men and women, gay and straight, black and white in what I'm saying here. There's inclusivity for you. We're all at it, we all judge and find fault, and look for ways to inflict our own unassuaged desires onto others, and we all make the assumption that this can best be done on the weaker-looking of the species, and we all still assume that this means women. When we don't think that it means children. We are all guilty of it. It doesn't matter how many degrees I have, I still think I'm somehow worthless. Well, that came from somewhere. It's been reinforced by something. And let's not blame my mother.

Getting that kind of assumption out of our heads is and will be harder than any demonstration for women's rights. 

We have all internalised, to our very cores, the idea that Woman is weaker and responsible for society's ills, and for putting them right. From Eve to Angela Merkel, we're all happier when we can blame a woman.

The big societal shifts that have resulted in legislation supposedly enforcing equal pay, equal rights and so forth have taken place. The greatest progress of all has been the Pill, giving women control, at last, over reproduction. These changes have only just taken place – a few decades isn't very long, compared with centuries and centuries of inequality. The legislation hasn't yet been entirely successful, but a great deal of progress has, of course, been made. Long may it last. 

What has not yet shifted are our base assumptions, our deep thinking, our unconscious negative judgements, our childish desire to blame others – and above all the great parent in the sky – for our ills, when they are squarely our fault and our responsibility. That blame culture has become all the more visible because of the internet, which has allowed the trolls to come out in full force. Used to taking the flak, women are only now starting to understand that they will never achieve equality, even if the law tells them they are equal, unless they work out which things they are really responsible for, and which are just being Motherloaded onto them, because no one can be bothered to take control, take care of themselves, or their surroundings, do the dirty work, clear up after themselves, or offer to help. Until women push back and refuse to do other people's dirty work, and men accept that dirty work is their responsibility too, genuine equality is impossible.

In the meantime, women have to fight for their pleasure, happiness and fulfilment. Fight the demons in their heads, and fight the unpleasant manipulations of their roles and identities that beset them every day in advanced capitalist societies.

P.S. I've kicked the anti-depressants, but I'm still dancing.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

School Run Resolution

Yesterday, I dropped my son off at school. First day back. We were late, running, son hadn't done his homework properly, everyone was ambling and ruinously slow. Son stormed off without saying goodbye. I stormed out of the playground, my emotions plastered all over my face. 

Then I sat in the car and cried to my mother for a full hour and a half, venting every single one of the grievances I carry about with me like so much lead. A 47-year-old sniffing and snotting to her nearly 80-year-old mother. I should have been ashamed of myself (don't worry, reader, I was). 

She was brilliant, as she always is. My quiet, self-contained wartime mother, whose magisterial sense of proportion is the equal of any classical architect. She said a couple of things that stuck:
1. You're quite wrong to keep on regretting something that happened twelve years ago. 
2. If the kids shout at you, walk away. You don't have to put up with that. 
Those two sentences, in amongst a lot of silent, upset, loving listening, worked on me all day long. Let go of the past, it's over. Let go of the anxiety, it's pointless. 

This morning, bellicose son, having been asked (politely, mind) to practise the piano, clear up his breakfast, get dressed and get out the door for school, kicked off when I suggested brightly that we go over the 7, 8 and 9 times tables as we walked. 

What a Tiger Mother I must be, to force my poor dear child to practise his tables! How outrageous that he should be told he needs to know something that he is going to use every single day of his life! 

The arguing, abuse and refusal lasted from our front door to the local park, at which point I told him (politely, mind) he could walk the rest of the way on his own, and went home. I never even looked back.

As I walked, I realised that a certain maternal filament has broken, like a tooth finally coming free of its moorings. I'm not sure when it broke. I suspect quite a long time ago, but I've been hanging on to it, worrying. 

I simply do not think it is my job – or the job of any parent – to keep walking a child to school and be abused for trying to help him. If he's old enough to swear at me, he's old enough to learn his own tables, and make his own way to school. 

A strand of the ambivalence, that keeps mothers locked to their children in anxiety and guilt, fear of social censure and fear of letting their offspring down, gave way at 8.40 this morning, 5 January 2016. Good riddance to it.

I no longer feel that guilty responsibility. He will, sooner or later, have to make his own way in the world, and he might as well start now. He has consistently been an autodidact, larger than life, a great ball of energy. He is not a child who can be forced to do all that much – the result has always been fury, violence and resistance. So be it. That is his character. I free him to be himself – if I am allowed to be myself.

So. My New Year's Resolution is that I will no longer walk him to and from school. He can seize his freedom, and shape it without my troubled intervention. He'll find out the hard way that he does actually need his times tables, but my work on that is done. 

*

After the attempted abduction of our son just before Christmas, I had to speak to several police people. Thank goodness the first one who came round was a woman with a 9-year-old son. Her firm message was: keep walking home from school – your independence goes forward not backwards. Many parents asked what I would do, and at first, I stuck to my guns – he would keep walking. As they asked, the pressure mounted, and I felt my courage dissolve, along with my son's. He started asking me to pick him up. 

Then came other, male, police officers. I found myself having to answer the question, "May I ask why he was walking back alone at 4.45pm?" Incredulous, I reminded the man that my kid was coming home from an after-school activity. The obvious implication was that I was a negligent mother. I tried to push the insinuation away, but it worked on me all over Christmas. 

Then in early January the same officer phoned me to tell me they had looked at all the CCTV footage and hadn't come up with anything about the predator. And blow me, he tried again to insinuate that I shouldn't have been letting my child walk home at 4.45pm – apparently I was setting up the opportunity for the man to approach my son. Like a pimp. Strangely enough, I'm not responsible for a paedophile's behaviour and desires, and happen to want to live in a community in which it's safe for everyone's children to walk around freely. And strangely enough, I'm not negligent. 



I tend to think of 'resolutions', certainly New Year's ones, as predictions for the year ahead, an announcement of things I would like to have happen, without doing an awful lot of planning or hard work to make them come to pass. 

The meaning of 'resolve', however, is to settle or find a solution to a problem, and decide firmly on a course of action. Resolve begins now, when you make a decision, and it entails first knowing that there is a problem, naming it, and then knowing what the solution to that problem is. 

A resolution isn't a prediction, it's an Aha! moment and a map. 

I cannot begin to tell you how good it feels. 


AND THE CODA..... My son came home from school today (first day on the school run without Mummy telling him what to do and/or protecting him from paedophiles). 

He held out his hand. In it were several pounds. On his way, he had seen an old lady struggling with her bag, and run up to her to offer help. They had pottered up the road together, she had told him her life story, and then met her son at the top of the street. She had insisted on giving him a reward. He wanted to refuse, and she pressed it on him. He came home wanting to give it to charity. 

Reader, I cried.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Happy New Year!

So, like the rest of the nation, I have been going through New Year, and found to my surprise that it DOES mean something. In fact, it feels as though New Year has gone through me, like an extreme weather event, or a bout of food poisoning.

New Year is something visceral – a kind of terror in the body, gut-clenchings of nameless fears and monstrous brain creations, pulsing in the dead of night. All your evils come back to haunt you, and to cleanse you.

In the daytime it has felt little better (having not been able to sleep, I have been an inzombiac). I have felt tearful, hysterical, irritated, anguished, furious, desperate, seared, flagellated, exhumed, empty, slackened, throttled, murderous. All these things at times; at points, all at once.

In the days following Christmas and then New Year, the wastelands of yesteryear and the bleak untried plains of the coming year have blown through me. It has been difficult to locate handholds in amongst the rushing grains of what took place last year, it seems to cascade through my fingers. Aspects of last year that were mountains to climb have dissolved into lost time as they've represented themselves in my mind's eye. What did all that mean? What was it for?

Part of it is having those wretched healthy eels of children, who keep on developing and growing, enriching themselves, damn them, feeding on us, like pet Ouroboroi. They are the experience thieves – it's all them! As they individuate themselves, they are slowly shedding us like discarded skins. The house is pregnant with their growingness. Resolution: make them cook own food, do own washing, do own school run, etc. Sigh as realise this is not legal.

Then there are the moments of complete serenity, in which I grasp, for a sliver of a breath, that all is good. All, outside my poor brain, is actually fine, at least for me, for my immediate family. We have not been invaded. We have not died. We are not ill. We, for the moment, are alive and well, and go to shops to buy food, do homework, get ready for work, have showers, watch television, write thank you letters. Capitalism is still twisting up our thinking about our lives into impossible pretzels of nonsense, and we are still happily falling for it. There is pleasure to be had on the John Lewis website. We are still grasping, competitive, insecure and cruel, as we ever were. Some of us (them) aren't like that, and we look at those happy few and are slightly irritated – who are they not to lack for anything? What's wrong with them and their nasty consoledness? Smug gits.

Then it's back to the lacerations of anxiety.

I know, from having been alive for nearly forty-eight years, that these emotions are peculiar to the opening days of January, and indeed have been so ever since Julius Caesar introduced the solar calendar in 46 BC, and invented Janus-faced January as the first month of the year. Those Romans. (Apart from the bit when celebrating New Year on 1 January was considered pagan, and abolished, say between 567 AD and 1582 if you were Catholic, and 1752 if you were Protestant. Apart from those bits. Those Middle Ages people).

I know that if I hold on, the children will go back to school, I will do a food shop, I will go back to yoga classes, and start teaching, and do my tax return (OH NO! MY TAX RETURN!). I will spend no money in January, or go out, or drink, or eat chocolate or meat, or anything except chia seed pudding. Not.

These wild feelings of dissolution and vertigo will gradually seep away, to be replaced with concrete projects, failed plans, unforeseen disasters, and a few surprisingly good moments I could never have predicted. Everyone else around me will seem to do better than me. Because that's how I view life. Why be happy when there are so many words in self-imposed misery? When there's so much comedy gold in being neurotic? Ah well. There's always next year to read the whole of Shakespeare and lose a stone.

I think perhaps I reacted so strongly to New Year this year because I have such a powerful Cnut-like fantasy that I am in control of my own life, now contained in the sure and certain middle-aged knowledge that I have absolutely no control over it. The scramble to put 2015 to bed, and plot for 2016, brings with it both a merciless perfectionism – "THIS year I will be thin, famous, rich and adored!" – and the excruciating, glass-clear apprehension that this kind of thinking is not even worth the name of thought, is nowhere near rationality, is nothing like the truth. January 1 is just a day like other days – a little emptier if no friends are around, a little harder if you drank too much the night before – but your book was not finished on 31 December, and it is no nearer being so on 1 January.

So, I think the best way through New Year's Day is probably on a yoga retreat. And my resolution for 2016 is to engineer one for next New Year's Day.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Doug Lemov and the art of gentleness

I found the BBC Radio 4 Programme broadcast yesterday ('The World's Best Teachers') captivating and inspiring. It was all about Doug Lemov's techniques for teaching, which focus on gentle, non-invasive interventions helping children and students to bring their attention back to the classroom. Teachers can stay in control of their own emotions, and children don't feel yelled at and coerced.

I found it inspiring for so many reasons.

When I was a university lecturer, we were never given any teacher training at all, which is why university lecturers are, on the whole, poor teachers. All my teaching was based on having done a load of acting and improv as an undergraduate – I acted my way through. On the whole that worked fine, unless I was in a sticky situation with one student, or wasn't as familiar with the material I was trying to teach.

I did have a year in the classroom, in France, in a Lycée Technique in the Vosges. I was 21, on a year abroad during my undergraduate degree, and really not very sure what to do. The classroom had a toilet in the corner, and one day a kid got up and used it. I think I struggled to stop myself crying in front of the others. Later on, one of the kids put a bottle through the back window of my car. I left that job and went to teach privately in Paris.

As a university teacher, I didn't have disruptive behaviour in the classroom until I was teaching in London. There the students were balancing travel, second jobs and study commitments, and were sullen, judgemental and unthinking. Or at least, that's how I found them, after the wonderland of Oxford and Cambridge.

I know now that I needed to up my game as a teacher, that I wasn't going far enough, and that I had never HAD to think about how to engage people, I'd simply relied on my own acting.

My second insight into bringing distracted students back to the fold wasn't in teaching at all, but in management consultancy. I was trained, in fact by an ex-actor, in how to facilitate. The methods he gave me weren't that different from what I'd instinctively gone for (smiling does help). But what was crucial in what he said was that everyone in the room is looking for a leader, and that it's not enough to be a passive facilitator, hoping everyone will make nice, even in a room of supposed adults. There will always be one participant trying to take over, bully others or bully you. You have to learn to address that person directly, for the sake of everyone else. You can explicitly park them and say you'll take their point later – but you have to name what they are doing, to them, in front of everyone. You cannot let the elephant remain in the room. After years and years of perfecting what I thought was a non-directive approach which would just let things happen in a natural and organic way – successful in a space in which everyone wants to play by the rules – I at last understood that you can certainly establish such a space (a performance space), but you have to do so in an active way, and sometimes name the rules out loud in the middle of the game.

My third insight has been in raising my own children. One of the tales on which Shakespeare bases The Taming of the Shrew is an old folk tale, in which a wild woman is 'tamed' by gradually learning that kindness and gentle words will win more than shouting. She defeats a goblin, by being so lovely to it that it explodes in its own frustration. Miss Honey, the improbably sweet teacher in Roald Dahl's Matilda, is another version of this.

I am more wild Katerina than sweet Miss Honey, but I understand, intellectually and emotionally, that kind words and gentleness win more than sharpness and shouting. It's just that it's VERY DIFFICULT to put into practice, perhaps especially with one's own children, when every single moment is a form of boundary-testing.

It is an inordinate challenge to remain silent under provocation, but it works.

It is exceptionally tricky not to shout when your kids get up from the table for the fifth time in a meal, but a quiet reminder will get them sitting down without even thinking about it.

It is deeply painful to be turned into a servant, and have no apparent authority, but a gentle touch and word will get those chores done. Here I was helped by How to Talk so Kids will Listen and How to Listen when Kids Talk – a wonderful book that's been on my bedside table for the past decade, like a Gideon Bible of parental encouragement.

My fourth insight comes from writing, yoga and mindfulness. As a writer, I have to tame my wild brain every time I want to write. I have to establish rituals, and banish distractions. I have to create the rules of engagement with myself, set myself goals and aim towards them. I must let my imagination go, and rein it in. Learning to sit with my feelings, and just experience them, rather than fight with them, to breathe, to hold poses longer than is comfortable, and realise I can stretch a little further, all this has taught me that I can achieve a writing frame of mind without doing violence to myself, as I learnt to do as a child and student. I do not have to force, but I do have to be actively gentle.

It is so easy to forget these methods of gentleness, pausing, silence, non-invasive intervention. They are incredibly hard to learn and deploy, but they are so powerful.

Here's to Doug Lemov, and the kid in the Vosges who peed in my classroom. Every little helps.