Friday, 16 January 2015

The Language of Discipline

Thank you to Suzy Banks Baum, who very kindly asked if I would write something for her site, Laundry Line Divine.  Here's what I sent her. It's about the problem of combining creativity and discipline.

I've also copied it below for ease of reading:

The Language of Discipline
I have had to learn whole new ways of speaking since becoming a mother. In my childfree life, I wrote about Marcel Proust and his obsession with time passing. For me, as for him, the obsession with time passing amounted to an obsession with self passing — how, as your life goes by, your identity shifts continually. Different parts of who you are come to rigidify or dissolve. What was once frozen with fear expands to airy liberation. Elements of yourself you thought you could never do without become redundant or obstructive and have to be jettisoned, like empty rocket boosters. The characteristics you held closest to your heart ossify and desiccate. For example, how, from uptight teenager, you learn Expansive Liberal Tolerance as a twenty-something graduate, and from there how you become a mother, and how all that learnt tolerance disappears into the maw of discipline. 
I had a longstanding relationship with discipline. I was a very, very disciplined child and teenager — my time management was exceptional. I awoke at 5.30am and revised in bed, I was at the piano by 7, and every day without fail my bag was packed and at the door. No one needed to tell me off. But they still did. My discipline was always fleeing whey-faced before a dark-browed father. 
My excellent time management lasted all the way through university, which was, after all, a bit like school. It only started to crack when I finally had to leave school altogether, and enter the World of Work. Then I learnt about all the ways in which employers and colleagues undermine your self-discipline, through impossible deadlines, boring tasks, power struggles, envy, incompetence, and simple meanness. And I learnt that without the prop of studying for exams, my time management was useless. I turned out to be as lazy as everyone else, when I didn’t want to do something. This discovery threw me so much that I ran back to university, thinking that this was where I would find my likeminded community of non-disciplinarian souls, all engaged in lifelong labours of love. 
Wrong. Once I had to teach others how to manage their time, as a lecturer, my own discipline went even more pear-shaped. It’s not that I didn’t complete tasks to the deadline, but that the way I went about finishing turned into insanity: last-minute scrabbles, tearful up-all-nighters without the benefit of following-day lazing. It scrambled me. I talked the talk of calm practice, day-to-day discipline and creative nurture, but I did not walk the walk. 
At the same time, disciplinarians who were not my father were closing in on me. Bullies, delighting in abusing their positions of power (I could be specific but will refrain), sniffed me out and hounded me for minor misdemeanours. I did not know what to do with myself. 
In the first few months after having my daughter, I lived embraced in the milky syncopation of her heartbeat, entirely looked after by her needs. No need to manage my own time, it was taken care of. No need for discipline, who needs to discipline a baby? I managed to extend this to the whole of her first three years, by moving to Australia, and starting my first novel. I could write while she was at nursery, and also spend several days a week with her. I complained publicly that I never had enough time to write, because I felt it de rigueur to complain, but secretly I was happy, rocked in the rhythm of her days. I did not know what lay ahead. 
Because then… then there were two. A boy. Lover of women, charmer of all, dark-souled, uncontained, pure ego. And discipline came to visit me once again. Time management turned into sticks that beat me incessantly, a relentless roll call of disparate dull claims — feeding, shopping, cleaning, running for the tube, deadlines, running to pick up, doctors’ appointments, activities, suffering the comments of other mothers, nursery staff, school staff — and that discipline found its doppelgänger inside me. When my uppity son did not conform, I disciplined. Not kindly, but brutally. Angrily, forcefully, without finesse. There were no clever tips and techniques inside me which rose to the surface and helped me through. My longing for flow, connection, lovingkindness, to be a gentlewoman, all that was so much mush, it had all been so much learnt theory. The reality was perpetual shouting, nagging, talking back to talking back, argument, misery. 
I wish I could tell you that this new maternal language, which seemed to burst out of me as naturally as tears, itself dissolved into understanding and forgiveness. It has not yet. For me, as yet, the melting point between discipline and creativity has not been found. I try — I seek it through yoga, dance, trying to write, trying to understand what it is like to be a child. I fail, every day. I’m about to fail again. It’s 8.12am, and I have been writing when I should have been getting my child ready to go to school. 
Naughty girl.

To put this piece into some kind of context, Suzy is pulling together a third collection of pieces called 'Out of the Mouths of Babes', an online collection that is attached to The Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.  Frankly, what has troubled me most is what comes out of my mouth since having children. 'Out of the mouths of babes' usually means that children tell the innocent, unfiltered truth.

If that's what I'm doing, then heaven help us all.

I guess the things I say show I am no longer a babe.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Post Christmas Post

Christmas seems to me the most preposterous process of emotional line-drawing and dread. 

'Advent' turns out not to mean anticipating the coming of the Lord — or even Father Christmas. Or rather the true meaning of 'anticipation' is searching nightly through the contents of your soul, memory and wallet for a full month, while trying to hold down a job, and cope with everyone else's unfiltered greed (if they are children) or unmitigated disappointment (if they are adults). 

All through December I feel I am wading through the treacle of my own and everyone else's expectations and anxieties. I am measuring myself up, working out what didn't get done, what I hoped would happen and didn't, combing back over the year in a cloud of sadness for time lost, and by extension, sifting through all the previous years, now gone for ever. We are all working and living a kind of double time, trying to fit in everyone else's activities (aka hopes and dreams), heading like lemmings for a national exodus to the privacy of The Family.

Then follows a short period of slow cooked friction, fuelled by alcohol, chocolate and television, searching for love. Ultimately there is an outburst of some kind, then the mass tramp home, chastened. 

Finally there is the scramble for a New Year's party, in order to wash away the previous four weeks of expiation and worry in one glorious sousing (or there is the sense of rejection and exclusion if no party is forthcoming), and finally we are all spat out, wrung dry, impoverished and having to do our tax returns on the far side. 

From here on in I have decided not to send Christmas cards. They epitomise the process I've just described. First you must choose the right kind of card to express your values (Charity? Children's drawing? Photo of loving family? Multi-pack? Individual i.e. expensive?), then decide whether or not to write a long or a short message (long = boasting about one's exploits and holidays; short = no time or bare remembrance of recipient), then queue in the disintegrating post office to hand over wads of cash to ensure the pieces of card make it. Then bump into the person you have just sent a card to. Or be fated never to see the people you were once so close to, who now live thousands of miles away. The card has to stand in for the whole of that past, together with the intervening years in which you have become unknown to each other. Christmas cards are bound up with that process of atonement, mourning, and denial, which is what Christmas seems to be. 

Instead I will send electronic New Year's Cards. Instant gratification, no need for long screeds, an image selected from the mass of the previous year's doings, a wish for the future, and not a longing for a past that can never come again (and was never what you remember when it was the present). 

I can probably be accused of bad faith — perhaps that advent process is exactly what is needed in order to experience the liberation of the year turning. Ah well, there's always next year.