Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Free

The Free

We hear a lot about American extremes, whether it’s gossip about the extremely wealthy, or reports of violence among the extremely disaffected. But what of those who will never be successful, but are neither on the rampage nor quite on the skids? For that, we once relied on Joe Bageant; but since his untimely death a couple of years ago we have needed to look elsewhere.

One serious contender is Willy Vlautin. Vlautin, who has worked in warehouses and at painting houses, is also a gifted and elegant writer. He writes essays and novels and, as songwriter and vocalist for Richmond Fontaine, songs; and he has just released a novel about ordinary people in the mess that is America.

The Free opens when Leroy, an Iraqi veteran suffering brain injury and posttraumatic stress disorder, wakes in the night. To his astonishment, he is having a rare moment of clarity. It has been so long since he has experienced this, and he is so profoundly grateful for the gift and the beauty he perceives, that he cannot bear to descend again into darkness and confusion. He decides to liberate himself, and attempts suicide. This is a framing device for the character-driven novel which goes on to describe small, good things (as Raymond Carver once put it) done by small, good people who are themselves on the brink of collapse.

Leroy lives in a home for servicemen with acquired brain injuries, and Freddie, the nightwatchman, finds him. Freddie tends his wounds, calls the ambulance and Leroy’s mother, and gently helps the other servicemen back to bed. As the story progresses we learn that Freddie is crippled by medical bills. He works in a paint store by day and in the group home by night; even so, his house is twice mortgaged and his power is about to be cut off. Despite these pressures, he finds kind words for the counterwoman at the donut shop each morning, and drops by the hospital between workplaces each evening to sit with Leroy and leave small gifts on his nightstand.

Coming in and out of Leroy’s room is Pauline, a nurse. Pauline becomes particularly attached to one patient, a young teenage runaway; and she also cares for her mentally ill father who spends his days on the couch watching TV. We also meet Leroy’s mother and ex-girlfriend, and numerous other minor characters.

Their interwoven stories are studded by Leroy’s PTSD-driven nightmares. In his mind, Leroy and his ex-girlfriend are on the run from the super race. Having been marked as cowards, they are being hunted down for slaughter. Images of war – hangings, shootings, bloodbaths – pepper his visions, which gradually reveal his self-understanding as someone who is unable to integrate his experience of war and is permanently damaged as a result.

It is difficult to write about decent people without mawkishness or naïveté, but Vlautin manages it with rare grace. These are no saints, just people getting by – but choosing to get by as well as they can, given their crushing circumstances. His spare style recalls Carver’s lean prose, spliced with Leroy’s Orwellian dystopic dreams.

Although it is a story about individuals, The Free also illuminates the toxic effects of untrammelled capitalism. Leroy joins the National Guard to impress his boss and keep his job, not knowing it could lead to overseas service. Freddie is bankrupted by private healthcare and criminally low wages. Although he flirts with potentially lucrative illegal work, the timing of other events means he is still shunted into sub-standard housing. Pauline’s father lives in cold filth for fear of heating and water bills. Others live on the streets or in squats, or get involved in endeavours that lead to prison. The Free touches on these and many other issues as it describes life in the corporatocracy and ponders where people on the margins find freedom. And while Vlautin has no paradigm-shattering answers, he does offer small and precious glimpses of grace.

The High Country [Digipak]

Friday, June 6, 2014

Eating Heaven: Spirituality at the Table

I may be biased, but my friend Simon wrote a terrific book last year, Eating Heaven. And I loved it. I read it very slowly and savoured every bite.

Each chapter focusses on one table: the kitchen table, the backyard table, the café table, the restaurant table, right up to the table of communion. And each chapter has stories, interviews, history and reflections on that table: eating with mum and dad in the kitchen, sharing a meal with marginalised men and women at a free lunch, having a coffee with a chef between shifts, and so on. Each chapter then ends with a recipe reflecting the type of eating that happens at that particular table.

The book is layered and rich, reflecting Simon’s background as trained chef, sociologist, theologian, and Baptist minister. It also reflects his love of Melbourne in the descriptions of laneway cafés and linen-topped restaurant tables; the juxtaposition of social inclusion and fancy pastries at one downtown church; and the transformative power of eating together in a multicultural city. Whether reminiscing over crowded kitchen tables or backyard barbecues, or savouring the perfect café latte or fancy restaurant dinner, Simon is always thoughtful. In a culture of empty food porn, his voice nourishes and refreshes. He not only enjoys the food, but also contemplates how poverty and wealth, hospitality and exclusiveness, celebration and mourning, and many other issues play out when we sit down at the table. His gentle questions and tentative suggestions are always thought-provoking.

More, they have an effect. Eating together is central to being human; and Eating Heaven reminds us of this gift. In my own household, reading it has triggered a couple of changes. For one, we have returned to a more intentional saying of grace. Despite trying various things over the years, grace had become a rushed magic formula that one or another kid would gabble as they reached for the serving spoon. It was worse than if we had not said it at all. But after reading this book, I have asked that we return to saying grace properly. Now we move between a candle and a responsive prayer; a minute’s silence before the meal; or held hands and a song depending on the mood – and we are loving this grateful pause at the end of the day, this moment of being together before we eat our dinner.

Eating Heaven has also recalled us to simple acts of hospitality, which we largely left behind in the maelstrom of having a third child. A few years on, we’re again able to make time for a coffee with friends, or invite others to eat with us in our home; and Eating Heaven has been a catalyst for thinking about why we eat together and how to do it well.

The stories, reflections and very good questions make this a book to savour, and slowly digest. Thank you, Simon.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Life Drawing: a novel

Life Drawing

It is rare that one reads a soliloquy on a long term of relationship, but Life Drawing is just that. Gus (short for Augusta) and Owen have been together for a quarter of a century, and their relationship is coloured by grief, a betrayal, and their inability to have children.

The novel begins with the fact of Owen’s death, then goes back in time to tell the story which lead up to it. A new neighbour has moved in, disrupting their rural solitude, and the resulting relationships have deep ramifications. This structure gives the book the shape of a thriller, if a rather beautiful and sedate one. (And I predicted the ending less than halfway through: not very thrilling, perhaps.)

However, the plot is not the point of this book. What makes it special is the portrait of a long marriage, seen through the eyes of Gus. Intimacy and solitude are woven together; the partners negotiate with and allow for each other in a careful, thoughtful dance. Gus observes her husband and herself with an acute eye, moving between love and anger, guilt and frustration, affection and jealousy. At times she has the eye of a lover, at other times, a maternal eye. Their sex life ebbs and flows, from non-existent to raunchy; from passionate connection to ‘the sex that’s like the decent enough music you listen to because the drive is so long and it’s the only radio station you can pick up’. Like every marriage, they navigate difficult emotional terrain; they interpret each other’s behaviour; they talk and keep quiet; they makes mistakes and choose kindness; they eat lunch.

As well as the marriage, Gus’s relationships with their new neighbour, Alison; a former student, Laine; and her father and sister are charted with intelligence and restraint. So too are the long-term effects of betrayal, guilt and grief. These depictions felt very true: closely observed, honest, and wise, and it is for this that I recommend the book.

My only wish was that it had ended differently. The denouement felt unnecessary, pandering to the more sensational expectations of a television audience rather than hewing to the quiet wisdom of the rest of the book. It detracted from what was otherwise a very thoughtful meditation. I’d have loved to have read this book one page short of chapter 21, and had the preceding story shaped accordingly. However, in the final chapter, Gus posits different ways the story might have continued. This reader, then, suggests reading this otherwise moving novel, but deciding on one’s own, preferred, outcome. I’d go with the last paragraph of the novel, perhaps.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Kith: The riddle of the childscape

Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape

When was the last time you encountered the word ‘tatterdemalion’? I have just read one of the most playful, exuberant, relishing encounters with language that I have ever come across: Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape, by Jay Griffiths. The author loves language and odd words; she plays with meanings and roots and etymologies; she relishes alliteration and other musical tricks; and the cadence of her writing is positively lyrical. Or, as she writes (in relation to the metaphors we have for feeling and knowing, but which equally pertains to her modes of expression), ‘Language…, a beautiful partisan, waits with rifle and song to ambush us into remembering what we used to know as children.’

Yes, the writing is beautiful, drawing the reader in; but the point of the book is not language. Instead, in the course of writing her last book, Wild, Griffiths visited many indigenous tribes and found herself wondering why the indigenous kids she observed were so cheerfully grounded, while the Western kids she knew were so unhappy by comparison. Kith is her attempt to answer that question.

Her answer is long, opinionated, and unabashedly Romantic. In brief, she argues that kids in the West rarely get what they really need: secure early attachment followed by extreme freedom; a relationship with the woods and the wild, including wildlife; a big tribe of kids and adults; stories packed with metaphor which allow for the expression of a child’s emerging sense of self; lots of free time; rites of passage into adulthood; freedom from consumerism; a rich, responsive education; and so on.

Instead, what they get is ‘controlled’ crying and the physical isolation of cots, prams and car seats, followed by helicopter parenting and little nuclear families; constant surveillance; highly structured schedules; media outlets and politicians which portray them in a constantly negative light; stop and search laws, curfews and dispersal orders for the crime of being young; lives trapped indoors; hollow stories; no rites of passage; and industrial-style, heavily politicised education.

None of these observations are particularly original. In recent years, Skenazy encouraged parents to let their kids be more independent; Louv urged kids into the great outdoors; Hodgkinson called for tribes and freedom and faerie stories; Robinson advocated for an education which drew out the unique gifts of each child; and many, many writers begged us chilly Westerners to be more physically affectionate with our babies and toddlers. It’s obvious stuff.

What sets Griffiths’ book apart is the way she brings these themes together under the umbrella of Romanticism. She compares the childhood experiences of Romantic poets – Wordsworth, Blake, Clare, Whitman – with indigenous practices of childcare, arguing that they have much in common; and goes on to suggest that these approaches will lead to happier children. Further, she argues, we lack (but need) a Western philosophical framework to describe our parenting practices; Romanticism fits the bill.

I love her writing; I agree with many of her observations regarding how kids could be better raised; and I find many of her arguments regarding Romantic and indigenous ways of raising children reasonable. However, this book is so passionately one-eyed, and so flawed, that Griffiths fails to convince overall – and this is a pity.

To begin with, despite identifying what Western kids lack – such as secure attachment, a big tribe, and rites of passage – Griffiths offers few practical suggestions as how to get these things into kids’ lives. How do we make parenting easier so that parents have the emotional capacity to forge deep strong attachments to their children? How do we balance the needs of parents with the needs of children? How do we widen people’s perceptions of their role in the lives of other people’s kids, so that parents aren’t required to fulfil all the adult roles in a child’s life? In a post-church society, who develops and conducts rites of passage? And so on. These questions are all raised by the text; yet Griffiths offers no solutions, and it is simply not helpful to identify what is needed (and indeed to criticise harshly how we parents, of which Griffiths does not appear to be one, do it wrong), but to offer no suggestions for change. It is left to the reader to imagine what could be and then put it into place – and yet many of the necessary structures are almost impossible to tackle family by family: they require cultural change.

For example, to take the example of a tribe, it took nine years of talking and parenting before we found a family who was genuinely interested in and able to live in the same street as us, and, more than that, willing to get involved in our kids’ lives in ways that eased the pressure on our child-parent relationship. Griffiths writes rather breathlessly that, in one tribe, parents never discipline their own children; that is left to others so that the affection of the parent-child relationship is never damaged. That sounds bloody wonderful, but it would require a seismic shift in how we as a society take responsibility for other people’s children for it to be even remotely possible here.

Another weakness of the book is how Griffiths glosses over the hardships of life for indigenous children. Sure, traditional ways of childhood sound great for those who survive, especially boys: roaming, hunting, fishing, and untold freedom for kids. But traditional ways also involve high infant mortality, infanticide when the rains don’t come or too many girls have been born, the ‘betrayal’ (as it’s described in the book by a young victim) of female genital mutilation, the sexual trade of young girls to forge connections or strengthen associations between tribes, social controls which require high levels of conformity, even child sacrifice for religious purposes. In over 350 pages of praising indigenous childcare practices and criticising ours, Giffiths devotes a scant couple of pages to listing some of the downsides of being an indigenous kid, and offers no explanation or justification for these less than happy practices. This is deeply unsatisfactory, and feels unfair. At least kids in the West get to live when the rains don’t come; most Western girls don’t have their genitals hacked off with rusty razor blades; and the sexual trade in young girls is looked upon as an aberration and a crime. For these aspects of the Western approach to childhood, I am grateful.

Because I have never lived with an indigenous tribe, I find it hard to judge the veracity of Griffiths’ account of indigenous lives. Even so, I found myself questioning it. For example, in one place Griffiths writes that after spending an afternoon with over a hundred indigenous kids, she realised that she hadn’t once heard a kid cry, and that she couldn’t imagine the same situation with Western kids. Having just spent three weeks of the school holidays with two different tribes of kids, aged between 6 months and 15 years, I can vouch that even Western kids rarely cry when they’re running around in a pack. They get busy, and work things out; and so I’m not convinced that this lack of crying is a unique feature of indigenous life.

To the contrary, in fact. One of my friends lived for two years in an indigenous village in Papua New Guinea. When she returned, she told me that one thing she will always remember is the crying. It formed the constant soundscape; she said she could not remember a time when she couldn’t hear a child crying, and that coming back to Australia was a great relief from this point of view. Was this village, eight hours’ travel by small boat from Rabaul, ‘less indigenous’ than the people visited by Griffiths? Or, in her visits with indigenous people, did Griffiths excise weeping children from her experience and hear only what she wanted to hear? I have no way of knowing, but I am sceptical that the lives of indigenous children following traditional ways of life are always so blissful. (As for the lives of indigenous kids whose traditional ways of life are being torn to shreds, that is, most of them, I weep.)

This blanket enthusiasm for indigenous practices coupled with a blanket criticism of Western practices grates; and it also leads to ridiculous inconsistencies. Griffiths is scathing of the way Western children are penned up indoors, locked away from the wild spaces that they need for their development. Yet in a chapter devoted to the importance of imagination and metaphor, Griffiths writes positively about the Kogi people in Colombia, who identify a boy as a future spiritual leader. This infant is taken from his mother, and shut in a dim cave for the first nine years of his life; his only exposure to the wider world is through the stories told to him. After nine years, he emerges as a spiritual leader (or, I suspect, completely mad). Of this practice, Griffiths admits only that some Westerners may feel ‘ambivalence’. Horror is more like it. One is left with the impression that it’s not okay for Western kids to be inside playing the piano, learning to cook, reading faerie stories, building cubbies, or playing hide-and-seek; but an indigenous kid can be locked away in a dark cave for nine years. Oh, please! Clearly, this is absurd; yet Griffiths seems cheerfully oblivious to both the brutality of some indigenous practices and the inconsistencies within her text which lead her to condemn in the West that which she extols in other cultures.

Griffiths also suffers from the hopeless sentimentality towards children that one sees in non-parents from time to time. As a parent, I do find it helpful to be reminded to let my kids take risks, to get them outside, to let them have their privacy and secret spaces and special dens. I like being a little breathless about the idea of childhood, and I know that when we relax our family culture, everyone is happier and more cheerful. But I also know just how much of childhood is about shit and sex and fighting and greed and fear, not only in my own children or the children I spend time with, but in my memories of childhood; and it seems that there is little room in Griffiths’ worldview for such normal kids. Not all kids are large-spirited hearty adventurers or passionate artists. Griffiths seems to be unaware of the variations in personality which are found, I suspect, across all cultural styles.

Her one-eyed view also means that Griffiths fails to see the opportunities for wildness and secret places that city children find: on the subway, up the fire stairs, under the stoop, in a cubby, or in the branches of a tree at the local park. Not every wild space or secret den needs to be a rural idyll. She seems to miss the ways city kids lose and construct themselves, and make little nets of privacy, not just in folk tales but in music and dance and sport, and dreaming in the back seat of the car. Her unabashed primitivism lacks subtlety; and there is so much good about being a Western kid that I find it hard to perceive the crisis of childhood to which she constantly alludes.

So I have lots of issues with the book; still, I recommend it. Griffiths’ observations about what makes kids thrive are good sense, overall; and the great exuberant eloquence of her writing is such a delight, such a gift, that I am prepared to forgive very many of the flaws. Cat-shadows in beetroot patches will win me over, every time.

‘Obedience is deadly, will is divine and the vital wildness of the human spirit is purring, over there, like a cat-shadow in the beetroot patch.’


PS: If you’re not really up for a long, loquacious, one-eyed, deeply flawed rant – though why not, I can’t imagine! – but you still want to think about how to parent generously, I’d recommend Hodgkinson’s utilitarian The Idle Parent. My longer response to it is here, but, in short, it advocates freedom and choice; is packed with suggestions for ways to maximise love and affection and minimise the rage and frustration of parenting; and urges parents to seek ways of making family life fun. It’s intelligent, enjoyable, good-humoured and opinionated, and lacks only cat-shadows and beetroot patches. And who has a beetroot patch, anyway? The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Mr g

Mr g: A Novel About the Creation

The creation wars. If you believe the newspapers – and some execrable American school boards – Christians believe that God is ‘up there’ somewhere tinkering away with the creation (one imagines some bearded whitefella fooling around with mud); and physicists believe that it all started with the Big Bang. Never, apparently, shall the twain speak except abusively, and without respect or understanding.

Me, I’m a Christian; I relate to the universe and my place in it through the lens of the Christian story. I also accept the Big Bang as the best scientific explanation of how the universe came to be, and evolution as the best explanation for how life began and takes the form it is now. I don’t see this as a contradiction, because I have faith in something bigger than can be encompassed by one religious framework, or one set of faith stories; any religion can offer only a partial glimpse. It is arrogant to the point of hubris to suggest that any human being or religious system has full knowledge, or can begin to fathom the size and extent of the universe, let alone the vastness and nature of what I, in my religion, call God.

And that is why I paradoxically loved the attempt of one human being to communicate the size and extent of the universe, and the vastness and nature of God. Mr g, by Alan Lightman, is a novel about the creation. After countless aeons wandering around the Void with Aunt Penelope and Uncle Deva, Mr g becomes a little bored. He is tired of nothingness; he feels like it is time for something. And so, in a playful mood, he dreams up Space. Out of this whim spin countless universes; and with Space, comes Time. Mr g and his relatives explore these new and interesting dimensions, until Mr g decides even more is needed. Therefore, in one universe, he invents matter – and then sits back and watches what happens.

As well as being an author, Lightman is a theoretical physicist, and the story of creation is beautifully described: the Big Bang, the expansion of matter, the development and collapse of stars, the slow movement of atoms into planets and solar systems, and, to Mr g’s surprise, the gradual development of animate matter out of inanimate particles. Even more surprising is the arrival of three new presences in the Void, particularly Belhor, a conversational sparring partner for Mr g.

These developments provoke many conversations in the Void. Will the animate matter have a soul? Will it experience suffering? What is the role of Mr g: to intervene, or to stay away from the creation? Animate matter longs for eternal life; can Mr g grant this? The conversations bring out different religious assumptions: Uncle Deva represents the Eastern; Aunt Penelope, the Greco-Roman; and Mr g, the Abrahamic faiths. Through all, Belhor plays Devil’s Advocate, arguing, for example, for the necessity of evil and ugliness now that goodness and beauty have come into being.

These thoughtful conversations are never turgid or heavy; rather they are brief exchanges interrupted by somersaulting demons and Mr g’s need for a long meditative walk to think things through – but they cut straight to the heart of the big questions. And just as the Christian scriptures tell stories of God evolving in response to human need, the eternal Mr g finds that he too is being affected, even changed, by his own creation.

Lightman is a beautiful and lucid writer, playful and evocative, and manages in this novel to convey, to some extent, the unimaginable vastness of Space and Time. If you are a rigid, conservative Christian, there is no question that you will find this book and the representation of God highly offensive, even blasphemous; you have been warned. But if you have a bigger idea of God, or if you are open to the idea of a curious, thoughtful, experimental supreme being, then you too might fall in love with this wonderful novel, and the way it allows scientific and religious stories of creation to lie not in opposition, but nested gently into each other, right where they belong.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Little Bee

Little Bee

I don't know about you, but I am tired. I am tired of our government locking up men, women and children in immigration detention here and abroad; I am tired of our customs and naval services being implicated in the drownings at sea of desperate people who have risked death in a leaky boat over certain torture in their own countries; I am tired of having bits of our country excised into special zones no longer eligible for asylum claims; I am tired of members of our government calling people who make legal claims to asylum 'illegal' even as the government itself continues to break international laws and treaties to which it is a signatory; I am tired of hearing people who should know better telling me that asylum seekers are criminals in their own countries, and that they throw their children overboard; and I am tired of reading about it all. I have written letters and signed petitions and volunteered at charities which provide services for asylum seekers; I have written about media portrayals of asylum seekers in the newspaper; I have preached on the ancient prophetic call to care for the refugee; I support family and friends as they study and work with asylum seekers and refugees; I spend time each week with refugee children myself; I pray – and I am so tired.

I have been ground down. I still care, but I feel hopeless. And hopelessness leads to despair, and despair leads to passivity – and that's not a good place to be.

But last week, I read Little Bee. It is the story of two women: Little Bee herself, the teenage survivor of genocide who has fled to England seeking asylum; and Sarah, the Englishwoman Little Bee met on a beach in Nigeria and whom she has come to find. The novel alternates between their voices as their lives become intertwined; and it is the saddest, funniest, most compulsively readable story I have read in a while.

Little Bee is luminous. She has been through the fire; she is deeply traumatised; and yet she has decided to seek beauty in the world's scars. Meanwhile, Sarah is also deeply traumatised by the events of their first meeting and what ensued; but her trauma has been largely blanketed over by the comforts of wealth. Their reunion cracks her mask, and allows Sarah to return from moral death back to life.

Sarah doesn't particularly want to make this journey. When they first met, she made a significant sacrifice for Little Bee, but she does her best not to think about it. As the editor of a fashion magazine, she wishes fashion and make up were enough for her; she would prefer her life to be pleasant and fun. Despite her efforts to be frivolous, however, her deeper moral compass continues to bind her to Little Bee in ways that make her life decidedly more difficult. The novel is both the telling of Little Bee's story, and the chart of Sarah's journey.

The book is very hard going in places, particularly when Little Bee recollects what happened to her village. Horrific events are recounted calmly, but are, of course, deeply distressing. What makes the book manageable is Little Bee's generosity of spirit, and a good dose of black humour. As a coping mechanism to deal with her very reasonable terror of what will happen when 'the men' come, Little Bee works out how to commit suicide in any setting; many of her plans are decidedly comic. For example, she is fixated on Queen Elizabeth II, and in one scene imagines how she will commit suicide at the Queen's garden party.

A further note of humour is provided by Batman, Sarah's four-year-old son, who lives in the costume of the caped crusader and will only answer to that name. Like any four-year-old, he erupts into the most serious moments with 'mine done a poo' and other tricks; and any parent will recognise Sarah's voice as she struggles through a devastating conversation spliced with instructions to her son not to spill cornflakes on the floor.

This humour, and the human side, give the book the voice of authenticity. The story isn't perfect, and the dialogue is somewhat hackneyed at times, but it is a great read. Little Bee's story could easily have become a treatise on the experiences of asylum seekers, both abroad and in Western detention centres; and while these stories must be told, they are easily ignored and don't make for bestsellers. Splicing the story in with conversations about cornflakes on the floor make it both more shocking, and more real, because it brings it home.

As mentioned above, there are several very distressing scenes; as I read in a café in the spare hour between writing with refugee kids and picking up my daughter from kindergarten, I wept over my café latte. It aligned me uncomfortably closely to Sarah, also fond of a coffee, also the mother of a four-year-old – and it was a good place to be taken.

One of the curses of privilege is that one can fall into the trap of thinking that one has somehow earned it, and that one has the right to protect it. One can also feel affronted when other, less privileged, people make one's life uncomfortable – such as when one feels tired, so tired, when one thinks of asylum seekers. Me, I'd prefer they didn't make me so uncomfortable. If they need to come, then of course they should, but it would be so much more pleasant if we could just welcome them and they could then assimilate and become invisible. I am fed up with being made to feel morally uncomfortable because I belong to a society which treats asylum seekers like sub-humans, and has normalised that attitude to such an extent that when I wrote about refugee children in the newspaper, I received letters from people saying it was the first time it had occurred to them that they were just people (!). But somehow my feelings of frustration have spread from government, elected officials and the media to asylum seekers as well. Such are the poisonous times in which we live.

However, Little Bee makes the story of seeking asylum personal; and Sarah brings it home to the comfortable suburbs. As a reader, I am reminded that as a person of privilege I don't have the moral option of feeling despair. I think I'm tired? I should go live in a detention centre somewhere and fill in a form every time I need a new sanitary pad; I should try to sleep when I am tormented by violent memories of what happened to my village and my loved ones; I should live in detention year in year out with no visa and no hope; and then I might know something about fatigue and despair. Or I could read Little Bee again, experience life through her eyes, and then recommend her story to you. Any novel which makes nice middle class women laugh out loud and then weep and lie awake at night, confronted by their own complacency – well, that can only be a good thing. Read it.

(If you've already enjoyed Little Bee, you may also like Wizard of the Crow.)

Wizard of the Crow

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Idle Parent

The Idle Parent: Why Less Means More When Raising Kids

The kids and I were at the local pool, playing ring-a-rosy. I was having a ball pulling them underwater; judging from their giggles and shrieks, they were having a ball too. Behind us some older kids were fooling around, aged maybe nine, ten and eleven. Above us strode an anxious lined middle class mother, watching them like a hawk and shouting an instruction every few seconds. ‘Stop that! Leave him alone! Go left! Watch out! Be careful! Move to the right!’. On and on and on it went.

I felt myself cringing at her, and then at myself as I rebuked my six-year-old for launching herself into a group of toddlers. ‘For heaven’s sake,’ I wanted to shout – both at her and myself – , ‘leave them alone!’

How can kids enjoy themselves when their every move is noticed and critiqued? How can parents enjoy themselves when they are convinced that every move their kids make will result in disaster? And yet that is the tone of so much middle-class parenting, and so much parenting material. For the most part I avoid parenting books. Sanctimonious and puritanical things, I want nothing of them. But at right angles to the essay section of my local bookshop is the parenting shelf; and catching my eye the other week was The Idle Parent.

What a title! It sang out to me. I have three kids, aged nine, six and four, and I just can’t be bothered being a proper energetically hovering middle class parent like the woman at the pool. As all the other mums rush their kids off to karate / jazz ballet / Chinese / drawing / whatever, I certainly do feel idle; even so, I don’t have the energy or interest to do likewise. The thought of watching some six-year-old learn a dance move makes me want to scream with boredom; worse, standing over them as they leap about the local swimming pool makes me want to slit my throat. I want to fool around in the pool myself, or I want to read a book; either way, moderating their fun is not my idea of a good time. So I picked up The Idle Parent, and devoured it overnight.

The book’s thesis is simple: Leave them alone! We are not kids, and kids are not adults. Our interests only sometimes overlap. So, suggests the author, the simplest recipe for a healthy happy family life is to give your kids the freedom to do their thing while you go and do your thing. Be there when they need you, but don’t hover. Just let them be. His ideal parenting situation is a large field, many kids romping at one end and many parents drinking beer at the other. Everyone’s safe, and everyone’s happy!

Such a scenario brought a big smile to my face, because I have often thought that my ideal parenting situation is a house party, with twenty kids running around and twenty adults drinking wine and talking their heads off. My kids tend to agree, which is why they beg for such events. Who are you inviting over? they ask most Saturdays, There must be someone!

(For that matter, our other favourite parenting environment is a large field at a friend’s block, as long as we have a couple of extra kids with us. The kids run down the hill and over the next ridge, and we can talk, enjoy the view and inspect the new growth while they’re gone. Last time the horde came charging back up the hill, screeching and laughing themselves silly, dangling leeches from the ends of their fingers and waggling them about. It was hilarious.)

By now any non-parents must be rolling their eyes; do we really need a book to be told to leave the kids alone, even if it is to get sucked by leeches? But those among us with children know just how hard it is. Our culture highly values present and attentive parents, lest little Johnny have his fragile ego squashed because Mummy is more interested in a book than in him, or lest little Cindy have her hopes of being a professional ballerina dashed because Mummy couldn’t be bothered with dancing lessons. Even the author of one of the more interesting recent books about child raising, Last Child in the Woods, which is about the urgent need to get children back in touch with the natural world, admits that he never lets his sons out of sight when they’re hiking. (When I read that, I didn’t know whether to throw the book across the room, or cry.)

In that light, I am a wicked mummy. I have friends and interests that have nothing to do with my kids; I remind the kids about snakes then let them roam through field and forest; and so it is a great relief to read a book which backs up my more carefree approach.

Of course, Hodkingson doesn’t advocate absolute freedom. He has strong ideas about what is and is not helpful as kids explore the world. Television gets the thumbs down, as do plastic toys and having too much stuff; inside isn’t the best place; and neat clean tidy places aren’t ideal, either. He argues kids need space to roam, lots of access to trees, bushes and wild spaces, and things to make stuff with. Good books, wrestling on the floor, a bit of dirt and mess... it all sounds about right to me. The result of such an approach is resilient, creative, competent children (and parents) who are resistant to the lies of consumerism.

The book draws from a broad range of thinkers, from John Locke, Rousseau and DH Lawrence to AS Neill (Summerhill School); ideas from more recent authors, including Skenazy (Free Range Kids) and Louv also surface. The synthesis is cheerful, intelligent and convincing. Above all, I appreciate that it is not just about kids (and therefore about what parents should do (and fail to do) in raising them); instead, The Idle Parent is really about families. Hodgkinson asks good questions about what parents want from life, and encourages the reader to critique his or her own approach, and to recognise and critique the at times suffocating limitations of the dominant culture.

For example, he asks what is enough – do both parents need to work full time or could they both be home with kids more? Why do we live where we do: could we live elsewhere and pay less rent or mortgage? Could we live in a smaller house closer to work and spend less time commuting? What do we spend our money on, and why – do kids really need or want manicured houses, expensive holidays, amusement parks and fancy toys, or are they consumerist furphies? What do we enjoy doing as a family, and what do we hate doing together? Do we enjoy holidaying together, or are there times when separate vacations would be more restorative? Do we need more adults around to contribute to family life, and if so, who can we call on: friends, family, paid employees? In short, he questions how we adults constrain our lives (particularly with regards to happiness) and how we might liberate ourselves, using a refreshingly utilitarian approach.

It’s a lovely book and terrifically opinionated. It opens with a manifesto ‘We pledge to leave our children alone / We reject the rampant consumerism that invades our children’s lives from the moment they are born / We drink alcohol without guilt / We reject the inner Puritan...’, and follows with chapters including ‘Seek not Perfection’, ‘The Myth of Toys’, ‘Down with School’, and ‘Let Us Sleep’, familiar territory for most parents. Best of all, he offers no one-size-fits-all solution, but encourages each family to find what works – or, in the words of the Manifesto, ‘There are many paths’. Hodgkinson has strong opinions about what doesn’t work – long hours at work, large mortgages, too many toys and bits of plastic, guilt – and many suggestions about what could.

I happened to go on a family holiday right after reading the book. I was going to spend the first week largely alone with my girls in a beach house twenty minutes’ walk from town, with no car. It had the potential to be fantastic, which is why I had organised it so; but it also had the potential to collapse into nightmare. I’m not overly fond of the beach. I’ve had little kids for so long that it feels like I spend my whole time hovering there. I don’t get to sit, and I don’t get to swim; and I don’t like building sand castles or helping anyone else do so, either. But this time, I was determined it would be different. The kids are a bit older, the beach was on a shallow bay, and I was going to be Idle. The holiday wasn’t going to be just for my kids – I was going to have a holiday too.

Day One. Resolve and book firmly in hand I sat in the sand, ignored my girls, and read while they built sandcastles and splashed in the shallows. Nobody drowned. I was so relaxed that after fifty pages I shut my book and went and dreamily dug a moat out of pleasure, not duty. My girls were delighted. We went home for lunch, then I taught them how to do the dishes, explaining that I would do the cooking and the dinner dishes and this was a fair division of labour. When they kicked up, I pointed out I would take them back to the beach after the dishes were done, then walked out. I lay on my bed and read my novel; and after a while I heard the sounds of them washing, drying and putting things away. I also heard them make up a dishes song that lasted them through every batch of dishes for the entire two week holiday. And then I heard them each find a book and a quiet corner and read too, for an hour. Bliss.

So each day went. They did stuff they wanted to do; they did a bit of housework; I did stuff I wanted to do; I did a bit of housework; and sometimes we overlapped. I didn’t shout at them or watch over them closely; and because I was reading and dozing and feeling relaxed, when I did spend time with them it wasn’t a duty but a pleasure – and so it was fun.

And this, I think, is Hodgkinson’s point. We are born free, and everywhere we are in chains. Parenting is a prime example of this; it sometimes feels impossible to have a conversation about parenting without whinging or listening to others whinge. But Hodgkinson reminds us that we in the Western world are free. We choose to partner and we choose to have children; we choose where we live and how we work; and so on. As free adults we should take responsibility for our choices, stop whining about them, and start finding ways to enjoy ourselves while we and the kids co-exist. And if we do so, we will all find ourselves having a lot more fun.

With his words (‘I am free! We are all free! I am being Idle!!’) ringing in my ears I found many ways to enjoy myself that holiday. I read a dozen books, and we all caught up on a heap of Japanese anime. My legs lost their ghostly winter pallor. The kids learned French cricket and how to dig for crabs, catch, cook and eat a fish, and wash the dishes afterwards. There was very little yelling by anyone. I came home renewed and ready to step even further back as a parent. It mostly works, and that’s good enough. Oh idle me!

Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Childern from Nature-deficit Disorder Summerhill School