Monday, 30 January 2017

Where To Find A Glimmer of Hope


Our future is suddenly uncertain.  Our simple values of humanity: to be kind, thoughtful and welcoming, have been kicked to the kerb, beaten and spat upon, all in a matter of days.  Yet, I want to invite you into a new world with a glimmer of hope, hidden away in your local library, or children's school.

This time last year, I was teaching English in a London school, my last term before maternity leave.  Since then, I've nurtured our little ones, day and night feeding, singing them to sleep and reading the same book multiple times.  As I begin to consider an eventual return to the classroom, I'm feeling a little bit hopeful, maybe a window into a better future, filled with possibility, change and kindness.

Even the worst behaved, or most apathetic of students, in my opinion, can enjoy a good story.  Sharing books, discussing, reflecting, writing about our response to Literature is therapeutic as well as informative.  Lessons can induce laughter and sometimes tears.  I've cried with Year 7s at the end of Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful, a tender and unflinching tale of the senseless injustice of war; we've laughed reading Holes, set in an American boy's juvenile disciplinary unit, by Louis Sachar.  Well-known Shakespearean characters draw us in: the desperate lovestruck Juliet; we pity Othello and Desdemona as Iago's web of lies lead them to the bloody marital bed; or the mighty warrior, Macduff, reduced to tears as he learns of his family's slaughter in the haunting Macbeth: "all my pretty ones?  Did you say all?"

Books can teach us so much, but above all, they teach us empathy.  The longevity of a book affords us the time to imagine ourselves in the scenes; to consider what we would have done or how we would have reacted.  The main characters become our secret friends, who reveal their inner most thoughts, whose dreams we share.  The breaks from reading allow us to reflect upon the themes and the plot, the characters and their relationships.  Books can transport us back in time, or into the future, like the favourite Year 9 text, Unique, by Alison Allen-Grey who creates a world where cloning is possible, asking us what it means to be human?

My last classes before maternity leave were studying a range of heavyweight fiction.  The senior class was reading George Orwell's 1984: a hot favourite in the wake of Trump's Presidency.  Only twelve months ago, we tried to link this to our present day and discussed issues of surveillance, social media and a free press.  The issues of Newspeak, torture, erasing historical facts and creating "Alternative Facts" like 2 + 2 = 5, were dismissed as being more relevant to fiction, or maybe episodes of European history.  As dark as current affairs are, take comfort in the fact that students around the world are learning through History and Literature, how to make a more tolerant world.

They were also studying texts of the Holocaust, including Art Spiegelman's Maus and Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, provoking upsetting reflections, but necessary discourse.  This included a trip to the Holocaust Exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum. The teenagers and teachers moved slowly around the museum, stony faced and sick to the stomach.  In a mixed faith co-educational school, every student felt the chill of history and the resolve to never allow such abhorrent fear to  govern again.

Another class was reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a popular book to access American Civil Rights, with themes of bullying, prejudice and morality.  This monumental text has inspired many to fight for human rights, stand up to racism and to study Law.

The younger students' class reader was The Breadwinner.  Written by Canadian peace activist Deborah Ellis, this is a short and simple text told by charming and characterful Parvana, living in Taliban occupied Afghanistan.  Every student seemed to relate to her everyday sibling squabbles or keen sense of parental injustice.  When her family become victim to the regime, the students suffer along with her, sharing her fear and urging her bravery.

Even my two year old's reading is preparing him for a world where kindness prevails.  A current favourite is Julia Donaldson's Zog with Princess Pearl, the trainee medic who rejects a life of  riches in favour of helping people and "giving them my care." Room on the Broom, by the same author, teaches us that there's always more room to welcome others.  Even when the broomstick breaks, they work together to fight the dragon and (with a little magic) they all help to create a new broom.  His love for Thomas the Tank Engine show children the benefits of compassion and being helpful with the repetitive conclusion of being "really useful engines".   A trip to the local library has become a weekly must, borrowing sky-high piles of picture books to feast on, taking us on global adventures through time and space.

The news may be heart breaking and the headlines tragically sad, but your local library is full of hope, packed with stories to inspire, cheer and soothe.  Orwell's main character in 1984, Winston, is convinced that "if there is hope, it lies in the Proles".  Maybe he's still right.  Maybe the resistance will grow and become politically mobilised to win votes.  I would say that our inspiration for hope lies with our children, their innocent joy for life, their unwavering need for justice and above all, their love of a good story.




For another feel good read, try Wonder in Mankind.  Or for a total break from the jaw-dropping headlines, try 10 Unexpected Highs of Motherhood.  

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Mothering Rebels and Rebellious Mothers: The Women's March

Little Red Riding Hood from Deans A Book of Fairy Tales.
Illustrated by Janet & Anne Grahame Johnstone. 1977.
If 2016 ended in a dark cloud of anxiety, 2017 has begun with a snowstorm of sisterhood and a tidal surge of rebellion.  On Saturday 21st January, we’d usually all go swimming or I’d head to the shops while my husband takes the boys to the playground.  It's also Trump’s first day as President.  Because of this, we’ll be joining millions of people across the world's cities to march together in the name of justice, equality and the rights of all humans, present and future.  This is the Women's March.

As a human, woman and feminist, I support the march.  As a mother, I feel it is fundamental for me to join the protest, to show solidarity with people the world over, to register discontent with institutionalized prejudice and casual misogyny, but also to feel good about our children's future.  There's nothing like that wonderful feeling of marching with hope and tenacity at your side, empowered and encouraged.  True, we currently have a female PM, female bishops, recognise equal opportunities and have laws to safeguard individual choices, including abortion, same sex marriage and transgender rights.  Brilliant, but I'm also marching because I’ve been inspired by the zeal of Jo Cox; because the Headmaster described his new female staff team as a “pretty bunch”, in front of the pupils; I’ve been told that what I was wearing (a sleeveless high-neck blouse and knee-length A-line skirt) was distracting; that my friends and I still say “text me when you’re home safely” and I was once asked to sign a professional contract that stated that my job would terminate if I got pregnant.  We're also marching to support our American sisters and brothers, whose new President may not recognise the need for equality or respect choice; it is a reminder to those in power that we care, we listen and we all need progress.

Mothers force progress, rebel.  It is in our nature to seek out a better world for our young, to secure a better environment.  We may have to cross borders, make perilous journeys, do a paid full-time job or stay at home, face judgement or criticism for simply trying our best.  My own mother challenged the expectations of what she should study, who she should marry, learning this strength from her mother, an unsung hero who allowed her children to dream and to be who they wanted to be.  My mother-in-law defied tradition by leaving home to study abroad, paying her own way because if her brother could, so could she.  Her mother, an inspirational great-grandmother, with six children by 28, self-taught Dressmaking, English and Mathematics to allow her to supplement the family income.  These choices weren't always popular, at times divisive, but were made in the spirit of integrity and betterment.

My childhood is remembered by a sequence of rebellious acts.  At birth, I was not Christened even though my brothers were both baptised and Confirmed.  "Until women have an equal standing to men, at the highest levels of hierarchy", said mum, "my daughter will not be baptised".  I remember refusing to wear a ‘pretty’ red coat that my mum loved seeing me in.  I didn't want to look like Little Red Riding Hood, though, I wanted to look like the wolf or the woodcutter.  By eleven, friends 'went shopping' on Saturdays, or wore Adidas sweatshirts or Kickers shoes.  When I wanted something, my reason "but everyone else does" was annoyingly, now appreciatively, met with "why do something just because everyone else does?"  And then, "Will you be paid to advertise their logos?!"  Family dinners were usually loud affairs, arguing about the latest Neighbours plotline, or laughing at John Major's cone hotline.  We weren't shielded from the history of slavery, or the realities of sweatshops, scars of war or the bloodshed of Empire; we were left to play ghoulies in the dark and build dens after sunset.  We knew the meaning of 'Holocaust' and 'Apartheid' before we left primary school.  We applauded the heroism of Boudica, David, Luther, Joan of Arc, Gandhi, Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Mandela and Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen.

Children force progress, rebel.  In the spirit of my own fortunate upbringing, I hope to instill this energy for advocacy and plan to take my boys on Saturday’s march.  I don't mean to romanticise my toddler’s occasional stormy tantrums, but I do see that when he absolutely refuses to wear trousers, or insists that "No! I can do it myself", it’s this natural tenacity that will equip him to take his first steps in claiming his identity as his own.  As grows, I hope that he can channel this determination to try and make the world a better place and can challenge me to adapt as I age.

After years of keeping quiet, observing, reading, night feeding and hoping, while our babies have snuggled in happy ignorant bliss, blessedly naive to the demons of war and the powers of democracy, beginning this blog broke my nighttime silence.  Reflecting on the public and personal, refined into words.  But now it’s time to take my voice to the streets and midday air, to shut the laptop, paint the placards and polish my boots.  Women, men, mothers, fathers: all humans who value respect, dignity and progress, show your support and join us on Saturday in a city near you.  For, like Emmeline Pankhurst, “I would rather be a rebel than a slave”.


 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

10 Unexpected Highs of Motherhood

January has sobered us up and stolen all our glitter.  The once-adored and illumined Christmas trees now lie naked and abandoned by the bins.  The world is back to work and pavements pound with brand new runners.  My news feed is full of New Year Resolutions that "all mothers should be making", guilt that I shouldn't be allowing myself to feel and tips for a healthier, fitter, happier 2017.  I choose to glance at an email from a company who know the ages of my children, jolting a hazy memory of an airbrushed "Bounty woman" (an odd sight amongst labouring women, anxious partners and around-the-clock NHS staff) disturbing our post-birth recuperation, giving me forms to complete. I assumed she was part of the team and dutifully signed on the dotted line.  Ink staining paper as post-birth blood stained the towels. This company now sends me an email saying that while"nursing a newborn", I can use "8 tricks to look beautiful before 8am", including using two different shades of mascara to widen my eyes... WTF!

Ironically, these tips are sold as "saving your morning sanity".  Instead, I think I'll aim for an uninterrupted shower and trip to the loo with the door closed.   I'm making this the year of gratitude and acceptance, beginning with my list of 10 unexpected highs of motherhood.
  1. Self-love.  I knew I'd love my children long before we met, but I didn't expect to regard my own body with such newfound tenderness, for its absolute incredible baby-growing, baby-birthing, baby-feeding skills. Every wobbly bit is proof that the most amazing miracle actually did happen. Twice.
  2. Learning to be au natural.  Despite Bounty's suggestions, I've not worn make-up for about two years (except for my wedding day) and my skin prefers it too. Plus, the liberation from scrutinising my reflection is life-changing.  And then there's the pounds saved on products and my adopted laissez faire attitude to hair.
  3. Professional Multi-Tasker.  I can imagine that I've always had the skills, but never before have I needed to rock a baby to sleep while changing a toddler's nappy and reading a book aloud/ holding a bizarre conversation about dinosaurs or whatever it takes to keep his attention until a new nappy is on.
  4. Aware of the seasons. Most days force us out and like a real life spot the difference, we'll notice the changing colours of leaves, the new blossom buds and the rotting windfalls. 
  5. The everyday is transformed into the sublime.  Seeing the world through my children's eyes has seduced me into loving our world anew. My toddler's excitement for a passing train, plane or chugging tractor is contagious; we've all learnt to delight in the incredible inventions of mankind.
  6. Beauty in words.  Trying to decipher our children's first words and sentences brings about much hilarity and awe. The amount of phrases he picks up and repeats is astonishing.  
  7. Talking to strangers.  There's nothing like wheeling/carrying/chasing after two little ones to elicit random conversations with anyone we meet out and about.  My two year old will suddenly announce his baby brother's name to whoever he fancies, initiating entertaining small talk with whoever's game.
  8. Toddler Dancing.  Me and their dad have always liked a dance, but our eldest has taken dancing to another level.  He will start dancing to any tune, albeit from a passing vehicle, or tinkly baby toy.  He'll wiggle and jiggle, jump and shuffle, hop and bop, bounce and drop.  Sometimes, without any music at all.  When I've run out of ideas and still have a tiny fraction of energy left, I'll put on Kisstory and we'll all dance around the living room and party like it's 1999.
  9. Everyday's a school day.   I now know the names of more than twenty different species of dinosaur, the daily workings of a farm and I'm fast becoming an expert in skin rashes.  Becoming a parent is like becoming a child, learning everything from scratch, from feeding to bathing, changing nappies to knowing the location of every soft play centre within a fifteen mile radius. 
  10. The moon.  Thanks to regular night feeding, I've come to know the shape-shifting moon very well.  She's been my companion throughout and even when it's too cloudy to see her, I know she's out there somewhere, watching without judgment, waxing and waning, ready to guide me to the dawn. 
The January air is full of hope.  The sharp winter wind blows out the cobwebs and can force a teardrop with a single gust.  The blinding horizontal sunlight casts shadows on our past and illuminates the path ahead.  I have a lot of respect for any New Year endeavours for a new you in 2017, but I imagine that you are already trying your best and already rather fabulous.

Please add your own unexpected highs of motherhood in the comments section below. Thank you & all best wishes for 2017. Xx

                   Photograph: R. Gurnham