Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Learning Calm and Living in Hell

In the Independent Newspaper (I think it's on sunday) they publish an interview with a famous person and at the end ask the person in question to sum themselves up in six words. Mine would probably include (amongst Lucky, Confused, Mother, Grateful) "British" and "Repressed".
Notice "logical" and "coherent" are nowhere to be seen.

I've never really been able to pinpoint what "repressed" means although I know it's something the British are very good at and something with which I live (am I allowed to say "reasonably happily?"). But what IS it? Well....I know where it may have started.

Whenever I or my two sisters as children would make our voice heard in a tone that did not indicate happiness or neutrality, my mother (single mum, stressed out, tired) would rush to the wardrobe, pull down her suitcase, stuff it arbitrarily with whatever came in sight, and shout "right! That's it! I'm leaving!". Or worse: "right -that's it we're all off to live in HERSDEN". Hersden was in fact synonymous with HELL. At least it was from the point of view of three girls under the age of 11. Hersden was the council estate next to our school (no offense to those from council estates). I knew people from there.They were in my classroom with me. They set fire to the maths room and threatened teachers with scalpels. SO the idea of living in Hersden terrified us and lowered our voices of discontent. Feelings were muted. Saying that, as a mother I can now completely relate (at times) to wanting to pack ones bags and disappear - although I think I'd choose somewhere a little more exotic.

I find it interesting that "the word "FEELINGS" has the word "FEEL" incorporated. What's even more interesting is according to the 76th book on parenting that I've read ("Between parent and Child" by Doctor Ginott - mind blowing ad it is valuable, if you are a parent get it)You can't help your feelings.
Feelings of your children are to be acknowledged not ignored,punished, criticized, laughed off or smothered (but reflected). Feelings are ok according to Doctor Ginott. Wow. I guess that must be true of my feelings too.

Recently I bravely calmly (for me) suggested to my angry screaming eight year old daughter/eldest sister to Nina, that she:
a) felt angry and
b) hated her little sister at that moment in time.
(little sister holding the twisting detached tail of a lizard that Melitta had previously found and lovingly captured.)
YES!!!!! She sobbed.
It's ok to feel angry. I used to feel hate towards my sisters too.
She stopped a moment, blinked at me in disbelief and then seemed almost grateful - Like I'd cured her of her guilt.

Whatever you feel is ok. ALL feelings are acceptable (hate, anger, saddness included) not all ACTIONS are acceptable (throwing a wooden block at ones sister's head is a no-no)
Recently a student said "how do you always stay so CALM?" "I don't!" was my reply. Once someone asked the same of Krishnamurti and he replied:
"I don't mind what happens.".
I love that. But how do you go about "not minding what happens?!"
Well, for those of us like me who are a little less zen, here's a step by step process which hopefully over time may become if not natural, then easier.

STEP ONE: Acknowledgement. First we have to acknowledge our feelings.
"I'm feeling angry!"

STEP TWO: Acceptance.
" It's ok. It's allowed." What ever you feel is RIGHT.

STEP THREE: Avoid self-criticism i.e.:
"I'm ALWAYS doing this! God, I'm so depressing! Why do I feel so ANGRY all the time? What's WRONG with me?"

STEP FOUR: As the word suggests, FEEL the feeling. Where do I feel it? Is my chest tight?Hands clenched? Do I feel hot? Cold? Have I blocked the movement of my ribcage as I breathe?

And THEN punch someone (I'm joking - I hope obviously)

And then wait.
Avoid internal dialogue and think kinesthetically.
That's it. It's simple but not easy.
And may be a way out of my personal "repression".

Unfortunately once we've formed an opinion (a judgmental critical internal dialogue)about what we feel , the feeling becomes stronger. Once we observe, acknowledge and accept that mental tension (like physical tension) it can start to dissolve (like a drop of ink in a bath full of water): the tension may remain but it's lost its power to harm. Just like the anger/hatred of my eldest towards her sister existed but failed to cause damage (at least THIS time around).

So to sum up on staying calm:
Acknowledge. Accept. Feel. And if you STILL don't feel calm...well...you know what? It's ok.

Thanks to the Eric Barret work shop I went on this summer I'm coming to the realization that STUFF HAPPENS. I'm not the protagonist. I can't explain it ( go see Eric!) but this too helps.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Lately Amy Chua caused a stir with her new book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother" which talks about her bringing her children up the "chinese" and therefore "successful" way.

I have to say my jaw literally dropped when I read what her recipe for her children's success includes (or rather "excludes") :

No sleeping over a friends' houses

No having a play date

No being in a school plays

No watching TV

No playing computer games

No choice in extra curricular activities

No getting any exam results less than an "A" (only top marks allowed)


being the top of the class in ALL subjects (excluding only sport and drama) and playing the piano or violin (one or the other, no ifs or buts, triangles, recorders to be found) is considered mandatory.

My jaw dropped a few meters not due her rigidity and for putting results before friendships (warmth, social contact etc.) but for the fact that according to her criteria I make a very bad mother indeed. Of course I knew this before Amy Chua came along, but her work I found not only undermined my mothering skills (or lack of) but sprinkled the salt into my deepest wound, unearthed my greatest weakness which is of course my wont for a quiet life, which is

a) impossible and

b) indicative of me missing the mark on the maternal front.

The lower part of my face collapsing had nothing to do with my vitriol towards Amy Chua, but everything to do with my own guilt.

Lets look at a few examples of where I fall down and graze my knees badly in the parenting playground;

Being the top of the class:

The only way my eldest would make it to the top of the class is if she were enrolled to pluck a small insect off the ceiling (she loves bugs). Recently a friend of mine said of his own child:

"I would be seriously worried if he were at the top of the class, I mean a kid who prefers maths to rolling around in the mud?! There's something creepy, weird about it."

He seemed to revel in the mediocracy (his words not mine) of his son, who seems to find the content of his nose infinitely more interesting than that of any text/school book (he is not in his teens yet I hasten to add - on reaching which the inside of his nostrils will suddenly fade into insignificance and what's inside anothers knickers will no doubt seem far more worthy of his time and attention. Will there be a small window of time between one and the other for academic brilliance to shine through? Who knows). Mediocracy it seems, is close to psychological well-being, to growing up "whole" according to this particular parent.


I do not have the energy nor will to coerce my child into playing the piano, but I did try (honest, Amy!) I tried! I tried! The Eldest tried it for three months then gave up preferring friends and cuddly animals to plonking away at keys in her spare time. I can't do the screaming and tearing out of the hair for the sake of a musical instrument and increasing the activity of the hippocampus of my child. I just can't do it.


Sunday mornings only (with lots of exceptions) to enable us to have a lie in which has become oh so much more of a treat now that The Eldest prepares us breakfast in bed. Another much loved friend and parent on hearing our TV rules cried " WHAT?! Are you mad? I'd do anything to have my son watch a couple of hours telly when I need a break - but he's not in the slightest bit interested. Make the most of it while you can".

That made me feel better.


my greatest moment of joy is when my beloved neighbor Cristiana offers to take both girls to sleep over with her two children of the same age. Dinner lovingly cooked included (a true Roman mother). This leaves me to some - forgive me the awful term - quality time with Husband. Yes, he does exist and I think has a right to some of my time too - although he would probably be perfectly happy without it.

I envy ( I know - it's not very yogic) Amy her will power, her determination and dedication (all of which are absolutely alien to me)for her remaining unflinching in the face of her children's temporary and fleeting dislike of her and her insistence. I think one of the most difficult things to give anyone is your time, and to be present with them. Amy does this very well and her children will, in the long run, Im sure thank her for it.

It seems that asians living in America (huge generalization I know) often have a very narrow and distinct definition of success which is inextricably linked to academic brilliance, which often seems to lead to .....well McDonalds - but lets look on the bright side....a very promising career with affluent lifestyle.

Pondering what it means to have a "successful" life ("affluent lifstyle" just doesn't satisfy me personally as a definition)I stumbled across this which I think is an interesting alternative to Amy Chua's:


To laugh often and much;

to win the respect of intelligent people

and the affection of children;

to earn the appreciation of honest critics

and endure the betrayal of false friends;

to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others;

to leave the world a bit better,

whether by a healthy child,

a garden patch

or a redeemed social condition;

to know even one life has breathed easier

because you have lived.

This is to have succeeded.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson

I prefer this version I have to admit (possibly due to my limp wristed parenting style), but wish Amy all the very best in her "battle"!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cats, Kids and Courage

It could be worse, it could be a dog.

Our cat was on her last legs and considering she only had three of them, she actually made it into old age with relative grace, a fair bit of luck (she'd been caught in a hunter's trap. I'm a positive thinker: she left her leg rather than her life ) and with a lot of hands-on attention by two toddlers who grew into children whom did not grow out of the habit of clinging onto anything vaguely furry and preferably mobile (or relatively so).

During the cat's steep decline health-wise The Eldest through tears began to ask if we would have another animal after her death - which seemed a little callous but I guess normal for a girl of eight. The Youngest insisted on a squirrel or a horse which we refused. Another cat was also considered out of the question. I was already dreaming of cat-hairless jumpers, sofas without scratch marks, and holidays without cat-sitters.

After the death of our beloved Morgana, The Eldest's requests for another pet came fast and furious as did our negative responses. Then at one stage I thought - hold on. Let me hear her out. Before I go on let me just explain that The Eldest is not particularly precocious (I'd say the opposite - at least compared to her friends. Whilst one is busy spending hours choosing what to wear in front of the mirror, another is beating the boys in swimming competitions, another is at age seven writing a novel and the forth is creating poetry and cries over a lost loves. I kid you not). The Eldest in the meantime is still playing with teddy bears. Anyway - I stopped to ask her WHY she wanted another pet to which she replied:
"The cat was my only contact I had with nature. And I NEED a contact with nature."
That completely threw me. For a rare moment I was speechless before Husband and I dived on the keyboard and typed "kittens Milan" into Google.

And so here we are with a bundle of fur curled up on our duvet who goes by the name of "Kiki" - the new arrival. Previously abandoned at a year old, she's a white (there goes my dream of hairless jumpers - I forgot to put a colour limitation on the cat) slightly drab looking thing with an eye problem, a lung problem and a very loud purr which is sparked off my the merest hint of a hand at her fur. The children are ecstatic the parents a little less so (lie, lie - I already adore her).

This episode made me realise that as an adult too often we demand things without explaining WHY we need them. If I know something is important to you I will consider the request in a different light. But perhaps sometimes we are ashamed not only for the reasons behind our requests (they may make us seem weak and vulnerable) , but also of admitting that we are in need at all (attention, love, affection, a kind word on a bad day). Being in need is a cause for celebration, an indication of being alive, of feeling and a vital component for connecting with others. A robot may do everything perfectly but I wouldn't want to be friends with one. It would be boring, cold and terribly unrewarding, even if it could make me a blinding cup of tea and clean up the litter tray for me. Sigh.

For your homework I invite you to tell someone of your needs and to see how that feels. Be a little courageous-I'm trying, it's scary but so far it's paying off.
Morgana - picture courtesy of The Youngest

Monday, January 31, 2011


eldest doing what Mummy should be able to do but isn't

Jill Bolte Taylor (neuroscientist) states that a body's bio-chemical reaction lasts 90 seconds. What does that MEAN? Well, it's good news as it suggests that any emotional turmoil we may go through need last no more than that on a chemical level. The chemical reaction to anger for example begins and subsides within 90 seconds. That's it. Almost I would say the Answer To Life.

My eldest daughter nearly choked on some rice the other day and has ever since insisted on chewing everything and each bite at least 30 times (including yoghurt and soup) to avoid a re-run of the scary event in question. This results in dinner taking a very long time indeed and my nerves being frayed. My wrinkles are coming along nicely and my teeth (gnashing) are being slowly ground down almost to the same extent as her breakfast cereal.

So how come the other day when I absent mindedly crossed the road to find myself face to face with and uncomfortably close to the front of a fast car: the flash of the headlights, the noise, the fear, the driver swearing then my gratitude that today was not in fact "The Day". Not my turn yet. How come when facing a near death experience such as this with adrenalin and the likes coursing through my veins, after a minute or so my breathing had calmed and my heart beat was back to normal? And I was already thinking about what I had to get at the supermarket? Exactly BECAUSE I was thinking about what to get at the supermarket! Once the initial hormonal injection caused by the shock of nearly being hit by a car had subsided I decided to let it go. Go on to the next thing - the shopping. I didn't continue to chew the mental fat of what had happened, what might have happened, what would have happened to my kids, and whether my husband would have hitched up with the girl who works at the bakery. I just let it go giving the adrenalin the chance to disperse.

The same cannot be said for my daughter's chewing of the cud, or cod which takes forever to be digested both by herself and by me. Because instead of choosing to let it go I constantly remind myself how meal times are so hard and how little patience I have, and how I'm useless as a mother and .....ok I'll stop the list there before I go and throw myself under the car that had missed me.

So now I KNOW from "Near Death in Lambertenghi Street" that I can choose to let angst and upset go and when I do make this choice my nervous system is surprisingly quick and compliant. Yup -- 90 seconds seems about right.

If I can do it looking DEATH in the face I can do it watching my eldest taking an hour and 15 minutes to eat a bit if mash. I CAN. Whether I WILL or not is another matter.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Year New You?

photo di Giorgio Majno

The beginning of another year. New Year's resolutions anyone? Goals this year? What are we hoping to change? And why? I have no intention of dashing ones dreams but.....I have to ask the most important question of all, which is; what makes us think that by changing anything, we'll be any better off? WHO SAYS?!

It reminds me of this old Buddhist (I think!) tale;

A poor man and his son live on a farm, they have a plow and a horse to pull it, that is until the latter runs away.

That's terrible!" say his friends and neighbors.

"Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows!"

A little later the horse returns with a group of mares which it leads to their barn.

"That was lucky!" say his friends.

"Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows!"

Trying to tame a particularly frisky new arrival, the son falls from the horse breaking his leg.

"How unfortunate!"

"Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows!"

The army passes through the village to take the young men of the village to war, but seeing the son's broken leg they leave him behind with his father.

Good luck? bad luck?

Who are we to judge?

Actually there's a similar little nugget in the cartoon/ film Kung Foo Panda (which thanks to my kids I watched for the 56th time last weekend) when the bear(?)maestro comes up to the wise old turtle and says "I've got good news and bad news." The turtle replies; "There's no such thing as GOOD news or BAD news. JUST NEWS."

Anyway....back to wishes for the future......

We seem convinced that we all have our own a crystal ball. We gaze in and we know for sure that by changing diet, sport, partners, car, lovers, morals, jobs, city, name everything will be just great.

Good? Bad? Who knows!

I'm not promoting utter passivity ; a 20 a day, couch potato kind of existence. If you want to change habits ok (but at least concentrate on the new instead of obsessing with the old). But by simply acknowledging that we need to change we are planting the seeds of dissatisfaction. Of fear and of guilt - because by demanding change we are basically stating "I am not whom I wish to be" which may be a slippery slope to "I don't like who I am". Well....that's a shame. Good? Bad ?Who knows!

Perhaps there is more to be said for "acceptance" at least with what we see as our (mental) "defects" and current context in which we find ourselves.

Over the christmas holidays I went to Val Sesia where I attempted cross country skiing - you slip your skis into these little tracks in the snow (that wind their way through woods and around streams - wonderful!) and....(excluding up hill slopes) you let yourself go. You kind of glide forward and simply enjoy the view. The second you start trying to change the direction of the skis(useless and detrimental), the second you bring your attention to the possible danger at your feet, you fall. You find yourself with your face in the snow. Everything comes to a sudden standstill. The trick (I found after a few bumps and bruises) is to let the skis go exactly where they want to go. Perhaps we could say the same about life. We spend a lot of energy trying to go against the flow, trying to take another direction, without even knowing if the turn we're set on is any better the one taken before.

Alan Watts in his book "Still the mind" reminds us that genies always give us three wishes so after two attempts and with the third wish, we can always get back to where we started.

Perhaps we don't need the first two wishes in the first place. Enjoy what you have.