The collector

painting a house

This week a friend invited me to a group for writers. I’d previously considered attending a writers’ group, but never got up the gumption to go. It takes so much effort to go out in the evenings– apart from the one evening a week when I teach Yoga classes, which is now part of the family’s ingrained routines. Cue the detailed logistical acrobatics required when mama wants an evening out.

On Monday night I changed into my pajamas and lay down beside my youngest child to help him drop off to sleep. Once he was safely snoozing, I changed back into my clothes. If my little one had known that I was going out, the process of getting him off to sleep would have taken hours longer. I once made the mistake of lying down with him while wearing a necklace and earrings. He figured out pretty quickly that I would be going out: “Mummy, why are you wearing earrings?” That was the night I ran up the steps at the opera house, like Cinderella in reverse, racing to get into the hall before they hermetically sealed the doors, never to be opened again until the interval. I just about got there and got a workout.

Turns out writers’ group was worth the effort. It lasted about two hours and during the twenty minute writing session I jotted the following poem into my journal. Our theme was collection/obsession. I even read the poem to the 20 or so assembled people there, without being sick all over my shoes. Go me.

I hope it resonates with you. I might even go back to the group.

The collector

I am running out of places to keep it.

The locks of hair

jagged white teeth

impossibly small bracelets

leather shoes with footprints on the soles

Bits of paper with drawings:

faces with arms for ears and stick legs that poke out from the chin

triangles atop squares; a scribble that means home.

The accumulated detritus of being.

As if memories could be stored, flattened and catalogued,

arranged neatly within Swedish furniture,

or, usually, not-so-neatly in dust-covered boxes beneath the bed.

 

One day, someday, on an archaeological dig,

they will chip away the dirt,

brush away the dust

and find this.

This… what?

 

Evidence of the mundane

the profane

the arcane.

Physical evidence of a normal life,

the sum total of my motherhood, as defined by me.

 

I  hoard every memory:

first word/swear word

first step/misstep

The minutae of a family’s life, captured and hidden,

collected,

put away,

forgotten.

Til one day, little hands uncover the hoard.

(Not Roman coins, but treasure nonetheless.)

She asks, “What’s this?”

And like a criminal caught in the act, I mumble,

“It’s mine.”

 

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott

Parenting- a review

Teika's book 002

Picking up a pen, sitting down at a computer, taking time to write: it’s a discipline. Some might call it a theft. Because it takes. It’s taking time away from all the other things I “should” be doing: the washing, the cooking, the reading of stories to little people on laps, the clapping of hands to nursery rhymes, the wiping of noses and bottoms, the scrubbing of toilets, the preparation of food, the devising of lesson plans for my paid work. Taking the time to write means that something else doesn’t get done.

Nevertheless, writing is top of my to-do list. I schedule it in and don’t allow my eyelids to close, however heavy, until I have put pen to paper… copying out quotations… listing gratitudes… jotting down an account of our day… pouring out my feelings… making lists.

Letting the mind’s ink seep down through my arm, into the hand, out the nib of my pen feels like a quest completed. When I am done, there is a release, a catharsis, the sensation that a necessary deed has been done.

If you came to my house for a meal and offered to set the table, when searching for plates you would find a curled and weathered piece of newsprint blu-tacked to the inside of the cupboard. It’s Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Stephen Lawrence,” a poem about motherhood and loss and justice, a poem that acknowledges that Doreen Lawrence never gave up her search for justice for her son’s murder. It is a poem to read, to savour, to arrest you when emptying the dishwasher as plate after plate returns to its place on the shelf.

I like poems because they are usually short, intense morsels of thought-provoking goodness. Sometimes that’s all the reading I have time for in a day. But I love the thinking time. I want a poem that demands a re-read, a ponder, another sip of tea. My brain wants something to chew on while hanging socks on the fireguard or wiping the table or stripping sheets off a wetted bed.

Teika Bellamy asked me to review a new book published by her independent press, Mother’s Milk Books. The book is a compilation of the winning and commended prose and poetry pieces from the Mother’s Milk Books Writing Prize 2013. In terms of poetry and prose to chew on, I got plenty of fodder here. Though I couldn’t read the whole book in one sitting, even though it is a trim and slender volume, there were some phrases that returned to me again and again.

“I look down/and treasure/the wavy parting of her hair,/the wispy plaits/the toes that point as they step/the wistful half-smile/of her secret thoughts.”

— Alison Parkes, The Ballet Lesson

 

“a cuckoo memory/of him as a baby/sleeping like a Y”

–Jan Dean, Accident

 

“…though as I surrender to this absorption of myself into “us”, I already morn its passing, and see that he will naturally grow away from this– as I turn in, pouring myself into this dyad, he is taking what he needs from so it so that he can move on.”

–Helen Lloyd, Intimacy

Each time I read a piece I found myself turning to the author bios. Who is this woman? What is her story? How does it end? These mothers, writing these morsels of thought, distilling their mind’s ink onto the back of an envelope or a coffee-stained napkin, have chosen to put writing on the top of their to-do lists too. They have done us a great service. The washing and cooking and cleaning can wait for a few more minutes.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott

Disclosure: Teika sent me a free review copy of the book. I received no other payment.

Seeing and being seen

pollen

Shortly after I had my first baby a friend from work visited me. She spent plenty of time cooing over the new baby, but she got right to the heart of the matter when she asked, “So, how’s it going? How are you feeling about it all?”

Because she was a good friend, I knew I could tell her. But I hesitated a little because what I had to say seemed so unusual, even preposterous, that I wondered what her reaction might be. “It’s strange, but I sort of feel like she just knows me. I look into her eyes, and she looks back, and it’s like she’s reading my soul, and I hers. Does that sound crazy to you?”

I was surprised and relieved to see her nod in recognition. She was a mother too, and I had just verbalised a little-discussed experience for many (possibly all) mothers. Our babies, though possibly strangers to this world when they are first born, actually have a familiarity with us that we might never have expected. Here is a new person in the world, and she looks into my eyes and she sees me for who I really am. And I see her. We connect on the deepest possible level. We love each other.

Lately I have been re-reading my shelves and shelves of Yoga books, getting a fresh perspective on old (sometimes ancient) material. This week’s book, Bringing Yoga to Life by Donna Farhi revealed this little gem as I stood at the cooker stirring the risotto last night:

“We long to have someone, somewhere, even for a moment, really see us. When someone sees the ‘us’ that is our essence, we say that we feel loved. My teacher taught that the primary thing to learn is how to be this loving, accepting presence.” (2004: 179)

I immediately thought of my first experiences as a mother and the sensation that my child could see right to my very soul. I realised that even as a tiny newborn, my daughter was able to really see me. It was the first time I can remember being so completely understood by another human being. No explaining required, no words uttered, I stared into her amber-flecked eyes and felt I’d been seen.

My remembrance of this feeling, and my gratitude for it, made me wonder what it would be like to practise seeing another person’s essence. While I was running late yesterday, the librarian went on and on in her well-meaning yet somewhat droning way, and I nodded absently, conspicuously checking the clock and muttering about being late.  Taking a deep breath, I drew myself up short. I looked at her, I mean really looked. I watched her face as she spoke, I looked into her eyes, and I asked myself to see her as a human being. Another person connected to me, and to the rest of us. Someone with value. In a moment I had to rush off, but really looking at her made me listen to her and take her seriously, and most important, to hold her in my mind and heart with compassion.

At 7 this morning I wished that I had thought to do this with one of my children, who I found surreptitiously stuffing chocolate chips into her pockets and mouth. I was unhappy with the tricksy behaviour, and certainly not impressed with a chocolate breakfast. What if I had seen past the behaviour to her essence? What if I had been able to put aside what she had done, and had taken a really good look at who she is? I wonder how the very unpleasant interaction that followed might have been transformed.

Sadly, I didn’t remember to look, so it’s all subjunctive tense. (I’ll try again tomorrow.)

One more story. When I was at University, a good friend sat with her chin resting on her hand and stared at me with a contented smile on her face. “Why are you looking at me that way?” I asked her, slightly unsettled. “I’m contemplating you,” she said. What on earth did that mean, I asked. “I mean, I’m trying to see you as God sees you.”

My friend believes in an all-loving, gently benevolent God. She attempted to put on God’s spectacles, and to see me for who I really am. She was trying to see past the secondary projections and to see right to my soul. She wanted to know me, and what’s more, she wanted to love me. Even now, I marvel and think, what a friend.

How many of my daily interactions with others could be transformed by trying to see, really see past the secondary projections of personality, appearance, emotions, assumptions, education, social status, nationality, language spoken, and more? When we peel away the layers that sit atop a person’s true essence, we might be startled. Surprisingly, and wonderfully, what we see is very much like what we are.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott

The transience of the moment

teasel

These warm autumn days have been perfect for our morning walk. We leave the house, the five year old springing down the road like a jubilant Spaniel let off the lead. We look for the helicopters of the Sycamore, throwing them with all our might and watching them twirl to the ground. The green of leaves seeps away, replaced with red, yellow, orange, brown. Acorns and beech masts crunch beneath our feet; we stretch into the hedgerows for the last of the season’s blackberries and toss a few into our mouths.

Time is passing. I want to bottle these moments.  If I could, I’d uncap the bottle later, wave it beneath my nostrils, inhale deeply and experience them again and again and again.

I would close my eyes and smell washing hanging on the line, autumn breezes lifting the scent of leaves and cones, the top of my son’s warm head. I would remember the cool, slim fingers of my eldest child’s hand resting within mine. I would remember the gratitude in my heart that she still wants to hold my hand, and my worry that today might be the last time she willingly does.  I would remember the little ponytail at the back of my daughter’s head, how the soft, downy baby hairs beneath it curl at the nape of her neck. I would remember the slap-slap-slapping sound of my son’s feet as he runs gleefully ahead of me.

Last night I lay beside my youngest child and listened to the sound of his breath as he dropped off to sleep. He mewed a contented sound, one that only he can make. A sound that only I have heard. His dusty lashes flickered against his freckled cheek. I recalled the day he was born, when he lay his cheek against my chest and slept contentedly as I watched him. I didn’t sleep that first night. I was too busy memorising him, falling in love with him. After spending nine months carefully folded within me, like a tight bud, that night he gradually unfurled himself in my arms.

I’ve started writing down the little things the children say and do, so that one day I can go back and remember what it was like. But I rarely, if ever, write down the mundane stuff that comprises our everyday life. Those are the things I want to remember the most, but I lack the words to describe the little things. I want to hold on to what it feels like to be here in this present moment.

It came to me, the day before my son’s birthday, that I would never again be the mother of a four-year-old. The realisation was as poignant and uncomfortable as a stitch in my side. Even now, though I continue on with each day, that stitch, of knowing that these children are growing up, remains with me.  I want to put it all in a bottle, stow it in my pocket, and in quiet moments retrieve it to take a secret, quiet sniff.

But then I wonder, while I’m doing that, what would I be missing? Eyes fixed on that bottle, fussing with the lid, what little things would evade my notice? To spend too much time thinking of what I’m missing, I’d be missing what I’ve already got. No. The only way is to remain in the present moment, to cherish each whiff of the now, to inhale deeply of every moment of family life. The memories will always be there, but this moment is passing quickly away. And it is too vast, too expansive, too rich to be confined within a bottle.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott.

Thank you to Amanda at Writealm for providing the prompt for this post, “flicker.”

Moments and moments

shoreline

My daughter and I have started playing a new game in the swimming pool. The opponents face each other and each person crosses their forearms and grabs the others’ wrists. While treading water, the players wrestle in a bid to tap their opponent on the head. It’s hard! And it makes us laugh, dunk under and spray water like dolphins. She loves it and she’s good at it.

There are moments in parenting that feel like this game. These moments lack the fun, laughter and silly antics of the pool game. Instead, it just feels as though I am treading water and wrestling needlessly with my children. That I am losing and sinking… or giving up the fight in exasperation and exhaustion.

Sometimes we argue about the most ridiculous things. Like when the children were playing tug-o-war in the pool changing rooms and I lost it because the loud noise in the echoey confined space was too much for me on the day the kettle broke (i.e., no coffee). Or when I came into the kitchen and a fresh loaf of bread had been hacked to bits leaving an Armageddon of crumbs and unusable bread hunks all over the work surface and floor. I turned into one of those cartoon characters with smoke coming out of my ears and red flowing up to my face like a thermometer rising.

In those moments I want to scream and shout, make an about-face and stamp out of the room to play with my toys all – by – myself.

Then there are other moments that are wonderful (and often the hard moments and the great moments are within, well, moments of each other). Like today, when I suggested that we cycle to our local nature reserve for a picnic, some nature journaling and time in the play park.  Yes, they wanted to go! And please, could they help make the picnic? And shall I get your bike panier down, mummy? And shall I open the garage so we can start getting the bikes out? And what do you want on your sandwich, mummy? And, (this is my favourite one) “I love it when we do these things together!”

I do too. When we are cheerfully pulling together to do the same thing, it feels as though we are a river flowing steadily and easily downstream. When we are both enthusiastic and engaged, it feels as though we are working together as one, like a key in a lock, like fitting the last piece in a puzzle and discovering the sense it makes. We all feel good when we are in flow together. The wrestling and wrangling that took place in the last half hour seems a memory away.

For me, the important thing to remember is that these moments come and go. In general, we have more flow moments than wrangling moments. But sometimes the wrangling moments are so distressing and unpleasant, it’s easy to forget that most of the time we flow.  I have to remind myself that there are big important loving feelings that underpin this family, in spite of the petty (and not-so-petty) squabbles we have every day. Sometimes it’s worth remembering that when we stop treading water or get tired of the struggle, the pool isn’t really that deep. There’s a firm floor beneath our feet, from which we can kick off and try again.

I’m reminded of my newly-five-year-old son’s bedtime unhappiness last week. He was hanging tired, hardly able to keep his eyes open, in the midst of an angry tantrum. In a bid to gentle him to my side I said, “But you’re my special boy, and I want to snuggle you.” Between angry screams he shouted, “Well you’re my special girl. But I don’t like you anymore!”

That pretty much sums it up.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott.

Maybe the Trolls Were Right

sunset

Several years ago I wrote this post about toddlers and sharing. It is my most popular post by far, still getting several hundred hits every month.  To me, some of the angry comments at the end of that post (including some of the incredibly insulting, trollish ones I didn’t approve) are evidence of how anger, dogma and blind retribution often prevails over empathy and connection. When it comes to dealing with our children, our most treasured and unique gifts in life, it strikes me as very sad. I shake my head and continue on my own path of as-gentle-as-my-human-limitations-and-upbringing-let-me-be parenting, and I worry very little about what other people say.

Those are the good days. And they are in the majority.

Then there are the days when my children are having a screaming match with all the windows open, thumping up the stairs in a rage, slamming doors, shouting, “I HATE you, you ignorant little twerp!” (Thank you JK Rowling for introducing that particular phrase to my household.) There are the days when I haven’t spoken to another adult all day and am trying to transact a single piece of business (buying a stamp at the post office) and my children are tugging at my threadbare cardigan, talking at the same time as the post office clerk, begging plaintively for little packets of balloons or loom bands. There are the days when they speak rudely, ask repeatedly, ignore me, hit each other and pretty much show off the worst sides of their personalities.

On those days, a little voice inside me says, “Maybe those trolls were right.” Maybe the people who said that I was raising a little tyrant had insight. Maybe when they said that my children would grow up unable to socialise, those commenters had heretofore unknown clairvoyant skills. Maybe they could tell the future, and the future is now!

This is the point when I drop my face into my hands and have a little cry and wonder where I’ve gone wrong.

But that little voice inside is really rather little, in fact. It is so tiny (and I have worked hard to reduce its size over the years) that the bigger, stronger voices within me know that this is only catastrophizing, hyperbole… and plain ridiculous.

None of us is perfect. When I was a kid, I remember thumping up the stairs, slamming doors and calling my brother names. Even now, there are days when I scream and shout and stamp my feet in anger, frustration or disappointment.  When I was a kid I interrupted my parents all the time, wanted every toy in every shop and forgot my manners rather a lot. It took me time to learn. Even now, I get so wrapped up in my own enthusiasm that I interrupt people. We are all learning, all of the time. And if my children can’t express their less-than-publicly-palatable feelings at home, where can they?

I know that I am not the only traveller in the land of parenting self-doubt. It is at these times that I have to take myself by the shoulders and give myself a little shake. I have to turn my woeful gaze from my own personal pity party and look at my children, really look at them, and enumerate to myself all of the ways they are wonderful.

In The Hobbit, the curious thing that Bilbo discovers about the Mountain Trolls is that they turn to stone when the sun rises. Sometimes when we take the things those critics in the dark say about us (or our children), pick the lint off and lay them on the table, they look different. The fact of the matter is, when looked at in the light of day, those trolls turn to stone. They don’t know me, and they don’t know my children. I’m doing my best, staying true to my heart, and these kids are coming out just fine.

In fact, better than fine.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott.

 

The Small Stuff

seed head

There’s a phrase that I often hear, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The title of a book published in the 1990s, it’s become a sort of catch-phrase for those who want to simplify their lives and cease getting worked up about little things. Today, as I was staring into a dense hedge, I was thinking about “small stuff.” Specifically, Vapourer moth caterpillars. (Now you see why I need the specimen pots mentioned in my last post.)

My four year old son was on a quest to collect one of these brightly-coloured hairy fellas, and the pressure was on. We stared, we crouched, we looked at the underside of leaves, we found evidence of munching, but alas, the caterpillars weren’t about. Last week we saw two, this week none.

He got bored and ran off to the skate park. I stayed on in that hedge because while I was there, I noticed that the blackberries and sloes were ripening. I watched a spider deftly spin silk around her lunch, turning it round and round in the centre of her web. I felt the waning warmth of the early autumn sun on my brow, and the breeze gently lifting the downy hairs off my forearms, bringing with it the scent of seasons changing. Inhale. Exhale.

This was small stuff worth noticing.

I agree that there’s no point in worrying about little things. But I don’t think “small stuff” should be ignored. On the contrary, noticing the little things in life and cultivating a mindful awareness of things we usually take for granted can bring a sense of perspective, and ultimately, peace.

When I consider the worlds of activity that happen in the undergrowth, in a tree, beneath the sea, even in a single droplet of pond water, I stumble afresh upon my place in this world. When I make my awareness microscopic, I realise that I am simply another creature in this world: putting on the macro lens gives me the wide angle.

This is a daily meditation.

Each day, as you go about your business (preferably outdoors), take a moment to notice what you see, what you feel, what you smell, what you hear and what you taste. Stoop down and check out what’s happening in the grass. Look up at the sky and watch the clouds and the birds. Lie on your tummy and stare into the depths of a pond. In spite of what is happening for each of us in each moment, our daily struggles, worries and cares, the world continues to turn. Birds continue to migrate. Plants and animals perpetuate the cycle of life, reproduction and death. We are all a part of that. There is something deeply reassuring about all of this, and we can access it in a moment. Inhale. Exhale.

As soon as you finish reading this, go stand in a hedge for a bit. And if you see any Vapourer moth caterpillars, I’ve got a four year old who would be very interested in hearing from you.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott

Beach Walk with a Four Year Old

jellyfish

In my bag I always carry a journal, a pen, some bite and sting cream and a specimen pot. Yes, a specimen pot. Like the ones you get at the doctor’s office for a urine sample (not the ones with a little scoop inside… but on second thought, those could be quite useful). When you invite invertebrates into your home (see some posts about my children’s long-running insect project here), you start carrying specimen pots. A lot has changed since I wore a suit and carried a briefcase and talked into a dictaphone. It’s safe to say that the briefcase never carried a specimen pot.

I was different then. I rinsed dishes before they went into the dishwasher.

I didn’t have to shame-clean my car before giving a friend a lift.

Heck, I even ironed!

Having three children changed all that. In an already-full life, I rearranged my priorities and decided that building hex bug mazes on the living room floor was more important than rinsing dishes that were about to be washed anyway. On the balance sheet of family life, I decided that snuggling on the sofa was a lot more important than a clean car. And if you are the kind of person who carries caterpillars in specimen pots in your bag, I think it’s pretty much a bylaw that you wear wrinkled clothes. You can look it up, if you like.

After sharing a poem for the first time, and getting a very encouraging response, I’m sharing another one today. This is a vignette of my family life.

Beach walk with a four year old

We waited for the tide to recede

Crouched on our hunkers

Poking anenomes

Sorting the shoreline

Skimmers here

Sea glass there.

Scrambling over barnacles

Making bootprints in soft sand.

You picked up a baby jellyfish

Prodded it with a single chubby fingertip

Stowed it in your breast pocket.

Forgotten.

Later we wondered where the slimy wet spot came from.

The jellyfish in your pocket, long dead.

We agreed you could wear that top again tomorrow.

 

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott

 

Looking for what you want to see

looking at eggs

My four year old son has an uncanny knack for finding insects. Everywhere he goes, he finds little animals, or evidence of them, including munched leaves or nearly-microscopic eggs, and less salubrious things like poo or molts. Even today as we were running errands around the village, he quickly let go of my hand, nipped into a blackberry bush and within seconds shouted, “I’ve found a caterpillar!” Marveling at his ability to find these little creatures, especially as they are often hiding on the underside of leaves, I said, “How do you manage to find those insects? You’re so good at it!”

He replied, “It’s because I have perfect eyesight.” I laughed, but then he added, “It’s also because you’re not looking for them.”

We walked silently home because he gave me an awful lot to think about. No, I guess I’m not looking for them. Insects, after all, are his life’s passion. Just about everything he does is focused on finding insects. So naturally he will see them.

But more than that, there’s a certain quality of noticing going on here that means that he is making a point of looking for what he wants, of passing each moment mindful of his surroundings and looking out for what matters to him.

In my parenting life, I find that I often see what I’m looking for. When I get bogged down by my children’s arguments, I notice that they seem to be arguing all the time. When I feel that I’m constantly at loggerheads with one of my children, I conclude that we are at odds all the time. When the kitchen is a mess, suddenly I’m noticing all the other places in the house that are also a mess.

Lately I’ve been practicing looking out for what I want to see. I keep my eyes peeled for the times when my children are loving being with each other, like when they were holding hands during a scary moment at the cinema yesterday, or when they wrap their arms around each other as an older one is reading the littles a book, or like today when they built a fort out of cardboard and played together with relish. I am trying to notice the times when my children and I seem to be in a flow, when we are really connecting with each other, when I talk and it feels like they are really hearing me, and when they confide in me and I feel like I can feel their words planting themselves in the soil of my heart.

As a home educator, I am constantly aware of “teachable moments.” Those are the times when we all have a chance to learn and discover and have our questions answered. Being aware of those moments as they arise has slowed us down and enriched our daily lives—life becomes one, uninterrupted teachable moment. I am noticing how every member of my family is learning every day.

Search a plant for caterpillars and you won’t find just one, you’ll see several. Your eyes suddenly attune themselves to the shape and colour, look! There they are! Give something your attention and you’ll notice it more and more. What you notice tends to grow. Unlike my four year old son, I don’t have perfect eyesight. But I know what I’m looking for, and I’m practicing intently and relentlessly focusing my gaze on it.

I’m also getting better at finding caterpillars.

©2014 Lisa Hassan Scott.