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“Is it surprising, then, that the dethroned eldest, for such he is, may grow up obsessed with the idea of recovering and maintaining his lost position, his lost place of power and authority in the family? “For this reason,” says Adler himself, “oldest children generally show, in one way or another, an interest in the past. They like to look back and speak of the past. They are admirers of the past and pessimistic over the future. Sometimes a child who has lost his power, the small kingdom he ruled, understands better than others the importance of power and authority. When he grows up he likes to take part in the exercise of authority and he exaggerates the importance of rules and law. Everything should be done by rule and no rule should ever be changed … we can understand that influences like these in childhood give a strong tendency towards conservatism.”
Neil Beattie, Principal Medical Officer Ministry of Health, from ‘The Position of the Child in the Family and its Significance’, first printed in the October and November 1956 issues of the Nursery Journal
Channel Four’s “Cutting Edge” documentary this evening featured four girls starting at boarding school for the first time. Only eight, they have to leave their mothers behind, and they cry, and the mothers cry, and at home here we cried with them. I was those mothers. Still am sometimes. One in particular articulated all my sadness, my fears, the emptiness left behind, the need to fill the vacuum.
After a while the inevitability of it all sunk in, and mother and daughter began to adapt. The daughter bonded with another eight year old and they clung on to each other for support. The mother walked her dog more, and threw balls further away, and found justifications for it all.
Watch it (in the UK) here: http://www.channel4.com/programmes/themes/cutting-edge
Read a long review of the programme (in the Daily Mail) here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1248547/Would-send-child-boarding-school-eight.html
It’s very sad. The sister of a friend of mine is very ill with fast advancing cancer of an area of her brain. In the space of a few weeks, she has lost her hearing, the sight in one eye and finds moving about difficult. She is petrified of not being able to communicate at all. Even now all communication has to be reduced to writing, though she can speak in reply. She’s undergoing intensive courses of chemotherapy, back to back, to try to arrest the cancer and its symptoms.
Nothing like as serious. Almost blasphemous to mention it in the same post, but I’ve been reflecting on email communication. Sometimes it feels as if it brings us much closer to people than would ever have been possible before. Emails ping backwards and forwards faster than letters could ever fly. Often there is a tendency to write as we would speak, as our typing fingers keep up with the thoughts of our brains as our scratchy pens never could.
But is it really so great, if that is all there is that joins one person to another, if it is never supplemented by phone calls, or by Skype, or by real letters and occasional visits?
Isn’t it then rather like lying immobile in a hospital bed, being profoundly deaf and able to see out of only one eye, and having to wait passively for people to type messages and hold them in front of your single eye?
How starved is such communication. How poorly is compares to the full and rich exchange of feelings and thoughts that the best face to face communication can provide, illuminated by hugs and touching and smiles shot from the eyes.
It’s great if you have a committed correspondent, but how frustrating if your correspondent cannot find the time to come and visit, or is too busy, or does not want to write or is to sad or angry or lazy. How frustrating then, to be pinned in your hospital bed, not able to do anything about it except respond to the very intermittent reinforcement.
I do not want to depend on correspondence that hangs only in the ether, but I insist on using all our God-given senses as he intended us to. For me there is an ever present danger that the correspondence begins to feel too horribly familiar – to ape the anxious attachments of my childhood, when I was too young and too powerless to ask for more from my parents.
[the hospital bed is a cot … and the door is closed and nobody comes, however much I cry, because the four hours is not up yet …]
“A friend is one who knows who you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and gently invites you to grow.”
Fiesty Bossy Gorgeous Creative
Independent Organized Individualistic Loving
Rebellious Resilient Responsible Understanding
Smart Nurturing Leader Brilliant
I run with the strays. I seem to pick up stray dogs. I feel sorry for them, and responsible for them, and do not want them to be miserable. They bother me and I find that I do not want to leave them alone. I am in two minds about how they feel about me. Most of them are not very good at letting me know whether they value me or not. Sometimes I think I am picking up small subtle signs. At other times, I feel that I should just let them be, that I must not try t rescue them, that they need to get so hungry that they come looking for food by themselves, instead of getting occasional feasts from well-meaning rescuers. I round them up every three months or so.
But I know I am a stray too, and I see my strayness in them, and that my sorrow for them is sorrow for myself as I feel sometimes. In helping them I am, strangely, saying that I am worth helping myself, that my strayness can be mitigated by the warmth of friendship, that we do not have to be alone.
It is as if I am a stray dog standing outside the glass window of a busy bar. Lots of happy people are sitting around the bar, chatting to one another. They look warm and comfortable with each other and are hermetically sealed off from me on the outside. I am on the outside, the odd one out.
I’ve felt like this quite a lot of my life. First in my family where nobody understood this girl who wanted to be a girl and wear pretty clothes and make-up and to dance around. Then, later, at school where I was too young for my class. Then when I was a student, and I was not from the right background, and I was still too young. Then I began to find other strays to hang out with, and things got better, and stayed better for quite a long time. Then I married a man and we began to move in circles a long way outside my experience, and I was the odd one out again. I don’t feel so odd any more, not so as you would notice.
I run with another pack of strays, of outsiders, but I like this pack a lot, and when I am out with them I don’t think about those happy people round the bar. I am too busy having fun. This pack is full of odd breeds of dog, dogs that you don’t often see, but they are all highly intelligent dogs that look out for each other. I think others quake when they come into the neighbourhood. I feel part of this pack, and being in it relives the aloneness of the strayness, even though all of us look very different from most pack dogs. There is a sameness in our strayness which drives the loneliness away.
It is the solitary strays bother me. They do not really run with any pack. I think I used to be like that, when I was much younger, until I was in my mid-twenties. I see in them the loneliness that I felt, the being on the outside looking in, and I constantly invite them in. Even if they refuse several times, I will go back to them again and again, asking in different ways. Usually they do come in, but even when they are inside, I think they still feel like outsiders, so perhaps they are happier being left alone outside.
I’m hoping for the Billy Elliot happy ending, where the family finally recognises that “different” does not mean “less good”, and I am accepted into the fold. It is never going to happen in relation to my mother because she is dead. My sister is unlikely to have a full epiphany, though she has her own stray in her midst, her elder daughter. The feminine surrounded by the masculine asserting itself.
People tell me that they do not see me as a stray. On the contrary, a lot of them feel like strays themselves, looking into my salon, where they see lots of happy people chatting comfortably.
I wonder if we are not, by the time we reach our age, all strays. Some of us are quiet, biddable strays who wander around with our tails between our legs. Others are cross-bred Staffordshire bull terriers, angry accessories for unhappiness, and aggressive to other dogs.
My Dad is going to give a talk on the history of boat building. I was asking him how developments in materials had affected the sort of boat that could be built. I asked, in particular, whether the advent of iron had changed boat design, thinking of boats built of metal.
He told me that the Vikings had used iron nails in their boats. I was amazed. I was even more amazed to learn where the iron had come from in some cases. The Vikings made it to Newfoundland, forced back only when crops failed in Greenland. Remains of early settlement there show that iron was made out of the orange deposits found in puddles.
Truly. “Bog iron” it is called. Iron bearing ground water oxidises once it reaches the surface. The orange deposits are refined, and made into iron.
“In the bog, the iron is concentrated by two processes. The bog environment is acidic, with a low concentration of dissolved oxygen. In the acidic environment of the bog, a chemical reaction forms insoluble iron compounds which precipitate out. But more importantly, anaerobic bacteria (Gallionella and Leptothrix) growing under the surface of the bog concentrate the iron as part of their life processes. Their presence can be detected on the surface by the iridescent oily film they leave on the water (left), another sure sign of bog iron. In Iceland (right), the film is called jarnbrák (iron slick).”
My mother died more than ten years ago. Her body was cremated and all that commemorates her is a small nondescript white plaque on a wall of remembrance in the town cemetery where she lived for most of my life. There is space on the plaque for my father’s name in due course. The lettering is not good, and the black paint in the grooves is coming off. I went to see it once, just after it had been put up, just another name alongside hundreds of others. I never went again and, more recently, have actively avoided going there.
I decided that today was the day. I had an afternoon to myself, and am frustrated beyond belief at the way in which I seek out people whom I expect to behave like parents towards me and who, so understandably, cannot bear the onerous burden put on them. I want to put all these needs for mothering behind me. So I told my husband I was going to look at the wall.
The cemetery is on a hill. It is mostly Victorian, with a disused crematorium in the centre. There are some nice trees and lots of elegant gravestones. Further towards the top is a horrible red brick wall that is ugly and has none of the beauty of the gravestones. Dying bouquets lie at its foot, and square stone vases inscribed with names and containing wilting long lasting flowers such as carnations and chrysanthemums in acid yellow and candyfloss pink.
My mum’s white square is bottom right. My eye jumped to it immediately. Perhaps I remembered where it was from over a decade ago. It said that she had been a dear wife, mother and friend.
I felt nothing.
I wished that the sight of it wanted to make me cry, to release with cathartic tears all those unloved feelings of emptiness. But I could not squeeze out a tear. Nothingness. Emptiness, I suppose.
I walked back to my car and went to see an elderly aunt, recently widowed. I excused myself for not having visited for a while, told her I had been feeling very low, tried to get from her some feeling of how my mother saw me. She said that my mother loved me, but she was not demonstrative. We talked about how my mother was not interested in clothes, never wore make-up, was not interested in things being beautiful but only practical. I had treasured the stubs of lipstick my aunt had given me, had gazed at her row upon row of beautiful shoes outside the cloakroom when we visited. I had wanted a mother who was elegant, who had nice clothes, who cared about what she looked like. I had wanted to be a shoe designer. My mother did not understand that. She understood about real, important, necessary things, not fripperies like fashion. I felt that child inside howling in a corner, just wanting someone to pick her up, cuddle her and tell her how much she was loved. It never happened. My mother believed in routines, in four hourly feeds, in leaving the child to cry. She was a health visitor and a midwife. She knew best.
Last weekend I went to theatre with a friend who strikes me as quite like her. I imagined being her child, saw her impatience. Knew what it would have been like.