Joe and I watched the first two episodes of the new series of Broadchurch last night. Because there is a kind of discomfort going on in my own life about something and Broadchurch is uncomfortable too I have to read before I sleep so the discomforts don't treble, don't grow legs and a hammering heart that keeps me up all night. So I read Moominpapa at Sea, which is troublesome as well but in a different way and Joe reads and it was two in the morning by the time we switched off the light so the day began there really. Us lying and reading in our rectangular room, in a house built on what once was sand dunes. It's quiet here where we live. No traffic. A single street light that we sometimes have to twitch the curtains to shut out.
I woke first. Lying and thinking about getting up and how if I crept up and crept down the passage past the other bedrooms I might be able to write something or go for a walk on the beach before it got hot. Instead I stayed in bed slow and sluggish and after minutes or hours Alex came in as she always does. Pyjama bottoms and a belly scribbled with purple felt tip pen. She falls into the space between us and within seconds is complaining about something. Whinging, and then throwing her face into angry contortions. I wonder if she is missing something in her life, if there is some basic gap in our parenting, that feeding and admiration and attention, and lack of attention, and basic hygiene and love freely and openly given is not covering that means she is unhappy but I think it is actually habit.
I get up to make her breakfast because she is hungry. She is somehow grumpy about this too and make me play a guessing game about what she wants. Po she says and I have to guess porridge. Every time I make porridge in summer I think about my grandparents who had porridge every morning of the year. More, I think about myself as a kid thinking about them. How part of the experience of going to Kelvin Heights was the porridge every morning summer or winter and I was always the last up and I would never quite want as much porridge as was in the pot and I would leave the porridge there because wasting food was not okay but my grandmother would tell me next time to soak the pot otherwise it's very hard to clean. For years and years she told me this. I would never quite find out what to do with the remaining porridge I didn't want to eat.
After all Alex's whining I whine at her about using proper words and how annoying this particular guessing game is for me. That it isn't funny just irritating. By this time Lexy is kicking the sofa and yelling. A storm in a six year old. So I whine for a while and she yells and kicks for a while. Then I make porridge and Maggie gets up and is friendly and Lexy is lovely suddenly and Maggie and Lexy and I sit around the breakfast table. Maggie tells me how the milk bottle is too heavy for her, how she can't pour it and points to the level she can pour it. My kids are funny and kind.
We drive to the city and to the library.
"Why are there Robo 2000s?", Maggie asks from the back seat on the way.
"What do you mean?"
"In books with robots they're always called Robo or something 2000."
I make something up to respond with. It might even be true. That the year 2000 always seemed like the year people would be flying in jet packs, and it seemed like this impossible distant time in the future, even right up to the day before. So people try and make their robots seem glamorous and exciting by calling them something 2000.
Within a minute Maggie has confirmed her theory finding a robot called Ripizor 2000 or something in the Mr Gum book she's reading.
At the library Maggie finds Mr Gum books she hasn't read. She decides to get four out because last time she read the two she'd got out in one day. Then we find a book on dragons she wants. Alex sits on me in a big comfortable seat and reads me The Rose Rest-home, a reader by Jeanette Cunis. I am astonished all over again by her reading. She stumbles on comfortable, on curved and then on the next page carved and gnome. She misses some words but I don't stop her, I let her read. Her voice finds the rhythm of the language even when the meaning is slightly off. She knows how to pause, she knows how to emphasise.
Maggie leans against the chair with her dragon book. "Hey Mum" she says. "The different colour of dragons mean different things." She tells me the colours and their realms. One colour helps out in times of famine she tells me. She pronounces it fay-men. I tell her it's famine, and that it means when people don't have enough to eat. I am amused by my absurdly simple definition. For once it's perfectly accurate. Maggie has already decided she wants to grow up to write factual books about made up things.
We have lunch with friends. Pip and I hold intense conversations about books. They invigorate me. Pip's daughter and Maggie are the same age and read their freshly issued books. Friendly but not talking. I think about companionship and old friends. These two have known each other their whole lives. Pip invents a game for Lexy of timing her when she runs to certain places. Running is good for Lexy using her own body and her energy and making her laugh. A marionette comes over and introduce himself. His name is James. I compliment him on his cravat. He thanks me and turns to show off his satchel. Lexy runs after the woman marionette to meet her.
We go across the bridge for ice creams. It takes a long time to get there. Pip and I are talking excitedly at each other. We are talking about Janet Frame. I have just read Intensive Care. Pip hasn't read it. She says every time she reads another Janet Frame book she thinks she won't be blown away but she is. Behind us the others get distracted watching rowing and seeing rays. Pip's daughter starts clearing away plastic and rubbish from the water. Maggie joins in. We get the ice creams and they walk us back to the car.
Joe needs to go to university so we drop him off and Lexy pops into her own preschool and gets a big hug from her old teacher. The teacher translates the characters on the Chinese t-shirt that Lexy got from her Uncle Sam who just got back from Malaysia. Some of the characters mean lots of wealth or money, one of them means goat. We knew the t-shirt was something to do with the year of the goat. It's a yellow t-shirt. Most of the picture and writing are in gold and red. The goats have large blue eyes and for some reason look like fish.
We visit the tuatara at university. We drive home. Maggie's friend arrives for a sleepover. They are two quiet girls who play wild loud gleeful games when they're together. Star wars training, or dragons, or archery. Lexy plays on the computer. Joe goes for a swim. I feel sick with heat and nap until it's cooler. I read Lexy some Moomin. I am scared she is bored but when I stop reading she tells me to keep going. Joe makes pizza. After dinner we let the girls play outside. Lexy complains about being brought in first, all the whinging and fury returns. She is never ever getting into her pyjamas. She doesn't care if she doesn't get a story. It isn't fair.
We spend some time trying to decipher a line in a poem on Lexy's class Christmas CD. She's been asking us for days 'What is Re-spacing?' and have come to understand it is a line in this poem but we are still not sure any of us what it means. Joe and I think perhaps although the poem is read by someone called Daunte, at the end he is telling us it is by Rhys Baker. Not a word but a name. She's not having it. She puts on pyjamas. She brushes her teeth. Joe reads to her. He is scared she will make him read The Faraway Tree as he had to yesterday. 'That's such an awful book', I say. It was that or The Great Glass Elevator, he says. Ghastly we say, it's a bad book, how did he write such a bad book.
I do dishes listening to a podcast of Pip talking to another writer about Virginia Woolf. Pip says each of her novels are as if she is playing a different musical instrument.
Tea. Joe reads, I write.
When I think of eclipses, of any flavour, I think of Tintin. I can't help it. I think of Tintin finding the scrap of newspaper in the prison cell and yelling in joy for he believes correctly he has found a means of saving his own and his friends' lives. It's momentous. Eclipses are for me for all time momentous. And after I think of Tintin then I can get on to the business of thinking about the actual eclipse in question. Like thinking on Wednesday about the Blood Moon, such an evocative phrase, it makes me come over all intergalactic, and makes me look at the clouds and wonder. Like it's personal. Between me and the moon.
Our family was in Castlepoint for a few days staying behind the pub. As the sun set on the Wednesday there were clouds and clear patches and we just couldn't be sure. I played with fruit on the table trying to explain to myself, as I must do every eclipse, how the grapefruit and the Granny Smith and the lemon or more rightly I figured the tomato, all line up and why that means an eclipse. How the Granny Smith spins on its axis and has a shadow. How it orbits the grapefruit and is oribitted by the tomato and how you must hold all those things in your mind at once or the whole solar system will stop working.
I'd skim read the newspaper online which had said the eclipse was at 8.36 or something and then the comments which said the newspaper was wrong and it was at 9.36 and then I texted my friend Tim and he said 11.27 pm and him I trusted. None the less, not sure when the action would begin, at 9pm we put the kids in the car and drove the 10 minutes to the beach. It was cloudy but we could drive past the looming cray boats on their giant trailers on to the flat sand of the beach. It was deserted. We watched the light house and its moving beam of light and how it lit a strip of rocks in front and a strip of the distant horizon behind. I wondered if the light's movement was analogous with the motion of the planets at the time of an eclipse but I couldn't think of how. We saw a few stars. We watched the moon before it was eclipsed heroically behind a dark bank of clouds. We drove home. It was nicely dramatic but I wanted something more.
Maggie and Lex fell asleep quickly and Joe and I watched the sky and sighed at the clouds in all the wrong places. The moon wove in and out of visibility. The moon was full and the eclipse started turning it into a crescent. But we were guessing most of the time. It was blurry. Sometimes we could see tantalising shards through the binoculars of the shape of it, how it's round not flat. Solidity.
Then incredibly by 11.15 the right parts of the sky were clear and outside our little cabin we watched the eclipse take full effect. We tried waking the kids but they were flumped. Little pools of colour in the pale sheets.
It was strange because when the eclipse was at its fullest a moon shape was visible, but it wasn't quite the moon was it? A sort of effect of defracted light I guess. I imagine the way torchlight splays if you try to obscure it. I might have it wrong. The moon thing or the moon-like thing wasn't blood red but it was distinctly red. I liked it. I liked imagining the Earth's shadow. I liked imagining the line running between the moon and the sun and in between - me, holding it all together, posed like a cheesy discus player, one arm pointing in each direction.
Sunny after a day of hail & wind. Lexy is full of fury and yells You're not fair. She yells when I am near and she tumbles or knocks herself You hurt me. You meant to hurt me. You did. You're a meanie. She yells Go away from me and Don't talk and I said be quiet. When it gets too hard. When going to her and being loving or sympathetic or firm or being cross or being cajoling or bribing or threatening or making her laugh all don't work I go to the computer to distract myself because I have no idea what to do next. Because looking at Facebook or my email or the millions of other worlds I can peer into is possibly the best distraction from having no idea what to do. I don't deal with it. I don't know how. I ignore what is going on.
Sometimes, in more desperate moments, I google 5 year old tantrums or Kids won't eat dinner or How to make kids do what I want. I, of the anti-authoritarian ilk. I, who want to raise my children fierce and full of wilderness, gentle and gleeful. I want them to sometimes use cutlery properly and to brush their teeth so when they are older they have teeth and mostly to meekly do what I ask them when I ask them.
Even as I write I think of all the advice that I might be given from someone reading this and how bad it would make me feel. How defensive I would feel. The people who will say their five year old sleeps in their bed still and how secure she is and she never yells. The ones who say you just need to treat them with respect and they will treat you with respect. Or how they are capable of much more than you realise. Or how it shouldn't be that hard. That you need to show them who is the adult or that you need to treat them as an adult. That you need to train them to be disobedient so they don't ever unthinkingly obey another person. That they just reflect what is around them or that they need calm routines. Calm routines. That they need boundaries and they need freedom. That they need to eat unprocessed grains and nuts. Your daughter would not yell if she ate only unprocessed grains.
All the advice bangs in my head. And I agree with all of it. Every single piece of the advice I agree with wholeheartedly and I am terribly thankful. And I disagree with it all too. And all the agreement and disagreement and worry and speculation and annoyance and all the advice heaps on top of me. Suffocating. Layer upon layer upon layer of advice like dirty and clean clothes on a bedroom floor that is neither calm or indicative of routine but may in the corners of felt tip pen stained sticky pockets contain unprocessed grains. All of it implying, of course, I am doing it wrong, or neglecting something, or that there is, as I always suspected, some secret fundamental aspect of parenthood that I am forgetting.
A boy across the aisle in the train is watching a movie with subtitles. There is an animated ocean. There is something called Fish-Man Island. There is the sort of bared-teeth monster I drew at 10 - the height of my artistic powers - drawing teeth like a grid and curly hair. It has a blonde woman bound and writhing and it has muscles and monster arms that turn into tentacles. Someone is determined to kill someone else and Fish-Man Island will be destroyed. Is it a threat or a warning? All the goodies look like all the baddies.
Lexy of the tentacles - who last night yelled I hate that toothpaste. You got it on purpose.You're a big meany. I never said I like it. I never asked for it. You are lying. I am not brushing my teeth. I don't care if I get no stories. I don't care. You are a meany. She will yell Mumma! when she sees me home and wrap her arms around my neck and insist I lift her and carry her on meaningless journeys around the house and show me things one by one. Lexy will smile emphatically showing teeth that are probably already eroding to jagged brown triangles, great jubilant rows of them.
She pretended not to know the water book by heart so she could try out every strategy: looking at the picture for clues; saying the first sound; making a guess; stretching out the word; going back to the beginning of the line.
'Hmm, what could that word be?', Alex has big eyes she has a habit of making bigger.
'R. Rrrrr. Roo. Rou. Ff. Fffff. Rough! Water can be rough", she says.
Alex is learning to read, is understanding the trick of learning, and is re-enacting the trick all at the same time. I remember the same with her big sister Maggie learning to talk, only months after mastering fluent language herself, she would pretend to be a baby, babbling and trying out whole words in roughly formed explorative vowels. Mastery.
After Alex was in bed I kept thinking about Cilla McQueen's poem 'Learning to Read', one of the few poems I know by heart. It was published in The Listener in the 80s and it made odd and beautiful tugs at my teenage heart. There is so much I love about the poem, the perfect cadence, the momentous journey it travels from illiteracy to literacy, and the way the final giddy triumph is realised in a completely different realm.
The lines I kept coming back to were '& then the page / became transparent'. Because, of course, the words on the page are as stiff and opaque as ever when you're reading, but you do see through them. I tried squinting my eyes and looking at the spines of the books in our bookshelf and willing myself not to read them - to see the words only as shapes and patterns. I couldn't do it. Even books with ugly or over-elaborate typography, I could not forget even for a moment how to read. I could not not read.
This glorious notion of transparency. A metamorphosis as magical as any I know. That words lift off the page and become experiences and ideas, threats and declarations, houses and streets. Forests and gloomy mountains. And people calling through them all. And while all this is happening, left on the page, the 26 husks of letters, a dozen or so dots and flicks, the rhythm of white spaces.
I love that sentences or stanzas are little time bombs. Able to be duplicated and replicated or typed out from memory or tagged on a wall without the impact on reading ever diminishing. The best of them eternally chocker with explosive force.
It feels hallowed this time with Alex learning to read. When I was reading Pippi she said 'Look Mum, it and is. The. And Mum, if you took that o off that word there, it would be to.'
She's training her brain to read. Already unjumbling the letters so that she scans a page of text and picks out the familiar. She's doing it recreationally and without trying.
The first time I saw Maggie read for pleasure by herself, it was a fairy story. It was in my parents' house on my old bed. The sun pouring in and just about reaching her. I was a little heartbroken by the glory of it.
Now I watch Alex. She must be watching letters, first singly, then in tentative pairs fly up off the page to somewhere entirely her own. Soon it will be flocks. Just about, I think, just about.
Alexandra, let me describe your day.
I had been stomping in and out of your bedroom, and you woke around midnight and cried out. You seem a bit frightened and I think of the night and excitement and me disturbing you, opening and closing doors and drawers.
I hold you on the sofa a while and when you are calm say shall I put you back to bed and you shake your head and butt into into me, try to crawl into me - I do what I can to envelop you.
It is unusually busy. I say 'It's strange isn't it, us awake and all busy and you in there? Joe is making your cake for your party, and making party bags. I have been tidying, and weaving paper.' I try and call you back into yourself and into your name. You ask for Joe and he puts you to bed and this time you stay there.
In the proper morning, we all sit on the living room floor and you open two presents I think may be useful for the day. A cup which says I am four, and a dress you chose some time ago and forgot about.
You ice cup cakes with Joe, and I won't play with you as I am running to get ready. About half an hour before the party begins your big sister curls into the corner of the couch not reading, not talking just looking miserable. I ask her what is wrong and she just makes hurt unhappy noises and won't talk. I say impatiently 'Maggie, I can't help unless you tell me', and wish I could stop and try and coax out of her what's happening but I have to make fairy bread and put dishes away and I wish she would talk.
The party starts at ten. At twenty to, your friend F. arrives with her Mum who is apologetic about being early but she is a friend and I am glad to see her, and she ties up balloons and cuts carrot sticks, and F. and you go into the bedroom and entertain each other. Joe has put up black paper outside the windows and cut out tiny pinpricks that serve as stars and a crescent moon. Hanging from the ceiling are Tintin type rockets (with the woven paper) moons and asteroids.
Your other friends arrive and you say hello to each one, and they all bundle into the bedoom and climb the bunk and shine the torch. The grown-ups all relax a little. The party tumbles on, Maggie curled on the couch is so pleased to see her Granny Jane, who arrives with the pass the parcel. Her pass the parcels are legendary, a small packet of non-tacky goodies at each layers, tiny cocktail umbrellas, little chocolate bars, and interesting things to draw with. We play To the moon a sort of euphoric intergallactic adventure track by The Mighty Buzzniks that instantly makes me want to build a rocket ship.
There is a catch the rockets game in the bedroom, there is food, there is a rocket pinata, you open presents, we eat cake. You say goodbye and thank you at the door when I ask. Sometimes spontaneously.
I eat left over savaloys, and tiny marmite triangles of soft white bread that I never eat. Abbie sits on Jane's lap and is persuaded to take Pamol and take off a top. She has a headache and a temperature. The sun has come out.
Then Cathy comes, with a bundle of presents, and then family, my sisters, Joe's brother, and family friends who get all you children playing charades. From where I sit everyone is acting superbly, and guessing cleverly. When we first got the Charades for Children game, you used to turn over the card and rush to start performing and announce, 'I am a bee. Bzzzzzz'. 'Bee' we would guess, and you would sing out 'Right! Your go'.
After everyone goes, you ask 'Will you play tea with me?', and with the tiny teaset Janey gave you, pour tea for you, me and two tiny eyelashed ponies (one glow-in-the-dark) you have been given. It is a six person tea set and you need two more people. You choose the big smiling floppy flower and the fairy music box.
We are into evening. We are in a phase where Maggie desperately wants to play a computer game called Mooshie Monsters but every time she does she has a huge tantrum for some reason or another. I decide to give her another go, but the inevitable happens and she cries, I ban it, she stomps off and slams the door, something she never did pre-Mooshie Monsters. She weeps and tantrums and then cries out and says her arm, which has been knocked around a few times over the last week or two, really hurts. I read her a few chapters of Captain Underpants on her top bunk.
Joe bakes a chicken for dinner and makes peanut sauce. I am glad to rid myself of the taste of potato chips and chocolate cake. I put you to bed, you laugh and try and run away when I try and put your pyjama bottoms on. I threaten to text Santa and it works like magic. You and Maggie try and get me to tell you Santa's number. You two are friends again, despite whatever you did wrong with regards to that Mushling.
You have been given a beautiful wooden aquatic animal domino set, and while Joe reads to you, Maggie asks to learn to play. I don't know how to, but Maggie makes up something. We play. To avoid straining her arm I help her up to her bed. I read you Abigail goes to the beach. You tell me the story back, but you say, 'if we went to the beach, and you took a sunchair, and an umbrella and three cans of beer I would build the corner towers of the most enormous castle in the world and if two boys came along.....'
You are confused about your actual party being on one day and your actual birthday being on the next, and when I say this was your proper party you say crossly 'That's not true' and I placate you with stories of what will happen at preschool and remind you of the song you will sing Four times round the sun, four times round the sun. You take over the story and tell me how the song works, and how you choose a friend for each year and walk around the cake holding hands. I ask which four friends you will choose, and you say you can't tell me because it is a secret.
I turn the light out, and haven't noticed that Joe has dotted the ceiling with luminous stars. Five minutes after I leave the room, you are up, Joe takes you back to bed, you call out, even as I started writing this you called out. Joe settles you.
Maggie was reluctant and sad at the thought of introducing a song for her class's end of year musical production but struck the idea of saying it in Spanish, and is pelased at the idea and learns the words off by heart and says them and then the English quite happily.
She wore that black and white spotted dress she chose herself.
She and Adr. laughed gleefully to each other for the first 10 minutes of the performance. The rhythm of the haka was fun and good and made them all musical. You could tell they were enjoying the thud of the footstomps. I think of how the faces of these kids will be etched in Maggie's memories forever.
Later today it was Alex''s Preschool Christmas Party. Maggie and Alex both got presents out of Santa's sack.
Alex would not go to sleep. And would not go to sleep. And then calls urgently 'Mummy, Joe, Mummy.' And we wearily call out 'What is it. Go to sleep.' She says 'You have to come. You have to come.'
I am being terribly important and laying out type so Joe goes and comes back to tell me that Alex had discovered the emergency drinking water we store under the bunk and was pulling it out and it wouldn't come.
You can see her point.
Alex is full of it. Not in the negative sense. Sometimes she will put her cheek to mine, and try and have as much of her bare skin touching my bare skin as possible, and will have her arms around my neck and get herself closer and closer and do big contented humming sighs.
Other times, like when I said goodnight just now, I will blow her a kiss and she will pucker her face up as if to kiss me back and instead blow a mid-air rasberry and stick her tongue out at me and humph off.
She is a hands on her hips Right, everybody do what I say type of girl. She is a Remember that time I drowned (she never) type of a girl. She is a No No No Never Never Never type of girl. She is a Don't do that. It's not funny, a Do I look pretty? (Yes, very but you know that's fun but not that important don't you, it's more important to be nice...), a stay with me for one more minute, no three more minutes, no seven more miutes, a I want pony food type of girl.
(C) Copyright 2012, Mrs Loolupants, All Rights Reserved.