When I was a child, I heard my mother express the view that it is irresponsible to have children unless you can afford to pay for their education. I don’t know what prompted this remark – I went to a state-funded school and then to a university in the days when grants (not loans) for accommodation and tuition were available for university students. But, an impressionable child, the comment stayed with me.
Then I had children of my own. I believed in home birth and in home education, and failed in my aspirations to achieve both. Well – I had one baby at home and we home educated for a couple of years but, like the whole of my life, none of it went to plan.
When my children were small, I used to think back to my mother’s remark, and it worried me that I had so little to give my children. I thought about it long and hard, wondering what I could contribute of value to their unfolding lives.
But I remembered a wonderful TV series I'd seen in the 1970s, about the Brontë family in Haworth. There they were, on top of a hill surrounded by moorland, with little money and few opportunities. For exercise in the evening they walked round and round the dining table, talking to each other and inventing worlds (there's been another superb dramatisation by Sally Wainwright recently - To Walk Invisible).
I could readily imagine this, because I have always invented worlds. My mother liked her children quiet and still, and there were many occasions when I had nothing to do but make things up. I still do it. In church when I’m usually bored and waiting for the end, I make up stories. Before I go to sleep I make up stories, and when I wake up in the morning. When I’m waiting, when I’m travelling, when I’m walking to the supermarket – I create worlds and tell myself stories. If you are not the main person (if you see what I mean), you have to wait a lot. So there are lots of opportunities to create worlds.
I realized that an important component in this is the presence of ‘nothing’. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no money. Having to wait, having to sit quietly, being by yourself. I saw what the Brontës did with their nothing, and thought perhaps my children could do the same. So I resolved to be sure they had lots of ‘nothing’. Blank paper to draw on, lying in the dark while I sang them hymns and folk songs as they fell asleep, the hills and woods, the garden and animals, the fire on the hearth. Not much else. They got to work on their nothings and made something of them, just like the Brontës. Two make their living as freelance artists, one is a singer-songwriter, one is a musician, they are all writers of one kind or another, they are all good cooks and good gardeners, keep accounts well. Their lives are vivid, well-laced with laughter and full of faith and wisdom. That nothing went a long way.
Minimalism is also a good way of playing happily with nothing. Seeing how much nothing you can make out of something. Making as many spaces and gaps as possible between the too, too solid mounds of stuff, making it melt and resolve, vanish and dissipate and evaporate. Balancing along, seeing what it is possible to drop, to relinquish, to pass on and leave behind. Imagining and shaping a life like the Cheshire cat, slowly vanishing, leaving nothing but a grin. Or a half-remembered perfume, or the snatch of a tune.
“Where my caravan has rested, flowers I leave you on the grass.” Gipsy patrin – the ephemeral leavings that show the way to those who can read them and are on the same route. Something and nothing, a handful of leaves and grass; it’s all we are.