My children grew up with dogs. At one time we had an Irish wolfhound and a cross-bred collie. The wolfhound, that a dog-breeder astutely described as: “what you’ve got there is a forty-mile-an-hour dog”, eventually moved on to another home when proliferation of children made it hard to keep up with her exercise needs. But she was a sweet dog, a delightful companion. She killed all our chickens except the one who flew away, and from time to time we’d receive reports of her neighbourhood wanderings (the fence was no obstacle to that dog), “I saw your dog last night, drinking someone’s pond.”
One Sunday our family piled into the car to visit Auntie Bean in her bungalow by the beach at Camber Sands. The garden had a ditch around it, in which willows grew in profusion. The dogs weren’t allowed in the house, but were happy to be walked by the sea, then chill out in the car and the garden. I heard a child, passing along the path through the dunes to the sea, saying with excitement and a degree of awe that there was a lion in that garden! That was pretty much what Freya looked like, glimpsed through the willows.
Mary the collie lived with us from the day she was born until the day she died, an intelligent dog.
On one occasion a friend visited with her obnoxious child – as young mothers, you do this, don’t you? You get embroiled with families whose paths you’d not normally cross, to stop you going insane while your babies grow up. I did feel the need to call a halt to my acquaintanceship with this woman because it got to the situation where, on visiting her home, all my four children (littlest not yet born) would scale my body like monkeys climbing a tree, for safety from this child. Enough is enough.
But while we were still in a regular visiting relationship, there came a day when her child plagued the life out of us to let him into the kitchen to see our dog (shut in there to keep her safe from him).
We had a strict rule in our house. When the dog is on her bed, she is to be left undisturbed. A dog must be allowed a place of peace and retreat. Our children respected this. I am not in favour of children being allowed to treat animals as toys, riding them and climbing on them and dressing them up. Ugh. So our dog had been left safely in the kitchen, in the peace of her bed, with the door shut.
But this child went on and on and on – he wanted to see the dog. “Oh, please can he see the dog,” begged his mother. Awkward. I have been brought up with the sort of “Guest is God” attitude that Indians have. I felt obliged to acquiesce.
In surged the child, wielding one of my candles he had appropriated, rushed up to the dog in her bed, and started bashing her on the nose with the candle. To this day her response gives me a feeling of secret joy. Oh, she did it so well. That canny dog – collies are herding dogs, she wouldn’t have harmed a fly – made a growling rush towards him, snapping her little white teeth shut within an inch of his nose. Hahahahaha! Good girl!! He went howling to his mother, who agreed to let me shut the dog in the kitchen again.
Our dog was good at finding places of peace. She liked to sit outside our house in the car – we got emotional notes through the door from well-meaning animal lovers saying they would report us if we dared leave that poor dog in the car any more. In fact, one morning when the whole house was in uproar trying to get everyone out for school in time, she dashed out of the open front door and leapt into the car of a parent who had parked outside to disembark her kids (we lived by the school). And refused to get out. “Car” equaled peace and quiet to that dog.
Well, we had a lot of us to accommodate, five kids born in six years, and we never had much money so we always lived in houses meant for families with two kids, not five. The number of bedrooms a house has relates to the amount of storage, the number of bathrooms and the size of its reception rooms. We went through no end of kitchen tables trying to get the size right – basically, if it was big enough for all our family to sit round, it was too big for the kitchen; if it was right for the kitchen it was too small for the family.
Yet every person who visited would comment on the peace of our home.
In my teens and twenties, I lived and worked and visited in a number of monastic settings (monks and nuns both), and spent a lot of time at the Bruderhof. I am no big fan of the authoritarian credos that govern their lives, but oh my, am I grateful for all that I observed and learned from how they live! They taught me about kindness, silence, forbearance, forgiveness, tolerance, self-discipline, loving candour, unsentimental humble companionship – so much!
I learned the monastic walk – a slow, quiet tread of the whole foot. I remember one time in the London underground, walking along at rush hour behind some Buddhist monks, delight in how the monastic walk took them through the crowd with no need to increase or slacken speed – purposeful, peaceful, calm.
I learned to open and shut doors silently, to notice at the meal table who needed things passing without their having to ask.
I grew up in a quiet, reclusive family – but my family of origin had spacious homes, so withdrawal was easy. In the family I raised, privacy and space had to be obtained by other means.
Partly we did it by rejecting no space as possible living area. I and my children’s father mostly slept on the living room floor, or in a garden shed, or in the attic – not boarded except for the bit we slept on, just a regular roof space accessed by a rickety ladder that didn’t quite reach the hatch. Cupboards can make excellent peace-dens. Bunk beds offer personal space. The garden is a play-room all summer.
Partly we did it by keeping our possessions to a minimum and (up to a point) tidying them away. The less stuff you have the bigger your house gets.
And partly we did it by silence. If the house is quiet, and you have few possessions, then even if your private space is no more than a bunk bed, you have peace. If the house is cluttered and rowdy, your peace and privacy are shredded.
I also learned the trick of doing things at times other people don’t. At university, the students stay up half the night and party hard. I learned how to let my days flow peacefully through their surroundings in a river of peace, by employing the simple tactic of getting up and going to bed early.
Nowadays, I still live in a house where the space has to be shrewdly and intelligently apportioned. Five of us live here. Komorebi is a bolt hole, but this is my personal bedroom nowadays – an ante-room at the top of the stairs to the converted attic which is the Badger’s roost:
Sorry - it's in a bit of a mess! Halfway through making my bed!
I like to be available to my family, so the times I want to be sacrosanct – quiet time, and writing time – I carve out by the simple mechanism of getting up before the household is awake; and before the world wakes up and thinks about making phone calls.
Of the five of us who live here, three are children I raised, training them carefully and perseveringly into the monastic methods of allowing a community setting to be a place of spacious silence and peace. They know how to tread silently, eat silently, breathe silently. They know without knowing they know (if you see what I mean) how to so conduct themselves that their presence obtrudes not one whit into the privacy and peace of another person.
We gather, we talk, we are close – then we disperse to the quiet shells of our various sanctums, each one made infinitely bigger than it might be by minimal possessions and sleeping on the floor.
Ssh. Get up early.