Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Much comes from nothing



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.




19 comments:

gretchen said...

love the cheshire cat image, slowly fading into nothingness . . . as i get older, i sense my life becoming smaller, fewer activities, a tiny circle of dear friends, staying close to home, simple meals, simple life. it's quite lovely. no regrets. :)

Deborah Jenkins said...

This is beautiful! I love that gipsy saying too and particularly the Cheshire cat analogy and the last lines after that.

Pen Wilcock said...

:0)

xx

Patricia Yandell said...

Nothing to do with your posting but something I thought you might like to know. A friend came to see me today with many, many anger issues...related to disappointments etc. I just listened. Later she texted me and said "A while ago you lent me a book 'The wilderness within you' I have been reading my notes on it and today's reading was about anger, anger because of disappointments!! It really helped me make decisions and thank you for listening...again." Thank you

Pen Wilcock said...

Oh - thank you! It makes me so happy when something I've written has helped.

:0)

xx

Elin Hagberg said...

There is so much pressure on parents sometimes about doing this and that or they may harm their kids. The looks I have gotten when I said no to baby massage, baby swim classes, toddler music and sports for young kids. Some of it was due to money but not everything, I just felt it didn't suit me and/or my kids. I will pay for swim classes when my kids are older because knowing how to swim in Sweden with at least 200 000 lakes (tiny bodies of water and all the rivers, brooks and creeks not counted) is important. At 4 however, a child should never be unattended near water anyway so no classes yet. I also kind of need to know they would be motivated to learn since I would probably not be able to pay for years of lessons.

I agree on stories, we read books and make up stories too. I loved that as a child and still do. I am not the best storyteller but still good enough for my 4 year old to like my stories.

Deborah said...

You should make up more stories...preferably about a couple who live near some monks. You could call them William and Madeline and Madeline could get pregnant...that would be a good story. Now ...you go write it ;-D

Pen Wilcock said...

Elin - oh, stories and songs; so important! My children were lucky to go to a school with a swimming pool. We live on the coast, so it's very wise to learn to swim.

Debs - yes, they are often in the stories in my mind! x

Deborah said...

Go write them then...I'm in withdrawl and I need a fix :-D

Pen Wilcock said...

:0D

I don't know if I'll ever write another book - but if I do, I'll let you know! x

Deborah said...

*sob* but I neeeeeeeeeed one...*whimper* (flops face down on the ground with a heartfelt sniffle)

Pen Wilcock said...

There, there . . .

Deborah said...

*sniff*... Thanks


;-D

Pen Wilcock said...

:0)

rebecca said...

"..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."

How well said. I think I shall remember these lines for a long, long time.

I rather identify with Gretchen above and actually instead of "having to", I frequently CHOOSE to wait, sit quietly, be by myself...

Pen Wilcock said...

Yes - interesting, isn't it. This does seem to be an emerging theme as we get older - the need for quietness and routine, the need to just be, to contemplate, to live slowly. One-event days, and occasionally no-event days!

Anekha said...

This is a lovely encouragement to me. I am a stay-at-home mum with no money who home schools and home births.... not really that rebellious or unusual or ideological, just choices that feel right. But this is all at a time when the status quo for women my age is all about work, jobs, children in childcare from an early age,economic rationalism, and suspicion of those who move outside the system, punitive measures to 'encourage' participation in institutions, getting something from the government for nothing is taboo.... so basically all my choices render me invisible as a woman. I have no agency and my few engagements with society and other people involve a lot of questioning and having to defend my lifestyle. Which all to often i can't really do because i haven't made choices for those sorts of reasons.
We too were told we shouldn't have kids we can't pay for... but they really don't want my money. They do appreciate my time and attention. Every parent gives what they have and what they can to their kids. All i have is myself. All we have is ourselves and each other and it provides stability and continuity in a changeable tumultuous time.
So my kids have a lot of nothing too! And are rich in their nothingness. I will hold on to that metaphor of the cheshire cat and not let the negative rhetoric of others who don't understand wear me down. While often i am driven to frustration with boredom being locked out of interesting communities and intellectual spheres because i have children i don't want to put away from sight, I do appreciate that I am the only person I know who is not 'busy' and I have time to think and be. I need to treasure my nothingness more I think! Value it for myself as much as for my kids.
One challenge for me right now is that I feel intensely frustrated and overwhelmed by the burden of other people's extraneousness. I find that that I feel the complexity of other people's lives being foisted on me in what I feel should be simple little interactions and tasks. I spent a few minutes with a lady at the supermarket in a moment of complete bafflement trying to understand why buying butter has become so complicated! We both felt it should not require quite so much time, knowledge and thought to just buy plain butter in the complex milieu of butter products and 'choices'!
I also find because I am not the 'main person' (oh yes I know exactly what you mean...) and I am not busy, I am often left with all the tedious tasks that everybody is too busy and important to do. It's challenging to be respected for my choices and allowed to enjoy my free time without it being inundated with tedious menial tasks I actually don't enjoy or want to do. I am trying to find peace in having to spend time doing things to maintain the status quo that I don't feel are important. Like lawn mowing more often than I would so the neighbours don't report me to the real estate..... It does NOT feel so free and simple when I have to struggle so much to live according to my wishes. But it's a work in progress.

Anekha said...

I have been pondering on this all day and another challenge to living life at a slower pace and a simpler way is I find that others don't place the importance on the simpler things that I do.... this can sometimes lead to me feeling very disappointed when something small and simple that I was looking forward to and that was the highlight of my week doesn't work out. It's something I need to work on, and my husband tries to point out that by elevating the occasion to such importance I set myself up for disappointment. But I feel simple things should be important so I struggle to find the right way to see it.
Because I end up being the only person committed to something or that cares, I am the only one let down if things fall through at the last minute. It happens so often too!
I am the only one disappointed as in the whirlwind of most people's lives, missing a social engagement, cancelling at the last minute etc.... just doesn't matter as there is just so much other stuff going on. I may have chosen to spend time with someone as my one activity of the day because I feel they matter and want to give them the time I feel they deserve, but that doesn't mean they feel the same way. I might have planned my month to go to a particular workshop or event and looked forward to it, but the organisers may not think its worth the commitment and may not bother to show up. I feel so lonely in life even though I have friends.... I have friends I just never see. They just don't have the time. My friendship seems to be more of a burden on their time than a pleasure in that context.

Pen Wilcock said...

Hello, Anekha - how lovely to hear from you!

Thanks for such interesting thoughts. Yes, I too find that small things become important in a simple life - I'm sometimes embarrassed what a highlight meals are in a day! And the complexity (like your experience with butter in the supermarket) creeps up on us insidiously. I notice it in the numbers I have to remember for banking and other access systems, and the passwords; also being patient with machines.

In some ways the internet has immensely supported simplicity choices - being able to work from home, staying in touch on a small income, mail-order shopping - but in other ways it has invited the whole world with all its complexity into my life.