Magical childhood on a shoestring

When my children were small, it seemed as if their father invested all his spare resources into making their childhood magical. Never mind that we were broke and living in a rough council estate up north, amongst neighbours who were unemployed and stole our things, who got drunk and beat up their wives, or the police vans coming over regularly to take folks in the Barlow Hall Estate away for various drugs offences, petty thievery and other crimes. He built a magical home for our young family in the crime-ridden estate: our backyard was filled with adventures (and with rabbits with names such as Nitty-Fritti and Alvin Perry).

Our holidays were all about going home to their grandparents’ houses to be spoilt, because we couldn’t afford anything else. But grandparents’ houses are magical because grandparents are. Those long summers were the highlight of our annual calendar when the children were young – endless days of being on the beach with their cousins, eating nanny’s cakes, exciting uncles and endless cuddles.

But life was magical almost on a daily basis, not just the summers. When it snowed, he would take our kids up Headington Hill in Oxford to toboggan down the snowy slopes. He made those toboggans out of pieces of wood and they were the best.

Yes, my children’s father succeeded in giving them a magical childhood on a shoestring. He did not earn much in those days; I was on a student grant as an undergraduate at Manchester University, and later, a full academic scholarship at Oxford. Money was never abundant in our household, but never mind, we didn’t need much. Daddy wasn’t good at making money, but he was darn good at being a magical Daddy.

This Christmas advertisement from John Lewis reminded me of those days. He used to say to the kids, “Let’s go fox-hunting”. It’s a gentle jibe at me, for his version of ‘fox-hunting’ was arming the kids with torches and telling them, “We’re going for an adventure!” And they would walk the dark neighbourhood alleys at night, looking for urban foxes with their search lights. For small children, it was a very big adventure indeed.

My children are indeed blessed to have a father like theirs, and I am so very grateful for the privilege of being a part of this beautiful family life for 30 years. I see the magic of childhood in my children’s eyes and the love that their father had so tirelessly put into their hearts and souls over the years. They are the physical embodiment of his love and magic, of days like this:

The things you don’t say…

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My father took this photograph of me in October 2015. I remember it was a beautiful morning at home. We were staying in my parents’s house for a week or two, and had just come back from the Farmers Market in the town square. I had bought these organic curly kale.

Yet he harassed my Ma. “There’s something not right.”

I was outwardly normal but my Daddy knew that deep down, there was another picture. He and I fought viciously but he loves me very deeply, and with the depth of that love he has for me, he felt rather than heard. I was, and will always be, his little girl. My mind, body and heart were sick, and he knew. We sometimes communicate best when we say nothing at all, because we fight each time we use words.

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My normally docile Ma fought with him and ordered him to hold his tongue. My Ma with her infinite wisdom. “It shall come to pass”, she knew. Though she admitted it was difficult for her. She said she just trusted in a God that she does not believe in, but one that I believed in with all my heart.

In the mysterious way the world works, I went down to the depths of hell and arose again. I had six of the happiest months of my life. Just compare the photographs from October to April. The years and the cares fell off my as I live my best life. My partner says he could power a generator with my smile though he remembers a different me from November 2015 so very clearly.

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So my point is, be happy. Especially if you are a parent. That is the subject of my parenting book. Because if you are not happy and content, your kids will sense it (like my father sensing my true feelings). And that is nothing more damaging than that, even if you provide your child with good food and good house.

Here’s a cheesy song: When you say nothing at all

 

Parenting is an attitude

Parenting is an attitude, not a biological function.

In my book, Easy Parenting For All Ages, I wrote that parenting should never be considered a sacrifice.  Rather, it is a compromise.

If like me, you came into parenting high on idealism and realised that ouch, it costs a lot in terms of your personal ambition, energy and resources, the biggest mistake you could make it see parenting as a sacrifice. The “I could have done that if I didn’t have you” mindset breeds resentment which is not a healthy environment for children to grow up in with that burden to bear. And as I am fond of saying, it only takes ONE parent to screw children up.

I was shocked to realise that even with one child, my carefree hedonistic life and burning ambition was over. My friends went off for exciting gap years or to university whilst I stayed behind working in my local hospital lab which was kind enough to take me on. Later, when I finally started university (by then pregnant with my third child), I realised that my student life was so different from my friends’. They were talking about cool bands and cheap beer in the student union, I was too exhausted with exams, assignments, project, house cleaning, cooking, childminding and part-time job. Of course resentment crept in.

But my children’s father was always joyful. He the reluctant father. And therein lies in our successful parenting story – he had always been genuinely happy to be nothing more than a parent. Yet he had to sell his boats. Yet he had to move 250 miles north to Manchester away from his mates and sailing in the south coast. He took up fell running in the stunning Peak District instead, which he learned to love. He began loving the northern mountain town of Kettleshulme. He made new friends.

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His happy state of mind is infectious. I woke up then to the fact that life now for me was better than it could have been despite our financial hardship, challenges and being away from my family and friends in Hampshire. So parenting wasn’t a sacrifice though I could not live the life I envisaged. It was a compromise. Some would say, it was a better life with my large brood of small children with their father’s trademark chuckle and the silly “Are we having fun yet?” family mantra.

Thirty years later, he still has the same attitude. Parenting is not a sacrifice. Here we were a few Saturdays ago, in my daughter’s empty school during the school holidays, patiently waiting for her as he decided she needed to go into school to do her project. There were other things we could have done instead of sitting in an empty classroom on a glorious Saturday morning in Phuket, but spending that time with her was a good compromise. It is the best thing we have ever done, to be parents to her and her siblings ❤

Parenting is Work, Work, Work

Last week was the celebration of St Joseph, The Worker.

As I sat in church, half-listening to the priest, I wondered what St. Joseph had ever done to deserve this great honour that lasted over 2,000 years. The Worker? It wasn’t as if he built roads or led armies to war. He didn’t do all that much. He didn’t even preach. Not much was written about him in the Bible.

Then I thought back to the biblical tale of the boy Jesus who got lost in the temple. At that moment when He was found, Joseph was a better parent than Mary. It takes a lot to be a good father, I realised.

The most difficult thing is resting the “I” in order to be able to rise to the role of being a parent. A parent is a safe haven, fair judge, tireless servant, kind heart and pair of loving arms. To fulfil all those important roles would require a serious reallocation of priorities, intentions and energies. It is a BIG job. Some would say it is the biggest and most important job you will ever do.

My children’s father did not consciously choose to become a father. He was in his twenties when it was forced on him. He was having the time of his life, why would someone what to change the rules when the going is good? And the going was indeed good for this happy chap from South East London. He was sharing a small house with another bachelor in my hometown, had three sailing dinghies and did what he wanted with his life. He was planning to move to Paris. He certainly did not jump for joy at impending fatherhood. But he had such a magical and beautiful childhood that he automatically, unconsciously, created that sweet, happy space when the honour was bestowed on him. It was as if he could not be anything else but the parent his were.

I, on the other hand, liked the idea of motherhood, largely due to teenage idealism, but then realised very quickly that it required life-changing sacrifices. My life was no longer my own. I couldn’t even afford to go to the University of my choice, because there was no affordable childcare. I wasn’t raise to be a worker, I was raised to be a princess by my adoring mum. It was a shock to my system. That resentment could have lasted for years, blighting my children’s childhood. There is nothing more damaging than a resentful mum, because resentment breeds discontentment, impatience and unkindness.

But fortunately, with investment from my Ma and my in-laws, the resentment did not take root.

Slowly, with humour, warmth, kindness, love and tough love (from my in-laws), I found my way to a different life than the one I envisaged. Some would say it is a better life. Parenting is not a sacrifice, but a compromise. I had to work harder, I had to work longer, just to keep up, to stay afloat. I didn’t have any time for myself, and I no longer owned my own life. But I had little people who looked at me with adoration in their eyes and a man who laughed uproariously with them. We had a crazy-busy life, with me trying to juggle University exams and part-time work, but our life was sweet. Slowly, I learned that compromise is beautiful when those chubby baby-arms and starfish fingers wrap themselves round me like octopi.

I no longer missed what could have beens and found great contentment in what I have. It wasn’t the life I planned for myself, to be cleaning the bathroom on my one day off and working in minimum-wage menial jobs to pay the bills, but the rewards were huge. It was then I became a Worker, with gladness in my heart.

Work is love made visible. And if you can’t work with love, but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of the people who work with joy.

Kahlil Gibran, Artist, poet and writer

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Parenting is EASY

I think the most significant thing I have done in recent months is getting my parenting philosophy into the lives of so many parents who downloaded my book on Kindle in such great numbers that my book, Easy Parenting For All Ages, ended up on the coveted #3 spot in the Parenting genre.

But is it false advertising? Can parenting ever be easy?

I read some of the comments that popped up in forums: “She has five kids, it gets easier the more kids you have”, “She is rich, she has maids to look after her children”, “Her kids have good genes.”

Not so. (i) Parenting got easier once I sussed out what I was doing (note: I have a child on the autism spectrum) (ii) I had no maids, no cleaners and no parents helping me when I was a penniless student at University 250 miles from home and (iii) my kids are mischievous, all of them are so different from one another, but the parenting philosophy is the same.

Well, straight from the horses mouth, it is easy because there are two principles to sort out first and foremost when it comes to parenting, and then everything flows:

The First Principle

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The Second Principle

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Simple as that. My children’s father came from a very happy household and he sussed that out early. We all need to be happy even when life was tough.  This was why he focused a lot of his energy on getting us all laughing, especially me, instead of earning more money. I was a spoilt and uptight little cow and he sorted me out.

If the energy of the woman isn’t right, the household isn’t right.

Without sounding sexist, mothers have a huge potential to damage children because our voice is the house that our children live in. It is by far the loudest voice our children hear, even in adulthood. How we speak to our children become their inner voice.

Without a mother who is contented with her role, happy with where she is, feels supported and is accepting of her path (imperfections and all), the household is rudderless and not peaceful, however big or however rich. Granted, it is difficult in the real world to be happy-clappy all the time, but I strongly believe that if we hold on to these two basic principles, then we go a long way already towards raising happy, strong and balanced children.

I do have some stresses in my life at the moment, but I often remind myself to maintain a sense of equanimity and normality for the sake of my household, and hence, my daughter. The best I can give her is this.

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The journey, not the destination

I don’t think there are any parents out there who deliberately set out to damage their own children, but because we have been damaged ourselves by our own childhoods and because society influences us to raise externally successful children, we unwittingly set those destructive wheels in motion.

Life is tough enough in the real world for adults without carrying emotional scars.

I am so blessed that my mother is a daughter of a humble fisherman, and she had no ambitions beyond raising happy, kind children. I am sure it frustrated my high-achiever father a lot. But when I failed my entrance exams to get into highly ranked private high schools, all my mother would say with her usual big smile was “Oh never mind, dearie.” Those years at home with my mother were always sweet; everyday was beautiful.

In time, I got into Oxford on full scholarship.

Ditto my mother-in-law. She was a cleaner, her mother was an immigrant who spoke little English. My mother-in-law didn’t have much ambition for my children’s father other than be a decent family man and raise a good family.

Did we lose out focusing on the journey rather than the destination and outward signs of success? No. Not in the slightest. We have built a lovely big family, which is our legacy of love.

Love is strong and kind

In my book-to-be, Catching Infinity, I wrote that life clusters around Zero and Infinity. When I first wrote that sentence several months ago, it was solely from a theoretical perspective. The female protagonist, Alice Liddell from Alice in Wonderland, now twenty years old and a postgraduate at Oxford, wanted to experience the breadth and depth of human emotions to root herself to this world.

Because for what purpose is life and the human body, if not to experience?

Do we just die, having left an enormous carbon footprint, with our life stories being remembered and talked about for one or two generations, three if we lead big, eventful lives? Or is life starker than that, namely human existence is merely about fulfilling biological determinism by passing on our DNA, creating a larger gene pool?

 I recently faced a serious health issue, which of course brought Infinity right up close and personal. There was this mad rush, this swirling chaos, all revolving round my unfulfilled dreams, two more babies yet to be born, a renewed vow to live a more meaningful life, to make every single day count, and yes, to experience the breadth and depth of human emotions NOW, should Infinity choose to absorb me before the year ends.

When the years and decades that I thought were mine by right were suddenly condensed into minutes, hours, days and weeks, my inner life suddenly becomes the event horizon of my own personal Black Hole. Black Holes, which used to be the most exciting thing in the Universe to me, suddenly became ‘not nice at all’.  Even light cannot escape its gravitational pull; in a Black Hole, everything will be gone, erased, scrambled. I was supposed to be getting married next week. How could I reconcile that beautiful, much dreamt-of occasion with what I am going through now, too sick to walk up the stairs? I don’t see myself when I look at the reflection that now stares back at me. In the short space of a mere two weeks, the woman that I had been was decoded into bytes and bits in a hologram-like Universe.

But in the case of life mirroring fiction, I wrote that order and chaos are not diametrical opposites. In Catching Infinity, the second female protagonist Karin Van Achterberg had to cope with her husband’s tumultuous mind in the aftermath of Alice’s destruction. But she, The Wife, found beauty and order beneath the chaos, because chaotic systems are an inseparable mix of the two. From the outside they display unpredictable and wildly random behaviour, ugliness even, but expose the inner workings and you will discover a perfectly deterministic set of equations ticking like clockwork to the steady beat of Love. Yes, according to Chaos Theory, there is an underlying order beneath it all.  It’s just that we don’t often have the wisdom or the peace of mind to see it.

Thus, I took myself and my chaotic mind off to church to fathom the underlying order when my life was spinning off tangent. Church for me is Westminster Cathedral, the bastion of Roman Catholicism in the United Kingdom.

He, on the other hand, is anti organised religion, believing instead in a myriad of Hindu philosophies and long-dead Eastern sages. He often commented – only half-joking, I’m sure – that he has to do the Sudarshan Kriya and invoke the protection of Lord Krishna each time before he steps through the doors of Westminster Cathedral. But he, who gets woken up when I can’t breathe at night or when I am just being a drama queen, has been sitting in Westminster Cathedral with me stoically as I prayed my heart out.

“Do I terrify you?” I asked.

‘Naw, but your church does, Jac. It gives me the beebeejeebies just sitting here.  But I pray with you, to your God, in your language.”

“Don’t,” I replied.  “Don’t compromise your own beliefs for mine, or you’ll lose the sense of who you are. And right now, more than ever, I need you to be strong for me.”

“Jac,” he began patiently.  “Beliefs, ideologies and even principles are just a set of rules to guide us by as we muddle our way through life. They are just ideals. They do not maketh us.  Love maketh us. It does not make me less of a man to yield to you sometimes, Jac.” He paused.  “Because I dare to. I have no fear because Love guides me.”

Being a mother of five, I resonated very deeply with his words. All too often we bring our children, especially our sons, up to be strong. We instill in them our values, our morals, our beliefs, and send them out to the world with siege mentality, to win, win, win, to be successful rather than to be of value to humanity. We prize success because in some perverse way, successful children are our justification as parents, our bragging rights to other relatives, neighbours and friends in our twilight years.

Yield is not a word in many parenting vocabularies, so over-written those vocabularies are by the word ‘success’.  We don’t teach our children to yield – there is something shameful even in yielding because it is mistakenly associated with weakness and relinquishing control – but yielding is oh, so important, because if we don’t yield, we break. Put this in ‘real’ terms: some of the tallest buildings in the world are built to sway in the direction of the wind before righting itself when the moment passes.  It takes an extremely strong person to put aside those childhood ideals, to be vulnerable even, to have the courage to go where life leads instead of clutching fearfully to old structures that stop us living meaningful lives. If life is not lived joyously, consciously and freely each day, for what purpose is life? The answer is in Catching Infinity, of course – big smile.

 

 

 

 

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Emotional Health, Not Academic Obsession

When I wrote my book, Barefoot in the City, I put down the heart of my ethos and philosophy for raising children. With the exception of my eldest child, my four children were schooled in the British system, both at home in the UK and at international schools in Asia. For me, with the benefit of hindsight, the greatest thing about the British education system is that it allows me the flexibility to affect my child’s learning. Its creative syllabus and passionate teachers also play a large role in inspiring my children to be internally motivated, intellectually curious and great orators.

However, though I am appreciative of the British education system and what it has done for my children, in truth, I am a passionate advocate of the Waldorf education philosophy. Simply because I believe in the Dalai Lama’s saying that ‘the planet does not need more successful people’.

“The planet does not need more ‘successful people’. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds. It needs people to live well in their places. It needs people with moral courage willing to join the struggle to make the world habitable and humane and these qualities have little to do with success as our culture is the set.” -Dalai Lama

There are some really lovely parents in Asia, not only the fabled Tiger Mums. Haslinda Halim from Malaysia is one, and she gives me hope.

Yesterday, Haslinda simplified our shared philosophy in a nutshell:

1. 0-7yo focus on hands and good things
2. 7-14yo focus on heart and beautiful things
3. 14-21yo focus on the head and the truth

 

1. 0-7yo focus on hands and good things

It’s no secret: my children are late readers. I could never understand the mad rush to get children reading way before they are ready to. My belief is that the focus during the early years should be spent entirely on teaching children about their relationship to the world they live in. This relationship can only be learned by doing and exploring and discovering, not from books or by instructions. The 24 hours in a day is barely enough, given that the world is such a big, magical place.

Young children need to learn that they have eyes, ears, nose and skin that enable them to interact with their world, cultivating an early system of emotional intelligence. Young children need to learn to use their hands too, because it teaches them empowerment. Our little people all could cook, garden, knit, build things. By doing all these, a child feels rooted and develops a clear sense of self, which will help him relate to his world and others around him.

If you feed a child with good things, she will radiate good things. Georgina refuses to read as a child. Rather than getting angry with her and forcing her to read, her father patiently spent years reading to her every night. He read pony stories, he read fairy stories and he read teenage stories. It became their special time at the end of each day, something to look forward to, cuddling up together with a book, these bedtime stories were magical.

English remains her weakest subject because she does not have an affinity for the written word. But she brings such a breadth and depth of insight to the language. For example, she asked us to correlate between the words parent, participant and participle.

The other beneficial thing to emerge from the ‘hands and good things’ phase is that all my children are very confident physically. They have spent much of their childhood naked outdoors, climbing in the Alps, in sunny meadows somewhere, scrambling over rock pools, jumping on cowpats and playing a million outdoor games. I simply love Georgina’s physicality, the way she charges at the world with her arms outstretched, eager to meet the new challenges each day, secure in the knowledge that she is empowered, in control and happy with her place in the world. That’s what her first seven years of life had given her.
2. 7-14yo focus on heart and beautiful things

I take ‘giftedness’ in children with a large pinch of salt, because my fundamental belief is that all children are gifted. And gifted or not gifted, children still have to develop the same skillset to function happily in this world, to be contributing adults that the Dalai Lama and our inner wisdom speak of.

Two of my five children are mathematically gifted, but they are schooled alongside ‘lesser children’ (I say that with tongue-in-cheek). I nurture their gift, but I choose to nurture the hearts more, because a good heart is the platform for the gift to sit on and serve. It is easy to cosset Georgina and buy into the belief that I have a young Einstein, but instead, she learned mathematics from another enthusiastic mathematician Gary Macaulay, her father’s buddy, in pubs, making tetrahexaflaxagon models out of beer mats and loose sheets of paper (try it). No, she does not get special treatment because she can ‘see’ maths.

Georgina does not need our help when it comes to schoolwork, but we subversively entwined ourselves in history, English, maths, business studies, science and the other subjects that she studies. The reason is not to help her achieve better grades – because she is already top of the class for many subjects – but to weave heart and values into those subjects. After all, we must never lose sight of the fact that the real value of learning those subjects is simply as a guide to help us understand ourselves and our world more, and to learn how we can make the world a better place. So onwards with the First World War, company valuation models, chambers of the heart and tetrahexaflaxagons. They are beautiful, if they are learned with beauty in the heart rather than blinkered goal of getting 100%.
3. 14-21yo focus on the head and the truth

Entering this phase, Georgina is beginning to ask us difficult questions, which some parents would consider ‘rude’. (That is the beloved trick of Asian parents, to chide a child for being rude to get out of answering difficult questions or facing uncomfortable subjects). But the fact is, Georgina just wants to delve into ‘the truth’, and at 14, her tentacles are fully extended to gather information to aid her cognition of ‘the truth’ and find her own version of it.

But as we know, truth is subjective.

For example, I believe that primary healthcare should never be in private hands. I also believe that the UK has a weak government at the moment. I believe in many things, which are not necessarily right. I would never influence a child to vote for the same political party as me. Thus it takes a whole village to raise a child, to give her a balanced view of the world to enable her to find her own place in it. We are grateful for the villagers who help us to raise our child. In this month alone, during our long car drive to school, we discussed the possibility that vegetarianism could be unkind to some animals (loss of habitat, etc), the existence of other intelligence in the Universe, creative accounting practices and UK job conditions.

Without exception, my children are all great at provoking, challenging and defending viewpoints on a wide breadth of subjects, and have never been hesitant in voicing their opinions or engaging people in debate from our road-less-travelled parenting ethos.

I have raised an investment banker, a Naval officer, an interior designer and a property developer. The biggest triumph for their father and I, however, is not that we have raised successful professionals; rather, we are imbued with deep joy at the loveliness of our children in the way they care for their grandparents, the manner in which they love each other, their inherent happiness and their commitment to the values that we have brought them up with. I am glad there is now an academic study by London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance to give credence to my deep personal beliefs that a child’s emotional health is far more important to their satisfaction levels as an adult than other factors. You can read more on Professor Lord Richard Layard’s work here: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/_new/research/wellbeing/

Finding Their Own Way

Religion is actually a very beautiful philosophy. It is sad that these days, the world is so polarised, over-sensitised, fearful, filled with irrational hatred and cowed by political correctness when it comes to religion. I had to think twice before writing this, so conditioned am I into thinking that the r-word is a tinderbox that could incite a large, destructive flame.

My view is that it is a personal journey, a private choice and a joyful way to be. Religion has killed loads, but it should not be buried any more than cars, sleeping pills and guns should be eradicated. It is the darkness of men’s hearts that brings about the destruction over the centuries, not something as simple and private as religion.

It all goes wrong when we try to enforce our own interpretation of what we think religion is. I often have pious churchgoers correcting me, believing with close hearts that their views are right, and mine wrong. Wasn’t that what killed the millions? A book read with 10 different eyes will yield 10 different perspectives; a sermon heard by 10 different ears will hear 10 different messages. We each have to find our own truths.

My mother-in-law knew me when I was a spoilt teenager. She expected much of me, she was tough on me and she did not tolerate my nonsense which my indulgent parents thought was cute. It was non-negotiable where my mother-in-law was concerned that I had to learn how to cook and clean, and care for her son and her grandchildren. I did not think it was that important to clean behind the refrigerator a week after my son was born, but my mother-in-law chided me for my lack of hygiene which she believed stem from my fundamental laziness.

“How would your baby survive?” she said with a shake of her head.

Fine. Point taken. Cleanliness is next to godliness. But learning how to sew? Apparently, that was in the must-have toolkit in my mother-in-law’s view.

However, she never expected me to follow her religion. She naturally assumed I was a heathen, since I had a laissez faire attitude towards going to church at that time, and I was someone who consented to a one-night stand with her son whilst I was already promised to another.

She just went about her way, taking the grandchildren to church.

And that was how my children were brought up. Catechism classes and Catholic schools. Baptisms, Holy Communions, Confirmations. The four older ones grew up beautifully, blessed with an inner grace even when they were at their worse.

But my youngest, Georgina, she fights it.

We persevered. She fought our implacability with anger, and we did something we would never ever thought we would do: we made deals with her. If you go to Sunday school and the church service later, we’ll go swimming. We’ll buy you this. We’ll allow you to have a fizzy drink (she was not allowed them). It was bad parenting, because after all, isn’t parenting about enforcing laws and forcing children to follow the ‘right’ path?

But if we had done that, we would have ended on the same track as the zealots who believe “I am right and you are wrong”, or “my God is greater than yours”. When it comes to religion, our sole aim is to give the children the foundation to make their own choices. we flood G and her older siblings with prayers, love and the light of the church. In time, they will follow the path, because parents’ faith is like a candle in their children’s lives. It doesn’t require force, but grace in how we lead our lives as parents.

G is still a long way off from being a devout Catholic. But then, I wasn’t, until I loved my mother-in-law and saw the beauty and grace in her ways.

This child of mine “loses” her rosaries. Intentionally, I think. But we never scolded her. Instead, we buy her beautiful ones every time we visit a holy place.

“I already have ten,” she would say stormily.

“Ah well, keep this one in your school bag then,” we would answer. ‘Or your pencil case. Or football kit. Who knows when you will need it, eh?”

We go to church. I hold her father’s hand during the prayer. I feel the electricity of his fingers. Almost thirty years of history in his touch. I know G feels it too, though she glares defiantly at the priest.

“Why are you praying so hard?” she demands. “What are you asking God to give you?”

“Nothing,” I answer her. ‘I make it a point to ask God for nothing.”

“You are praying for my brother’s safe return from the Middle East,” she says. ‘You are asking God to spare his life.”

“No, Kit is a good Catholic. He can pray for himself. He does not need his mother to pray for him.”

“And then?” she insists.

I give her the answer. “I pray for your grandmother, G. She who taught me to love God. She who prayed for us all. I pray for her, because she is unable to pray for herself now.” (My mother-in-law has advanced Alzheimer’s and no longer functions).

Her eyes grow wet. Love will bring her to the light. With softness.

And for me, this is religion, the realisation that there is something beyond the narrow confines of the self, beyond the here and now, and a pure love that goes on and on, through the family, by the grace of God.

communion

 

So You Want To Be A Parent?

My mother is a ‘ground-up’ type of person. She is like an iceberg. What you see is merely the tip, a lot goes on beneath the waterline to solidify the top that you see. She is a firm believer of substance, not form.

Thus, my mother had always taught me that I had to learn to love cooking before becoming a mum. Not merely to learn to cook, but to learn to love cooking. Her rationale is learning to love cooking is not merely about putting food on the table, but cultivating a mindset where there is a genuine desire to nurture and care for another human being.

“Saying ‘I love you’ is easy. We can say it without too much effort, without any sacrifice,” she would say. “But at the most basic level, feeding someone with the food that you have prepared with your hands and heart speaks more meaningfully.”

My mother made a lot of comfort food, especially in the winter months. I complained about her tendency to over-cook. I chided her for using too much cream, too much cheese and too much butter. But I fly home like a homing pigeon to her sunny kitchen in Portsmouth, Hampshire, lured by sweet memories of sitting here in her kitchen, doing my homework, waiting for her simple food to be served.

My mother’s food healed me, and slowly, as I grew into a young woman, I grew to love cooking, though it was not an intuitive thing for me to do. I was a physical, outdoorsy person, impatient and driven. Spending time in the kitchen was definitely not on my agenda. In my youth, I have always felt I had more important things to do in life than the menial task of cooking.

But slowly, there was a shift in my paradigm as I understood my mum’s philosophy. It doesn’t have to be cordon bleu. It doesn’t have to be show-off food. It can simply be a bowl of creamy mashed potatoes; it can be a piping hot bowl of spaghetti. It can be hearty soup made from leftovers. It is just something that you have dedicated your time to giving someone; it is the embodiment of your intention to care for another person’s wellbeing. It is like giving your energy to nurture someone else without the grand gestures or easy words.

When I lived in Jakarta, a man called Antonio Castellano cooked for me. He wasn’t a professional cook, but a management consultant working for McKinsey & Company. His specialisation is the global energy industry, but he has an Uncle Sal who sends him Sicilian recipes from home. Unusual food that you couldn’t get in an Italian restaurant in Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, or probably anywhere in Europe for that matter, except perhaps in Sicily. Spaghetti coated in anchovy oil and breadcrumbs, sprinkled with capers. I watched him cook for me, this diminutive blue-eyed Italian, and I finally understood the power of my mother’s philosophy. I rather think I fell in love a little, just a little, for this is the first time a man has ever cooked for me.

I saw the beauty of food cooked with love through Antonio’s giving. I morphed into someone who genuinely loves cooking. I began to smile and hum whenever I cooked. And in my late thirties, I went back to my mother to tell her that I finally understood what she meant about a love for cooking. I had met someone who showed me his love in this deep, honourable and beautiful way.

But my mother, she said, “You have to love gardening, if you want to genuinely love cooking.”

I disliked gardening, though I have put in the hours as a teenager.

“Gardening is like raising children, Jack,” she said to me. “You nurture a plant, watch it grow, and be pleasantly surprised by it each day. There is something to love about your plant each day. And most of all, it teaches you patience and acceptance.”

“I don’t see what it has to do with cooking,” I said sulkily.

And my mother told me. Cooking is not about what you put on the table. The process starts long before coming to the stove. It is about feeling Nature, and being thankful for what we have been so abundantly blessed with. It is not a science, but a primal emotion. If we can translate that thankfulness into the food we cook, we create family consciousness.

“I don’t know why cooking schools start with the fancy stuff,” my mother mused. “It should all be about going to the garden, smelling the herbs, tasting the fruits, being familiar with the earth first. Not knives and pots and pans.”

“Ma, I buy organic food,” I sulked, as I dug the earth this summer at the vegetable patch. “It’s good enough.”

“Oh, Jack, put more energy into your digging!” She laughed gaily at me, watching me with love in her eyes. “We need good soil for the new plant we bought.”

I frowned and sulked. She came to stand by me. “You need to get to the soil on the lower layers. “

With some difficulty, she knelt on the flowerbed beside me, and took the small spade from my hand. She began digging energetically, scooping the earth from the lower layers into the flowerpot.

“Jack, this is like parenting and grandparenting. We, the parents and grandparents, are the top layer. We have had our time. But the layers beneath, that’s where all the top layer’s nutrients have leached down to. We want that layer, because that’s the best of us. See?”

I looked at her in amazement. Yes! That is the true gist of parenting – we pass our goodness down to the next layer, protecting it, nurturing it, for it is our continuity, our immortality. From here to the kitchen table, the circle of life. It’s all related, in a magical way. Thank you, Ma, thank you.

“And Jack, no short cuts,” my mother said with a small smile that carried the warmth of the whole sun in it. “Learn to enjoy gardening, love.”

fruits