Removing shoes (and fear)

Living without fear

I wrote Barefoot In The City – Raising Happy, Strong Kids whilst living in the middle of a busy city, where the skyline had been replaced by skyscrapers and trees cut down to make way for developments – schools, shopping malls, towering condominium blocks. People who knew this place before ‘progress’ came often talked about the monkeys swinging on the trees and butterflies dancing in the still afternoon air. On weekends when we drove out of the city into the receding rainforest, we used to see families of monkeys migrating, sometimes walking single-file along the sides of the motorway, in search of a new home. Once, we witnessed something rather distressing – a baby monkey had been run over by the savage traffic and its mother was howling in despair whilst trying to retrieve her child’s corpse as juggernauts and cars thundered uncaringly by.

My children’s father stopped the car and risked his life to help the monkey.  Many years on, I still berate him for dicing with death in front of his children.

“It’s precisely because my children were watching that I did what I did,” he said with his usual confidence.

He wanted to show them another way of being, namely one where we are all part of the same existence and are somehow connected to everyone and everything. And crucially, we cannot afford to lose that connection, because it is, quite simply, fundamental to life. Children know this wisdom instinctively – this is why they are fearless until we teach them fear from a misguided and skewed perspective. Behind our concrete walls, metallic cages and certificates of achievements, we live fearful of nature and fearful of our true nature, becoming more and more estranged each year.

Being connected again

When we moved to the city from a sleepy seaside town in southern England, my youngest daughter refused to wear shoes for months. She would insist on going barefooted everywhere (hence the title of my parenting book), to the chagrin of most people. Her father just laughed and rejoiced in his daughter’s fight to walk barefoot in a world peopled by folks wearing shoes. We couldn’t figure this out for the longest time, until a wise person told us that 4-year-old Georgina was struggling to stay connected to nature. He complimented us for not forcing her to go against her inner knowing, because after all, dirty feet can easily be washed clean.

In the light of this understanding, we set out to make our city home as close to nature as we possibly could, and it was the best thing we could do for Georgina. She grew strong and fearless, with compassion and a surprising soft spot for animals and vulnerable beings. Though she claims she can’t swim, she was happy enough as a child to swim for miles out in the Javanese sea without any buoyancy aid and she understood sea life as taught by the visionary Roderick des Tombes, the first of her many life teachers. We realised that indeed, she couldn’t swim in the school swimming pool, but she was fine in the open ocean. I think she has the ocean and the earth and the stars within her, even though she now lives in grey and concrete south London.

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Last Sunday, at a convention held at the University of Greenwich, London, I listened to a Cree woman from Canada speak about her people. “My people are very sick,” were the words she began her lecture with. She talked about the sickness of her people that came from losing their connection to the land as they became a marginalised population, pushed out by ‘civilisation’. Jazmin Pirozek is an ethnobotanist and had studied phytochemistry, amongst her many deeply spiritual, mystical learnings. She travelled far, to the depths of South America, to find a cure for her people. There, she met her teacher, Juan Flores Salazaar, who taught her many things about healing.

This is Jazmin’s story:

The Legend of Miskwedo

Once upon a time, there were two brothers. Their parents were killed during the Great Migration and they only had each other. One day, because they were hungry, the younger brother ran with abandon into a field of amanita that people were fearful of. To the older brother’s horror, the younger brother began changing form – he was slowly changing into an amanita.

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The older brother sought help from the villagers, who told him that to change his younger brother back into a boy again, he (the older brother) had to gather some special sand and put it in a deerskin pouch. And then he had to get three eagle feathers from the largest eagle (known as thunderbird, because it was so huge and fearsome). The thunderbird’s nest was perched on the branches of the highest tree, and the base of the tree was a minefield of vicious stinging nettles. But for the love of his younger brother, the older brother completed his herculean tasks and restored his younger brother back into his boy form.

One night, in the middle of the night, the older brother woke up and discovered that his younger brother was not in the wigwam. In panic, he rushed out and looked for his younger brother. He finally found his younger brother in the middle of a field covered with amanita. His younger brother had one hand on the amanita and slowly changing form again. And as he was changing form, he was speaking to a large gathering of people.

“I am happy,” he said.

(Note: this is a brief retelling of Jazmin’s magical tale. You can get the full version here:

The field of amanita

In The Legend of Miskwedo, the field of amanita was described so beautifully, “handsome wajashkwedeg they were – turning and revolving, buzzing and murmuring, singing a strange song of happiness under the brilliantly sunny sky”.

We dream of finding such a field as we carry on with our daily lives. “It does not exist,” we tell ourselves, not daring to believe in the improbable.

But let me share a secret with you – pieces of this field do exist in yourworld. You only have to open your eyes and rid the fear in your heart to see it, the true nature of the universe in every grain of sand.


Photo: The beauty of small things, Singapore 2016


Photo: Teaching the next generation about the world we live in – edible plants, London 2017

About Jazmin:

Photo of amanita mascara: public domain image Albin Schmalfuß Führer für Pilzfreunde : die am häufigsten vorkommenden essbaren, verdächtigen und giftigen Pilze / von Edmund Michael ; mit 68 Pilzgruppen, nach der Natur von A. Schmalfuss [1]

Main photo: author’s copyright Phuket 2018

How to cuddle your teens (and grown-up children)

I fight with my 17-year-old.  “Hellcats, both of you,” her father says in exasperation.  We fight about everything, like two feral cats in a paper bag, in her father’s colourful terminology.

Yet I hold her close always. I mean physically close. Especially when words fail me. Our physical closeness nullifies our meaningless fights:  immediately after a shouting match, she would huff at me and tell me I am annoying, but with that slant of a smile in her eyes, building up to a hug that makes everything better between us once again. I will worry the night she goes to sleep without hugging or touching me, or if I could not kiss her cheek, her hair, and feel her melt into me.

I notice this is an oddity, even in Western cultures, to be always touching and hugging one’s teenage child. Those who spout attachment parenting in early years are surprisingly non-tactile to their teens.  My psychologist friend tells me that there is this belief that the teenage years is about “individuating” a child, that is to say, force them to become self-sufficient.

‘Ah,” I said. “Be tough to a child in order to raise a tough adult who will be successful in a tough world.” I understood. I have seen, first hand, the destructive effect of the mindset that values self-sufficiency and independence above all.  I knew one woman who sneered at me, “You still run home to your parents, at your age?” She left her parents as soon as she could, never looked back and I suspect, she would not allow her son the luxury of this “weakness” of coming home to the family, of asking for softness. The son, a qualified pilot, is handsome, healthy and outwardly successful, but he is beset with something inside that made him break off a two year engagement because of fear of commitment rather than flaws in the relationship, have outbreaks on his youthful skin, and being unable to work in a career that he had trained so many years for.

From this example and others, I am convinced that emotional distance and lack of physical bond between grown-up children and parents is not healthy. Our adolescents and young adults still need to hear, feel, and know that we love them and enjoy being with them. Heck, I am almost fifty, and I blossom each time I hear those words! Thus, it feels good for me to be home in my first family’s home. I love the fact that sometimes, it seems as if my brothers and I have not yet left home.  The closeness remains, despite the miles and the passing time.

Hold your children close, and I mean physically, because sometimes, this matters more than words. But how? I hear many ask. Teens are especially prickly to close proximity, especially if they have not been brought up within a touchy-feely framework.

Six ways to cuddle your teen:

  1. Cook unhurriedly together with your teen/grown up child. With cooking, you stand close, work in concerted harmony, learn to anticipate each other’s moves and yes, touch.
  2. Rough and tumble. My children’s father still wrestles with his grown-up children – I have to remind the children not to be too rough with their old father! He is not 30-years-old anymore!
  3. Do things for each other, such as massage, manicure, reiki.
  4. Cuddle up together on a sofa watching a film. Slowly move closer.
  5. End each night with a goodnight kiss. I miss my mother’s “No star” (goodnight in Welsh), the way she touches me gently as she kisses me.
  6. Make time for each other. All of the above has to happen naturally.


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:

Seven Steps To Raising Really Strong Girls

Maybe it is just an affliction of the fairer sex, but we all have had at least a Train Wreck Girlfriend in our lives. Mine is Susannah (not her real name, of course). She is a successful musician. She is attractive, articulate and funny, with a wide circle of friends and a busy life. She lives in a nice bachelorette pad in a smart part of London. You would have thought she is happy with her lot in life. Yet for the better part of our friendship, she has spent many tearful hours on my couch, wringing the proverbial sodden tissue in her hands. Susannah lurches from one disastrous relationship to the next, and in the lull in between her emotional train wrecks, she mopes around like a lost puppy, lamenting about her single state and ticking biological clock, always on the lookout for THE man to fall in love with, and therefore end all her woes (HAHAHA).

She yearns to be loved (don’t we all) but in Susannah, that yearning stems from the myth that a man will complete her and make her life infinitely better. She comes across as desperate, and men can smell desperation from a mile away. They then head for the hills without a backward glance.

What makes Susannah a needy, childlike, romantic desperado?

Though she is musically brilliant (and earns well), she is emotionally stunted at the age of eight. She was eight when she was sent to boarding school. She fulfilled her emotional needs and got her emotional guidance from reading romantic love stories, rather than real family interactions. The result: an emotionally stunted woman. Puppy-dog eyes are cute on eight year old little girls and Mills & Boons heroines, but on a 40 year old fully grown woman, it is just not that attractive. It is rather sad, actually.

In the beginning, I tried playing matchmaker but her desperation drove them all away. I introduced her to my gorgeous friend, and she stalked him persistently, always there waiting for him with that puppy dog eyes. Later, when that fell apart, I mentioned to her that my colleague had a spare ticket for the Albert Hall – she was over in my house within the half hour, without asking me anything about my colleague other than “Is he male and single?”

I have two daughters of the ages 23 and 14. I am adamant my girls will never be Train Wreck Susannahs, and so far, they are on course, thanks to my Seven Stage Programme. In fact, they are downright feisty and independent, and both are single by choice, despite the wolves at the door.

  1. Teach little girls that Prince Charming does not exist.

Men are nice, but they are not the solution to everything. More often than not, they have more frailties and issues than you.

  1. Ensure that little girls are self-sufficient

Nobody can rescue you but yourself. Men might have the right equipment to complete women physically, but there is nothing more unattractive than a needy, clinging, emotionally deficit grown-up (of either sex) seeking completion.

  1. Live within their own means

It is unfortunate, but typically, women still earn less than men. Therefore, a man with a good job presents an attractive proposition (financial security and perhaps entrée to a nicer, more secure future). I think that’s the biggest trap that women fall into. Hello, this is 2014. You have to buy your own stuff rather than rely on the man you sleep with to do so.

  1. Enjoy their own company

I know of someone who sits like a faithful and sad Basset Hound waiting for a disinterested man to spend time with her, be it dinner or walk or conversation…..anything, gimme, gimme, gimme! She would kill time waiting for him to grace her with his attention.

Methinks Ms. Saddo is far better off having a good drink, putting funky music on loud and dancing her heart out. That’s what I am teaching my daughters. And to learn to love books, of course.

  1. Give little girls emotional security

We all have needs: shelter, food, sex. But Maslow’s triangle forgot emotional security. Many girls grow up with that piece missing in their lives because they have (i) distant, (ii) absent or (iii) busy parents. They grow into needy women, trying to fill the void by playing out roles to compel the men in their lives to give them that missing piece.

  1. Have strong family ties

It is raining in London as I am writing this. From my window, I see a couple walking past sharing an umbrella. It is an achingly romantic sight. I longed to be out there, walking under the umbrella and under the protective arm of a man.

The father of my children is halfway across the world on a football field. But strangely enough, he is not the man I thought of immediately. I thought immediately of my big brother Huw Patrick, a strong and solid presence in my life from childhood. Nobody can ever take his place in my heart. Nobody can ever take my mother’s, my father’s, my other brother’s, my children’s, my niece’s, my nephew’s, my grandparents’ place in my heart.   There is something true in the old adage: there is nothing stronger than blood (though I was an adopted child). Family are the ones who give you firm grounds to stand on, whatever the nature of your relationship. There is no place more secure than your childhood home, even if that home is just a construct of your mind.

  1. Model it!

Be a strong girl yourself! Live life with laughter lacing your days, genuine happiness lighting your path, learn to find your own solutions, love yourself truly, madly and deeply, and dance like no one is watching, except your daughter, of course.