I am back. In real time I have been away for two weeks, but in Ballet Dad Time, it has been three. Owing to the dates of my trip not correlating with the boarding school week, I've not seen our son for three weeks. This is a long time for an enmeshed, over-involved father to be away, but it has probably done us all some good. I know a couple of mothers who only get to see their children a twice a year. These young women are part of an economic diaspora, and are working overseas so that their children - living with their grandparents - can have a better life. In comparison, the two weeks away that I endure feel almost luxurious. There, by the grace of God ...
After these three weeks of absence, I went to pick up our son for his weekend back at home. Making eye-contact - live, not on Skype - was a moment of instant relief. It was exciting and energising, but at the same time natural and obvious. He had grown, or at least I imagined he had grown; but perhaps while he was away I remembered him as a younger version of himself. And is he beginning to walk differently - prematurely a bit more like a lanky teenager? Next time I go away, I'm going to measure his height before I leave; some empirical evidence for his growth-spurts when I am working abroad.
Someone I work with kindly introduced my to an appropriate hashtag - Hashtag First World Problems or #firstworldproblems. It was a justifiably mocking response to something that I had said; a way of deflating my habitual pomposity and unattractive earnestness. This is a legitimate reply to my complaints that the gnocchi has run out at Ocado, or that someone in my household always overcooks the quinoa, or that the 3G on my phone has a slight lag. I am usually more self aware than people give me credit for. I fully understand the comedy caricature that I schlep with me through daily life. The annoyance of those who do not get the joke gives me a perverse pleasure. The danger of living in a luxurious hotel for two weeks is that this overblown comedy persona begins to lose its sense of irony. For two weeks, I am provided with everything I need, and denied the pleasure of getting anything for myself. We work long hours, the financial rewards are significant, the food and the accompanying service are exquisite. I begin to turn into something monstrous. I focus on everything that I do not have during this time: the company of my family; a long walk with the dog; slobbing out in my own sitting room; marmite on toast; my freedom. When I am in the middle of it, it seems that it will never end. When it is over, I am painfully aware of how brief two weeks were. I remember those young women who only get to see their children twice a year. Our pain warrants no comparison. I'll be back in fourteen short days, and I'll see our son after twenty-one. They endure five or six months at a time; and they are not the recipients of an over-indulgent level of service during their twelve hour shifts. #firstworldproblems.
Being away brings with it a significant gift. Now that I am home, living again with these people - one of whom I only see at weekends - I know that I am in the right place. I remind myself never to forget this happiness.
'If' turns to 'when'
Any parent who sends their child to ballet school accepts a strange peculiarity. This is something non-negotiable. Whereas kicking a child out of a more conventional school requires some effort involving countless meetings, reports and opportunities for redemption; the ballet parents accept that it could all come crashing down at any moment. Our children do not automatically qualify for entry into the next year of school. Never mind injury, weird growth spurts, or accidents involving stone staircases, our children might not be progressing satisfactorily in terms of the technique, strength and artistry of classical ballet. They might not be asked to enrol for the following year.
From the school's perspective, I understand. They are in the business of producing the next generation of ballet dancers. If a child is no longer able to fulfil the requirements of a demanding profession, then there is little point in continuing with a vocational training. It is probably in the child's interest to continue with a different form of dance; or even a different creative impulse altogether. Or they could leave, continue with ballet, and then have a celebrated career despite the upset and failure of their teenage years. Many stories are told of successful dancers who were kicked out of various schools. Exceptions and urban myth ripple.
From the child's perspective - and that of the family - it is devastating. The investment of many years appears to be squandered. A dream is quashed and a whole new value-system must evolve. I imagine that it can only lead to a crisis - for the child, and, I imagine,for the whole family. A difficult transition must be negotiated and a new identity considered. Where does a child go on to, once he or she has spent their lives devoted to the rigours and beauty of ballet? How can they feel anything but discarded, rejected, or abandoned? They leave with the feeling that life will never be the same.
The effect of this pressure is a strange superstition and linguistic policing. We correct ourselves whenever we hear ourselves begin a sentence with, "when you are in year ..." or "next year you will ..." Instead we have conditioned ourselves to say, "if you are still there in year ..." and "perhaps, next year ..." We fully except the capricious nature of his education, but in many ways, this is no way for a family to live their lives. Uncertainty is a lodger; she has taken up residence in the spare room.
Then, everything changes. The letter arrives. He has been awarded another place for another year. We catch ourselves beginning with "if" and hastily turn it to "when". We relax into a temporary secure future. In less than six months, uncertainty, superstition and future-tense fascism will again be in residence.
Next time is all about coming home.
Someone whose opinion I trust made a very subtle and caring, but critical comment about the blog. I have a suspicion they were furtively suggesting that I moan too much. It struck me that they are right, and so I am going to count my blessings.
First, it is true. Yes - the separation of having a son at boarding school is the cause of considerable pain, but there are significant consolations. He is following his heart. A world has opened up to him and he has decided that this is how he wants to spend the rest of his life. How many of us are able to say the same, regardless of our age? Who can say that on every day of their lives, they submerse themselves in something that they truly love? Ballet for him is a practical reality; it is not something that he hopes for, or he might be lucky to do one day - it is something that engages him every day. There is a gaping chasm which distinguishes a dream from a pipe-dream, and at the moment, this eleven-year old boy is living the dream. I rarely speak for his mother, but on this occasion I think that I can; it is an honour and a joy to be supporting him in this; watching his development and growth as a dancer and as person. Also, there is no question that his school is an amazing environment for a child. During the week, he lives at Hogwarts. There is no train departing from Platform 11 3/4 - just a beaten up old car at the crack of dawn on a Monday - but the stories he tells about the teachers portray them as every bit as colourful, eccentric and kind as Dumbledore or Poppy Pomfrey. A glimpse into Snape-like behaviour arises now and again; but let's remember that Snape's cruelty was driven only by a huge capacity for love. So, at school, the art may be different, but the magic is the same.
My own horizons have been expanded by our child's passion. I love ballet. There. I said it. Five years ago, it was only something that I believed was for an elite - a club which disdainfully kept me excluded. I thought it was the place where the affected and flamboyant thrive; their concerns irrelevant, antiquated and redundant. Now, I cannot imagine a world without dance. Ballet for me is vibrant, urgent and skilled. I appreciate the discipline and recognise the dedication. So much of my life is intellectual. When I earn money, I do so by employing cerebral and linguistic skills. Ballet presents an alternative, it is immersive and visceral. Like all great art, it needs no explanation. I am very surprised to find myself writing this. This passionate defence of ballet would not be happening if it were not for my son.
There is the most significant gift. This is something that both my children have given me. Seeing the world from their perspective is a great privilege. Their world is one full of hope, bewilderment and awe. Their musings on life are a source of education and entertainment. They are inventive, intuitive, pragmatic and non-judgemental. In return, I offer them love; a love that I have only really experienced since being a parent. It is unconditional and pure.
I dream of Sigmund Freud
Since starting this, I have been experiencing a recurring dream. This is strange as I rarely remember my dreams, and apart from one other - skipping with Dorothy, in a state of terror, along the yellow brick road - this is my only other recurring one.
My mobile rings - an overseas number - and I answer it. It is Sigmund Freud. He is complimentary about the blog, and asks in a thick Austrian accent, if I might be willing to accompany him on a lecture tour and tell my story. He says that the blog illustrates many of the things he is researching, and he would greatly appreciate my help. Of course I agree.
I imagine that I will be standing at up in front of small distinguished crowds in oak panelled rooms, and talking about how my experience, as the father of a dancer in training, illustrates some of the basic principals of psychoanalysis. Our son living at Ballet school is clearly exposing some of my own primal feelings of abandonment - most likely still unresolved. I am clearly in an 'enmeshed' relationship with my children, unaware of where I end, and they begin. Perhaps I am encouraging an unhealthy dependency rather than facilitating our inter-dependency with one another. This must be symptomatic of my own codependent addiction and need to feel loved. I am struggling to support my vision of the universe while acknowledging that my children do not see the world from my self-oriented perspective. My subjective vision is absolute and I am unable to grasp that another more objective reality is actually more likely to be the truth. I talk about recovery and how as an adult I was defining myself as a parent and little else. I have been on a quest to fill the void, and all this has been a strain for me to contain - hence the blog. These and other topics are the ones that I imagine myself sharing with the distinguished tweed-clad men and women sitting in the penumbra of Sigmund Freud's audience.
The day arrives and I step out onto the stage. Sigmund is there to welcome me. The audience applauds enthusiastically. I nod with humble appreciation. Then, to my horror, Sigmund gestures to a couch - brown studded leather with well-used patches of grazed hide. It dawns on me that I am not there to speak or lecture. I am a patient - an analysand in one of Sigmund's public lectures. Reluctantly, I climb onto the couch and lie down. I shut my eyes and struggle for darkness despite the bright stage lighting. The couch supports me. I sink in further and the audience seem to disappear. Everything fades out to black. It's just me and Sigmund. I am only aware of him because I can hear his breathing and his occasional Austrian grunts of acknowledgement. I listen to my own voice as I speak. Then, I am skipping along a yellow brick road.
I fear that this blog entry reveals more about me than any of the others.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Stronger
I am writing this at forty thousand feet. I'm sitting on a plane. This is the easy bit. I'm away.
I'm travelling for work. As you may have gathered from these blogs, I'm in a fortunate position of having quite an unconventional life-style. This was not always the case. There was a time that I worked all the hours possible. Then we had children, and then I worked less, but had to find worked which paid better. After a decade of which, I suspect that I experienced 'burn-out'. A shadow of futility encroached on my soul. My son went to boarding school. To my family's bewilderment, I left my job. I wanted a Humboldt Year*. I gave myself time off, to work my way through an existential crisis, and also play schools with my daughter and a class room of dolls, teddies, and some brightly-coloured elephants. My period of healing is sometimes interrupted by an offer of work in another country. It's too lucrative to turn down, so I'll be away for twelve days; time awkwardly positioned across two weekends. It seems rough that our son will come home for the first of those weekends, only a few hours after I have left.
A week before I leave I am inconsolable. I mooch around like an 'emo' teenager in a state of hormonal inertia. All tasks seem exhausting: tidying up the kitchen feels like enduring a marathon run; doing the laundry may as well be a hike up Everest. I am in such a state that I shut down. The thought of leaving, and time spent away makes me rage - the return of Rumpelstiltskin (see blog nine). It is easier to just do nothing; to reveal nothing; to contain everything. Showing anyone the dire blackness of this mood would unleash something terrible. It is best to keep it hidden, especially from myself.
All I can focus on is those two missed weekends, and the injustice of not being there for this precious family time. Even though it is me who is leaving, I am the one feeling abandoned. It just feels unjust. Why do I have to go? Why do I not get to spend time with my family? I know what a tantrum looks like - I live with a five year old. And inside I am having one. Of course I understand the answers to these hypophera. Why? Because I've chosen it. But this knowledge does not ease the pain, nor does it provide any illumination through what feels like a torture - an empty darkness of despair. Procrastination is the only temporary relief; it makes me feel strong - defiant. I don't complete the packing of my case and I don't fold my suits away in their carrier until I am due to leave. I don't feel all that strong or defiant, when, to finish my packing, I have to get up a five in the morning. Perhaps I could have done it the night before - that's the price we pay for a tantrum.
Then, suddenly, it's gone. The mood has dissipated. My face is no longer cramped up in anguish. I can breathe again and my thoughts are clear. I'm on the way to the airport. I enjoy the travel. The work is interesting, and my colleagues are fun. There are daily rewards. In addition to the long work days and starting at 7 am, I will also be spending some time in the 30 degree heat sitting by a pool. The food is fantastic, and desserts are in abundance - especially chocolate mousse. Contact with home will be constant - we will have a regular three-way Skype at the same time each evening.
The thought of going is debilitating, but once I've jumped over the hurdle of the departure, it's not so bad. As I have discovered, It's easier to leave than be left.
*Willhelm von Humboldt was an influential 19th century German philosopher, linguist and educationalist. He believed that our natural state of health involved autonomous productivity and creativity (Bestimmung als Mensch). If an individual was not in this state, then he believed it was the government's duty to help them to return to it. I am not receiving any governmental help in my pursuit of this quest.
Next time ... I am visited by Sigmund Freud
Fathers and Sons - part one
'Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.'
Shakespeare's Henry IV (both parts) focuses on a father and son who do not initially share the same values. The vicious circle spirals. The father disapproves while the son looks after his own juvenile needs. Each adopts a temporary surrogate. For Henry, it is the impetuous but decisive Hotspur; for Hal it is the cowardly but doting Falstaff. Hal's rebellion burns itself out eventually, and the surrogate father is spurned. Reconciliation plays out at the very last moment. Meanwhile, Hotspur, the surrogate son, has initiated a more official and perilous rebellion - one that involves overthrowing the king rather than simply hanging out with some drunken buffoons.
And so, this is the archetypal model of the universe. The father sets an example. The son refuses to follow it, but discord eventually leads to mutual appreciation. My father worked hard. These were the days before David Beckham taught men how to parent. My Dad provided for us and his provision justified his lack of involvement. He was a loyal employee and honoured the system in which he served; moderate ambition allowing him to climb a certain way up a very particular ladder. He was sociable, well-liked and believed in doing more than his duty. His life depended on a rock-solid faith in an ideology bigger than him. He served an indelible sense of order and justice - a concrete world view.
In my teens I rejected this way of thinking, and I still do. I believe in hard work, but I am an iconoclast. I like to challenge, and refute. My success and my downfall has been caused by the same quality - an ability to analyse with clarity, and when necessary urge for reclassification, regardless of the sanctity of the status quo. I speak the truth - as far as I see it - and I am contemptuous of anyone who doesn't. For me, servile compliance is worthless and expedient. My father practised temperance. I yield to excess.
This is the natural way. It is as it should be. We never argued, but I think we found each other perplexing. We lived our lives as different species - a differing understanding of what it means to be a man. However, my father and I have been robbed of the story's inevitable conclusion. The universe of justice and order, whose principles he served decided to steal his memory, and also his ability to be fully present. Areas of his brain no longer work as they once did. This gross injustice has denied us the effortless reconciliation and appreciation that a father's old age can bring. There are days, now, when he no longer recognises me. This is not the end we had anticipated. I had hoped for a gentle, mutual, long-lasting acceptance. We only glimpsed from afar what we nearly had.
I watch my son in a ballet class. He has a strength and a determination that I do not recognise. He dances with a love that I appreciate but do not fully understand. Perhaps his joining this hierarchical world of ballet is his form of rebellion - conformity is radical when you are raised by individualists. In the last few months he has been changing. There are clues of the man he will become - strong, tenacious, gentle and full of grace. He is taller, leaner and more sinewy. My own process with my father has been regrettably lost. I will retaliate. I will thwart the natural scheme of a son rejecting a father's values. I will seek to understand ballet and be less of a renegade. And we will treasure our collective memory. I will make it something permanent. I will blog.