I've been travelling for work. I had been away for about a week, and still had about five days to go when I received an email from our son:
Daddy. It is like I am living in a parallel universe in which you don't exist, but you are still in my head somewhere.
I went into panic, a paralysis - I was unable to process this simple sentence, and the explosive nature of its content. My initial reaction was one of distress at the notion that he was somehow suffering; in pain that I had been gone for so long. I felt sick and my inclination was to pack my bag and return home. Then, I calmed down a little, my ego became less inflamed and I saw this sentence for what it really is: an effective strategy for managing separation - he has developed a way of coping.
Some of you might recall how it was in the beginning. Our separation seem irreconcilable to me only eighteen months ago: the over-riding experience of having a child at boarding school was, at first, my agony at our son living away from his home during the week. This severance was terrible for me. Even when it became more comfortable for him, I still felt abandoned; a type of emotional cauterisation. I was numbed - unable to face up to the experience of the pain. Each week, this sensation would gradually decrease as Friday approached, but it would return again on Monday morning after I had dropped him off. Unlike our son, I was unable to shift into a parallel universe in which he didn't exist but was in my head somewhere, anyway. Had I been able to make this leap of faith, perhaps I would not have caused myself wallow so much. As an 'enmeshed' parent, I was stuck - unable to reconcile the feelings that I was having with the idea that the situation might be something that our son desired. I was unable to separate my own needs and feelings from his. I imagine that this is a typical parental mistake, and the result was confusion and living my life in a terrible muddle.
His idea of shifting into a parallel universe is helpful. When it comes to an emotional intelligence our son displays some promising traits. The construct of another universe allows me to live and acknowledge two separate truths: I am a caring dad who is deeply loves his my children, but I am also physically absent from one of them most of the time, and unable to look after him in the way I had imagined I would. The rhythm of the week has been exhausting for me. Without a parallel universe, I was involved an enervating three stage spiral:
- Bonding with our son at the weekend
- An extreme sense of loss on Monday mornings
- My mood lightening as Friday approaches
At its worse, this weekly cycle left me with little energy to do anything else, but I can now replace it with two simple transitions - one shift into a parallel universe at the beginning of the week and one jump again at the end. I will develop a futuristic ability to quantum leap.
I've commented on the Zen nature of our son's world-view before now. His awakened heart often exposes my foolishness - my inflated sense of self and my ego-driven ways. If he were a judgemental type, he would find me ridiculous. In Buddhism, there is a notion of something called Boddhichitta - a practice which involves acknowledging that we are all in some way connected. Or, as our son expresses it so simply, shifting into a parallel universe - one that involves a recognition of the presence and the absence simultaneously. It is possible that in the event that he does not become a dancer, he will instead explore the world of science - quantum mechanics, in which particles exist in two states at the same time. Or perhaps his sanguine acceptance of the world will lead him to a very different environment, and he'll become a Buddhist monk.
Attitudes to learning
I originally wrote this blog at 30,000 feet - on a plane. A couple of days later when I tried to find it to edit it, it was gone! It was a good blog. Rather than be consumed with fury and the unfairness of life, I decided to see this as an opportunity to rethink the original. I have re-written it. Ironically, rage, fury and the unfairness of life is one of the things that the blog touches on.
Our daughter is finding school a little difficult. I adore her, and her anxiety about school is a serious cause for concern. She is witty, engaging, challenging and fun. She has a highly pragmatic view of the world, and often makes suggestions about how to circumvent a problem with astonishing perception. She is a genius at Minecraft and a terrific swimmer. She is a child full of surprises and vitality.
Primary schools have changed a great deal owing to the harsh Gove-ean philosophy underpinning everything. The issue that we are having with her, I do not recall having with our son. The problem is that the class is ranked, and she is painfully aware of the place she is positioned in the class - not far off the bottom. She is bright, thoughtful and affectionate. She writes quite well, and she enjoys being told stories; but her times-tables are slow, and her spelling is mainly miss, occasionally hit. The rigid assessment criteria determine her as someone who is below the median of the class. This unnecessary and fascistic structure does not take into account her passion, creativity or natural love of learning. I see little point in learning stuff by rote, so I am not going to force a six year old to chant her times-tables as if they were some meaningless spell or incantation. I have sat and done maths with her. She has a good grasp of the concepts and what the various functions mean; she just doesn't see the benefit of learning anything parrot fashion. This does not prevent her being joyful when she discovers something new. Her excitement to learn make her a pleasure to work with. And I agree with her about the parroting of maths ... for the time being. Sometimes she rages. The perceived injustice makes her furious. At the root of this injustice is the way her expectation does not match reality. In her mind, she deserves a place at the top table with the children who are reading novels and doing all their times-tables at calculator speed. The fact that she is somewhere near the bottom means that the whole world must be wrong. Her class teacher is talented and kind. He has inherited a way of working which is brutal and dehumanising, and he is doing his very best in helping her to mind the gap between subjective and objective world view.
Our son has a completely different attitude. Even though his environment is highly competitive, he is not interested in where he might rank above or below the other dancers. He sees his progress as something personal and private. It is something for him to assess under the skilful gaze of his ballet teacher. He is a zen ballet student - he observes himself as he is working, and his assessment is without judgement. His faith in his own process protects him from this perilous gap between expectation and reality. Whatever he can't do today may be done in a couple of months, or years, as long as he just proceeds, taking the right steps now. The path may be long, but he is an assured traveller without regard for how far ahead or behind anyone else might be. Despite any physical ability, or limitation, this is the perfect temperament for a vocational training in classical ballet. Come what may, it might even be the key to his survival.
I can sympathise with our daughter. I think that of the two attitudes to learning, I am more similar to her. She might even have her impatience and preponderance to rage from me and my side of the family. Throughout my schooling and even at university, the gap between expectation and reality was difficult to navigate. In fact, often it was a chasm rather than a gap; one that I've fallen into many times. When I consider any of the slight de-railings that I have experienced in my life; at root lies the discrepancy between what I expect and what is really the case. It has taken me a long time to learn not to fall or even jump, and now, finally, in middle age, I consider myself more accepting, more yielding and kinder; and I still sometimes tumble down into the chasm. It is now my task with the help of our son, to gently show his sister another way - to help her manage her expectation and not trap herself in overwhelming feelings of frustration and rage. And while I am trying to teach her, I am, of course, also trying to learn this myself. We'll start on the times-tables another day.