There is always a price to be paid. This is a lesson which is often not heeded no matter how many times we acknowledge that there is no such thing as a free lunch. I am, of course, not simply referring to the financial. Our son loves Ballet. When asked if there is anything he prefers to do, he resolutely replies that there isn't. In order to pursue this every day, he is has to go to boarding school and survive without the daily parental support that eleven year olds hopefully enjoy. As you know, I hardly worked last week, and we had an idyllic week in which we achieved a balance between activity and rest. I really enjoyed myself. I felt happy and fulfilled. Life was good. But we all knew what was lying ahead. A price would soon have to be paid.
But, something unexpected has happened. I was upset when I dropped him off on Monday morning, and there were a few tears as I drove back, but the stabbing pain was surprisingly absent. I would even say that I felt a degree of nostalgia for it. A familiar old friend was missing. Something was amiss, clearly.
This is the third term of his first year, and so the third time that I have now left him after a long holiday. I have also now dropped him off after a weekend nearly twenty times. The result of all this practice is that the image in my head has changed. The mental picture of abandoning him to the hardships of a Dickensian workhouse seems less vivid. The image is no longer in painfully sharp high-definition. It is not even that of a black and white television; it has pixilated as if processed with the computing power of a ZX Spectrum. It now feels as if I am taking him to his school: a place where he is now experiencing a sense of belonging. He is beginning to fit in, and this is image of a happiness at school is replacing the old images: queues for gruel, canes, gowns and mortarboards, weeping waifs and austere school masters - none of which are true. He is still missing from my daily life, and I would rather he were here with us; but the sore is no longer so inflamed, nor requiring my constant attention.
I feel a great deal less bereft. There are figures of speech that we use to describe being overwhelmed, and the all seem to use the idea of 'keeping'; 'a grip', 'a hold', 'a perspective', 'a sense of proportion', 'it all together'. It is clear to me how much energy this activity cost during the first two terms; focus, resolve and industry were all expended - such was the mental effort required to just 'keep going'. My suspicion is that there will still be a price this term, but it will be different.
During the Easter holiday, this blog seemed redundant. While we were all together, I couldn't imagine what I would want to write about. The urge had passed. Now that the term has started, my head is again full of things that I want to say. Writing it again feels like the most natural and obvious way of coping. It is my way of communicating to him, and anyone else who might find it interesting, and it is also my way of mulling over a very personal set of accounts; a way of calculating the price.
A luxury afforded
Many schools - the ballet school included - have delayed returning by a week following the Easter break. The five-year old is taking this very badly. We struggle to get her to school in the morning when she knows that her brother has another day off. I sympathise. I decided to make only a few work commitments for this week, so that we would have the rare luxury of time spent together. I acknowledge that this is somewhat indulgent, but it was a relatively straight-forward thing to do; I simply scheduled everything for the following week. From then on, I'm going to be busy.
The weather has erratically decided to skip spring and jump straight to summer, so I am now congratulating myself at having a week free of any commitments. I am basking.
This week is an attempt to bank up time. From next week, contact with our son will again be restricted to a 15 minute daily Skype conversation, and only a day and a half at the weekends, so it makes sense to spend some time with him now ... while we can. We are mixing up this time with the ordinary and the hedonistic - both that are scarce during term time. I am tempted to feel guilty; this is a luxury that I can hardly afford. However, I have made a commitment, and I am going to follow this through.
On the first day of this sunny extra week, we draw the curtains and watch Guardians of the Galaxy: gags and action; or inter-textuality and irony. We laugh a lot. Ballet is a universe away. On another day we eat go out for lunch - Indian Food. On the final day, we shop for Lego; he's been sitting on some Christmas money for a few months. These are all activities that would normally not be possible or pleasurable, but this week we are exploiting the five year old's obligatory attendance at school. We are always back in time to pick her up, and the two of them run around in one of our local playgrounds with me and the dog circling the perimeter fence - the dog whining and wondering why she can't join them on the climbing frame. Over the holidays, our son has read whatever he wants to read, and watched whatever has appealed to him. He has met up with friends from his old primary school. We've visited family and even managed to cram in a bit of a holiday - a weekend of windy beaches and remote woods. This extra week is the proverbial icing on a figurative cake - or an extra curtain-call if we shift to a ballet image.
We also work hard to get everything ready. He repacks all the bags himself, and in doing so unearths a whole load of laundry that wasn't located two weeks ago when, with a self-congratulatory smirk, I thought I had finished all the washing on the first day of the holiday. So, in this last week, ballet shoes have been sewn, hair-cuts achieved, shirts have been ironed, and ballet socks counted. This has been a team effort, and we have everything finished easily by early on the final Sunday morning. There will be no last minute panic. We have picked at the preparation consistently over the week, and not let any of it eclipse a single day of fun. This is a new and mindful approach to the dreaded and tedious task which announces his return to term-time absence. We seem to be learning. We seem - collectively - to be growing up.
A time will come when, for him, the compensation for a term at boarding school does not involve a week of activities with his parents for company. Adolescence will bring its necessary detachment and awkwardness. And when he no longer wants to do things with us, that will be fine. I'll turn my attention to something else. But for now, this feels right.
A Different Rhythm
Within ten minutes of him being home for the Easter holidays, he disappeared. His sister went looking for him, and returned perplexed. She assured me that they hadn't begun a game of hide and seek, but she couldn't find him anywhere. Perhaps, he just needed to experience the luxury of solitude after ten weeks of communal living, or perhaps he was sobbing to himself - a character in a Victorian novel - at the cruelty of being sent away to train as a performer for the financial and cultural elite. Have we become characters in a Dickensian novel - asking our son to contort daily so we all receive social advancement? The thought of him weeping at the exploitation and cruelty, after only a few minutes back at home, was too much. I went looking for him. It took some time, but eventually I found him curled up under his duvet.
He has returned home from the spring term exhausted. I have seen him in a state of tiredness before, but never like this. There are dark rings under his eyes and he seems unusually lifeless at certain times of day - usually early in the morning and in the early evening. Temporarily, for an hour or so, he seems to be faded; he is not as colourful or three dimensional. He seems almost translucent.
There are two other qualities that I perceive; both of which are positive. First, accompanying the exhaustion is a sense of satisfaction. This has been a rewarding term for him. He has enjoyed the activity, the discipline and the sense of purpose. For an eleven year old, he has a well developed ideology which accompanies his ballet. He understands that he is making a contribution. He sees dance as creating something beautiful, useful and urgent. He works hard and grows strong and in doing so serves his community - both at school, and eventually a wider world. I am envious of his conviction. He is engaging in the current election with energy: he is reading, researching, thinking and debating. Dance for him is another strand of this political way of meeting with the world. I have stepped off the treadmill of work for a while, and I am no longer certain of anything.
The second quality that I am witnessing this holiday is how happy he is with the simplest of things: walking the dog, chatting, being lured by his sister into one of her projects, his grandmother's cooking. It is paradoxical that an environment which demands so much physically and creatively, has led to him being so completely undemanding at home during the holidays. High professional expectation is leading to a low domestic anticipation. The thing I love most about my son is that he is such an artist, but not in any way a diva. We all live and learn.
Perhaps naively, there was one thing about a full-time vocational Ballet School that I had not anticipated - the constant competition. I might have realised that this is inevitable for children engaging in a training which is both vocational and practical. There are ongoing assessments, and selections throughout the year. Various projects require that some children are selected while others are not. Opportunities arise for the dancers to work with both professional and student choreographers. I imagine that selection is based on ability, performance skills and most importantly casting - does the face fit? Or whatever the dancers' equivalent might be.
At the beginning, I secretly wanted him to be selected for everything possible and worried if he wasn't. There are stories of American parents needing to be restrained from abusing the coaches and children at weekly sports events. I was in danger of becoming the ballet-parent equivalent - screaming if the shapes weren't defined enough, the limbs extended enough, or if my child wasn't picked for the team. A restraining order loomed. I probably shouldn't joke. These parents exist. I've met them. And, to be honest, they have a point. We live in the twenty-first century in which 'parity of student experience' is the mantra. If their child is being given that opportunity, then why isn't mine? This is certainly valid in some contexts, but - excuse me sounding like a fusty old Tory- life just doesn't work like that.
Then after two terms, my attitude changed. It had to. Aspiration was exhausting me. I celebrated his successes, but my focus shifted for the occasions when he wasn't selected for something, or was disappointed. Instead of raging against the machine and dissecting the reasons why; I changed my approach. I had been treating the decisions of strangers as if they were moral judgments; potential salvation or damnation as dished out by people I hardly knew and whose criteria was a mystery. As a parent, something different is required of me - to support him when he is disappointed, and reassure him that he is still loved. This requires some discipline. The ferocious raging parent consumed by ambition for my child needs to be forced to shut-up; anyway, it is the result of a misguided and damaged ego. Instead, I tell him the truth. Disappointment might feel painful, and the world is harsh and unjust, but the earth still turns, and our love for him is constant. And, if tomorrow he doesn't wake up feeling a little better, then he will next week, or next month. The world is harsh and unjust, but we'll try and have some fun along the way, and perhaps somehow make a difference. And when the disappointment seems more cavernous than a bottomless void ... well, that's why ice-cream was invented.
This is another gift that ballet school has given us. Perhaps eleven is young to be dealing with this constant conveyor belt of pre-packed disenchantment, but managing and containing this experience is undoubtedly one of the most important skills for any of us to learn; with or without the ice cream.