The Easter And May-Day Bank Holidays - Part One
Beginning with the End
We've had a good run of holidays - first Easter and May Day. But, the final week of the Easter holiday caused me some anxiety, but not on behalf of our son. I now cease to worry about how he might cope when he is back at school - he seems to be taking everything in his stride and he even appears to be thriving. The almost broken child of eighteen months ago is such a distant memory that he struggles now to remember how home-sick he was. This time, I am much more concerned about myself. Having him back for three weeks has been rejuvenating for all of us and the temporary nature of his presence did not loom over us, like it normally might at a weekend, knowing that he was soon going to be gone.
During this time, we became a family once again - all four of us interacting. He is growing up, and some subtle changes were beginning to be noticeable: his humour has become a bit more adult - it is even drier than before, and he is also beginning to play around with the odd double-entendre. He is also more robust and self-confident. Our children have become inseparable from one another. Starved of each other's company during term time, they become eager to pack in all the fun that they have missed; constantly inventing, laughing, sometimes screaming when the joke has been taken too far. Once again, as a family, we felt whole.
It was only during his last week of the holiday, when his sister was back at school that the realisation struck me: we would gain a breathing space in which we'd look forward to the May bank holiday when he would again be home for four long days, and then that would be it - we'd lose him. Ballet was going to ruin it all once again. The sense of loss that I sometimes experience is immense. I can hardly breathe. It seems to be especially acute when he has been home for an extended period of time. Sometimes I imagine an alternative reality in which we exist in a parallel universe:
We would be living together all the time. Our son would go to a local school, and sit at the kitchen table for a couple of hours every day doing his homework. We'd have to ask his younger sister to not distract him. He would be involved in after school activities which might require him being taken there or being picked up. We'd all eat together, and catch up on the each other's daily news in person, live - not relying on Skype or email. There would be a welcome banality to our lives.
However some things would also be missing - unknown to us. Weekends would not have the same sense of occasion; they would be less sacred. We would not have learned how to value the precious time that we have together. The children would understand that familiarity breeds contempt, rather than absence making the heart grow fonder. Perhaps I wouldn't be as meticulous with my diary - making sure that nothing intrudes on those rare random week days that he is at home. If possible, we try and turn these days into events: we go to galleries; eat at his favourite restaurant; explore places that we have never been to before. It's special when his sister can join us and she is also not at school, or when their mum is not working; but it's just as special when there are the two of us. I do not take the time I have with my family for granted. These are the things that I never would have learned had he not gone away to boarding school. It hurts me to say it, but I am grateful for this initially unwanted experience of our son's ballet training.
It's probable that if we didn't have to suffer the pain of absence, that we wouldn't also understand the intense joy of being together - and it is this thought that I cling onto now that he is gone, and the long summer term stretches ahead. Our family landscape is one of peaks and troughs - preferable always to a flat plain with a clear view of the horizon.
A couple of months ago, I celebrated my birthday. Despite it being a Sunday, it was the end of term at the Ballet School. So on the morning of my birthday, I got up early and drove to the school. I spent some time admiring other people's Cath Kidson laundry bags, while carrying his stuff to the car. There was also some new packing technology to admire - some of the children were ending their academic year by vacuum packing their stuff. Bed linen, duvets and pillows were sucked into a transparent plastic package which is a fraction on the original size; a NASA space meal of dehydrated laundry. Next year we will also be vacuum packing at the end of the summer term. Our son was in rehearsal. The dormitories were open for the parents to do this only between 8.30am and 9.30am. Our child is ridiculously organised for an eleven year old. He has clearly had to over-compensate for the chaos surrounding his father. I was in and out of the dorm in ten minutes. I felt sorry for the parents who had a four hour drive, and then had to spend their time fishing for lost items under the bed. I was not one of the parents scrabbling around for loose change or run-away playing cards. I spent no time matching socks. We then watched the final performance of the year - a sumptuous and ostentatious orchestral affair. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
This was the best way of spending my birthday I could possibly imagine. I am writing this entirely without irony. Getting up early doesn't bother me. Spending time in the dormitory of pre-adolescent boys is not be pleasant, but he was so organised - as expected - that I was hardly there. Even driving back in the heat was not irksome; not even if I am stuck in traffic in my beat-up old car, with no air-con and a window that doesn't open on the driver's side. Despite all this, it was a glorious way of spending my birthday.
It felt like I was being given a present - a huge child-sized box wrapped up in paper with ribbons and bows on the top; something to tear open and then discover my son is sitting inside grinning. He belongs to a tradition of people packages: the Velvet Underground track, The Gift, or Henry 'Box' Brown posting himself to freedom in nineteenth century Virginia. Honestly, this is the most welcome present I could possibly want. He was then home for nearly two months. It was luxurious. I had been waiting for this day for the last ten months. We had survived.
Indeed, it felt like the clichéd 'gift that keeps on giving'. The summer holidays delivered all that was expected. Ballet and boarding schools were gleefully absent. Our life was no longer defined by others' opinions of the quality of our son's physical contortions. There was chatting and laughter and days free of the pressure of timetables. We travelled, we ate, we walked and swam. The dog became accustomed to both children being around and howled whenever they left her - even for ten minutes. The Norfolk and Suffolk coastlines were extensively explored, and some treasured places were discovered. We were even lucky with the erratic British weather. We basked in the sunshine.
And all this began on my birthday. Please excuse the over-engineered pun, but the birthday present was each other's presence. Perhaps, we can only assess the quality of love in how available we are willing to make ourselves to each other. Love is a difficult thing to be aware of during mental or physical absence. The fact that our family is not complete during term time has taught me to value those times when we are all together. Distractions are put away, and I strive - as much as possible - to remain present when we are all together in. It was as if the scars left from the very difficult first year were healing.
He's now gone. School started this morning and I dropped him off. We chatted happily in the car, and there was an ease to leaving him there. The familiar despair is strangely absent. He's back at school, but oddly, it's as if I still have the birthday present with me.
Half term is nearly here, and the last few weeks have passed by quickly. Routine seems to have accelerated time, and this somewhat unnatural boarding school procedure is developing into a bit of a habit. One of the reasons that it has gone by so quickly is the ease with which he now returns to school on a Monday - certainly when compared with the emotional effort it took at the beginning of term. He strolls into school on Monday mornings apparently without a care in the world, and his mood remains upbeat for the whole of the car journey. Owing to the bank holidays, he now has had a couple of weeks which consist of only four and a half school days rather than five and a half school. This makes a huge difference. The other terms seem to have dragged on endlessly; this summer term is skipping by with a lightness in its step. The dread and drudgery of the winter term is a distant memory. Those Monday mornings of setting off in the dark on the long solemn drive seem to have existed in a parallel universe. We were men condemned, hoping our short drive would not reach its inevitable end. These days the car journey is full of care-free chatter. We are no longer in a state of shock.
It is not that life at school has got easier: the days are still long; he still only gets 45 minutes to himself all day; the ballet has become more demanding now that the expectations on them are higher; he still spends his days away from the support of his family. Nor has the pain become dulled. I am still aware of his absence everyday, and there are times when I wish that a child at boarding school was an just an idea or a suggestion rather than a very present reality. I painfully notice the empty chair at the dinner table. I still miss him, and I imagine that he still misses us, sometimes.
The big difference that the summer term offers that none of the other terms afford is a clear overview. This term presents us with five weeks - some shorter than normal - followed by a week off, and then five more weeks culminating in a couple of big performances. The end is in sight and getting there is manageable. This seems like the time for a horse-racing image: we have nearly reached the final furlong, and the last reserves of energy may now be used up in the sprint to the finish.
We have promised him two summer months of being 'normal' and only as much reminding of the ballet world as he feel he can deal with. Next academic year will be different. He will be able to manage his expectations with the benefit of hindsight - one week at a time, and the new year sevens will have arrived; he will no longer be the youngest child in the school. We'll all cope with the situation differently.
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.
High Hopes for Half-term
The last five weeks have been gruelling. They seem to have lasted longer than the whole of the Christmas term. There are several reasons for this: the pupils have not had a weekend off, and have attended Saturday school every week; they have been preparing for the annual assessments; the pressure has built up in school and at home. Time as a family in the last few weeks has seemed rushed; we have all been getting used to a new rhythm; he used to come home on a Friday. Now the weekend begins on a Saturday afternoon. So, we find ourselves tripping joyously into half-term. Is it right to be focusing so intently on the holidays that we are wishing away large chunks of our lives?
I haven't booked any work in for the week - except for one conference call. During the last conference call I did at home, connecting people from UK, US, and Australia, the dog unexpectedly decided to bark. I denied that I could hear anything unusual on the line, and said it was probably an antipodean technical gremlin. This time that gremlin could sound like a dog, or either of the children - probably screeching about killing skellybuts on Minecraft.
I have learned my lesson, and with no work booked in, I have just gloriously lowered my expectations. I am not going to plan much; I'll just let events take their own course. I will not be arranging an itinerary of activities or ensuring that every hour of every day is accounted for. He spends his life packing and unpacking bags, so we will not be repeating this activity and carting him off to an airport. Like the hard-drive on an old computer, we'll all just defragment at home. Let's have the chance to catch up, watch movies, play games, go for walks, eat and chat. We will meander and drift lazily through the week. Perhaps, on one day, we will have lunch out. It will be a chance for him not to be in a dormitory, not to always be surrounded by other children, and not to have every second of his day timetabled. I imagine the siblings getting reacquainted and their banter echoing through the house; peals of laughter cascading down the stairs.
Then, as we hurtle towards this blissful week off, I catch myself. I'm walking the dog and the thought hits me - a sobering wet fish slap in the face. I'm being dishonest. I might not be planning a week of activity, but I am putting just as much pressure on all of us. In my head, I am imagining half-term to exist at the very pinnacle of my blue-sky-thinking. I see us as the Waltons, or the idyllic characters from a pastoral, healing and licking our wounds - caused by the excesses of ballet. We are reunited and have returned home for the simple life. We are the dirndl wearing, doh-a-deer singing Von Trapps fleeing formality, tradition and fascism - climbing every mountain. I have no evidence that this is anyone else's fantasy but my own. There are three others involved in this story, and the dog can also prove quite wilful. I am expecting us to instantly develop skills of communication and collaboration that we have probably never possessed. In my head, no-one is squabbling or arguing or getting cross because they were the one to unload the dishwasher ... again. I have forgotten how much time is taken in preparing three meals a day for a whole family - how much salad will be washed, pasta endlessly drained, and toast buttered. I have also forgotten the frustrations of Minecraft, and how hard it is finding activities to suit children who are six years apart in age. Fatally, I haven't asked anyone else what they want, or given them the chance to contribute to this vision. Perhaps, after five weeks intense classical ballet training, he will just want to spend the whole week sucked into YouTube videos - a headphone-wearing zombie pretending that he is just a normal non-communicative eleven-year-old. It is more than likely that our daughter will reject the back-catalogue of Miyazaki cartoons I have planned, because she just wants to watch Tracey Beaker.
Back to the drawing board, or not - as the case may be. I'll let you know.
To be continued ...