findingtimetowrite

Thinking, writing, thinking about writing…

Archive for the tag “children”

An Even Better Cat Poem (By My Sons)

My sons were not impressed with the poem I wrote about our cat for dVerse Poets Pub. They suggested (insisted) I should post their ‘Song for Zoe’ instead. They’ve composed it themselves, written the lyrics and regularly perform it as a lullaby for our bemused cat. So here goes: the much better cat poem which perfectly captures her quintessential nature (and it rhymes!).

Zoe can be fierce and Zoe can be scary,

Zoe can be cute and Zoe is so hairy.

Zoe can be fussy and Zoe can be strong.

Zoe can be greedy and this is Zoe’s song.

Children’s Idols and Cultural Differences

Stromae

Stromae

Last week I heard on the radio about a survey commissioned by Le Journal de Mickey in France, to find out the top celebrities or idols for 7-14 year olds. Unsurprisingly, Stromae came out top. He is certainly No. 1 in our house – and a hugely talented singer/songwriter, although his brand of disenchanted, cynical rebellion would suit an older age-group (in my opinion, but I’m just an old-fashioned Mum, right?).

Shy'm

Shy’m

Also in the top 5: actor/comedian Kev Adams, DJ/rapper Maitre Gims, actor Omar Sy and actor/opera-singer Loup-Denis Elion.  The top 10 also included judo champion Teddy Riner and (for girls especially) actress Audrey Lamy and singers Tal and Shy’m. Hollande and Sarkozy were fighting it out amongst themselves down in the dregs for the 50th place.

Loup-Denis Elion

Loup-Denis Elion

You won’t have heard of any of the favourite celebrities (except perhaps Omar Sy, who appeared in the feel-good film ‘The Intouchables’) unless you live in France and regularly watch TV or read the tabloids. So why am I telling you this? Is it an opportunity to bemoan that children seem to be attracted to the stars of entertainment? That they seem attracted to ‘easy fame’?

OmarSy

Omar Sy

Well, actually, no. Because the children’s choice is probably better than an adult version might be. There are no reality TV stars there, famous for little else than provoking scandal and appearing at every opening. There are no teenage boy or girl bands, who are created and controlled by money-hungry adults. These are all people who are working hard in their chosen field and achieving success after many years of practice. Sure, there could be more women on this list – but the women who are there are not just pretty faces or wives/girlfriends of other famous people.

MaitreGims

MaitreGims

What struck me most about the list, however, was that there were hardly any white people on it. Most of these idols are at least partly black, North African, Jewish… And that’s refreshing. You could argue that this is because most ‘ethnic groups’ (a term which sets my teeth on edge, since we are all ethnic in some way) go into the entertainment industry. However, dare I hope that this means that the younger generation are more ‘colour-blind’ than us older ones? And I also wonder what a list like this would look like in other countries: UK, US, Greece? Anyone know?

Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation

AftermathThere seem to be an awful lot of books out there with ‘Aftermath’ in their titles, but I am referring to the one by Rachel Cusk, published in 2012 to a howl of indignation from many readers and critics. In it she talks with unadorned consternation and painful honesty about the breakdown of her marriage and its consequences. And she talks about it at length. Every passing mood is recorded – too much for some tastes, but it may help many women who are struggling to come to terms with separation. I am not usually much of a fan of memoir-writing (certainly not of ‘misery memoirs’) and yet I rather liked this one.

Of course it is self-centred and self-absorbed, but is it ‘infuriating and narcissistic’? Of course it represents a small sliver of life: the story of a rather privileged, well-educated woman who can come across as elitist. She does not have to go out and work night shifts as a single mother to support her children. She does not have to take her ex-husband to court for neglecting to pay child support. (On the contrary, he is the one demanding support from her, since he sacrificed his career to help raise the children. The bitterness is palpable in this section of the book and shows the battle of the sexes is still alive and well.) But does that make her pain any less valid, her struggles any more risible?

Cusk has been accused of blatant exhibitionism, but there is little detail here about what caused the collapse of the marriage. Instead, we find here a dissection of mind, heart and soul, sometimes a little fuzzy and self-justifying, but very often with scalpel-like precision. There are some interesting extended metaphors strewn throughout the book: comparisons with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra; the failure of a cake she bakes for her mother’s birthday (‘the difference between what I could conceive of and what I could actually do’);  a bloody tooth extraction on the day the husband moves his possessions out of the house. These are the ‘distancing’ moments, when fiction is weaved into the fabric of the memoir, and when I feel the author is writing her best work.

There is collateral damage; the fine mesh of life is torn. He has caused unnecessary pain, and trauma to the other teeth.

Aftermath2What I found most touching were the descriptions of the effect the divorce had on her daughters. The author is constantly worried about how the separation and her own mood-swings will affect her children – it does, and it is described in a most sensitive way. It’s at these moments when Cusk becomes most alive: a mother ferocious with love, sad at the pain she has inflicted on her offspring, and nursing that eternal feeling of maternal guilt.

Conclusion: Not an easy read, but certainly a contrast to the grim crime fiction characteristic of my month of February.

Mother Love

Can’t take my eyes off you

compact form

rubicund cheeks

biggest mischief-eyes

your bounce in every step.

From the spectators’ gallery at the gym

I pour all my love my admiration

I’d even adore, if that weren’t so embarrassing…

But only at a distance…

As long as you don’t speak, never whine,

when your mouth does not form into stubborn slit

as long as no grumble rumbles in our umbilical cord

as long as you stay unmarred and perfect.

Inspired by gym galas, Yummy Mummys and scruffy ones like me…

Linked to the Open Link Night fun over at dVerse Poets, where we are discussing passion over form this week. Well, my son is passionate about his trampolining, but his form… Still, in my eyes, he is the best competitor out there!

Two Books with a Great Sense of Place

REdRoadToday I’m comparing and contrasting two books I’ve recently read, which both have a wonderful sense of local atmosphere.

The first is ‘The Red Road’ by Denise Mina, out in paperback on Feb. 13th, 2014.

Author Denise Mina has an instantly recognisable voice in crime fiction: compassionate yet completely unsentimental. She is the mistress of portraying the lost souls of urban poverty and the tough choices they have to make. Rough areas, with buildings ripe for demolition (the Red Road flats in Glasgow are real and are indeed being gradually demolished), decaying morals, corruption at all levels, contrast between rich and poor, the educated and the deprived. This book falls most certainly within the Tartan noir category. It talks about recent history but observed through two different time frames: the night of Diana’s death (because everyone can remember where they were on that night) and the present day. Mina excels at social commentary without preaching, simply by letting her characters talk. And what well-rounded, plausible characters they are, most of them facing heart-breaking dilemmas. I’ve not read previous books in the Alex Morrow series (although I have read other Denise Mina books), but that did not diminish at all my reading experience.

‘The Outcast Dead’ by Elly Griffiths falls more towards the cosy end of the crime fiction spectrum, although it too deals with the harrowing subject of lost or mistreated children. Griffiths’ local area are the flat, isolated Norfolk broads, very rural, traversed by hidden causeways and visited by regular sinister fogs.

OutcastDead Yet the author introduces us to an ostensibly comfortable and comforting community: middle-class, well-educated population, church towers instead of tower blocks, village pubs instead of orphanages. There is a historical dimension here (of course there would be with a forensic anthropologist as the main protagonist) – even slight tinges of the supernatural – but we are operating squarely within a single time frame. I had read the first book in the Ruth Galloway series, but none since, so it did feel a little as though I had not seen a friend for many years and had too much to catch up on. Ruth, however, remains a lovable, no-nonsense every woman heroine (despite her complicated family dynamic).

There are some similarities between these two books, although they probably do address two quite distinct crime fiction audiences (unless you are a greedy omnivorous reader like myself). Families do not necessarily provide a safe haven, and children are all too often the victims: kidnapped, manipulated, possibly killed by the people in whose care they’ve been placed. Outcasts in both cases. And of course both writers are masterful at giving us enough of the local atmosphere to really drive the story forward: the descriptions are always economic, never overdone, with gradual layering of details.

One quibble I do have: given that the books are so different, why are the covers rather similar in colour, lettering and silhouetted imagery? It seems to be a current trend in crime fiction – similar ones have arrived in my post box for the past year or so, from different publishers and for different authors, ranging from Fred Vargas to Alison Bruce. I actually quite like the moodiness and blue is my favourite colour… but diversity is the mother of originality!

Revisiting Childhood Favourites

Earlier this week I was looking for light and undemanding airplane reading matter. I  can never sleep on long-haul flights, so I need to keep myself occupied without taxing the little grey cells too much. I chose ‘Das fliegende Klassenzimmer’ by Erich Kästner. It is less well known than his delightful ‘Emil and the Detectives’, and perhaps not quite as exciting (there are no gangsters or chases through city streets, although there are a few fights and and a nearly tragic accident). It is a school story, in essence. However, it has the trademark Kästner humour and his clear understanding of what it means to be an imaginative child trying to be good, but not always quite succeeding.

I used to love school stories as a child, especially boarding schools. Being an only child, perhaps I craved that constant companionship, the midnight conspiracies, the leisure activities that were just not possible to do with friends during school hours. Mallory Towers, St. Clares and the Chalet School were very real to me, as were the stage schools described in ‘Ballet Shoes’ or the Sadlers Wells ballet series written by Lorna Hill. But I also had the other typical girl’s obsession with horses: Ruby Ferguson’s Jill and her ponies books were my constant companions. Sadly, they seem to be hard to find or out of print nowadays.

One of the pleasures of having children is rediscovering old reading favourites and discussing them with a new generation. Of course, they don’t always have the same reaction – and not just because they are boys and therefore less interested in ballet or pony stories! My kids loved the whole series around ‘Five Children and It’ (especially ‘The Story of the Amulet’), but were left cold by ‘Swallows and Amazons’. ‘Treasure Island’ did not really rock their boat, while ‘The Hobbit’ did. They never really clicked with the Famous Five or Secret Seven, and I am still trying to get them to give Leon Garfield or Joan Aiken a chance.

My most fun rediscoveries, which the boys enjoyed just as much as me, have been: Paddington Bear, the Moomins, Asterix, Tintin and of course the above-mentioned Emil and his adventures in the big, bad city of Berlin.

What books did you love as a child? Have you reread them since and what do you think of them now? And how have your children reacted to your own childhood favourites?

Still: Time and Distractions

There was a reason I named my blog ‘Finding Time to Write’.  18 months on, and this is still the greatest challenge for me.

I am ashamed that this should be the case. ‘First World’, ‘middle class problem’ and ‘mountain out of a molehill’ are expressions that come to mind whenever I want to write about this, even in the privacy of my diary. I feel humbled by stories of true courage in the face of adversity, such as Amy Good’s account of writing with aphasia  or a poet’s moving account of writing while caring for her invalid husband. I haven’t quite figured out why I can spend hours genuinely sympathising with friends who struggle to balance career, family and creativity, but am so bitterly unforgiving with myself when I dare to voice the same concerns. With others it’s justified and I take their arguments at face value. With me, it’s petty little excuses.

I chide Ice Queen Me for requiring so much space (both physical and mental) to write.  I try to reason with Ritualistic Me that a notebook, a pen and a corner of a table should be all that is required for my writing happiness.  I quarrel with Harridan Mum that absolute silence is not enforceable, practical or necessary for inspiration. And I do daily grim, wordless battle with Ms. Procrastinator, serving her a steady diet of frogs to swallow first thing every morning, before challenging her to a sword-fight.

Yet the numbers speak for themselves.

August: month of no children, family, work or social obligations.

Second draft of novel completed, 21 blog posts posted, 27 books read, 12 book reviews completed, 12 new poems written, 2 poems edited and submitted to competition.

Children came back 10 days ago.

treehouse1

Tree House Lodge, Costa Rica.

Since then, I have done zero writing or editing on my novel, 0 poems written, 2 blog posts (both cheats: one a poem I had written earlier, the other a simple list of reading), and 1 book review which I had half-written previously.  And I finished one book (which I had started before their arrival).

I’ve started reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Crosswicks journals and so much of what she says resonates with me:

Every so often I need OUT; something will throw me into total disproportion, and I have to get away from everybody – away from all of these people I love most in the world – in order to regain a sense of proportion.

It is almost frightening how content I was with the lonely life, how quickly I adapted to a day shaped around my writing, how nothing else seemed to matter. Yet, of course, now, when I clasp those bony knees and scraped elbows, making a bundle of them in my arms, trying to fit them still within my protective embrace… I know that something else does matter.  I don’t know if being a mother has changed me as a writer or improved my writing in any way. I fear not. It’s not just the spectre of time that is haunting me now, but also the Ghost of Courage Past. I seem less willing to venture out on that limb, with no thought of return. I need to find my way back. To them, my beloved millstones. Tell myself that old lie, which sometimes fails to comfort: that there is still plenty of time to progress, learn my craft, write and publish.

So perhaps I could have been a writer without being a mother, but I do know that I could not have been a mother without being a mother. Or without being a writer.

Signs You May be Turning French…

You know your children are turning French when…

… they know more swear/slang words in French than they do in English.

… every sentence is prefaced by the exclamation ‘La vache!’ (and no, they weren’t referring to the Montbeliard cows producing Comté cheese, who were grazing peacefully on every field we passed during our holidays).

… they demand ‘explications’ for every single command you issue.

… older son is writing an encyclopedia because he likes to pontificate about things and he has heard of Diderot.

… younger son builds Eiffel Towers with rulers, protractors, pens and rubbers (in earlier years, it used to be the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth).

… they have opinions on the policies of François Hollande and compare him with Sarkozy

Maybe it’s time to head home soon?

Then again, on a sunny day like this…Image

 

Birth of a Class Clown

marblesAfter all that, he’d forgotten the frigging marbles at home!  He knew there’d be a price to pay for that at break-time.  Two weeks at this school had been enough to teach him that no one, not even Jacques with the kind eyes and shy smile, no one got away unharmed when they promised something to Noah… and failed to deliver.

There was only one way out of it.  Miss break-time.  Fake an illness.  Would it work?  Would the teacher grasp enough of his stuttering French?

The teacher finally looked up, just before his arm went to sleep.  He hadn’t wanted to speak up.

‘Yes?’

‘Je peux sortir?  J’ai mal au…’ What was the word for it again?  Never mind, he’d say it with a French accent. ‘Au… tummeee.’

‘Je peux sortir, Madame,’ the teacher corrected him sternly.

‘Madame… tummee.’ He didn’t know what possessed him to repeat the word.  Perhaps he thought it would inspire some sense of urgency.  Instead, laughter rose like waves on a dried and sunken beach.  Some of it was abandoned, hysterical.  The teacher’s frown deepened.  Some of it was derision, as usual, at his lack of language skills, but for once he could live with that.

Of course he wasn’t allowed out.  Not then, not later.  But that day he discovered his weapon of choice: disarming through laughter.

 

Fun at Ski School: 5 Sentence Fiction Challenge

Not fictional enough, but a story that haunts me still…

‘Not more snow!’ moaned the littlest bear.
We moved to this snow-filled country for Daddy’s work: Mummy loves the winter sports, your brother the food. But you, the smallest and most curious of bears, the one who makes friends as easily as others make mistakes, you the smiley human bouncing-ball, you hate the cold and the white stuff.

Drunk and dizzied by the gleam of the sun on the slopes, I strap on your boots and nudge you into ski school. You nurse your frozen paws, slide miserably through puerile hoops, and ask yourself: ‘Why?’

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