terça-feira, 28 de julho de 2009

Parenting advice: wit and wisdom from writers

We all need help to be happy. From the age of 16, my little helper has been a battered blue book in which I have written poems and aphorisms that express simple or complex truths in a beautiful way. With careful rounded letters in my teens, scrawling writing in my busy thirties, it is an autobiography written in the words of other people, always there to jolt me out of moments of self-pity.

On the top of one much-thumbed page is David Campbell’s Praise Life:

“Men and boughs break,

Praise life while you walk and wake,

It is only lent.”

As I’ve grown older, the words in my little blue book have been the building blocks to a sturdier self. After all, when the going gets tough why not cut out the middlemen, the therapists and counsellors, and go straight to the great wordsmiths for help? Shakespeare, Laurie Lee, Winston Churchill, Ian McEwan and Gerard Manley Hopkins are always ready to explore the shaky, extraordinary moments of human existence with quiet lines to help your troubled heart.

Purists would say that literature is there to enlarge the imagination and to be admired as, well, literature. The idea that good poetry or prose should primarily be used as an emotional crutch is considered far too practical. I say let’s grab literature to us like a comforting pillow. Let’s pillage it for help.

I have burrowed through literature for poems and prose that actively comfort or inspire for my three anthologies about the great family turning points: love, death and birth, and have come out immeasurably more cheerful. I look for writing that helps life to be lived with more meaning and understanding. The latest anthology, on birth, New Life, An Anthology for Parenthood, is the most joyful.

New mothers and fathers are knocked sideways by the unexpected emotions of parenthood, and it takes writing of genius to capture the complex balance of wonder and fear. Anne Stevenson, describes in Poem for a Daughter how a baby’s first “razor-sharp cry” delivers a mother to her baby . . .

“The child,

tiny and alone, creates the mother”.

Peter Redgrove, another 20th-century poet, brilliantly expresses in Early Morning Feed how a new baby taps into the most powerful and primitive of emotions. After an early morning feed the father

“returns to bed

And feels like something, with the door ajar,

Crouched in the bracken, alert, with big eyes

For the hunger, death, disaster”.

For any parent struggling with the peculiar emotions of new parenthood it is reassuring to know that you’re not crazy, but actually quite normal.

You need inspiration, too, to cope with that puzzling contradiction of parenthood: that you love your children so much that when they are old enough you want them to leave. In Walking Away, the Irish poet C. Day-Lewis has just watched his son play his first game of football and then walk away with his friends. He describes the pain as

“the small, the scorching

Ordeals which fire one’s irresolute day”.

He goes on to explain in this fierce and powerful poem how

“selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go”.

It is hard to imagine a professional counsellor leaning over and saying: “That is the human condition, and what is most painful often enriches you most.” A poem such as Walking Away, with the beauty of the language and the distress fighting within the lines, leans over and tells you that the significance of your life lies as much in the twists of pain as the pleasure.

Sleepless nights, postnatal depression, dealing with grandparents, coping with the poignancy of a second child eagerly following his adored sister down “babyhood’s brief corridor”, all these need processing. Robert Hayden’s moving Those Winter Sundays describes how he took his father for granted as a child:

“Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

How helpful this is to others who took their parents for granted. As the Victorian writer Edmund Vance Cooke points out: “Children do not know how their parents love them, and they never will till the grave closes over those parents, or till they have children of their own.”

Similarly, compiling an anthology about death was a turning point in my own life. I lost the grey net curtain of fear which I realise must have clouded my days, and since then life has seemed quite miraculous. Dear friends had died, my parents were getting older, I had no iota of belief in God or an afterlife, I needed help. No clumpy self-help book could have done it. I needed the greatest writers to assist with this one. And they did.

In the first section of In Loving Memory: An Anthology for Memorial Services, Funerals and Just Getting By, Dylan Thomas demands that his father does not go gentle into that good night. W. H. Auden cries out his Funeral Blues, insisting that all the clocks stop. But, if you know where to look, the great authors can take a reader through anger and grief to a sense of resolution. To Churchill’s calming and direct letter to his wife in the event of his death, for example: “Do not grieve me too much . . . death is only an incident, and not the most important which happens to us in this state of being. On the whole, and since I have met you my darling, I have been happy . . . If there is anywhere else, I shall be on the lookout for you. Meanwhile look forward, feel free, rejoice in Life.”

After the death of my grandmother when I was 17 I went through a strange, disconnected period, and curiously a poem by Emily Dickinson, After Great Pain, helped me to recover because it defined my state of mind. Knowing what you feel and why is half the battletowards recovering your spirits:

“After great pain, a formal feeling comes . . .

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —

The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore

And Yesterday, or Centuries before.”

We live in a visual age but the shape and weight and sound of words have a great capacity to uplift. The right words in the right order can transform lives. When you are fretting about the future or tormenting yourself about the past, try remembering this Sanskrit proverb: “Look to this day! For it is life, the very life of life. For yesterday is but a dream. And tomorrow is only a vision. But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness. And tomorrow a vision of hope. Look well, therefore, to this day!” It may sound rather pat, but it works for me.

One of the greatest therapies, of course, is to know that you are not alone in your distress. The ceremonies that accompany the turning points of birth, love and death (christenings, weddings, funerals) of course honour the potency of words. These ceremonies are a kind of group therapy, a way of marking the transition from one state to another; a baby coming into the world and being given a name, a couple marrying, a person leaving the world. But what are these ceremonies without the words of great writers to quote?The greatest self-help is love — feverish romantic love, long-lasting romantic love, love for children, love of friends, love of parents. It soothes like honey, filling in cracks, raising spirits. It is the magic elixir. But it also causes nervous breakdowns galore, in part because we don’t understand it. Poetry is especially good at encapsulating the paradoxes of love and expressing complex emotions in a few lines. As Catullus wrote in the 1st century BC:

“I hate and love. And if you ask me why

I do not know. I only feel it, and it is agony”.

Robert Graves wrote that

“Love is a universal migraine,

A bright stain on the vision

Blotting out reason”.

Unrequited love? Read Beatrice de Die, a 12th-century female troubadour deserted by her lover. Bogged down in self-analysis? Writing in the 1800s Honoré de Balzac chides: “There are no little events with the heart. It magnifies everything; it places in the same scales the fall of an empire of fourteen years and the dropping of a woman’s glove, and almost always the glove weighs more than the empire.”

At different times, different words will come forward to comfort. I love the sense of gratitude just for being alive conveyed by Wendell Berry’s low-key poem The Peace of Wild Things. In despair about the world and its future, the poet goes to where the wood drake and the heron feed on the water.

“I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

The essential reading list

The moment you discover that you’re pregnant:

Knocked Up: Confessions of a hip mother to be, by Rebecca Eckler (2004). Eckler is a Canadian author and journalist who became pregnant on the night of her engagement party and has written numerous articles, books and columns about motherhood.

27 Jan. How could I have been so stupid? I have ruined my life. I am never having sex again. I mean, I am never having unprotected sex again. Unprotected sex, like that black dress I wore the other night, is a bad idea. Ten minutes of great sex and my life is over. But another life has just begun. Life apparently does not happen when you’re busy making other plans. Life is what happens when there is an open bar . . .

28 Feb. I am never studying another pregnancy book again until I absolutely have no choice. It will be just like high school. When I start having contractions, I’ll cram.”

On Labour:

Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) was the pen name of a Japanese author, poet, pioneering feminist, pacifist and social reformer. Her poem Labour Pains evokes the fear of childbirth.

“There is only one truth.

I shall give birth to a child, truth driving outward from my inwardness.

Neither good nor bad; real, no sham about it.

With the first labour pains, suddenly the sun goes pale.

The indifferent world goes strangely calm.

I am alone.

It is alone I am.”

On sleeplessness:

Rachel Cusk (1967-) is a Canadian novelist. Her novel A Life’s Work contains “a valediction to sleep”.

“I remember the night sleep left me. It happened in hospital. I had suspected nothing. Several hours earlier I had had a baby; people had come and gone, flowers had been brought. Darkness fell. Presently it was half past ten or so, time to go to sleep. I wrapped the baby up in blankets like a new purchase, a present that I would unwrap and look at again in the morning. I slept. When I woke again some time later, it was to realise with real surprise that the terrible, persistent wailing racketing through the ward was ‘me’, as people now say of their mobile phones. My new purchase had gone off in the dead of night like some alarm I didn’t know how to disconnect.”

Night feeding Laurie Lee (1914-97) was an English novelist and poet. Here in an extract from Two Women, a tribute to his wife and daughter written in 1983, he describes bonding with a new baby at midnight:

“She was of course an ordinary miracle, but was also the particular late wonder of my life. So almost every night, at first, I’d take her to bed like a book and lie close and study her. Her dark blue eyes would stare straight into mine, but off-centre, not seeing me.

Such moments could have been the best we would ever know, those midnights of mutual blindness, while I was safe from her first recognitions, and she’d stared idly through me, at the pillow, at the bedhead, at the light on the wall, and each was a shadow of indifferent importance.

Here she was then, my daughter, here, alive, the one I must possess and guard. A year before this space had been empty, not even a hope of her was in it. Now she was here, brand new, with our name upon her, and no one could call in the night to reclaim her.”

When a father feels neglected by the arrival of a new baby:

Sally Emerson’s novel, Separation, (1993, Abacus) charts what happens when neither a cosmologist nor his management consultant wife is prepared for the momentous effect their new baby has on their lives:

“Lovers — beware of babies. The baby wants the mother all to itself. It doesn’t want the father with their bristly chin. Go away father. Go back to your work. I shall wake my mother at night. I shall stare searchingly into her eyes. I will need her so much she will forget all about you. And you will be left alone in your bed. She will cease to buy clothes for herself. She will buy them only for me.”

On growing up too fast:

Alexander Herzen (1812-70), was a writer and thinker, known as the father of Russian socialism:

“We think the purpose of a child is to grow up because it does grow up. But its purpose is to play, to enjoy itself, to be a child. If we merely look to the end of the process, the purpose of life is death.”

When you can’t afford the latest trainers:

Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) was an Italian poet and philosopher:

“Children find everything in nothing, men find nothing in everything.”