Sunday, February 28, 2010


and then there are the other days, when the rain is pouring in endless sheets, and the sky is so grey that the house is still dark at 8:30 am, and dark again at 4:30 pm, days on which i just want to stay in bed, or listen to jacques brel and feel sorry for myself, but the 2-year old grabs my face at 6:45 am and whispers/shouts 'Mama, it ben WAKKER!', and all my photographs come out blury, and there is nothing to photograph anyway, and nothing to do, and nothing to see, and the world is as empty as my mind, or was it the other way around, and the hours drag by, one more disconsolate than the other, and all i can think is 'how dare i feel this way when there are people out there, in chile and elsewhere, who are waking up without their houses, without their children, without their lives!', and marc is grumpy, and who can blame him, and the children are watching pippi langkous for the third time in a row, clearly not learning anything, except how to bicker with each other, and then we go to a birthday party, to a house that is clean and children who are not only well-behaved, but who can read too, and who know so much about so much, and the women's clothes are not, the way mine are, covered in interesting-looking stains (some of them with antique value at this point), and people have opinions and things to talk about, and i am just feeling so sleepy, and eat too much cake, and then have to walk back in the pouring rain, and there is no food in the fridge, or anywhere else in the house (unless you count the crusty plates in the sink), except homemade vanilla ice-cream, and the children are watching pippi langkous again, and i know know know for a fact that life is a terrible terrible blight, and that i cannot possibly and shouldn't even try to homeschool because i'm no bloody good at it, and they would be much better off at school, because i have nothing to offer, and...

... and then, right there, in the midst of my incessant internal wailing, my 6-year old walks, or rather waltzes, into the kitchen, bearing the following:
"I am throwing a happiness party, and N. and T. are invited, love, Isabelle"

it turns out that while i was wailing, she was pondering the degree of happiness in her life, and having concluded that she was particularly and remarkably happy, she decided to throw a party to share this happiness with all her friends; at which point (with pippi langkous as a background sound-track) she designed and created a number of hand-made original invitations, thought up a party plan and was coming to me to discuss dates.

again and again, and again and again, i forget this most important fact: that the greyness and misery in my mind are in my mind.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

memory lane

these are 'old' photographs (may last year), but they make me happy today. from reading to cuddling and laughing, the road is (still) short, straight, and delightful.

redistribution of wealth

we have managed to survive for two months already on a little bit more than half of what we were used to. hurray for us! seriously, the budgeting is going well. so well that we have managed to have a little bit left over at the end of the month, and, in accordance with our newly-found creed, have decided to distribute this little bit equally amongst all members of the family. which means i was able to buy a lovely book of songs for my accordion, marc made an appointment with the hairdresser, and as for the children...

... but let me follow a tangent. both my children are the happy owners of a playmobil catalogue. although i am not really sure how it happened, i suspect it had something to do with oma. anyway, no book has ever been read with quite so much passion, drooling, and consistency. every morning, the two tired, wrinkly, front-cover-missing items are dragged out of whatever dark hole they spend the night in, and the early morning ritual begins. Isabelle sits quietly poring over her porridge and making up stories about all the characters in the various playmobil scenes. meanwhile, Toini, having found his favourite page of the moment (the fire-engines, the police station, the under-water diving world and/or the dinosaurs), points his little finger at a seemingly random spot and begins his litany: 'Mama, ik wil die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die. Aaaan die ook. Aaaan die.'

when it became apparent that there was a bit of cash to be spent, Isabelle, having pondered the question, decided she wanted some animal acts for her circus. i then tried to put the question to Toini. 'So, Toini, which one did you like again?' He opened the fire-engine page. 'It vind deze mooi!' he said pointing to one of the fire-trucks. 'Do you want to have that one?' i asked, just to make sure. 'Ja, die hebben...', he replied, 'Aaan die...', little finger sliding on the page, 'Aaaaan die..., aaaan die, aan die, aaaan die, aaaan die, aaaan die, aaaaan die, aaaan die.' 'Yes, but Toini, if you can have one, which one do you want?' he looked at me wonderingly, unsure what i meant, then he spread his little hands as wide as he could, and tried to cover as much of the two pages as possible, using his forearms for extra surface area. 'Allemaal! It wil allemaal hebben!'.

i think i have found the first grain of sand in our budget...

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

anger management

i didn't use to think of myself as an angry person. in fact, i managed to live nigh on thirty years on this earth without really getting angry at all. not even once. not even a little. that's clearly the sign of a non-angry person, wouldn't you say?

(un)fortunately, six years of a spicy cocktail of motherhood and therapy has turned me into a person for whom anger management is an issue to ponder seriously (and repeatedly). It turns out that not only do i have it in me to get angry often and passionately, but i seem to bring to each new outburst somewhat of a backlog of unresolved conflicts (maybe maybe maybe somehow related to the thirty years of not getting angry??), resulting in irrational, hard-to-stop and hard-to-manage rage.

not really what one wants around little children.

so, necessity being the mother of invention and all that, over the years, i have collected a number of strategies, all of which have been successful at times, and have failed me miserably at other times. still, for the record, so my children know that their bizarre memories are not inventions, and just in case these may be of some use to others, here is my 'best-of' anger management techniques for frazzled mothers of young children:

- the first and best one is to not get angry at all. borrowed from Buddhism. this involves becoming aware of the fact that there is nothing to be angry about. it only works if the rage is caught early enough (i.e. before it is rage), and it involves deep conscious breathing and feeling one's way into the dissatisfaction/frustration/tiredness/overwhelmingness/etc. which is at the root of this particular volcanic moment. the idea is to stay with the discomfort, feel one's way into it, manage to see and feel that what one needs is a bath/a deep breath/some fresh air/food/a nap/a drink/a cuddle and what one does not need is to scream at one's child. unfortunately, for people with a serious backlog, like yours truly, this technique hardly ever works because by the time i am aware of needing it, it's usually way too late.

- the anger corner (borrowed from Core Energetics): designate one corner/room in the house as the official anger area and equip it with various thumping, kicking, boxing, and biting equipment. this technique derives from the idea that anger is like vomit: it's no good trying to keep it in, but unloading oneself on, or in the vicinity of, another person's feet is not conducive to good relationships. in other words, 'get it out and do it in private'. in practice, when i feel myself becoming unreasonably angry and i am past the point where the explosion could be avoided, i say to the children, 'excuse me for a moment, while i deal with my anger', and then run upstairs and thump myself back into contentment and peace. this technique works very well but has the slight disadvantage that the children are left alone in the meantime, which they don't mind one bit but it makes it difficult for me to really concentrate on what i am doing, since i am also half listening to make sure they are ok. plus, for obvious reasons, this technique only works when at home.

- the lion (i made this one up): this is my favourite, mostly because it's tremendously effective. and versatile. and really fun. and it happens in contact with the children. and did i mention that it's really really fun? anyway, it's an anger game. the angry person says 'i'm kind of getting angry here, so i'm going to pretend to be an angry lion. is that ok with you?' in my experience, all the children then shout 'YES!!!!'. they get to choose who they are, the options being: not playing at all (extremely safe option for the child), being the lion's cub (also very safe since the child positions him/herself behind the angry lion and is being protected by it), being another lion (if the child also has some anger/energy that wants out) or the prey (if the child feels like running and/or a little thrill). once it's clear who everyone is, the angry lion (me, me, me) starts stomping her feet, clawing at the air, roaring at the top of her lungs, and chasing the prey, with as much stomping, roaring and clawing as is required, until, sated and exhausted, filled with fresh air and laughter, the lion hugs all players and non-players to her ample bosom and asks for forgiveness for being such a complicated mama.

the initial difficulty with the 'lion' game is also what makes it most fun and liberating in the end, namely that in order to be able to use it, one has to seriously let go of all hope of ever being seen as a 'sane-i've-got-it-all-together' kind of mother by street-level strangers.

what about you people out there? what do you do when the mustard climbs up your noses?

my funny valentines

sunday night, i came back from a really nice date with a wonderful person i had so far only known online, to find the house filled with valentine gifts. unfortunately, not many of them have survived long enough for the camera to catch them, but here are some of my personal favourites. From top to bottom: a ballroom with a little papa-doll, a love-letter at his feet, waiting for his little girl to come and dance with him; an anatomically correct heart (containing lungs, liver, veins and a few other essential parts) filled with love for Toini; and a piece of blue sky (the egg) with some white fluffy clouds floating in it (to remind me of spring).

Friday, February 12, 2010

on finishing

(see that little black pole in the distance? when you get there, you will have arrived)

"If you start something, you have to finish it!"

"You started it, didn't you? Now you've got to finish it too!"

"Are you absolutely sure you want to start with that? Because you'll have to finish it, you know..."

If these statements left you breathing freely and comfortably, you may skip the rest of this post. But if, like me, they caused your blood tension to rise and your palms to sweat slightly, if there is now a knot in your stomach, and you are wondering whether your last meal has agreed with you; if you are in fact one of those poor blighted creatures who have been known to sacrifice hours, days, sleep, months, years, courage and hair on the altar of the idol god of the finish-line, make yourselves comfortable, grab a hot drink and sit with me for a while.

A few weeks ago, Isabelle announced that she no longer wanted to attend her ballet class. "You mean you don't feel like going today?" i quickly interposed, feeling uncomfortable already. No, she didn't feel like going, period. "Well, shall i just cancel for today, and then next week we can see?". No, she was pretty sure there was nothing to see, she just didn't want to go anymore. "But you love it so much!...". No, she didn't love it so much anymore. "But you loved it three years ago when you started, didn't you?". Yes, she had. "And you loved it two years ago, right?". Yes, she had loved it then too. "And you loved it last year, and earlier this year too, right????". Yes, all that was true, but now she didn't want to go anymore.

(you know that cartoon where the indian chief is being served dinner by his wife, and she is saying "What do you mean you don't like stew????? You ate stew on Monday, you ate stew on Tuesday, you ate stew on Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, and now suddenly, on Saturday, you decide you don't like stew?????")

By that point, i had reached a state of light panic. This was really really really not OK. Because... because... because the course ran until June... so... so she simply had to attend until June... because... because... i had paid for the course (that one didn't work too well, since i would also have paid for the course if she had attended until June), because... because her teacher would be devastated (that one didn't work too well either, though i tried to sell it to Isabelle, who, not being of the 'please-everybody-at-all-times-even-if-it-kills-you' school, looked at me with a doubtful expression and said "I think she'll be fine, mama"), because... because... and then i saw it: her entire life flashing before my eyes, unemployment, long lanky hair, drugs and depravation, failure upon terrible failure, because she was turning into a person who didn't finish things.

And of course, this was bound to happen, because her mother (that would be me) spent most of her life fearing and suspecting that she was herself one of those doomed people who didn't finish things. Starting, yes, i could proudly claim to be a well-known, you might say almost a professional starter, but as for finishing, no, not me, not enough courage, brain, perseverence, commitment, love, dignity, guts, civility, goodness and breath. How i tortured myself over the years, forcing myself to finish things to the point where the things in question almost finished me, refusing to start projects i would have loved because of the fear of not finishing them, and always hugging to myself the terrible secret of my handicap.

The astounding and trivial truth is, of course, that everybody always finishes what they start. The only question is whether the point at which they are done happens to correspond to some official 'finishing' point. And in view of statistical probability, what are the odds of that? Right: Zilch.

Which leaves us with two choices: to stop when it's time to stop or to plod on, losing life energy, enthusiasm, rosiness of cheeks and time, until the official (and utterly arbitrary) ribbon line.

And let's face it, it really is pathetically arbitrary. Take for instance your standard university degree: there you are, dying to find out about proteins, or medieval ballads, or whatever it is, and then, four years later, if all is well, you get a piece of paper that says you are done now. In my meagre experience, i would guess that on the day you get your diploma, you know loads and loads of stuff about stuff you never needed/wanted to know about (and which you have already, if all is well, completely forgotten), and way way way too little about other things, that you really did want to know about, but didn't have time/energy to find out about because you were too busy with the things on the programme that you didn't want to know. So are you done then? The little piece of paper says you are.

Now the opposition is jumping in and clamouring that in our diploma-ridden world, some of this hoop-jumping is unavoidable if you want to secure a job, a life, a spouse and/or a hair-cut. In response to which, i would like to introduce the autodidact (note that narrowly speaking, an autodidact would have to be somebody who never went to school, as opposed to someone who went and didn't complete the course, but there is a broader definition running along the lines of 'not having a diploma in that which he or she is famous for'). According to wikipedia, then, here are a few famous 'non-finishers': Da Vinci, Faraday, Socrates, Descartes, Michael Angelo, Franklin, Shaw, Hemingway, Popper, Errol Flynn, Nietzsche, William Blake, Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Terry Pratchett, Frank Zappa, Spielberg, Tarantino, Kubrick, Woody Allen, Orson Wells, David Bowie and a whole bunch of people whom i don't know but who are very famous nevertheless and presumably had no trouble getting a hair-cut (although some of them may have had lanky hair and/or done drugs...). So it can be done. And it can be fun.

Now if pushing yourself through to the finishing line was an innocent waste of time, i wouldn't be squeaking. But it isn't innocent; it is nothing short of a death-toll to creativity and joy. It saps vitality, and replaces passion with depression. It gives little and robs you of the marrow of life.

I finished my PhD, by the skin of my teeth. It didn't quite kill me, but almost. When i think of what i might have done with those years, i could weep. And whatever they say, that diploma (which i seem to have mislaid anyway) didn't offer me any advantages in life so far, and is very unlikely to do so in future (unless perhaps i try to emigrate to one of those countries with the point-system admission, but even then, once the official responsible for my application reads what it is that i have a PhD in, the friendly (canadian) door is just as likely to slam shut in my face...).

And so, as of today, i embrace and rejoice in the fact that i really am one of those people who don't finish things. And i embrace and rejoice in my children turning out to be people who don't finish things. And i think my lovely husband should stop right now with finishing things. And start something instead.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

my wooly knight in sticky armour

(this costume was made upon request within half an hour, while Toini slept, so i had to use what i had and be quick about it, which is why it is a) way too big and b) green and wooly. the 'way too big' thing is actually good, because he can keep growing into it. the 'wooly green' thing is actually also good because it doubles up as a robin hood costume (when worn inside out), a peter pan costume (when worn with a belt), a yoda costume (when seen from behind), and a multitude of possible medieval monk costumes)

and here is, unrelatedly, a Toini story i have been meaning to write down for a while:

7:15 am. I have been in the shower for less than two minutes and the air on the other side of the curtain is still ice cold. Over the noise of the splattering water, i hear him in the hall. His thumping bare feet, uneven on the wooden floor. A miniature elephant, stumbling in the dark. A pause. Then the door of the bathroom creaks open. "Mama!" he croaks in his hoarse early morning voice. A reproach, a command, a question. All packed into two sleepy syllables. I peek at him around the corner of the shower curtain. He is standing there, swaying slightly on his feet, his little fists rubbing into his eyes and catching the wild strands of hair hanging in his face. After the darkness of the hall, the light is blinding him. He is still almost sleeping. "Mama!" he croaks again, "Ik hap ook boeven!" (i have breasts too!). I try the 'unphased' approach, silently grinning to myself: "Oh really? Do you want to show me?". Obediently, he drops both his hands and begins to pull up his wooly sweater. I can see his baby belly, taut and round, creamy silky soft, appear like a full moon over the uneven ridge of his diaper. Just above the navel, he stops, looking down, arching his back and craning his neck to see further. "Oh nee!", there is shock in his voice, now, urgency. "Weg is tie!! Weg is ie mijn boeven!" (Oh no! They are gone!! My breasts are gone!!!) . He looks up at me, through his curtain of hair, big eyes wide from interrupted sleep and shock. We must make quite a pair, he with his belly up in the air, and me hanging on to the shower curtain, with my old lilac bathcap on. "Pull it up higher, honey!", I suggest. The room is steamy now, and warm. He pulls his sweater up, just a little higher, and a little more, until at last his tiny nipples appear. "Aaah!", relief flooding us both, my heart is melting in my chest. "Daar is ie!! Daar is ie mijn boeven!" (there they are! there are my breasts!).

Now that story is from late december, only a few weeks ago, and yet it is already utterly out-dated. Toini has made such a tremendous jump in his verbal skills over those weeks that he is now far more likely to say things like "I was really sad and angry yesterday when i called you and you didn't come, and i had to go down by myself!". Sometimes, it goes so fast, it's scary. And i catch myself missing him already now. You know, pre-emptively, for when he leaves home...

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

washing the floor...

... in the style of Pippi. when i asked Isabelle whether she might in passing also wash the one spot where there was an actual dirty stain, she said: 'of course not, there is dirt there!'. 'yes, well, actually, that is kind of why i was thinking that perhaps...'. 'but mama, the dirt will get under my skates, and then they won't slide so well!'. point taken. what was i thinking????

as for Toini, he was of the opinion that 'naked and fast' was the only way. the only way, man!
(Our recipe for floor-washing-stuff comes from this book (i think), and it consists of a bucket of water, a bit of dishwashing soap, five drops of lavender oil, and three drops of orange oil. it smells yummy and fresh, and i never have to worry about the toxic effect on my little helpers.)
(... and yes, i agree that Toini needs bigger sponges. i mean skates.)

Friday, February 05, 2010

Pippilotta Victualia ...

whenever travelling, she is likely to carry her horse, monkey and carpet-bag. she sleeps with her feet on her pillow, and her head under the covers, more often than not with her shoes on, the silver high-heeled ones. she wears her face freckled and her hair braided, and pokes wire into the braids to ensure they stick out at the appropriate 90 degrees angle. she has taken to standing wide-legged, her little fists on her hips. one of the bedrooms has been re-decorated, complete with kitchenette, doll-bed for Mr. Nilsson the monkey and the proverbial mess.

mostly, though, it is the attitude she cultivates: fearless, independent, knowing her own mind. she now cooks her own oatmeal and spends part of each morning in front of the fridge, large spoon in hand, handing out a variety of prophylactics, as she sees fit. whenever a statement is made in her hearing that appears just a touch too categorical, she is likely to pounce: 'how do you know? did you go around the world and see all the people in it? did you travel back and forth in time and visit the people there? how do you know then that ...??? "

and now, just a few weeks into the game, it is already starting to dawn on her that a) despite appearances, Pippi takes extremely good care of herself; not perhaps by the slightly rigid and narrow standards of the small-town society she lives in, but certainly by the lights of her inner instinctual wisdom (this has resulted in much tooth-brushing and the afore-mentioned prophylactics) and b) that the spirit of Pippi demands not so much slavish imitation as a commited and profound faith in one's very own excentricities. and if those are not wise life lessons, my friends, then i'll eat my hat!

Wednesday, February 03, 2010


we'd had face-paint in the house before, little pots with brushes and stuff, way too complicated, they ended up dry and forgotten at the back of a cupboard, but then this year, for her birthday, Isabelle got these pencils, which are fantastically user-friendly, and since then we've all been having a ball, with pirates, butterflies, tigers and other fantasmagoric creatures peopling our faces. as a rule, nobody bothers to remove their paint (with the exception of Marc, who sometimes has to go to work), so that pirates slowly fade away, and butterflies gently melt. unless, of course, they happen to be brutally dissolved in the bath.

sometimes, one is painted again before the previous paint has had time to disappear, so that fantasy is layered upon fantasy, and tigers turn into butterflies, pirates into mice. right now, Toini is asleep with just one pirate eyebrow left, an eyebrow that has resisted the assaults of time, bath-water, oatmeal, face-washing and snow. now that is the mark of a true pirate!

Monday, February 01, 2010

catching up

this month has been so full, with trips and friends, and things going on right here in our little house, things i want to record, to write about, things i keep lists of in my head, but there are too many, and i feel them slipping away, so just so i don't forget, and hoping that there will be time to write down more, and maybe add some visuals, and if there isn't time enough, well that's fine too, these are the things i've been meaning to say:

Isabelle has been drawing, painting, acting, singing and dancing as usual, but she has also been making movies (both cartoons and regular), teaching herself to knit, reinventing herself as Pippi Longstocking, discovering the art of face-painting, teaching herself to skate on single-blade skates, rediscovering her knowledge of the french language, singing the entire Magic Flute from memory, trying out the thin coloured pencils she got for her birthday, and quitting her dancing class. she has also been philosophizing, eating candy and playing scrabble.

Toini has become a pirate and then shortly afterwards a knight, with sword, harnass and all. Ridder Bommerkruit is his name (borrowed from Sjoerd Kuyper, i think). he charges through life, as always, but now with his sword up front. he has started speaking in amazingly complicated sentences, while continuing work on his agility skills (balancing on one foot on the arm of the couch: 'En NOE ga ik iets echt gevaarlijks doen!' (and NOW i am going to do something really dangerous!')). he has also been skating, cycling, doing yoga with me, watching movies, baking me, dancing around naked (it ben een naatdanser! (i am a naked dancer), sledding in the snow, drinking lots of hot chocolate, reading letters, playing hide-and-seek, singing, doing judo with papa, drawing, driving various vehicles, knitting, and acting in isabelle's movies, both on-screen and off.

they both wake up with smiles on their faces, every single day.
as for me, i have been baking, brewing broths, experimenting with a multitude of whey-based delicacies, playing music, writing, digging into the swamps at the bottom of my marriage, thinking of dogs (a lot), worrying about the finances of a single-income budget, dancing, reading (on unschooling, puppy training, and The Reader (the movie was amazing, the book even more so, there is a bit in there about unschooling...), knitting, not missing work, watching Seinfeld, seriously not missing work, pondering the meaning of life, pondering my alleged resemblence to Kramer, and spending time with friends.

i go to sleep with a smile on my face, (almost) every single day.
(looking at these photographs, Marc was reminded of this post, in which i bemoan the passing of time and the imminent loss of Isabelle's baklava hat. That was three years ago... now we have two such hats. and so it goes with life. never what you expect. always good.)