Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Against bonsai parents

I've been polishing this piece of writing for about six years. It explains why I parent the way I do (yes, I have children - I don't talk about them much online though). People have asked what my 'secret' is. It's the classic 'less is more' approach. It's also a reaction to the way I was brought up and it may come as no surprise that the writing was actually done as an exercise for a counsellor who wanted to 'see something of my feelings written down'. He also said that he hoped that I would publish it one day so here it is.

Besides, New Year's Eve seems like the right time to publish a more personal post.

How to grow a bonsai tree:

Sow the seed in a pot that is too small.  As the seed begins to grow, keep the pot small – by giving the roots no opportunity to extend, you ensure the tree will stay tiny. Wire and clamp both trunk and branches – this guarantees that the tree grows the way you want it to grow. Plan the most attractive composition for the branches then train them in this direction using the wires. Pruning is essential; clip and snip to prevent the tree from becoming unwieldy or, heaven forbid, large. With enough time and effort (and you will need to put in a lot of time and effort as bonsai trees need constant tending) you will have a miniature tree that will be a testament to your patience and industry. People will be amazed at your mastery over nature and you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

How to grow a tree:

Sow the seed in the ground. Watch over the seedling while it is still tiny – you may need to protect the tender young shoots. In the early stages, you may need to prop it up, but after a while the trunk will be strong enough that it can grow without support. Water regularly in the beginning. After a while, when the roots have grown deep and wide, it will source its own sustenance from the earth.  Prune as little as you can, if at all. The tree will find its own form and this is beautiful in itself without any shaping from you. As time goes by, you will find that you need to tend the tree less and less. Step back. Watch it grow and grow. Years later, you will find that the tiny tree that you watered and kept safe has become something majestic and wonderful.  People will be amazed at its size and form and beauty, and you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

How to grow a child:  as you would grow a tree – watch over them while they are still tiny and vulnerable; prop them up in the early stages; sustain them until they can sustain themselves. Don’t be tempted to show your mastery over nature by stunting them, by keeping them small. Don’t clip at them and snip at them just because you think they should be or look a certain way. Don’t grow a child as you would a bonsai. Don’t take a living being and make them lesser than they can be.

Some parents are bonsai parents. Bonsai parents have an idea of what they want their children to be and they take every step they can to realise this. They end up with ‘show children’ who demonstrate what time and effort and money can achieve. That these children might not be happy never occurs to them. Appearance is everything, after all.

Here’s the thing though: every bonsai has, at its heart, the ghost of a natural tree than never was.When you’ve been constrained, shaped, prevented from going in a direction that felt natural to you - simply because someone else felt it would be better for you to go a particular way, that they would prefer you to be different to your own inclination - your inner tree yearns to burst out and stretch its roots and branches.

Working in education. I have seen whole systems dedicated to the production of ‘bonsai children’ – governments and parents who all want that managed perfection that is only achieved by constant interference and control, by pedagogical and familial snipping and clipping. If you cultivate thousands of bonsai trees, you will end up with a bonsai tree display. It might be pretty at first but, after a while, one bonsai looks pretty much like another. If, however, you grow thousands of trees, you will end up with a forest. No one can argue about the many benefits and the far, far greater beauty of a forest.

So many children feel the chafing of the wire and the effects of the clamping. I know this from my own experience. A child’s initial acceptance of their bonsai-state makes their parents even more incredulous when they rebel and express dissatisfaction about their constraints. How could you not want to be a bonsai?  Bonsai is beautiful. It is so clever. You must be mad to think otherwise. To want otherwise.

Did you know that the bonsai process can be reversed? If planted in the ground and left unpruned, the tiny bonsai tree will act like a cutting and begin to grow again in a natural way. This is a truth I have found out for myself in recent years as I have tried to get back something of my own natural state. But a natural tree has no place in a bonsai collection. It is ungainly and conspicuous. It stands out. It doesn't look like the others.

I don’t fit in. I spoil the clever effect, the pretty arrangement. I’m like a weed. Bonsai growers loathe weeds, and so do bonsai parents.When you distance yourself from a pruning, clipping, clamping family, you start to stretch and grow. It hurts, of course, at the beginning. When you have been constrained and wired in a particular direction, you will feel the cramps as you extend. When you have been used to a certain type of nurturing, it’s a shock when it is no longer part of your daily life.

Then I look at my own children – I have no idea what they will do, how they will be, how they will look when they are grown. That’s amazing, exciting – I am going to enjoy finding out exactly who they are. I don’t want them to be me and I don’t want them to be a certain way. They are reaching out and stretching tall and finding their own shape and space. They are glorious and interesting. They are different.  People see their individuality and comment on it.

I look at myself. After years of being confined and cramped,   
I am  finally taking back my true form.I push my roots deeper and wider, drawing sustenance and anchoring myself. 

I unfurl, further and higher – there is so much which is finally within my reach, now that I am not small. Now that I have left that bonsai life behind.People are amazed by the changes, the very good changes, in me.

And I feel a huge sense of accomplishment and pride.

Monday, 28 December 2015

This night belongs to...

The only thing in life that should make you feel small is the sight of the night sky. Nothing realises that sense of insignificance quite so keenly as when you stare up into the not-quite-blackness and thing how far away the stars are and then consider that what you can see is actually quite close (in both time and space) compared to what lies beyond.

It reminds me of when I was a kid and I used to write “This book belongs to…” plus my name and address in my books. To my address I would add 

Planet Earth
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe

It seemed very clever (to me and to every other kid who wrote the same thing). A child’s way of making sense of the vastness of everything.

I still feel this way though. I felt it a couple of weeks ago when I was outside to view the Geminid meteor shower. It was a cold night for early summer, or rather, a cold morning – the shower began around 2am. Barefoot on the deserted street outside my house, I got a chair and sat down. I was wearing pyjamas and a poncho. I felt as though I was in a pop-up book that had just been opened. An odd lone figure in an unusual streetscape. 

I didn’t know quite what to expect but then the first bright streak of a meteor loped across the sky. Then another. Then another. All in all, I saw 12  - not a shower exactly, more a scatter. 12 wishes for me. 12 lines in the resulting poem.

The resulting art that I have put at the beginning of this post. Because I am not an astrophotographer, it is an imagining of what a shower would look like if you could see it from the city, if there were not so much light pollution.

It was a magical experience - one worth the effort. 

This night belongs to 

Western Australia
Planet Earth
The Solar System
The Milky Way
The Universe


Alone and cold and pondering
This lazy gold procession.
As warp and weft of arcing light
Create the canvas of the night –
A tinselled swathe of lazuli,
A dazzling impression.

Awake, aware, and witnessing
Each startling incision.
Fragments of burning long-ago
Scoring the blue intaglio,
Etch their own glowing eulogy,
A fiery inscription.