Monday, April 20, 2009

On Angrrr

I was incandescent with fury the other day. A friend called to break a long-standing commitment with me, and as a consequence of her actions I'll be out of pocket by several hundred Euros that I don't have because I am essentially a poor person. Don't get me wrong - I am rich in many ways; money just ain't one of them.

Anger is a fascinating exercise. These days, I can actually listen to what my anger tells me I want. It requires me to get to a place of calm and quiet the noises in my head so I can listen to what I need to do to take care of myself instead of the other person. The other day it started with a slow burn, the getting-hot-under-the-collar bit when calm gave way to pique and swiftly morphed into indignation after my friend announced that her pillock of a husband insisted on tagging along to a week-long class she and I are taking in Ireland this June. This man likes to keep his wife on a very tight rein. Feminist snark that I am, I'm very allergic to neanderthals who behave as if they own their wives. Him coming means I lose my roommate and will then have to spend more on a single room which I can't afford. My carefully drawn budget was in tatters and all patience and compassion went pffft. I was furious at him for derailing our plans, and at her for failing to stand up to him and for not having the backbone to honor her commitment. Isn't anger amazing? In a heartbeat it transforms my reasonably sane and cheerful everyday self into a self-righteous, judgmental, napalm-breathing battleaxe. I can be pretty scary when I'm angry. How easy it is to wimp into coward mode and find fault with others rather than to face what's really going on inside.

If I catch myself early enough and if the irritant is minor, taking deep breaths often helps. When I remember to, I pray the Serenity Prayer while being mindful of my breathing, and that's even better. But sometimes that slow burn comes to a rolling boil before I realize what's hit me, and when it happens, people who know me wisely clear out of my way. Fast. Nowhere is it more evident that I am a double Leo with Aries rising than when I'm angry. I burn; sparks fly. I swear like a linguistically-gifted Captain Haddock, only I spew epithets far ruder than "Blistering barnacles." Let me not name them here.

I'm not a hurler or a breaker. I like things too much to throw them at people, and I hate it when I miss. And what would be the point of pounding a pillow when it's much more satisfying to pound the object of my anger? Except that I don't; not anymore. My brothers who are now in their 40s have a pet name for me. They call me Sidekick, a reference to our childhood in Bacolod when I had the temper of Yosemite Sam and the unerring aim of Bruce Lee whose films I adored as a child. When provoked, I'd aim for their nether parts. My ruthless right foot rarely missed its mark, hence the justly-deserved Sidekick honorific.

Being angry is healthy. Staying resentful is toxic. Years ago, when I was more volatile and less wise, anger was a more frequent visitor. It turned me into a good bread baker. Into the dough would metaphorically go the object of my ire, then I'd knead my angst away. By the time golden loaves emerged from the oven my anger had usually dissolved, and fragrant bread was my reward. It taught me that anger didn't have to be destructive, it could be made positive and creative. Now that I have less time for bread-baking, I've discovered other constructive ways of expressing my anger. Dancing, writing, weeding or pruning in the garden, honing my knife skills in the kitchen are all good circuit breakers. Murderous thoughts still race through my head even as I engage in these calming measures. Thoughts that I am powerless to stop and deeply grateful that I don't need to act upon. So when fury came calling the other day, here's what I did. I remembered to breathe, and I used a Jin Shin Jyutsu self-help technique that involves nothing more complex than gently holding all my fingers one by one. I poured myself a restorative (read: very large) malt whisky, neat, and danced like a dervish to "Happiness" by A. Skillz & Krafty Kuts with the volume cranked waaay up. I sharpened my kitchen knives and cooked a pork belly-chili pepper stir fry. By bedtime I found myself oddly tranquil again. I put it all in God's hands and slept like a baby.

Only when I consciously surrender to the arc of my anger - owning it, expressing it, and letting it go - can I find release from its tenacious grip and accept the gifts of a cleansing fire. Once the ashes have cooled, peace and sanity are reborn. I am restored to the flow.

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

~ attributed to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr

Painting by Youngheui Lee Lim

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

the leaping greenly spirits of trees

Photo by Liana Joyce

Sorry folks, but the garden has just gone ka-BLOOM with spring, and jobs that I was too lazy to attend to during the autumn and winter can no longer be ignored. So I will be spending more time outdoors pruning, staking plants, clearing flower beds of their winter debris, mulching, wrangling a recalcitrant willow igloo into shape and, hopefully, stealing a march on the weeds. At least until hay fever drives me back inside. Oh what fun my gluteus maximus is already having from my exertions which began in earnest last week. Naturally, I reward myself handsomely at the end of a hard day's graft with a very large whisky, or even two. Anyone who thinks I would subject myself to so much pain just for the pretty flowers is being hopelessly naive. Go munch on a Hallmark card.

I'm also taking advantage of Legs and Noodle still being on Easter break this week, thus making them eminently handy for slug and snail patrol duty. Obviously, they'd rather be indoors watching YouTube or listening to endless repeats of the daft but catchy "Walking on a Dream" by Empire of the Sun, so I shamelessly resort to my old maternal stand-by: bribery by chocolate. How can someone who enjoys gardening as much as me be so terrified of slugs and snails? Totally pathetic, I know. Living in rainy Belgium means we're doomed to having the little bastards around in vast numbers three seasons out of four, no matter what preventive measures we take. They give me the heebie-jeebies. I simply cannot bear to touch them, especially slugs, not even with a long stick, and I would sooner run a mile than crush them underneath my wellies. Eeeeeeeww. When I'm alone and no one's around to rescue me from these disgusting slimy creatures, I keep a salt shaker in my overalls pocket, all the better to send them to a painful demise by meltdown. I didn't mean to get side-tracked, but now y'all know my Achilles heel.

Till next post, I'll leave you with one of my favorite spring poems by e.e. cummings, he of the bolshy punctuation and the lower-case orthography. He was unconventional, funny, romantic and deeply spiritual, a poet after my own heart. I'm certain he never wrote poetry about slugs.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

ee cummings (1894-1962)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Brussels Street Art 1

Last spring a series of gigantic black-and-white portraits of African women burst out like tropical blooms all over downtown Brussels. Here are some I caught on camera.

I don't know who the photographer was but I loved the way the women's expressions brought light and laughter to some of the city's dingier corners.

This one was my favorite. It was at the end of one of the little side streets off the Grand'Place, the city's main square. I almost missed it. The look of joy on the woman's face was a blast of pure sunshine after I had been walking around for hours in the rain and cold.

What a difference a smile makes.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Heroes: Legs takes a giant step.

"I got to where I am because of education."
~ Michelle Obama, speaking to students at the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson School in London last Thursday

Legs and Noodle are in new schools this school year. Skunk and I decided to move them to Flemish schools from the French schools they've attended all their young lives. A bit of background on the tiny but complex country we live in: Belgium has three official languages - Dutch, French, and German. An estimated 59% of the Belgian population speaks Dutch, and French is spoken by 40%. There is a small German-speaking community in the east of the country. We live in the French-speaking part of Belgium although if we drive 20 minutes north we're in Flanders. Flemish is both the colloquial term given to the Dutch spoken in Belgium, and to the inhabitants of Flanders. If this sounds confusing, well, that's Belgium for you.

It was convenient to send the children to the local French-speaking school. They started at the École Communale, a small but cheery primary school a 3 minute trundle from our front door. Eventually, we transferred Noodle to another school two villages away because it was piloting a Dutch immersion program. French native speakers would be taught most of their lessons in Dutch, with the aim of getting immersion students perfectly bilingual in both French and Dutch by the time they were 12 years old. There was skepticism at first, and parents like us who offered up our children as guinea pigs to this experimental program knew we were taking a risk. True, we could have bilingual children by age 12 - something nice to brag about to parents with monolingual kids. But things could backfire, and instead of speaking French and Dutch fluently, there was the possibility that the students would end up confused and speak both languages badly. To complicate matters further, we speak English at home, making English the children's mother tongue. Skunk and I speak passable everyday French. Translated, passable means that we speak it with execrable foreign accents, misconjugate our verbs, gender-bend our nouns, and are a little too free with the use of tu instead of vous. In more concrete terms, I speak good enough French to jaw down the price of a Le Creuset cocotte at a flea market or have a blazing row with the shackass who swiped my parking space in front of the post office, but I will never be able to discuss Sartre eloquently at a dinner party. Not that we go to those types of dinner parties anyway, thank god.

Over the last 3 years we had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Francophone school system's lack of funding and long-term vision. Schools were getting over-crowded, teachers were badly paid, over-worked and demotivated, academic standards were sinking, school equipment was falling apart and not being replaced. After Legs started high school at the French-speaking Athénée in the nearest town, she complained that her teachers were often absent and student discipline was a problem. Most of her classmates were more interested in mobile phones, reality TV and les baskets Converse. She wasn't learning anything. We investigated the possibility of sending her to Flemish schools which are much better funded and reputed to have some of the best academic standards in the world. We found Legs a place at an excellent Flemish high school 25 minutes away, and decided to move Noodle to a primary school in the same town. When the new schoolyear began last September we took deep breaths and prayed hard. Settling in to a new school was relatively painless for Noodle. After 5 years in Dutch immersion learning, his Dutch was almost as good as that of his new classmates who spoke it at home. However, the change of schools has been a grueling transition for Legs, whose Dutch was rudimentary at best.

Skunk and I repeatedly questioned the wisdom of our decision to throw an English mother-tongue, French-educated 13 year old in the deep end at what's turned out to be one of the most demanding high schools in Flanders. It seemed cruel doing it, even though we felt it was the right thing to do for Legs' education. It's been painful watching her struggle with subjects like History, Biology, Technology and Algebra in a language she could barely speak. We knew that all the parental love in the world coupled with her burning desire to succeed did not necessarily guarantee that Legs would make it. We grew frustrated with ourselves because we could scarcely understand the frequent communiqués the new schools sent home. We speak almost no Dutch so there was no question of helping her with her schoolwork. It would have been the blind leading the blind.

It was clear to the headmaster and all her teachers from the start that Legs would be a special case. They welcomed her warmly but said she would have to work very hard. Her new classmates were friendly and helpful, although socially there was the language barrier to hurdle as well. Her first trimester grades were quite poor, as expected. Her teachers were impressed by how hard she was working and gave her the help and encouragement she needed. There was extra Dutch tutoring after school. She began to make friends. She enjoyed gym, especially swimming, which she's good at. She rejoiced in the fact that she was ahead of the others in French and English. In all her other subjects, she scraped bottom. Though she was tired everyday after school, she did her homework diligently and without complaint. She would study for exams a month in advance. She made many sacrifices to help her focus on school: her Nintendo was put away until the school holidays; computer time, unless required for homework, was limited to a couple of hours on weekends only; Saturday afternoon activities in Brussels were put off; her iPod gathered dust.

Every language a child learns brings a different way of looking at the world. Week after week, we've watched with astonishment and delight as Legs' grasp of a new language has grown. The awkward phrases she mumbled six months ago have been replaced by the nimble, confident patter she keeps up with friends and teachers today.

On Friday evening we attended a parent-teacher meeting to discuss her second trimester progress. Both kids left in the afternoon for a competition weekend in the Ardennes with their Flemish swim team. Then it's Easter break for the next 2 weeks. Legs had not seen her latest report card but warned me, "Mama, please don't be upset if my grades are still bad. I really did my best." With that in mind, we weren't expecting much when we sat before her teachers. So we were speechless with shock when we saw her latest grades, which have improved tremendously. Her teachers were full of praise, "We've not met many youngsters like your daughter, she's a real joy to teach!" Her grade point average is now just a few notches below the class average, and if she can keep up her momentum she will have caught up with everyone else by the time school ends in June. Legs has surpassed everyone's expectations. Sitting there listening to all this, I fought back tears of pride and relief. Skunk and I drove home in a daze. I sent a text message to her swim coach to give her the good news right away.

I, perfectionist but slacker extraordinaire, am totally blown away by my girl's pluck and determination. I feel awful for yelling at her on the occasions she was too tired to remember to wash the dog's bowl, bring her dirty laundry downstairs or keep her desk tidy. When I look at the Herculean task she's tackled so bravely I know I should have cut her more slack at home. I could have, but I haven't always remembered to, or wanted to. Had it been me in her place I doubt I would have fared half as well. Humility is a classroom I will have to keep revisiting in earth school.

There's a Zen saying that goes, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Legs, your student is here.

Photos of Legs by Liana Joyce