From horse’s hooves to ballet shoes

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I’M PORING over the entries to the next dance eisteddfod – I know we’ve got to tick the contemporary solo under 14, that’s easy, but OMG what about all these others? Not just the obvious ballet, hip-hop, jazz and tap, but modern, lyrical and even lyrical expressive – I’m tearing my hair out here. It’s like a completely different language, I mean – I’m a horse person not a dance person.

I was lucky when my son was small that I very soon noticed his interests dovetailed with mine – i.e. horses, horses and more horses. His best toys were an already second-hand collection of my little ponies that we picked up at his kindergarten fete one day and paid 50 cents each for. I can remember the names he gave them 20 years later: Paris, Hank, Charlie B, Angel and David. (I can partly remember the names because I’ve never been able to bring myself to throw them away and they’re still in a toybox in my room somewhere.) His growing obsession with all things equine allowed me to extend myself from someone who had ridden a bit all her life and knew a bit about horses into someone who knew a lot.

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Twenty years on and a lot of pony club, horseshows, natural horsemanship, horse rescues, horses bred, bought and sold, we still have six lovely equine friends in our paddocks, and although I ride much less, I spend a lot of time talking to and working with them, and Sam trains the young ones.   As we went I learned to plait manes, and call dressage tests, to know the difference between a Liverpool and an Oxer, a six-bar course and an AM5, and when to give him advice and more importantly when not to (at least I think I mastered that skill although he would probably disagree).

But his younger sister, although she loves horses in a broad humanitarian way has a different skill – one to which I’m completely new. She is a lovely dancer and getting better all the time. When I realised we were heading towards a fairly serious hobby, I was relieved that it wasn’t horses. No more charging around the countryside with a float and camping gear and horses in tow, no more standing out in the wind and the rain and the hot sun in numerous Australian country towns, no more one day a rooster and the next day a feather duster depending on that peculiar combination of horse and rider and the many variants involved. No more, oh, thank goodness, no more arriving at a showground and hearing the twanging nasal sounds of ‘We’re the Boys from the Bush and we’re back in towwwnnn’. I imagined being a Dance ‘Mom’ as a veritable bed of roses. I’d already been so inept at doing hair and make-up that I’d been given a withering look and told she’d do it herself. Suits me I thought, I’ll read a book, or better still write one, while I’m sitting around genteely with oodles of time on my hands. Plus I thought, at least it can’t be as expensive as horses.

Ah, how wrong can a person be! First of all of course there’s the hours of training – five and even six days a week, and that means a punctual and reliable taxi service. Then there’s the incredible array of ‘stuff’ – leotards, dance shoes of all kinds, tutus, bun-nets, bun-pins, bobby pins, tights, dance shorts, and of course costumes.

Halfway to her first solo eisteddfod in which she was entered for her self-choreography, she announced she’d ‘forgotten’ her tights, and then after we’d dashed into our local dance shop and got back on the road, her shorts. A quick sideways duck into the shop where, in Australia, ‘you don’t pay for any fancy overheads’, and we were on the road again.

Then came the nerves, and with it the Jekyll and Hyde personality change.  (Oh, I remembered that one SO well, culminating in a moment at Caboolture showground when my son, sitting up on his 16.2hh showjumper, looked down on me and exhorted me to: “get off my high horse.”  And then cantered off furiously when I laughed.) Anna having by then criticized me for everything from my posture to how I tap my hand on my knee when I drive, to my laugh, I decided the best thing to do was to keep quiet. “Why aren’t you talking to me?”, she moaned after a few minutes silence. “Talk to me.”

It was fear, of course, and I understood that. It was also not helped by our rather overwhelming dose of reality when we got to the eisteddfod. I mean, here were girls with literally mobile racks of costumes – the amount of make-up they had would fill a Louis Vuitton luggage set. We sat in the corner at the back with our little chiller bag from Aldi, and the mini-make up set and the one costume, adapted form her Year Six formal dress at primary school and I felt, I can tell you, like a rank amateur. Why had it not occurred to me that if Anna was going to do well at this I was going to have to do well also? I was going to have to learn the language, buy the stuff, be the support system.

Just a little luggage...

Just a little luggage…

It caused me to stop and think about how it’s not that hard if you’re a parent and your child has an interest in something you love to do and that you fundamentally understand. It’s much harder when it’s something for which you don’t have a natural affinity, but it’s just as essential, if not more so. I think many of us have felt the emotional blackmail from our parents to do something that pleases them rather than to do the thing that pleases us, and perhaps one of the most active areas of growth as a parent is to jump in with that. To be on board for your child and help them develop their passion so it can sustain them throughout their lives at whatever level they choose.

We were so overwhelmed by the professionalism of the girls around us that in a way it worked for Anna, she was so convinced she wouldn’t get a place she simply relaxed, went out and danced like an angel. When she got a Highly Commended she was as pleased as if she’d won. Our journey home was very different – she chatted amiably all the way home. Stress relieved, mission accomplished, first solo eisteddfod down.

And a dance mum explained the difference between the dance types for me. “Contemporary is slow controlled movements,” she explained patiently. “Modern is more expressive and emotional, and lyrical or expressive or lyrical expressive is a combination of those with its own element thrown in.” Ok…makes a 2.1 dressage test look easy by comparison really. In fact a room full of hormonal teenage girls in full preparation for a dance contest makes driving around the countryside with horses and a horse float look easy.

To be honest I don’t see the novel being written, or even read, anytime soon, but I am fully involved in the Dance Mom’s Handbook.  (Actually I made that up, but if it doesn’t exist, it probably should…now there’s a good idea.)

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Sing, sing a song, sing out loud, sing out strong…

I love to hear a choir. I love to see the faces of real people devoting themselves to a piece of music. I like the teamwork. It makes me feel optimistic about the human race when I see them cooperating like that.
Paul McCartney

Last week I witnessed a wonderful event.
My 12-year-old daughter, Anna has been in her school choir for a few years now, and was fortunate enough to be picked to sing at the Sydney Opera House as part of Sydney’s week long choral festival, showcasing students from New South Wales public schools.

The Australian Girls, National Boys & Gondwana Indigenous Childrens Choirs perform in a Qantas TV ad.

When the kids that formed the full choir came together last week for the performance, it was pure magic from the first moment. The sight of the concert hall filled with 700 children, and the sound of their voices filling the air around us, was quite extraordinary, as too were the other musical offerings of the night, with everything from big bands, wind and string orchestras on offer.
There’s no doubt that without singing – the sound of the human voice in all its varied glory – the world would be a poorer place; but why exactly do we sing? After all, we are the only land-based animal that indulges in the activity – apart from the odd singing dog that is!
Birds sing, of course, gibbons (apparently) sing, and the rest of the world’s singers – whales, dolphins, sea-lions and seals, are marine mammals. Research suggests that it’s a predator thing – singing is a sound that could attract enemies, so only those animals able to get away quickly – birds and the tree-based gibbons for instance – or those that have very few predators, such as the water-based singers, and humans, indulge in what might otherwise be the somewhat dangerous practice of  letting predators know your location.

Photo by RhiannonDaire on Flickr.

Who would have thought that the simple act of opening our mouths and allowing sound to come out, could be so fraught with meaning?
When you think about it, it is a rather extraordinary thing that the mechanism of using our lungs as an air supply, our larynx as a reed, and our head or chest as an amplifier, and the tongue as the mechanism for articulation, can produce everything from opera to rap.
Nobody knows exactly why humans started singing, or even when.

Conjecture has it that the voice was the first instrument, long before instruments were invented and that perhaps it was used as a way for a voice to carry much longer distances.
It’s also possible that a tribal society used singing for each individual to be recognised by their sound, since all of us have a unique ‘voiceprint’ in the same way we have a unique finger print.

One of the extraordinary things about singing is that despite many peoples’ protestations that they can’t sing, anybody can actually learn to sing – it’s simply bad luck that many of us are wounded when we are children by well-meaning or even badly-meaning adults telling us we can’t sing in tune.
Not surprisingly, in fact, not that many small children can sing in tune because like taste buds, the voice box is not fully developed until we are at least teenagers, and so those early judgments that have possibly cruelled many a budding singing career are based on a false assumption.
For years I thought I couldn’t sing – and was told by my father on numerous occasions that was the case. Not that many years ago I decided I wanted to find out if it was true that I really couldn’t sing – so I got brave and joined a choir! Well, I wouldn’t say that I’m the next Big Thing, or Any Thing at all, but I loved it and it allowed me to discover that as long as I am singing along with people, yes, I can definitely sing.
I felt wonderful after a singing session, and so I wasn’t surprised, researching this piece, to find out that a survey of students participating in choral singing found numerous health benefits – improved mood, stress reduction, not to mention the social benefits of being included in community group.
Apparently just listening to choral singing relaxes the mind, reduces stress and positively influences the immune system, according to a multinational collaboration to study the connection between singing and health which was established in 2009, called Advancing Interdisciplinary Research in Singing (AIRS).
Even better still, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a choir, in the shower or in the car – so open up your pipes, rusty or not and sing out loud. It can only do you good!

Quote of the week:
The only thing better than singing is more singing.
Ella Fitzgerald

Hair today, gone tomorrow…

Hair brings one’s self-image into focus; it is vanity’s proving ground. Hair is terribly personal, a tangle of mysterious prejudices. – Shana Alexander




The Princess turned 12 the other day. “Mum,” she said. “My life is just going too fast.”

I laughed. “You should see it from my end.”

She looked so depressed I tried very hard to be sympathetic: “Never mind,” I said.

“You’re not even a teenager yet. Twelve this year and 13 next, that’s how the numbers go.”

“Thirteen!” She positively bounced upright. “That’s right. Everybody has that big party when they turn 13 – you know, it’s like turning 18 or 21, but there’s a special name for it.”

“There is?” Plenty of things sprung to mind – the start of the highway to hell, the teenage tunnel, the flouncing years, but not anything specifically connected to 13.

“That Bar Mitzvah thing,” she said.

Right. My no-religion daughter wants the religious ceremony Jewish boys have when they turn 13 for her party next year.

Notwithstanding that living in the Byron Shire has enabled her to study an eclectic mix of Bahai, Buddhism and even Catholicism during her school years, turning male and Jewish, not to mention learning the Torah, seems a tall order.

But it did start me thinking about rituals connected with age, and of course, as well as the Bar Mitzvah, there is the Bat Mitzvah for Jewish girls when they turn 12.

Both of them are a rite of passage – the recognition that instead of just studying the Torah, the young adolescents are now capable of understanding it.

Catholics of course, have their confirmation, but what do we, those of us who have put conventional religions aside, have to celebrate the arrival of the teenage years?

Somehow the English ritual of going from Brownies to Girl Guides and leaping over a giant mushroom with Akela and Brown Owl on each side of you doesn’t seem to quite cut the mustard.

It made me think about the 12th birthday too. What were we doing as a mother and daughter, to mark it as somehow special? What could we do?

I suddenly remembered my 12th birthday, and that my mother had taken me to her hairdresser for the very first time.

I remembered the smell of the salon, the pleasure of getting my hair washed – that I even had my nails polished. It might not have the deepest religious significance I thought, but at least I could introduce her to one of the true lasting joys of womanhood – the regular visit to the hairdresser.

As American comedian Fran Lebowitz once observed: You’re only as good as your last haircut.

And thus it came to pass, that Anna, once nicknamed Voldemort for the torturous sleeping regime she inflicted upon her parents, sat up in the highest of chairs, and received the benediction of Richard, my hairdresser.

Baptized in the basin, trimmed, very lightly, a side fringe artfully created, and her locks blow-dried to golden curly perfection, an 11-year-old girl went in and a gorgeous young woman came out.

It was a wild success. Even for a Leo the mirror admiration became obsessive. She tossed, and flicked, and twirled and gazed at the new perfection of her. The next day the hair was even better, which fortuitously coincided with her sleepover party. She was in seventh hair heaven.

But then came the fall. The first hairwash and the next day there were anguished tears. “It doesn’t look the same,” she wailed. “I want it back just like it was when it was cut.”

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry with her. I felt for her. We receive a beautiful moment, but it passes, all too quickly. Our highs are followed by lows. And life passes, all too quickly.

But marking occasions, creating rituals, acknowledging the importance of our lives is vital to our sense of self-worth, and to our ability to reflect on where we are and how we’re travelling on the journey of life.

The idea of a Bar Mitzvah, or even a Bat Mitzvah, has set me thinking about a 13-year-old party, what it could be, and how it can be made meaningful beyond the inevitable pizza, popcorn, tween-dvd sleepover – or even haircut, if that’s possible.

“Life is an endless struggle full of frustrations and challenges, but eventually you find a hair stylist you like.” – Anonymous

Check out my Midweek Mediation on http://thehoopla.com.au/ in the Wellbeing section…

Creative Tension

Creativity arises out of the state of thoughtless presence in which you are much more awake than when you are engrossed in thinking. Eckhart Tolle

 

 Right and left brains. An ad designed for Mercedes Benz. Image via Creative Jaunt.

What exactly is creativity? As a writer it’s something I often think about, particularly when the creative muse has gone missing, and I’m in urgent need of her – which is usually whenever a deadline is looming.

I think that most of us would describe creativity as a process whereby new ideas or concepts are generated. The professions that would most likely spring to mind would be the arts, and perhaps most specifically that of an artist.

Curiously, art was not actually considered creative until the Renaissance. The ancient Greek word for art – ‘techne’ is actually the root word for technique and technology, and art – with the exception of poetry – for the Greeks meant following rules.

Mind you, discipline, although less attractive than the idea that a single moment of creative genius can bring success, is as essential as the idea itself.

In other words – as simple as it seems – you can’t be something, unless you do it.

The concept of creativity is complex, partly because unlike results-based maths and sciences, there’s no absolute yardstick to measure anything by. Not that mathematics and sciences are not creative – take Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci as two examples of highly creative logical thinkers.

One thing researchers do agree on is that creativity involves more activity from the right-side of the brain, which is responsible for emotion, ideas and conceptual thought, so that any activity we can do that is conducive to producing that deep profound state of relaxation where creativity can make its presence felt is helpful.

Walking, meditation, time alone in nature, swimming – even the quiet insomniac hours of the night when you are awake and the world sleeps, are all ways to contact the muse.

Carl Jung, definitely a right and left-brainer, who understood the need to balance both, once said: “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.”

I remember once interviewing playwright Michael Gow, after the success of his play Away, and he told me that everyday he swam laps to create the next bit of the script. He would swim up and down the pool, plotting and planning, until he was ready to go home and write down the day’s work.

For me creativity is in equal parts inspiration, perspiration, frustration – and reward.

When I imagine a book, fictional or otherwise – I can see it in its entirety, completely finished and on the bookshelves. That brief illumination is followed by the disheartening reality that it’s going to take some time, years even, before the idea becomes manifest.

But if I manage it, then there’s the reward of a project well done, of the sense of connecting out into a wider universe – and the constant quest for the next creative idea. It’s a strange and not entirely peaceful way to live, when you think about it!

Although a recent British Management Institute research paper discovered recently that if stressed out executives were given art classes, they were as relaxed afterwards as if they had gone on holiday. I wonder though, if ‘being creative’ still has that effect if it’s what you do for a living?

Love what you do.  Do what you love.  Photograph:  Candida Baker
 Maya Angelou described the importance of discipline to the muse when she wrote:  “What  I try to do is write.  I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’  And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff.  But I try.  When I’m writing, I write.  And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay.   Okay.  I’ll come.'”

Children, mind you, seem to understand the creative state intuitively. They don’t have to fight to be in it or search for it, it just happens – perhaps because it’s not results-based so there is no anxiety about the final product, whether it’s drawing patterns in the sand, or pictures on paper, or words in a story – it takes a while before the unpleasant realisation dawns that other people can judge you or comment on what you do, or mark you, or misunderstand you.

When I’ve taught writing or creativity workshops one of the most frequent blockages people have expressed is exactly that reluctance to be judged. They may have only written a few pages, but they’ll say: “What if people don’t like it? What if I can’t find a publisher?”

They might want to write, paint, play music, dance, sing or do craft, but even before they try they are sabotaging themselves with the idea that ‘people’ will review, criticize, analyse and judge them.

But if there’s anything certain about creativity it is that it is an uniquely individual experience, it belongs to you, and you alone, and it has no need to be shared with the world before it’s ready.

So it’s a question of nurturing creativity in order to become more creative, of being disciplined and relaxed, having the courage to come forward, and knowing when to stay quiet and removed from life, of not inviting criticism but knowing when to withstand it when your creative baby goes out into the world, and most importantly continuing to nurture it once it is out in the world.

Nothing to it really… Now where’s that novel?

‘Maybe we should develop a Crayola bomb as our next secret weapon. A happiness weapon. A beauty bomb. And every time a crisis developed, we would launch one. It would explode high in the air – explode softly – and send thousands, millions, of little parachutes into the air. Floating down to earth – boxes of Crayolas. And we wouldn’t go cheap, either – not little boxes of eight. Boxes of sixty-four, with the sharpener built right in. With silver and gold and copper, magenta and peach and lime, amber and umber and all the rest. And people would smile and get a little funny look on their faces and cover the world with imagination. ‘

Robert Fulghum

 

 

 

Meditation on: Our Inner Child

“The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us, when the world seems familiar – when one has got used to existence one has become an adult.”
– Eugene Ionesco

Photograph of Anna by Candida Baker

My daughter recently turned 12, and over the past six months or so I’ve watched that perilous rocking between childhood and young womanhood with a sense of trepidation and excitement – on her behalf, and on mine too, I might add.

I could almost pinpoint the exact moment when lists of girlfriends gave way to lists to One Direction’s names, with Harry being Numero Uno of course; the moment when riding up the lane on her bicycle became ‘boring’; when going to the movies with mum or dad became no match for going with a rabble from school.

My daughter’s growing up – no doubt about it. And, paradoxically perhaps, I see part of my continuing job as her parent to help her stay in touch with her inner child – to help her, if I can, to keep her soul alive with those little things that have sustained and nourished her throughout her childhood.

I’ve seen Anna look after herself in dark moments by dancing, or by drawing, and as a small child she could summon her imagination and her humour to her rescue easily. May those qualities stay with her always!

Surrounded by Anna and her friends, I’ve been thinking a lot about the inner child recently – by the time I was 12 my mother was an alcoholic, my father was often drunk and abusive and for me childhood was something I wanted to leave behind as quickly as possible.

Through a friend’s posting on Facebook the other day, I chanced across a wonderful letter from the poet Ted Hughes to his then 24-year-old son, Nicholas. Nicholas was only a baby when his mother, the poet Sylvia Plath, took her own life, and sadly, Nicholas too committed suicide in 2009.

In part of the letter Hughes talks directly about the vulnerability of our inner child, and of its essential importance to our lives and our own understanding of ourselves. He writes:

“Every single person is vulnerable to unexpected defeat in this inmost emotional self. At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them…It’s the centre of all the possible magic and revelation. What doesn’t come out of that creature isn’t worth having, or it’s worth having only as a tool — for that creature to use and turn to account and make meaningful.”

In inner child therapy what is looked for is what therapist Robert Burney describes as the tools to unlock the magic of the inner child, without giving it free rein to drive the bus, and derailing life because of its lack of a proper place in someone’s life.

One of the main keys to understanding this internal secret garden is to remember what your child liked to do when he or she was young. Often, if we stop and ask our inner eight-year-old what it might like to do as a hobby, a surprising answer will emerge – an answer which can lead us towards a more creative, more joy-filled life.

 “The analogy between the artist and the child is that both live in a world of their own making,” wrote Anais Nin in her diaries.“Every child is an artist,” said Picasso, who knew a bit about his inner child, “the problem is how to remain an artist when you grow up.”

Such a multitude of grown-up concerns drive us away from that childish sense of glee and excitement in life – so many shoulds, musts, can’ts, fill our days, and as we grow older the accumulated weight of life’s lessons seem, well to me, I must confess, sometimes overwhelming.

Living in the country I’ve learned that sometimes something as simple as lying on my back under a tree and looking at the patterns in the leaves against the sky makes my eight-year-old grin with pleasure.

If I could say anything to my daughter now and have her remember it, it would be always listen to your heart.

As Ted Hughes writes: “The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”

Quote of the Week: 

Happy is he who still loves something he loved in the nursery: He has not been broken in two by time; he is not two men, but one, and he has saved not only his soul but his life.
G.K. Chesterton.