It’s only natural

We have a pond near our front door. Constructed from scratch using a big hole, concrete and some plastic pond liner, it is deeper than most of the pre-fab ponds you can buy from a hardware store. A nice deep pond is essential if you want to be able to have deep water plants and a range of aquatic life – especially if you want to attract natives of the type who go “bok” and munch on mozzies and flies for you.

pond

Although the pond surrounds are rectangular slate tiles (reused leftovers from a friend’s renovation), and hence fairly regular, the pond itself quickly became a messy, organic and entirely living system in its own right.

The garden beds around the pond have been filled with plants that droop and dangle, which should trail over the edges of the pond once they have grown a little more. This provides excellent habitat for creatures who go “bok”, and indeed we have tadpoles playing hide and seek in there even as I type.

The whole family has been enthralled by the pond project from the beginning – there was much enthusiastic flinging of dirt in the digging stages – but the advent of beasties in the pond has sparked a whole new level of fascination. Our own kids, together with every small person who visits, are captivated by the tadpoles. Watching them appear from under lily pads, and spotting a wiggling tail peeking out from under a rock, has become our most popular game.

tadpole

An announcement of “I’m just going out to look for taddies” always creates a stampede at the front door. It has been amazing watching them grow from tiny fish-like beings to big guys with legs visibly frog kicking. This week they have suddenly become very shy, but an occasional leaf rising above the surface of the water suggests that perhaps they have started to breathe. There is something incredibly magical about metamorphosis – the idea that creatures can grow into something entirely unlike their present selves is, I think, as close to true magic as we ever come.

But it’s not just the metamorphosis, or the enduring appeal of frogs, that is fascinating about the pond. I can sit and stare into it for hours, even without the tadpoles. There are a host of insects, plants and other wildlife that have colonised it, with very little intervention or control on our part. We have water snails, water boatmen, and of course mozzie wrigglers (although there seem to be far less of those since the taddies arrived – Go get ’em, guys!!). Like the tadpoles, I suspect that many of our guests arrived as stowaways on the various water plants we bought, but since the plants are all natives, I’m perfectly happy with that arrangement.

Staring into the depths of the pond brings a tranquillity that is hard to find in a chaotic working & parenting life. It’s easy to get caught up in the woes of tantrums, school pickups and work stresses. Midnight Oil’s “curse of big cities. Traffic, tolls and deadlines” can really make life a struggle. But there is something about connecting with nature – whether by staring into a pond or walking through a bit of bushland – that speaks directly to a primal part of my soul.

It was over 200 years ago that William Blake wrote:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

Kids get it. Every day when we do the school pickup the rainbow & musk lorrikeets fly by, screeching loquaciously, and every day all the kids stop, point and exclaim over how beautiful they are. Show them a gecko, or a possum, and they will be enthralled. Let a dog come strolling by and they will clamour to be allowed to pat it, adore it, and generally worship it with heartfelt enthusiasm.

I suspect the entire school would spontaneously combust if anything more exotic should appear on the grounds, like a horse, or perhaps a kangaroo. The day a possum was spotted resting on the roof of one of the playground shelters, the kids could barely be prised off the windows with a crowbar all day. It was just sitting there. Not doing anything interesting. But they were riveted by the chance to see it up close. A pair of Tawny Frogmouths roosting in the park had the same effect.

Tawny Frogmouths

David Suzuki recently commented that environmentalists had made a mistake, describing the environment as a separate thing. He intuitively understands, as children do, that we are fundamentally a part of the world we live in. We are animals, utterly dependent on earth, air and water, as much as any other creature in the world.

We are surrounded by bizarre and magnificent creatures, even in cities. Yet we spend our whole lives insulating ourselves from the world. We build climate controlled claustrospheres and pretend that we have control over our world. Our work buildings don’t even have windows we can open. Our houses are growing bigger and bigger, with less and less garden around them. Our cars have automatic climate control, and we park inside our garages and go straight inside, without ever having to acknowledge the world we are trying to hard to be separate from.

On some primitive level, though, we do understand that the natural world is fundamental to us. That thrill we get from flowing water, from wild animals, and from the flight of colourful birds reconnects us to the world, and hence to ourselves.  Do yourself a favour and ogle a tadpole today. You’ll be amazed how good it makes you feel.


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Tisn’t the season

My 3 year old is very excited about Christmas. She has been ever since the Christmas decorations appeared in the shops. In October. Frankly, the shops seem to have been a little slow this year.

Everywhere we go, she sees Christmas decorations and says “Look! They’re ready for Christmas! Child care is ready for Christmas too! We made a Christmas tree! We made Christmas decorations! I’m ready for Christmas!” And every time I mutter, scrooge-like, into the hands clamped despairingly over my face: “I’m not. I am SO not ready.”

Christmas balls

In my family, arrangements for Christmas day tend to be made late-ish – sometime around August. The call, or these days the email, comes out: “We’re hosting Christmas this year, we’ve got this, this and that organised. Let me know what you’d like to contribute.” And every year, slow learner that I am, I am shocked and appalled. “Christmas??? I’m not ready to think about Christmas! I’m still wrestling today into submission!”

Every year I am tempted to do a runner and flee to a different country for Christmas. It’s not that I dislike the season, (although my formative employment years in a department store have rather soured Christmas carols for me) it’s the rampant commercialism that simultaneously chills and boils my blood.

Buy something for him. For her. For them. Prove your love with fistfuls of ill-spent dollars, flung into the hands of companies that then trickle a penny or two down into the lap of the people who actually make the stuff. The brittle, plastic, worthless stuff.

I hate to do this to you – it’s a very Greens, hippy, antisocial thing to do – but what are we teaching our kids? That stuff is important? That buying things for people that they don’t need, may not even want, but cost the right amount of money shows your love for them? Many of us base our choice of gift for relatives on the likely value of gifts they will give us. There has to be a rough value match or terrible crises will ensue. Gifts bought from Op Shops would be catastrophic in this context (if anyone ever found out).

I rant and rave about all this, but I still do it, of course. I still fret over buying things for the important people in my life, because I do want them to feel valued. I do love to give someone the perfect gift. I just wish I didn’t have to find 20, 30, 40 perfect gifts all at once. Christmas decorations and ads everywhere urge us to buy stuff, stuff, and more stuff. Is that the Christmas spirit?

Not all decorations are bad, of course. The Christmas tree in my daughter’s childcare is, I must admit, magnificent. Handmade, covered in the children’s green handprints, packed with stuffing by their own eager little hands, it is a testament to all the positives of Christmas (for those of us who are not Christian, at least). They worked together. They packed it with love (and polyester stuffing). It makes them so happy, and so proud. Half a dozen kids point it out to me and drag me over to it every time I go into the room. That’s the Christmas spirit.

So here is my challenge to you. Buy Fair Trade (The Oxfam shop is a good start) or second hand, where you must buy at all. Or make things. Make this Christmas about saving the planet. About empowering people. And about hugging the people that you love. It won’t be brilliant for the economy, but as David Suzuki said, “Economists and cancer cells think they can grow forever.” We need a new economy, based on the things that are really important. Let’s make Christmas more about the people we love, and less about how much we spend on them.

Dare to be different

“Der-glumph went the little green frog one day.”

All young children know that frogs go “ribbit”. Yet anyone who has ever actually heard a frog is well aware that it says nothing of the sort. Our local frogs mostly go “bock”. Some go “creek-creek-creek”. Others make a sound that is utterly irreproducible in text. They make all kinds of noises, but the one noise they almost certainly don’t make is ribbit.

tadpole

Teaching kids that frogs go ribbit is a kind of understandable short hand. Cows go moo. Sheep go baa. (Although, as Terry Pratchett points out, what they mostly do in our world is go “sizzle”). Either way, we are lying to our kids, about that and many other things. Ideally, they will wake up one day and start to question these things (some earlier than others).

“Mummy, why does that frog say ‘bock’ instead of ‘ribbit’?”

“Daddy, why did you tell me there was a santa when there’s really just you and mummy?”

“Mummy, why do we have two ‘major parties’ when you can’t tell one from the other?”

Asking questions is the way kids make sense of the world. It is also the way scientists make sense of the world. Questions are the way progress happens – scientifically, socially, economically, you name it. Progress is made when the right questions get asked.

Serious progress happens when the questions strike at the heart of the status quo. A lot of what we do is simply historical accident. Like the story of the cook who always cut a quarter of the beef roast off before putting it into the oven. (When asked why, she explained that she had always done that, because her mum did it that way. When she went back and asked her mum, it turned out that her mum’s oven was too small to fit a whole roast.) So many of our actions fall into this category. We do this because we have always done it – lovely circular logic, with no loose ends.

It’s the scientists who can question the accepted facts who make amazing, world-shaking discoveries. Like Ignaz Semmelweis, who realised in 1847 that puerperal (or childbed) fever was caused by doctors not washing their hands (frequently coming straight from performing autopsies). His theory contradicted the established medical perspective utterly, and took years to become accepted, despite how incredibly easy it was to prove it. Had the rest of the medical profession been able to think divergently, or outside the box, as Semmelweis was, countless lives would have been saved.

There is some startling research on divergent thinking reported by George Land and Beth Jarman, in their book “Break Point and Beyond”. It was a longitudinal study that measured the ability of kids to think divergently at kindergarten, through to adolescence. Fascinatingly, 98% of ordinary kindergarten kids came out at genius level on a test that measures divergent thinking.

Just five years later the proportion of those same kids who was at genius level was 32%.

Another five years later: 10%.

Our kids rapidly lose the ability to think outside the box. We ourselves have, for the most part, already lost it. 

Much of what we think we know is wrong. Just ask Jeff Kennet about Kool mints. We can’t question everything and start walking on the ceiling. We need to focus, to concentrate on what we need to get done. Some of us need to focus just to stay upright and avoid doorways. But we can, and must, ask more questions.

Even more importantly, we must remember to value diversity. Being different is often seen as a threat, or a rejection. If you choose a different way of parenting, some people see it as a direct criticism of their own parenting style. If you wear different clothing, some see it as a rejection of normality, and, in the same way, some people see gay marriage as a threat to their own normality. Being different involves questioning the rules.

But questioning the rules is far from a threat – it is, in fact, a fundamental way of securing our safety and well being. From diversity comes discovery. That’s where we will find answers to our crises. “Hey! Look! There is a different way you can do things, and it doesn’t trash the planet!” We can’t get those answers from staying the same, or from incremental changes to what we do. It is radical change that creates new possibilities. ‘Radical’ is often used as a pejorative term, but it is really a compliment.

In order to grow up, we have to question what we know. We become adults when we form our own opinions and diverge from what we were told growing up.

Kids learn the real story about frogs from Play School:

Der glumph went the little green frog one day. But we all know frogs go lah-dee-dah-dee-dah.

What kind of frog will you grow up to be?

Be afraid

According to The Age on the weekend, the Victorian State election is being fought on law and order, despite the crime statistics being down to their lowest levels since 1993. Both sides are promising more police and tougher penalties. The Age is mystified by the law and order focus – which it proclaimed under this huge banner headline:

CRIME SHOCK!

The shock, you understand, was that crime statistics were low.

The very same newspaper had these headlines in the preceding week:

  • “Victorian Twins in Deadly Shooting.”
  • “Toddler ‘Stabbed to Death’ “
  • “Teen Fights off Men in Attempted Abduction”
  • “Zahra ‘Dismembered, body scattered’ “

Nice, eh? If you actually read the articles, you find that the twins had a suicide pact (and it happened in the US). The toddler was killed by her father. The teen had her arm grabbed, and what did it take to scare the men off? Her phone rang. (Perhaps the ringtone was “boo”.)  Zahra, as you probably already know, was killed in the US, and the gory details have been making headlines here for weeks on end.

“I can make the world safe for you – come and live over here” (from Make The World Safe, The Whitlams.)

Politicians have a lot to gain from making people feel unsafe – because they can offer the illusion of safety. The media also have a lot to gain, because it sells newspapers, increases ratings and makes profits fat and healthy.

The sad thing is that we are buying it. We are instilling our children with Stranger Danger, despite overwhelming statistics showing that kids are at most danger from people they know. Certainly they need to know that it’s not safe to leap into the car with someone they don’t know, but the whole “never talk to strangers” thing is very worrying. If we paint strangers as terrifyingly dangerous, what does that do to our childrens’ chances of getting to know new people and making friends?

There was a sign in the office of a teacher of mine, too many years ago, with a picture of a bird flying and the motto:

There are no strangers here. Only friends we haven’t met.

I see that as a healthy approach to life, but it is, of course, completely incompatible with stranger danger. How do I explain to my 3 year old that it’s ok for me to talk to strangers, but not ok for her? Does she benefit from hearing a litany of possible crimes to make her afraid of everyone that she passes in the street?

We see terrible stories in the papers and on the news every day. They are the talk of the staff room, of the supermarket checkout, and the mothers groups. Everywhere two people get together they say “Did you hear about that awful thing that happened to that little boy?” “Did you see that poor little girl on the news?” “Did you hear about that awful shooting?” and whole groups of people become a little more afraid.

This is a global village – we hear in graphic detail about what happens to a little girl in the US, unable to filter and process the information into any kind of rational perspective. The hundreds of millions of US citizens who weren’t dismembered don’t make the news, of course. The traumatic, tragic, ghoulish and appalling stand out, sell papers, and make conversation. But they don’t happen every day. Not here.  Next time you see a list of appalling headlines in the media, list the ones that happened within 10km of your family. The list will almost always be empty.

“Do not be afraid… Be very, very frightened.” Douglas Adams, in ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’.

We can’t protect ourselves, or our children, against everything. But we can make ourselves, and our children, incredibly miserable trying. The best recipe for mental health is probably to stop reading the news altogether. There are birds, flowers, tadpoles and chocolate. There are children, and bicycles, and people to laugh and love with. You wouldn’t read about it, but you can live it.

I didn’t know then what I know now

There is a song that makes me choke back the tears every time it plays on the radio. I love the song and am tempted to buy a copy, but I’m not sure that I actually want to listen to it very often. Called “Caught in the Crowd”, by Kate Miller-Heidke, it’s about bullying. Not about being bullied, or doing the bullying, but about standing by and letting it happen. Most of the song talks about a friendship developing between the singer and another student.

Well he was quite a big guy, kinda shy and quiet
When the kids called him weird he didn’t try and deny it

The singer gently develops the friendship, and it’s not until the last verse that you find out the reason for the song:

Three guys I knew pushed him into the cement
Threw away his bag and said he had no friends
He yelled that he did and he looked around
Tried getting up but they pushed him on down
That’s when he saw me, called out my name
And I turned my back, and just walked away.

Yeah I turned my back, and just walked away.”

I was bullied at school. Nothing physical – there was rarely so much as a hand laid on me – but nonetheless vicious and with lasting impact. The overwhelming emotions associated with those times were shame  (what was wrong with me?) and incredible loneliness. I felt completely isolated by the fact that no-one stood up for me, and no-one took it seriously. At worst the teachers assumed I had brought it on myself. At best they said it was “kids stuff” and I should just ignore it. It was pretty brutal on a teenage psyche.

And yet, there’s a bright side. As a result of that, I have a fierce anti-bullying obsession. I think I am physically incapable of seeing someone being bullied without trying to rescue them, and it’s been very interesting learning the most effective ways to defuse bullies. There is a reason that effective anti-bullying programmes in schools enlist all the students, by teaching them what bullying is, and building a culture that doesn’t tolerate it. The secret lies not in direct confrontation with the bullies themselves – that can be dangerous and can make the situation dramatically worse. Instead, the secret lies in supporting the victims.

Bullying works by singling out a vulnerable target, isolating them and making them miserable. At its worst, it cuts the targets off from any means of support, sometimes with threats:”If you tell anyone about this, I’ll kill you.” And sometimes more subtly. This makes it impossible for people to defend themselves effectively, and access the support they need to rebuild their self esteem to the point where they can overcome the bullying.

Which means, of course, that the best way to stop a bully is to support his or her victim. When a mean comment cuts them down, make a nice one and build them back up. When they think they are alone and friendless, make it clear that you care and will support them.

As the haunting chorus shows, this can be hard to do when you’re young.

I was young and caught in the crowd
I didn’t know then what I know now
I was dumb and I was proud
And I’m sorry
If I could go back do it again
I’d be someone you could call friend
Please please believe that I’m sorry.”

Anti-bullying programmes in schools have come a long way. I am closely involved with two schools where, although bullying arises from time to time, it never lasts, because the school culture simply doesn’t give it house room. Sadly, many schools have yet to get the message. But it’s not just schools where bullying is an issue.

There are many levels of bullying – from aggressive shoppers shouting at sales assistants, to drivers running cyclists off the road. From kids acting out their aggression on the playground, to everyday bullies who cut people dead with a snide remark.

We all see minor acts of bullying from time to time. Sometimes we witness major ones. It’s tempting to pass by on the other side of the street and avoid the issue. No-one wants to draw a bully’s attention to themselves. But that’s the beauty of using support as an anti-bullying weapon. Because if you’re supporting someone else, you are a team. And bullies hate teams.

Sharing the love

Today I received a couple of very unexpected compliments, from surprising sources. Not surprising because they thought well of me, but surprising because they chose to say it. Both men are of the “why say it? You know it’s true!” school, so it was particularly wonderful to get positive feedback from them. (Can you tell that I hang around with a lot of Computer Scientists and Engineers??)

In actual fact, I spent the day grinning every time I remembered the words, and I remembered them so often that I suspect I was in danger of being branded smug (either that or people were beginning to wonder what I was up to).

The compliments were especially effective because they were very specific praise of things that I know I do well. That might strike you as a bit odd. Why should I need to be complimented for stuff that I know I’m good at? Yet those things that are “so obvious they hardly need mentioning” are precisely the things that don’t get mentioned.

Sometimes life can seem like a fast flowing river full of submerged logs, boulders, and the occasional ravenous crocodile. It can feel as though we are buffeted, bruised and attacked, barely managing to keep our heads above water. Compliments are like an extra life vest – they can buoy you up and help you to float over the difficult bits. They make it that much easier to keep swimming.

It can be daunting to compliment someone – it’s easy to get tangled up in fears that people will mistake your motives, or just feel too shy to make that rather personal approach. But the fascinating thing about compliments is that they are just as good to give as to receive. Knowing that you have made someone else’s day is one of the best ways to make your own.

It doesn’t take much – praising a barista’s coffee, or admiring the little pattern they have made in the froth (coffee is a very important part of my life, so I notice these things), appreciating someone’s earrings or hairstyle, or complimenting a bus driver on a smooth ride. These things are like stones thrown into a pond. The ripples spread and grow, as a small wave of kindness washes over the world, with you at its centre. How great is that??

I don’t make the time for these things as often as I should. Too often I save up my positive thoughts for Christmas cards, or other arbitrary occasions, where they risk getting swamped or even forgotten in the seasonal chaos. I’ve been inspired, today, to be more appreciative. To tell people when they make a difference to me, big or small. To write to authors whose work enriches my life, compliment co-workers, and be so very grateful to my children’s teachers, who perform small miracles on a daily basis.

Try it for yourself. Make some waves. Go forth and compliment.