‘Black Friday’ - a relatively recent American phenomenon that immediately follows Thanksgiving - has now unapologetically spilled over into many other countries in the Western world. Even here in Malta, a traditional Mediterranean island, there are special opening hours and discounts (plus huge transport disruptions) on this day. And of course in the world of online shopping, anyone can partake of Black Friday's offers - curiously, quietly, greedily. It’s a day that celebrates and feasts on mass consumerism, and which countless businesses feel compelled to participate in - even when they operate outside the cultural context of Thanksgiving. This year, the date is also ironically shared with ‘Buy Nothing Day’ - which, as it sounds, promotes the exact opposite values and behaviours to ‘Black Friday’. The discourse around all of this is conflicting: hype and excitement mixed with resistance and disdain. There are lots of opinions, and lots of counter-initiatives too. Upon reading about some of them, it struck me that this is a wonderful opportunity to think more about ethical buying and small businesses. It is also a chance to cultivate more consciousness and conversation on the force of consumerism. But all the attention surrounding ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Buy Nothing Day’ can also act as veils to perhaps a more important issue - materialism itself.
We read and hear a lot about ‘busyness’ these days. People say - and feel - that they are busy all the time, and it is treated and accepted as a symptom of the age. The more we talk about it, tinged with a mixture of pride and apology, the more busyness becomes a kind of cultural narrative. It’s undeniable that life is very full for most people in today’s (at least Western) society. There are an intricate array of demands on our time due to the cost of living, raising families while maintaining jobs, less localised activity and therefore more travel, interacting with people across time and space almost constantly, and somehow trying to carve out windows for other interests, therapies and recreation too. Some individuals are also engaged in service-oriented activities that aim to help various populations, be it local or international. All of this is a far cry from life several decades ago, when everything was a lot more limited - in terms of where we could go, who we could communicate with, and what we could participate in. We knew less about the world, its problems, opportunities and needs; we simply had fewer options and less information to process.
I realised, after my friends started having children, that our conversations were different. They had all the zeal of intention from before - to share, to discuss, to analyse - but somehow they didn’t seem to bloom in the same way. I’m not referring to the content, but more to the lifespan and completion of a conversation. After my own daughter began to move and demand a little more of my attention than nursing or gurgling as I chatted away, I began to understand. Interruptions from little ones are sometimes sweet and lispy like the first patterings of rain at a picnic, and sometimes boisterous and unsettling like a thunderclap. But they are all a little frustrating because they interrupt the flow of something else which, at that moment, holds your focus more. Of course, my friends and I all accepted that it was simply more difficult now to have meaningful or prolonged conversations when the children were there. We began to ‘postpone’ them to evening phone calls and visits, when we were often tired but longing for some stretches of listening and talking in adult proportions. This is no revelation to anyone with young children, or to anyone trying to have a conversation with someone with young children. It’s fine, it’s a phase, and even a privilege. The revelation to me was that this pattern of interruption was possibly the most exhausting thing about motherhood.
Pregnancy with my second child has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s all relative, of course, and some may read this and wonder at how easy life must have been for me if this was hard. Some others may automatically want to remind me that this is ‘nothing’ compared to having two small children, or having three or four or five. But the fact is, it has been extremely challenging for me, and I’m sure in no small part due to having moved countries immediately before and to experiencing pregnancy through the hottest months of a Mediterranean summer. I have a lot more awareness now of respecting each person’s journey with motherhood, and not trying to compare or rank levels of intensity. For some, one child pushes them to their ‘full capacity’; for others, having ten or more children isn’t massively stressful. The thing is, we don’t need to remind each other that someone else has it harder or that your own situation is very ‘doable’ - we each have our own strengths and limitations. Motherhood will simply bear it’s own unique fruit for each person.
Princesses are an interesting subject. I have come to realise that there are apparently two distinct camps in real life and not just in fairytales: the adoring subjects and the hostile opponents. In the first camp are the parents and their little girls who relish the stories, the images, the songs, the dresses - indeed any kind of product stamped with a princess - and are attracted to them like magpies to jewels. They are loyal adherents to princesses, and certainly see nothing harmful in them. And in the second are the parents who battle this imagery on a daily basis and cultivate a strong contempt for all things ‘princess’. These are the parents who wince at princesses on cereal boxes and at birthday parties, and believe that these sylph-like figures stand for all the wrong things.
I wanted to share a few examples of novels that have stirred me up and opened my eyes. When this happens, I feel even more strongly how important it is to read books. Like most activities in life, reading can be for the moment, or it can be enriching and purposeful longterm. I am wary of a particular word so often linked to the pleasure of reading: ‘escapism’. It feels like a disservice to all that the the writer has done, to all that you can do. Surely reading is not about shutting down, but about opening up. It is not intended to distance us from life, but to draw us further into it, to enable us to taste its flavours and, at the very least, to understand it better. Below are a few examples of writing that, in my humble opinion, have the power to do this. (NB my wish isn’t to allude to or review the stories, but rather share what impact the effect of these stories had on me).
I’ve learned a lot from a friend of mine, and I wanted to share some of the thoughts and inspiration that have grown out of conversations with her. She is one of the most conscious, truth-seeking mothers I’ve encountered. She thinks about everything from the impact of her words on her child every day, to the benefits of magnesium salts in his bath. She has made some very difficult decisions concerning the health and education of her child, and all of them have been weighed carefully - according to spiritual principles and in consultation with others. And yet, despite this heightened consciousness, she is the least judgmental person I know. She once told me that she will never judge another mother’s choices because she knows from experience that almost every single thing she herself ‘thought she would do’ she has had to reevaluate/not do - and do some of those things she thought she never would. Motherhood has been a profoundly humbling experience for her, and as a result, she genuinely feels she has no right to judge another parent’s decisions.
I had already decided to write on this subject when I sat down in a cafe and saw something that pained my heart. A woman in her early forties drank her coffee at a small table, fidgeted, twiddled her hair compulsively, and looked so very agitated. Every now and then she would pick up her phone or press a single button so that the screen would light up and tell her something, or nothing. She was physically in the cafe, but so intensely internalised in her condition that she could have been anywhere. As I reflected on ‘isolation’, I realised that our society is now harbouring so many expressions of this that it is hard to even identify them. We are long passed the familiar example of an elderly person sitting at home in loneliness - although this is in no way deserves less urgent attention. But isolation, in all its forms, is impressing itself on all of us every day. Individuals can now venture out of their home into a public space, and essentially remain veiled and separate from their environment, like puppets in a show, heedless of the set change behind them. They notice little, and are noticed little. Of course, sometimes we leave our homes and feel alive and conscious of it all - the weather, the sky, the sounds, the people passing at that moment, but even then the experience is so easily very solitary. At other times, we can rush from thing to thing out of habit and necessity, and rarely engage with present reality at all - we are thinking about what’s happened or projecting to what hasn’t. Perhaps worst of all is when we desire to interact with others but somehow feel so stifled by convention and our culture of isolation, that it is difficult or even dangerous in our minds to do so. As the roads fill with cars, and the malls with shoppers, and the beaches with bathers, we all become more and more alone, and less and less confident to connect.
Celebrations are underway in every part of the world in response to the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith. Countless local and national celebrations, embracing every culture and segment of society, are inspired by a desire to unite and contribute to the betterment of the world. This is the message of Bahá’u’lláh, who declared that today ‘is the Day in which God’s most excellent favours have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things. It is incumbent upon all the peoples of the world to reconcile their differences, and, with perfect unity and peace, abide beneath the shadow of the Tree of His care and loving-kindness.’
I remember walking down the long corridor of our home, as a child, to collect the post from the little wooden letter box stuck to the front door. We lived with my grandparents and so quite often the envelopes would bear their names - my Grandpa’s mostly. The routine in the house was relatively predictable at this time of the morning: Grandma would be sitting up in bed, having some breakfast that had been prepared for her by Grandpa, and he himself would be enjoying cornflakes followed by marmalade on toast - the very same choice faithfully made every day for many decades - at the dining room table. He wore his distinguished pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers; she sat in a handmade floral nighty with a shawl around her shoulders. The image is printed indelibly on my memory, not because it was remarkable but because it was every day.