The human conversation. It is an everyday but powerful thing - an exchange of thoughts and ideas that sets us apart from the animal kingdom. For us, a conversation goes far beyond communicating information. It can inspire us, and even change us. It can make us understand ourselves and life differently. It can transport us to another place, and its effects can be permanent. But, like most things, conversations can be used for a higher purpose, or undertaken casually, almost unconsciously. It is this second type of conversation that I’ve noticed we all tend to fall back on most of the time; it seems we adopt a sort of ‘narrative’ that we use and reuse all the time, without really thinking about it. But how funny it is that, despite this sophisticated conversational faculty we have as human beings, we often choose to communicate very little about our inner selves and the important questions of life.
Despite the popular emphasis on chaos and despair in the world, there’s still a lot of goodness out there. There are good people, good causes, and good developments absolutely everywhere. It’s really down to us whether we choose to notice it or not, and then whether we choose to align ourselves with it or simply go with the flow of negative trends. And while it is essential to critique and oppose the bad, it is also important to highlight and celebrate the good.
A few weeks ago, my daughter had a tantrum in the middle of a public square. So it was not just a public tantrum, but one with an audience of slightly embarrassed, slightly fascinated spectators on benches! They looked on unabashedly, with stone-faced expressions. Not that I could glance in their direction for long; I was too focused on my writhing, screaming little girl. But I felt the stares, the judgement, and it was oppressive. One older man passed me and started shaking his finger directly at my daughter, saying ‘behave!’ in an angry voice. I was horrified, but told him politely enough ‘I’m handling this, thank you’, but he repeated his same phrase. So I repeated mine. To which he said ‘it doesn’t look like you’re handling it’, and walked off. It appalled me that I should have to deal with this sort of interference on top of an already stressful situation. I called back sarcastically ‘thank you for your support!’, and then felt the unfamiliar weight and fire of conflict arrive in my chest - at a moment when I really needed help, and calm.
Back at the start of the academic year, my social media feed was awash with ‘first day at school’ and ‘back to school’ pictures of the sweet little faces I know in my life. Some were accompanied with written updates by proud parents on how it went - mainly that their child had gone into the classroom happily and excitedly, barely looking back and not a tear in sight. I didn’t read anything like ‘and she wailed and shook in my arms, not wanting me to leave her. I waited a while, my heart aching and unsure what to do. As the teacher ushered her in, I tried to stop myself from crying too. What a first day!’.
It is 2019! I chose an exclamation mark because it looks positive. And now that full stop makes me sound sarcastic. Anyway - it is a new Gregorian year, a fresh new start, and I’ve been reflecting on just that. Our social world, real and virtual, is full of motivating quotes and cheering-ons to make this year ‘count’, to make it better, to make yourself better. And, on the whole, there seems to be genuine belief in new possibilities. Human beings crave progress and growth; they want to become; they seek fulfilment. And so the idea of a ‘blank canvas’ is both appealing and satisfying. Why shouldn’t we make resolutions to improve ourselves and learn new things?
One day, I was sitting in my favourite local cafe in Malta (Creme Cafe in Naxxar - a bustling place of Maltese conversations, books, delicious coffee and amazing raw vegan cakes). I was busy writing, as it is the sort of cafe that inspires writing, when someone with an unfamiliar but radiant face approached me and my then six month old baby. It wasn’t so much what this woman said - questions and compliments about baby Dorothy no less - but the warmth with which she spoke. There was such openness, encouragement and interest, in a quantity and degree of sincerity that we rarely encounter in everyday life - and certainly not from strangers. There was no wistful nostalgia or maternal affection that sometimes come from an older woman when meeting a new baby, either. This woman was my age, and her manner was characterised by a friendliness that is born of love, not reminiscence.
I have a three year old. An exuberant, charismatic, chatty three year old who is wondrously curious about everything. But not long ago, I had a tiny newborn in my arms and I was learning all about motherhood for the first time. Not long ago, conversations pivoted around questions like ‘how old is she?’, ‘how is she sleeping?’, and ‘are you breastfeeding?’. General appreciative compliments abounded, and support was extensive when it came to physical matters like weighing your baby or consulting lactation experts or starting on solids. In a couple of years, questions will no doubt be posed at my daughter directly - ‘how old are you?’, ‘do you like school?’, ‘what’s your favourite subject?’. But for now, I have a three year old. Which means a few things. I am experiencing the indeterminate, ‘in between’ phase of early childhood, when my daughter is no longer a toddler, but is not yet in school. People tend to compliment her on what she looks like or what she’s wearing rather than have conversations with her (because she is three, maybe, there is not much expectation of her ability to converse). Motherhood is more ‘new’ feeling and intense and demanding than ever before, but there is much less conversation about it - and much less interest in me and my child overall (I don’t mean this melodramatically; simply that we, as a duo, are not novelties anymore). I may still be dealing with ‘toddler matters’ like weening and potty training, but suddenly these are not such acceptable topics to be discussing openly in the way I could before. Even between friends, questions around challenges are often shared in lowered tones, tinged with shame or guilt - ‘is your little one having a lot of tantrums too?’, ‘is she still wearing a nappy at night?’. And speaking of questions - they are rarely asked by others at all in this phase; there is simply a calm assumption that I am not ‘new at this’ anymore and that I must now know what I am doing.
The smell of Malta after a hot summer’s day, when the light is soft and pink, the air is still, and the buildings rise up like luminous sand castles left behind at the beach, is distinctly special. For a brief time, it makes you forget the hot, challenging hours that went before it. It is the lover’s gift after feuds and tears; the smell of contentment, of peace. I start to remember myself again - my aspirations and purpose. I realise I have been lost in survival mode. What a power is heat to oppress the senses and mind! Here in this mellow respite I can breathe in the memories of the day and notice things again.
Isn’t it a wonderful feeling when your mind expands and understands something new? Or when you gain a fresh perspective, or feel inspired by a different way of thinking? I’m starting to realise that this all-important stimulation of the intellect - and heart - is highly undervalued, but absolutely critical, for mothers of young children. It is so easy to become overtaken by practical duties and emotional reactions, and subtly, your identity is reduced to what you are doing or feeling in the moment. But we are so much more than that - and remembering the potential of life is, surely, essential to developing it.
Only the other day, two separate friends enlightened me on the shocking aftermath of music festivals (I have never been to one and even if I had, I might not have known what happens in the days and weeks after the mass exodus). Things are just left behind without a care in the world. By things I mean tents, bikes, clothes, shoes - real possessions, not just crisp packets and beer cans. It takes charities and volunteers to clear up the mess and sometimes pass on these discarded items to those in need. My thoughts immediately turned to refugee camps, where the scene looks similar but the reality is another life, another world. It filled me with horror to think of these two ‘campsites’ and how diametrically opposed they are, and yet how they share some absurd and tragic characteristics: both exist at the border of ordered society, and both are waste grounds of so much human capacity and potential. With these ideas in my mind, I wrote a poem.