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.
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.
To live together as brothers and sisters: a hope that transcends time, ethnicity and borders. If the purpose of religion were to be reduced to one thing, it might be reduced to this. It is a sentiment that has spilled into almost every aspect of culture - song, poetry, everyday language. To call someone a sister or a brother is to acknowledge deep ties, to claim solidarity, to promise acceptance and loyalty. But it is only since having a second child of my own, that I have really thought about what it means to be brothers and sisters. And more than that - how to raise up brothers and sisters. How do we foster this relationship as parents and siblings? And how do we extend it beyond our own blood relatives? If this is the ultimate goal for all humanity, how do we start in our own lives?
As a mother of a two year old who hungrily absorbs and repeats most of what she hears around her, I have been reflecting further on something that bothered me many years ago - the content of stories and songs for children. When I pause and listen to the words of nursery rhymes that are passed on almost unconsciously from generation to generation and across cultures, I wonder at how they have endured so steadfastly. Sometimes political, often nonsensical, and frequently just plain bizarre, they are a bemusing part of our cultural heritage. But the thing I notice most is that these nursery rhymes simply don’t have much ‘substance’; there is rarely a message that is meaningful for a small person. I remember Michael Macintyre’s joke that the only advice we can glean from Humpty Dumpty is ‘don’t sit on a wall if you’re an egg’. No doubt it’s the rhythm and accompanying movements that seem to appeal most to adults and children alike, but it made me wonder why a good tune and a good message can’t go hand in hand.
‘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.
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).