Maybe I wouldn’t go under a bus for him

I think this might be one of the most taboo questions I could ask, and I hesitate to even put it in print because the logic is so taken-for-granted, such dogma, so unquestioned. There is this phrase I have trouble with, whenever it is used. ‘I’d go under a bus for him.’ Usually preceded by ‘of course,’ and often with a clause in front of it that exposes the dreaded stain of maternal ambivalence. ‘I shouted at my kid the other day…but of course I’d die for him.’

Why is self sacrifice the measure of love? If it were up to me, I’d get rid of all hypothetical buses and Kantian train dilemmas. Maybe these are terrible measures of love. Maybe this is a boring ethical question that leads to cul-de-sacs of guilty mothers proffering metaphorical transport based-deaths as proof of our devotion.

Maybe the seduction lies in purification. That the damnable sins of maternal ambivalence: hatred, anger, envy, frustration, boredom and desire-for-something-else-beyond-the-sandpit might be washed away by martyrdom. Would throwing oneself under the metaphorical bus truly atone for the taboo thoughts and feelings that course through every parent-of-a-three-year-olds veins every day?

I suspect not. I think buses to hurl oneself under or no, mothers are going to endure the dreaded stain of maternal ambivalence, of mixed feelings and devils on their shoulders till the day they die, probably starting with the moment they peed on the stick and thought, fuck yes and oh shit.

The biggest fallacy of the metaphorical bus, hurtling towards my recently-told-off and steaming-mad-three-year-old, the bus that I am about to roll dramatically in front of to save my about-to-be -traumatised kid’s life, is it obliterates mutuality. Self-sacrifice erases me, my desires and fears and boundaries and ego. Some people call this erasure noble, I raise one sceptical eyebrow and say, bleurgh. I’ve worked too hard to turn up in this body, in this life, to take my stand in relation to another to think bus-diving is any kind of good relational choice. If the bus thing is a snapshot of a worldview, then I want out of that ethical constellation. I suspect it is a rhetorical flourish that is shorthand for a way of relating to others, not an imagined moment in some distant future. It is a daily practice for an imagined future, should one be called to perform such a so-called heroic act.

I have no doubt that I utterly adore my son, that I am devoted to him, that I have given up some things for him, at least temporarily and that I also feel hot injections of maternal ambivalence on a daily, if not hourly basis. I do not feel the need to measure my love in heroic acts of self-sacrifice though. I’m sure in the moment before the bus wheeled into my stroppy, beet-faced three year old who was angrily telling me not to eat his ice-cream, I’d probably instinctively jump in front of it. But as a way of expressing love, I think it is pants. There has got to be a better way of measuring devotion than being flattened by a bus while the previously angry-now-orphaned kid looks on in disbelief and horror. Existing in-relation to the kid, taking our stand in mutuality, blazing with frankness and crackling with authenticity, being present to our limits and desires and capacities and destructive feelings is far less lonely than being orphaned by a woman who insisted on going under a bus for you.

I want a better way to measure devotion.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

‘Taking my stand in relation to the other’ is a gorgeous phrase I’ve lifted from Buber’s, I and Thou

Including deep areas of silence

One of the rip-tides of parenting I have found myself flailing in is the rush into language. I have gotten lost in the whirling eddies of child development sites and books written by speech and language therapists about word acquisition. I consumed these texts by the nap-full, gorging on them as he slept in my arms, loading myself up to fill him with language when he awoke. Occasionally, I failed. There were afternoons when R was an infant when I would feel guilty for the pauses. Sometimes, I stopped chirruping nouns at him and I stopped pneumatically pointing to what lay beyond the window. That statistic which is meant to educate us as new parents- the one about how many words per hour, was it thousands or hundreds, a child from a middle class background might hear- served not to relieve me but to goad me into frenetic communication with my wriggling baby. I am glad I was not at the receiving end of some of my more high-pitched, high-octane, mind-numbing Mary Poppins chatter. I would have hated that spray of words directed at me in such steady stream.
Despite my misguided attempts to riddle my kid with speech at such alarming velocities and pressures, he did learn how to talk. I felt relieved when his first syllables sprouted, when he offered me holophrastic phrases, when his syntax unfolded. I could relax a little. I didn’t want to fail him, deprive him of the pleasures of eloquence. I wish, in hindsight, that I’d had the confidence to relax a little bit sooner, to own and contain my own anxiety a little more, to trust that language, although miraculous, is not something that needs to be quite so fussed-over. I wish I’d given him a gentler initiation into the symbolic realm, into the world of words.

Feeling a little more confident in my mothering has meant I trust silence now, and the quality of our exchanges has shifted.

I wish silence in the early years was something that was talked about as often as language acquisition is. I wish its role in developing the capacity to think was recognised. I wish the need for making space and privacy for toddlers was seen as developmentally crucial. I wish we had more click-bait articles about the textures of wordless connection- the moments of our own quiet attentiveness while they play that make a lingering glance between us possible. Words are wonderful, but moments of meeting often happen at the edge of language, in the thick of contended, silent play. These moments- the glance, the spontaneous cuddle he gives me when he suddenly notices my body next to his, the way his tiny chest feels on mine when we lie together on the grass after we’ve talked about where to cycle to next- these would not be possible if I were filling the air with nouns and buzzing with the next developmental milestone (millstone) we needed to achieve. The essayist Natalia Ginzburg articulates this both/and sensibility in the essay ‘Little Virtues’ when she extols, ‘our relationship with our children should be a living exchange of thoughts and feelings, but it should also include deep areas of silence.’ I can’t imagine reading this in any kind of modern parenting manual, but I feel it in my bones to be true. We need silence as much as we need frankness and eloquence and direct communication of our thoughts and feelings.

I want my son to know that his attention doesn’t need to be outwardly focused all the time. That he is allowed to dive deliciously into his own psyche and enjoy what he finds there- and if he chooses, he can fetch something from his mind and bring it out to show me, but the conditions of our relatedness do not depend on him stitching our minds together with the constant exchange of words. We can be loosely coupled- come together for a chat and then both of us dive again into our own private worlds. Or be together wordlessly, with nothing but breath and eye contact between us.

copyright Diana Smith 2018

You did, you loved, your feet are sore

A few weeks after my son was born, Robinson’s fruit squash released this advert that made me weep every time it came on. The soundtrack was a one-hit-wonder, ‘give me just a little more time,’ and the advert sped through the childhood of a baby-to-teenager with two loving parents finally waving him off to live his own life. It was so poignant and I was attempting to get the latch right, struggling to nurse my newborn, and I was so grateful this little person was in my arms, alive, suckling, being. I was still a little shocked he was here, not just a mute bump anymore but a live baby, born into this life. I didn’t want to wave goodbye to him yet, even though this advert reminded me I would be doing just that sooner than I’d like.

I wonder if there is something inherently, structurally unsatisfactory about parenting. It is simultaneously too much allot of the time and yet paradoxically leaves me longing for more. A little more time, a little less growing up so soon, a few more lingering glances and hugs.

Someone asked me this week which element would I be out of earth, air, fire or water. I have been musing recently how much I hate the notion of eternity. I want to turn up for this life and to worry about a hypothetical heaven or hell feels sacrilegious to me. I told him I was earth, and I think that is true. My task has been to come down from the mountain, to turn up in this body, in this particular life, to escape from my head, to be grounded. I think of myself as someone who enjoys ordinary, mammalian life these days. I do not crave ascension into heaven. I want to wallow in my limited capacities, they’re what make life worth living in all of their bittersweet textures.

One of these limited capacities is not being able to bear too much of the present. I do not want the pleasures of the present to be perpetuated because am not god and I can’t tolerate eternity. I need my very particular past and I need what-is-passing-now to step into the present for a mere moment. I can do it sometimes, like when I’m hanging out the damp washing and I ache with how gorgeous and warm and sensuous the experience is, all the sheets flapping in the wind. Or sometimes when I am tuning into my breath and aching muscles in my morning yoga.

But I’m certainly not capable of appreciating what actually is without those other two ways of experiencing time- I guess the project of psychoanalysis has been giving me a history – and I also need the grief of good- things- coming- to -an -end, the grief of knowing my three-year-old’s body won’t be so deliciously moulded to mine in a few years. On the train today, a businessman looked up from his laptop and said wistfully, ‘mine are too old to cuddle like that anymore- they’re all grown up.’ I wanted to contradict him, tell him my boy would always come to me for cuddles, I wanted to wave the Eternity card at him. I felt the seductive pull of preserving what I find precious, of imagining that what is actually fleeting could be perpetuated. But I know it won’t feel the same when his tiny body doesn’t fit so closely into mine, and that I will miss it, and to extinguish that fear would be to lose the achingly beautiful bit of the present I can actually bear- so instead of arguing with the wistful man on his laptop, I buried my nose into my son’s hair and enjoyed his arms clasped around my neck. Being in relationship with other humans is inherently unsatisfactory.

There is this poem by Thomas Lux called ‘A Little Tooth,’ and I love it because it speaks to this bittersweet feeling I have of parenting being a deliciously unsatisfactory experience. You go through the wringer for your kid(s) over and over, and despite your best efforts, he writes: she marries the ‘sweet-talker on his way to jail’, and what is left is some memories of doing, loving and a pair of sore feet. So unsatisfactory. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

Thomas Lux’s poem can be found here

📸 Kat Haylett

Let me show you how to peel that banana: on imparting a legacy of gestures

When I was about ten years old, my mom won the boxed VHS set of Indiana Jones in a gas station raffle. It was thrilling. The whole family was thrilled. I watched the videos endlessly, along with my sisters, and it properly entered my psyche. I think I can probably recite the whole film verbatim. (This puzzles me in hindsight because we weren’t really allowed to watch films or television. Indiana Jones must have been the exception to the rule, alongside Sister Act and Cool Runnings. As with most things, including value systems, my parents were wildly inconsistent.) Inevitably, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade entered into my play. In the film, Sean Connery keeps a little notebook of drawings and facts on the Holy Grail. His life’s work was trying to patch together clues to its whereabouts and meaning, and this spoke to the ten year old paranoid heart of me. I re-appropriated a little mauve faux leatherette diary to fill with facts about the world. I gleaned from everywhere- I wasn’t sure what to select, so everything was left in-making careful little drawings of a Nefertiti head brooch my sister Sasha would wear, pinned to her t-shirt. That seemed important. Maybe ancient knowledge. I didn’t know how to do maths beyond basic column addition even though Maxie, our neighbour and playmate was already on to a mysterious thing called, ‘algebra’ in the very grown-up sixth-grade. When I requested to be taught this alleged ‘algebra’ my mother breezily informed me that there was no need to teach me algebra because, ‘Diana, you think algebraically.’ Requests for formal education, for procedural knowledge were often turned down as a matter of course. My response to the denied access to shared, human, generational, institutional, taken-for-granted knowledge was to morph into a sort of intellectual human magpie, picking up bright bits of esoteric facts, unable to distinguish glitter from gold.

And I am still dazzled by method. Procedural knowledge fascinates me. I am the mutant child of bohemian anti-establishment experiments and I am blown away when someone has a consistent approach to putting together a puzzle. Like, start with the corners. I followed the vegans around our shared kitchen at art school because they had interesting processes in relation to vegetables. There are certain friends, when I visit them, I am on safari in their homes. They shake the wrinkles out of their washing before stretching it on the washing rack. Or they have cataloging systems for their books. Their children roll their squeezy yogurt packets neatly from the bottom up, and in contrast, I watch my own child scrunch his into a crumpled fist. These friends know which pots to buy, when to check their oil, how to pair socks, what to do with ketchup stains, how to clean the bathroom, how to keep a sofa mark- free. (Wash your feet when you get in, don’t eat on it, wipe the babies hands after the meal) They impart this knowledge to their kids, they hand down ways of doing things, how to start.

I want in on this legacy of gestures.

There is value in procedural knowledge. Maybe its not the Holy Grail, but its time saving. I know the counter argument well: It is indeed fun and creative to puzzle stuff out for yourself and I shall write about what Winnicott has to say about cooking sausages and living a creative life in another post. But it is knackering to always invent the wheel when one wants to know something or when one wants to do something. It is a relief to have knowledge to fall back on, to do automatically, to not question. At the age of six, I remember puzzling out how to tie my shoes, and I watched with fascination as a friend’s mum sang a little rhyme and showed her daughter a fool-proof sequence and little ditty for remembering the steps. I remember wanting desperately to remember the rhyme so I too could effortlessly sort out my shoes situation. This sort of scenario was the norm in our family culture, and it produced in all of us this sense of weary-melancholia. Everything was harder than it should have been. There is no need for certain tasks to be so difficult. Even now I have to battle with a feeling of despair and when learning new skills- I have to remind myself that there will be instructions if I want them, and I am not alone on a desert island, the first woman to cement in her garden washing-line.

These learned, handed-down gestures are social. They mark us as human, one of the tribe. I was raised by wolves, and I feel like my lack of procedural knowledge marks me out as feral, as not-quite-human. And I want R enfranchised as well. I want him to be bilingual, able to fluently switch between the language of social convention and the idiosyncratic pleasures of puzzling-out-for-himself. There is room for both, and it is nice to be able to choose, to decide when it would be useful to do it step by step and when it might be interesting to feel-his-way-through. I watched him fold a boiled egg into his mouth the other week and it has made me think. What procedural knowledge would be useful to impart? Should I teach him how to peel a banana in the conventional way? Or should I let him strip off one flange at a time because it is outrageous fun to work out your own trademark way of peeling a banana. One of my most precious memories was being taught How to Pound A Nail Into Wood by an uncle. Procedural knowledge is a ticket-in. Imagine the vistas that would have been open to me in my twenties if I hadn’t been head-down, absorbed in learning the basics: how to have a respectful fight with a partner, what to do with my fingernails (File? Polish? Manicure?), how to use a drill and a saw, what sort of clothing suits me, how to pour cream over a spoon into hot espresso. Procedural knowledge is the stuff of identity. I know how to cook artichokes and asparagus because my grandmother taught me. And this draws a border around where I exist: in terms of class and taste. Not that that line can’t be re-drawn or expanded, but it gives me a little plot to start from. I’m not left wondering what to fill my mauve leatherette notebook with.

Also. When I finally took a correspondence course at twenty eight to pass my maths GCSE, the only unit I couldn’t teach myself or puzzle my way through- the only unit I had to ring my allocated phone tutor to teach me- was algebra.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

During an above-average chat in a noisy bar last year with a randomer I’d just met, a book was recommend to me that has incidentally become a favourite text. My understanding of a history of gestures is informed by the gorgeous, ‘The practice of everyday life’ and specifically, chapter twelve, Gesture Sequences. I don’t have words for how much I love these essays, and I’m super grateful to the randomer (now friend) who said I might enjoy them. He was right.

Impatience is a virtue 

I write this sitting cross legged on the floor just outside my son’s door, impatiently waiting for him to fall asleep. Tonight he is singing and calling for me and telling me wild anecdotes about his day and thrashing and jumping out of his cot, still, an hour after I put him in it. I’m guarding the door. I was looking forward to a glass of wine, a little unwinding: some writing before my own bedtime. Feelings of impatience rip through my chest and lash through my veins. I’m chomping at the bit. I want wine and silence and the bath I drew for myself has gone cold.

It has only recently occurred to me that impatience is a virtue that I should cultivate alongside the patience I have so virtuously, proudly, hot-housed and fussed over and displayed for all to see. I have lived so much of my good-girl life by the truth that patience is what gets you into heaven, buys you love, changes the world. And maybe those things are true, but the cost is a loss of self. I’m not sure that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

When I tried to end with my therapist two years ago, I felt, six years in, that I’d had a cure, he tentatively suggested I perhaps hadn’t felt ‘frustrated enough’ with him. This astonished me then, and I understand now, having spent the last two years welcoming in those uncomfortable feelings. Frustration and impatience and anger and longing are the painful, sharp intakes of breath that remind me I am alive. I was still living inside the confines of a bovine, vegetable life. I was someone who wanted just the right amount, just enough, was, as my husband observed, ‘pathologically reasonable.’ I hadn’t grappled with the terrible, beautiful places longing and frustration take me if I decide I might let myself want too much, be too much, love too much. I hadn’t let myself be impatient very often.

To feel impatient means to know what one really wants. Even if it can’t be had. At least it can be known.

I love the paradox of this though. Parenting requires insane amounts of patience. Any sentient, sane person would balk at the amount required to spend a day with a three year old. I wish there was some way to measure capacities or patience tolerances. Like blood sugar or blood alcohol. What percentage of my blood is patience, I could ask my doctor. If it gets above certain levels, maybe I could get an injection or a pill or be admitted to hospital. I’m probably in danger of psychic death.

I’m trying to stay alive to the hot pricks of impatience that needle me after the 468th why question in the afternoon or the 238th request for more water at bedtime. These are feelings that are culturally taboo for parents (perhaps especially women?) to feel, much less voice, and it requires some real intention to dignify them with some space to exist. It’s hard to admit to feeling impatience because the guilt-over is so bad after. Impatience is also a hard feeling to bear. It is hard work to want and not have, and to do so bucks the logic of late-stage capitalism. But maybe there is some virtue in at least knowing what you want, even if you can’t have it.

And so I’m opening the floodgates. I want to ride these waves of despair, feel them crash against me and well up inside. They remind me that I have needs and desires too, it is not just my incredibly strong willed son who endlessly wants. I also endlessly want and am not satisfied just like him, and I too am unquenchably curious with a million questions, and I too try and shift my own bedtime later and later even at the expense of needed sleep because I want to stay up so I can read and think and eat and play and explore and love. I get it. And this is what makes me feel sympathy towards him. I understand, personally, how generative it is to want. And perhaps this is, as Esther Perel so elegantly theorises about desire, ‘a paradox to be a managed, not a problem to be solved.’ My son wants and I want. Patience is maybe what enables me to generously let his wanting and curiosity take precedence, for now. This is his time to find his footing in the world, latch on to his burgeoning desires. And impatience is what allows me to keep a hold of my own, it is what tells me I might need a break soon, some time to myself, some wine, time to write, a walk, some soul food to read. Even if I can’t have it right now. I can at least eat the feeling. And so, as I answer the question, ‘BUT mummy how do cats laugh,’ and feel the surges of pleasure and bemusement -it was probably one in a long string of questions and observations I’ve been attentive to over the hours and hours- I also tune into the crackling of my own impatience.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

No greater love hath a friend than to know the exact co ordinates of her mates literary taste and then to warmly hand her a book saying, I think you’ll love this, she talks about so many of the things you talk about. I feel like I’ve been re-born after reading Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living. Her voice is dazzling and in her thinking on motherhood and writing, she places De Beauvoir’s ‘deadly patience’ of mothers side by side with desire. That is when the penny dropped.

Choose your own apocalypse: On walking Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year

Those of us who have crazy parents don’t get to choose the apocalypse we are born into. Whatever it is our parents fear- be it bombs, the middle-classes, nuclear holocaust, public transport, germs, bad table manners, being shown up- gets transmitted to their kids, and we, as their children are forced into living their perception, their as-if existence. I lived the the jungles of Costa Rica and in the suburban, homeschooled deserts of Arizona where my parents could feed their schizoid worldview in peace. Keep the kids away from schools, from churches who didn’t have the right theology, from brain-dead institutions, from ignorant neighbours who didn’t agree, from the spying government, from supermarket loyalty cards that might track our canned bean choices. We never choose which delusions and paranoias will be our inheritance: our parents get to decide who we will be frightened of and how much we hate the outside world, how armed we shall be when we leave the (sometimes literal) bunker. If we’re lucky, if we choose to do the work, we might slowly come to realise we can disarm and there was no need for (the sometimes literal) bunker and rifles and (sometimes literal) self-defence lessons by ex-Chilean army officers. At some point we might come blinking out into the sunlight to discover that the apocalypse never really happened- but what do we do with the rifles, the memories of the bunker, the synapses that can’t be pruned, our reptilian knowing. What do we do with our unchosen apocalypse.

Choosing to walk an apocalypse is maybe a weird decision for someone who claims to have lived through her parent’s own personal one, and who generally hates that genre of film and writing. I can see that. I have chosen to read and re-read a text and walk particular bits of the city that bear an uncanny resemblance to the textures of my childhood. But maybe it is that quality in the writing that draws me to it, the voice that masquerades as journalistic reporting although it trades more in fantasy than in facts. I want in on Defoe’s hysterical, fevered apocalypse, saturated as it is with screams and boils and melodrama. I infinitely prefer it to the pared down, austere one of Mcarthy’s The Road. Defoe gives me permission to play- the Plague of 1665 is mine to take, because he made it his, first of all: the crazy religious language in Journal of a Plague year, the descriptions of infected houses having a foot-long Red Cross painted on their door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on our souls,’ painted, in my imagination, in scarlet and maybe over a lintel or something. I imagine the claustrophobic screams of terrified plague victims who are quarantined to pest houses and their own rooms. That was the word my mom used to use when she would send us to our rooms. ‘Quarantined.’ ‘You are quarantined to your room girls until you apologise.’ I love the long, internal theological debates the narrator gets himself into about providence and should I stay or should I go with spurious capitals and labrynthine syntax and no punctuation for miles. The indignity of mass graves and plague pits, the despair, the evacuation of the city, the isolation and mistrust. My mother would pray to god before we drove to the air-conditioned supermarket to buy packets of pasta and mincemeat and bags of apples, pray for protection, for a safe journey and successful shopping, addressing the angels to keep charge over us, especially Michael the archangel, and then she’d smoke a cigarette or two at the steering wheel to calm her nerves.

When I walk the narrow alleyways described by Defoe with others like I did on Sunday, I get some control over the apocalypse. I get to choose this one and how I interact with it. I’m not a victim of circumstance anymore, I get to have a little bit of control, I get to make some decisions. And I got to do it with friends, as an adult, on my own terms, one foot in my own imagination and memory, playfully. And maybe this is the logic of play therapy, when I practice psychogeography like this. The thing that I fear is the thing that is transformed, through play, into something that I can use for for the development of my own identity-to add psychic weight to my soul. Because this is a way of claiming my own past, of stepping into the heart of pain rather than denying my history or disavowing that story or numbing my feelings about my upbringing. Walking the plague allows me to go back into the trauma but at a safe distance. I did not get to choose the flavour of apocalypse my parents put us through- and it changed and shaped my psyche and palette for melodrama and language and religious fervour in ways that are still surprising me. But perhaps I could have some say in how I choose to play with my history. This is grown up play. This is proper make-believe for thirty somethings. And I love walking the city like this, and I’m grateful other people want to come play with me.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I’m deeply grateful to Anna Hart http://www.airstudio.org who transmitted, through her walking practice, how valuable reverie and dipping into internal, subjective space is during a walk. Before I joined her weekly Kings Cross walking club in 2015, I thought psychogeography was largely a fact-saturated affair, consisting mainly of turning attention outward toward the city in an frenzy of objectivity. Her monthly silent walks cured me of this notion and taught me how rich, how satisfying it can be to pay attention to imagination and not just buildings and shared histories.

I’m also deeply grateful to Michael who asked on Sunday’s walk, ‘So, why do you want to walk the plague?’ Great question.

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of The Plague Year is published by penguin and is a cracking good read

If you fancy coming on my next walk, you can find more information here

📸 Photo credit: Kat Haylett

‘Traversing the fantasy’ of dad on Father’s Day

I’m not really in contact with my dad anymore. He lives an ocean away, a few thousand miles away, inside a life that doesn’t intersect with mine very often. What I am in contact with, however, is my felt experience of him, transmitted through fantasies.

One of the most personally useful Lacanian ideas which I’ve picked up from my love of Zizek is the idea of ‘traversing the fantasy.’ I use this idea to understand what to do with my weird delusions and daydreams that populate my psychic life. Instead of ignoring these strange little thoughts- as is tempting to do because they’re often violent, frightening, and unflattering- I ‘traverse’ them, giving myself permission to delve and explore the darker mines of my mind. If there is one thing I have learned now, it is that relief from suffering lies, when I’m brave enough, in the going-into the heart of pain. Remaining curious about the stranger corners of my psyche and conjuring fantasy from my unconscious is one way into the core of me. The self portrait of me at the top of this post speaks to this practice: its a drawing of dreaming an odd, recurring fear I kept imagining over years and years, and I visited over and over again in dreams and drawings and therapy sessions.

As I’ve gotten more comfortable ‘traversing the fantasy’, the experience of entering into my daydreams feels like being Leonardo DoCaprio’s character in the film Inception. I press pause on a scene, and lower myself into it. I try to imagine the scene in vivid detail, get a 360 of the dreamscape, tease out the sensations, the underlying emotions. I come over the threshold with curiosity: What is this fantasy expressing, what can I learn about my inner life, about my desires and fears and wounds? It’s like a really exciting form of time travel. And maybe it is, time travel, in a way. A worm-hole into implicit memory, a personal tour of one’s history. Increasingly I have come to rely on this sort of knowledge (rather than, say, facts) because dreams and fantasy and poetry are charged with complex emotional information that is often elegantly compacted into a single image or a metaphor: I love dreaming as a means of producing truth about myself.

So, as it’s Father’s Day, I thought I’d share a few of my idle fantasies of my own dad.

The first one is rather unflattering and intense. I won’t put it down in writing here, although I talk about it often and I’d like to think most people know the difference between the symbolic and the real. However. I’ll tell you about it on a walk someday. The fantasy haunts me at my most powerless: when he wouldn’t come to my wedding, when he wouldn’t call or write me, when he wouldn’t acknowledge the suffering he caused by moving the family to the jungle and isolating us. My dad is impossible to wring anything out of: confessions of guilt, love, interest in his kids. He is a tight-lipped daydreamer with big ideas and an absent gaze.

I also imagine him as a desert father, able to subsist on locusts and silence and the buzzing of his own thoughts, sitting cross legged and floating in his self-sufficiency. He doesn’t need other people.

Or he haunts my memory in the form of architectural imagery. He is beautiful, impenetrable fortress. I imagine him as some modernist dome. Clean lines and elegant features. Pure. Perfect. He is a building that I am stuck on the outside of, an upturned porcelain bowl. Perfectly smooth, slippery, no footholds, no windows. And in my dreams and nightmares, I imagine the futile attempt to climb upwards into. A doomed attempt at intimacy. He was -and is -unknowable.

On Father’s Day I often turn over in my mind what forgiveness might mean. And I’m not at all sure. But I think I won’t try to climb up the upturned bowl anymore, to peer inside. I think, if I were let in, what I would find would be the underside of an upturned bowl: an intriguing bit of hollow, perfectly smooth surface. I’d like to think that once I’d glimpsed his emptiness, I’d leave, feeling a little flat and disappointed but maybe knowing there wasn’t much inside anyways, should I have been successful in my attempts to get something other than silence from the po-faced squatting desert father.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

For more Zizek and the psychoanalytic theories of Lacan, an enjoyable place to start is his film, ‘The pervert’s guide to cinema’

On craving adult company

So since the weather warmed up, parenting has become a little easier. I sit in the sun while he plays in the sandpit and then we cycle home slowly, singing five little ducks together. We eat ice cream and blow bubbles in the garden and collect pebbles along the river. And this is not an idealised version of our days- they are genuinely slow paced and pleasant and brimming with simple pleasures. Idyllic, in a word. And he has grown up a little- sometimes he potters off by himself down a steep bank to peer at a bug or wanders in front of me, humming. And he speaks in full sentences and makes hilarious observations about bins and boobs and cats. He’s great company at the moment.But I still find it really hard work. Enjoyable. But knackering. And I keep turning the question over in my mind, why do I experience it as so full-on?

I get that it has something to do with emotional or invisible labour. Caring for another, even if it is largely pleasant and in the sun, is still really hard work. Maybe for me, it is the role of parenting itself, the role of being always-needed, never equal, always on call, always responsible for the well-being of another. It’s a big ask, relationally. Maybe it’s more manageable in small doses. Child rearing is not small doses though -it’s in 12 hour doses and overnight, twenty four hour, decade-long doses.

Perhaps the thing that excites me about parenting is also the thing that exhausts me. I feel so privileged to have been there since the beginning. What a privilege to have such a say in how someone relates to others and to themselves, to be able to lay down neural networks and spark attachment systems and create a worldview. I have loved the chance to think about someone’s emotional life so carefully, to learn to hold another’s soul lightly in my fingertips. To say I haven’t enjoyed that or that it hasn’t consumed me in some ways would be disingenuous. I have poured myself into thinking about his internal world, trying to get the balance right between giving him privacy and autonomy and free rein to explore while also remaining attentive to him, acknowledging his feelings and being his emotional kidneys, his witness. It is a pleasure to lavish so much attention on someone, to watch him bask in my gaze, to know I’m giving someone guts and soul just by being in the room and being so present. It is absorbing work, but I arrive at the other end of twelve hours, spent.

And I crave other adult company. Even hanging out with a friend at the sandpit so it’s not just me and R changes the dynamic in a really useful way. If I unpack this, it is not just the garden variety nuclear family loneliness generated by our culture, although that is there too, but the possibility of being in two different roles, two different relational spaces at once. Mum and friend. Hanging out with other adults is a relief. I trust that they don’t need me, that I don’t have to be anyone else’s emotional kidneys and process their feelings with them, I’m not responsible for reflecting back their reality to them. Even if I’m listening to someone pour out their heart, I ultimately do not really have any influence on the trajectory of their choices the way I do with my kid- I’m not in charge or their psychic development, which is a relief. I can banter and play and play rough and be frank with other adults- I can trust we are all grown ups- I don’t have to hold their soul in my fingertips the way I do with R.

And I think that sensibility- the fragility and the bearing of another human’s mind- is what makes parenting so delicious and intense and privileged but also why it’s the most knackering thing I’ve ever done and why I seem to need so much time to myself, so much time away, so many breaks and so much more grown-up company than I’ve ever needed before. Care taking is gorgeous, but I want it bracketed off and contained, with sharp edges and boundaries of where it begins and ends and when will I be free to hand over his soul for someone else to hold for a few hours so I can experience being not -needed? Being so needed is so seductive. I get the allure. But caring also might eat me alive if it is my main relational diet, If I don’t intentionally seek to switch out of a role of responsibility-towards and seek the company of people I feel no duty towards. And to all my friends who have come and met me in the park while I’ve cared for my son and provided adult company, you know who you are, and I’m so grateful.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

This is my body: on psychic surrender at the communion table

Several weeks ago, I went up and took communion for the first time in years, grinning like a loon. I’ve been going to church more regularly in the past few months and I’ve been enjoying it. But the beating heart of the service, I have avoided: the sacred, mysterious bit when everyone eats the flesh and blood of god incarnate and mystically become one body.

On an intellectual and theoretical level I find the idea creepy, and on a felt, visceral level, I wasn’t sure my adrenal system would be able to cope. Just observing the ritual and saying the accompanying prayers was enough to evoke feelings of shame and anger and indignation. I felt my body tremble week after week and for months I listened to my wounded heart pour out all of its fear and suffering as everyone else went up to eat and drink. I honestly didn’t know if that bit of the service could hold any meaning for me other than as a living shrine to my historic pain. For me, the meaning of communion has been the profane act of submissively shedding selfhood for ‘the greater good’ and sacrificing individual identity at the alter of corporate identity.

In the past, tasting the bread and the wine has been my own madeleine moment, evoking memories of times I’d obeyed biblical law instead of my relational instincts: the boyfriends I stayed ‘pure’ with instead of loving them as passionately as I’d have liked to, the friends I would like to have loved wholeheartedly instead of judging for their ‘worldly’ ways, the teenage self I would like to have loved better instead of criticising for her worldly, impure, secular longings. I felt grief for those violences that I had enacted on others in the name of god, and for the relational violences done to me in the name of love.

I have a very different ethical constellation now that guides me through my dark nights. The values I grew up with -in a deeply fundamentalist religious household- do not guide me now. And I keep expecting to be called out on this- communion is a particularly vulnerable moment. I don’t have much peace in me but I also don’t have much fight, and communion is the point where I become visible. In the tradition I grew up in, it’s the moment I am supposed to affirm my steadfast faith in god and kiss and make up with anyone I’d sinned against in the week. It is a moment of inner-scrutiny and outer-scrutiny: I’m fair game, a sitting duck. Anyone could nudge me on the way to the table and say, just what do you think you’re doing here? I keep expecting the mechanised eye of the panopticon to rest on me and elicit my beliefs about abortion and virginity and gay marriage and feminism. As if everyone in the church were one all-seeing, all- knowing omni-body enforcer.

So I’ve been processing with my friends outside the church. Someone, a friend who identifies as significantly more evangelical in his beliefs, kindly twisted the release valve by saying, ‘Sitting on either side of you will be someone who believes something totally different.’ I clung his words. I used this picture to meditate while I sat in the pew: perhaps, maybe, I might be flanked by individuals who hold different convictions, who aren’t Jesus-automatons, mindlessly executing god’s will on earth. Perhaps the people on either side of me believed stuff that would surprise me.

I understand now that I needed the capacity to be surprised. I needed to surrender enough to say, ‘I’m finite, I have my own particular history which colours my perception, but I’m not god and I don’t have an objective gods-eye-view into everyone’s souls.’ I needed someone to lift me out of my fears and projections, my own haunted house, and put me into the gap of the unknown. His wise words helped me bracket off my feelings of dread. And of course, as is always the case, the enemy wasn’t on the outside, sitting next to me. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out, I am my own enemy, the all-seeing, all knowing-panopticon. (I should know this by now. The feared thing is always on the inside.)’The breakdown you fear has already happened,’ in Winnicott’s neat shorthand. I was frightened of what had happened to me as a kid in church, not of who I was actually sitting next to now.

And so I’ve started taking communion. Not because I believe in one body or peace or assimilation into the Borg mind, but because I believe in surrender.

Surender is a move in faith towards surprise, a move in faith towards curiosity and the other. Surrender is an empowered choice from the ‘I’ that operatically shatters my own defences so I can connect. Surender is never submission. Surrender is stepping down from my (imagined) gods-eye-view and instead of indulging the delusion that I know, that I can predict and anticipate what the other feels or thinks, that I am omniscient and in control, I am stepping into my own skin and owning my limits. This place is sacred to me, this is the rock I often meet god on: when I have found the edge of my ‘I’ when I own my story, when I can say to god, ‘this is MY body and blood.’ My story is the only thing I own, really. It is meaningful because it is mine, and also, paradoxically, in search of connection with the other, I choose to hold my story in one palm and hold out the other in a gesture of connection with different bodies and stories and minds. I am only one mode in the Spinozan substance. And only then when I can hold both ends of this knotty paradox can I attempt the labour of opening myself to what actually is, and who else is next to me at the table.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I’ve been trying to read Spinoza for years. I love how much metaphysics he can elegantly pack into a syllogism and I enjoy feeling my intellectual muscles burn as I grapple with his ideas. For some serious brain-cardio, picking up a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics is outrageous fun. Also I really admire Jewish existentialist atheist theologians: in my next life I would totally inhabit that tradition.

How I made you feel

An inspirational meme actually inspired me. I recently saw this Maya Angelou quote when I was browsing Facebook and although I tend to turn to psychoanalytic papers for the production of emotional truth rather than social media, the meme hit a nerve. The gist of it was people will remember you not for your words but for how you made them feel.

Knowing how to sense the chemistry between me and another person is a recently acquired pleasure. In fact, this such a recent shift in perception that I still feel absolutely electrified by it- it is like someone has handed me a pair of paper 3-D glasses and said, hey. Try watching the film now. My experience of all of my relationships has just exploded into holographic technicolour because I know how to tune into how they make me feel and I can often feel how I make others feel. And I’ve kind of been indulging my appetite for it, training my palette, enjoying the smorgasbord on offer. There is one friend I always feel giddy around. She makes me giggle and suddenly every phrase she utters is surreal and hilarious. I love the flutters I get when I am around her, our conversations course with vitality and I welcome every one of her sentences with anticipation. Another friend who has been walking with me all over London brings out the Romantic in me and when we walk together he makes me fizz with poetry and a sense of the infinite. A different friend makes me feel so clever. I zing with intelligence when I’m with her and I wallow in her thoughtfulness. Another friend I adventure to the edge with because I feel brave around her; she emboldens me. Sometimes I can sense now when my husband is feeling affectionate towards me- recently, I caught the fondness and admiration he radiated when he looked at me as we shared a drink with friends. This sort of thing is gorgeous when it happens.

I am aware that what I’m describing is something so basic that most people take it for granted and don’t give it a second thought. I feel a little bit like I’ve just joined the party and it’s been bangin’ for quite a while without me- because it’s taken a long time to trust this sensibility. My instinct is to dismiss or second guess what I think I have read between us. I know all the reasons I experience myself as such a mutant: I experience my mother as confusing and my father as impenetrable. My mother is one of the most disorientating women I’ve ever encountered and she makes me question my perception of reality and felt experience like no one else does. My father is a perfectly smooth fortress with no cracks or footholds or places to hoist up over and into. In an essay I have just read about ‘reflective function’ by analyst Peter Fonagy, he theorises that we learn how to read other peoples feelings, and therefore our own, by understanding the moods and emotions of our carers. If those carers were confusing (as mine were) it is nearly impossible for the kid to come up with any kind of coherent schema for what the other might be feeling or thinking. I’m grateful to have arrived here. I’m in a place now where I can often read and enjoy the vibes between us; I can trust that the warmth and connection I feel really is warmth and connection, not some nightmare chimera that will shape-shift and come to devour me later. I trust that if it feels good, it probably is good. And if it feels bad I can trust that too. For someone who has placed far too much weight on words and lived in the solitary confinement unit of her own mind for far too long, it is joyful to accept that what is between us is not some fantasy in my head. That what I sense is as real as the fleeting glance I just caught, that it is as palpable as the tone of voice that just crackled with feeling.

I used to think friendship was about saying the right thing. Offering the correct words of condolence in times of hardship. I also used to think friendship was about practical support I could offer: a bit of cooking here and there, offering a sofa to sleep on after a breakup. And these are wonderful things and part of the fabric of friendship but they are not what I value receiving now in my own relationships. The thing that feeds me is connection, the state of mutuality that is pure relating. It is the quality of eye contact, the eagerness in our tone of voice, the way we lean towards one another in anticipation. It is entirely outside the realm of words and deeds- it is a place where felt experience of one another comes to the fore and words and deeds fade into the murky background. It is a lush world I have the privilege of enjoying now. And of course there are negative emotions that emerge between us: there are spikes of jealousy or a tidal wave of shame or puddle of self-loathing I suddenly find myself in when I’m with certain people or talking about certain things. This is all part of the terrain. But more often than not, I’m excited by the energy I co-create with those I love, even when it’s not always ‘positive.’ At least it is authentic and I can feel it. And the flip side of this is that I trust the vibes I give off, more and more. I trust that most people most of the time feel my own intentions towards them, that I don’t have to work super hard to communicate my warmth and openness and generosity and that I don’t need to police my words to carefully to say the exact right thing or think up thoughtful acts of kindness to show I care. I trust they too can sense what is between us, and how I make them feel. And I trust that most of the time I radiate the truth that I experience most humans pretty gorgeous. I also trust that when I catch my kids eye across the room and we smile at one another, he knows I adore him and he can feel my love in that soulful glance.

As I grow emotionally, I value those moments more and more because they are rich with meaning and affect, not just between me and my son but everyone I am close to. I trust that who I am in the world is enough to sustain a strong connection between us.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

‘Dreams of Borderline patients,’ by Peter Fonagy explores how the capacity to reflect is impaired in some patients and can be found in ‘Dreaming and Thinking,’ published by Karnac.

Reveries of a mum on the psychoanalytic couch