‘I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.’
We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots. We walk by the river and up and down paths, over leaves and around trees. The girls have found sticks which they have named Isla and Lauren and Logan. They walk their ‘pets’, stopping regularly to let them ‘drink’ from puddles and mud.
It’s a great picture, isn’t it?
There’s a kind of family life I want to sign up for – one that involves muddy welly boots and sticks called Logan. Yet, when I am in the middle of it, I can’t see its goodness.
There’s this feeling inside me about how children should spend their afternoons, and it doesn’t involve homework. Yet, when we’re off following our gentler rhythms, it doesn’t seem good enough.
I am beginning to notice this subtle but damaging tendency I have to upgrade ordinary life, to polish it or measure it, to justify how we spend our days.
I talk, and write, about ordinary life, about every day, about celebrating small things. I pay attention, I find beauty in overlooked places, I tell about it.
Yet, I am also paying attention to how that ordinary beauty (that twisted, crazy-looking stick-dog called Logan, for example) does not feel so very beautiful at the time. It’s a great story, later, a great picture of childhood. But I didn’t feel like celebrating it in the moment – I felt cold, I felt bored.
I tell stories, other people take pictures. We celebrate the ordinary. I’m glad about that. I want to see images of coastlines and back gardens, of cups of tea and blanket forts. I want to see those things more than I want to see images of some glossy, magazine-style life.
Yet, I am also paying attention to this radar inside me that seems to be constantly scanning for a glossy kind of ordinary.
I think it’s related to this idea that ordinary life is something we sign up for, like we choose this type of life, over this one, and it leads to this outcome. I choose welly boots and books and hearty meals and early bed times! So I get the healthy, happy children on the front of the magazine, don’t I? The ones with rosy cheeks, the little Boden-models.
“They’ll sleep well tonight”, we declare, after a long walk or a day outdoors. There’s truth in that, but there’s danger too. They might not. It’s not an equation.
I make time for the park, largely because I have read articles about how much daily free play and outdoor play young children need, how they need a multitude of whole-body sensory experiences, how they need uneven, unpredictable, ever-changing terrain. I try to make space for this kind of play even when I’m bored because I am convinced by articles that say it’s good for their motor-skills, for their resilience, for their mental health.
I find justification for my stance on homework from the articles that say there is no evidence that there is any academic benefit from assigning homework before high school. I read about how the negative effects of homework are well known, and the irony that more is being piled on children despite the absence of its value. I read about schools who ban homework and the parents who protest.
I can argue the benefits of ordinary activities – academic, physical and emotional benefits. In those moments that don’t feel beautiful and don’t look idyllic, there is something worth doing. But what I realised, this week, is that I don’t want all our ordinary days to be an argument for something, to be a ‘position’, to be a life I have signed my family up for. I don’t want to be measuring our day by how well they sleep that night or by how much I think I have invested in their future intelligence or emotional health. I don’t like these subtle equations in my head, this idea that our ordinary has to be special, has to lead to success.
A question forms in my mind, in the grey mizzle of a small Ballyclare park: What’s wrong with ordinary life? What’s wrong with providing them with ordinary days?
We walk around the park, school uniforms and muddy welly boots, bickering and snot, cold and bedraggled and ordinary.