Little Alchemies: BritMums Live 2012

Sleepy MummyLike most of the 500 mums and handful of dads attending the BritMums Live blogging conference this weekend, I found doing something out of the usual routine pretty damn special. As a consequence, I am experiencing a come-down of Glastonbury-esque proportions.

Perhaps the air at BritMums had a special quality to it, or maybe it is just the nature of any collective experience, but I suspect that few of us were unmoved or unchanged by the things we heard this weekend . I love how just the right blend of adrenaline,  inspiration, insight, empathy and empowerment can weave the kind of magic that can turn a simple conference room into a crucible. Alchemy at its finest. Mothers, among the most unheard, unexpressed, economically frustrated groups in the world, are beginning to respect themselves, shedding layers of guilt, self-depreciation and anxiety about ‘getting it wrong’. Revolutions are rarely this quiet, but in the shared tears and laughter of recognition during sessions and keynotes, BritMums Live felt like more than just a conference to me. It is a truly exciting time to be a writer, and a mother.

When I got home last night, it was to an empty house as the husband, the Teenage-Songbird and the 6-year-old Biscuit-Thief were still out. It was strange entering a completely darkened space, shutting the door on a noisy London street and climbing our stairs into unfamiliar silence. I was greeted by an abandoned pile of laundry in the shape of a lioness, desolate cups and plates piled high in the kitchen sink, a scrapyard of crockery. A window left ajar let in a cool, evening breeze and the blinds tapped out eerie morse code against the wall.

Our home, the heart of us; tapping and ticking, both empty and expectant.

The family cat circled my legs, demanding either food or love (I’m never sure which, and often get it wrong).  I was not yet ready for noise or light so I ran the hot tap to fill a bath, and  sat in the semi-darkness. I need more of this, I thought to myself. More solitary time. Not all the time. But just some of the time. Decompression. Each day is stretched to the edges of itself, there is always something more that needs to be done even though I am one of the lucky ones.  Even in sleep, time is spent unravelling complexities; my children, my marriage, my work, my life and what the hell it’s supposed to look like.

Lying in the warm bath, the silence meant that I could hear my heart for the first time in years. I had almost forgotten how it feels to actually BE HERE. Just, here.

How many of us skate above life, keeping going and keeping going, until all we have time to know is the surface of things?  The more I heard my heart, the more I knew I would have to let the thing happen,  the thing I always deny. The thing that is always in the corner of my mind, threatening  to climb aboard my raft and sink it. The thing is surrender; surrender to the imperfection of it all, to the inevitability that they will grow and they will leave, and that you can’t fix it all for them; surrender to the fact that it is joyous and also painful to mother.

Last night I surrendered to the fact that I am Just. Bloody. Knackered.

I allowed fifteen years worth of tiredness to pull me in, all syrup and quicksand, and on a current of restless dreams, I gave in to the Mother of all Sleeps.

My Digital Hangover: On Deactivating Facebook

On Leaving Facebook

I’ve spent the past two months on a self-imposed ban from Facebook. I didn’t like the way it had crept into my daily routine or its corrosive effect on my time and family life. When I actually dreamed about a status update, I knew it was time to take a break.  I needed to compare my Facebook ‘withdrawal’ with something else, so I decided to forgo my evening glasses of red wine too. What would be harder to give up I wondered, the liquor or the likes?

For the first few days of leaving Facebook, it felt like I had left a party too soon, just before the main event when it was all going to get really good. I suffered from a kind of information-underload anxiety and I didn’t know what to do with the new found stillness in my life or with the silence. Very quickly however, I realized that there is never going to be a main event, that Facebook is always going to be more soggy party nibbles and pineapple chunks than sushi.

Interestingly, both Facebook and alcohol are implicated in situations we commonly mistake for sociability. The two things play a role at the interface between our inner and outer lives; booze and Facebook make it more possible to ‘reach out’ without really risking anything real. We say a drink will ‘loosen us up’, that Facebook enables greater social interaction, but actually, both alcohol and status updates are shields behind which we hide and present funnier, happier, freer, more successful versions of ourselves.

Researchers have commented on Facebook’s ability to engender what is known as ‘ambient awareness’. This awareness, comprised of thousands of little clues gleaned over hundreds of updates, supposedly reveals everything about the intricacies of our friends’ lives without them explicitly telling us. Researchers say this ambient awareness is comparable to the subtle things we pick up in one-to-one interactions such as eye contact, body language and tone of voice, so why doesn’t it feel like that?

Studies show that when we have positive interactions on Facebook, we get a hit of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin whereas too much alcohol has an inhibitory effect on its release. Oxytocin is the feel-good’ hormone that surges through postpartum mothers encouraging bonding and breastfeeding; it’s the hormone eddying through us when we orgasm or fall in love. But not all our online interactions are positive and I wonder if the oxytocin boost we get from Facebook is partly thwarted by the fact that our exchanges happen in front of a computer or over handheld devices. Our ‘real-life’ oxytocin surges are rewarded by touch, intimacy, and meaningful eye contact whereas frankly, Facebook leaves us hanging in a kind of ‘social medius interruptus.’ We go offline and are suddenly alone negotiating a confusing juxtaposition of closeness and absence, digital coolness and heart-centred warmth.

To my surprise, the warm, fuzzy feeling that I have missed is not of the red wine variety but of Facebook. I’ve missed the way it defies global time zones enabling me to laugh and cry with friends and family who live continents away. I have missed the human drama of the platform, the humour, the pathos and the support. But I have not missed the subtly undermining subtext of Facebook; the passive aggressive games of exclusion and inclusion that go on; the milieu of competition; the frustration that what could be a powerful tool for change is instead a global Village of the Bland. But most of all I have not missed the uncomfortable feeling that somehow, in some way, our blind passion for Zuckerberg’s rambling digital labyrinth might just be our downfall.

I have realized that much of my unease around Facebook is fuelled by the persona of its creator. If only Zuckerberg were more likeable, if only the network had not been born out of his need for vengeance. Hell, maybe if his teeth weren’t so vampirey it would all feel better. The fact is that we feed Facebook incredibly private data but its figurehead doesn’t have enough of the PR-friendly humanitarian guru chic of a Steve Jobs to make us feel comfortable.

For many, especially those in isolated or isolating circumstances, the sociability of Facebook is not just entertainment but a lifeline. However, just as some people’s relationship with alcohol can be unhealthy, our dealings with social media can also be addictive. Certainly for me, status updates have never been a casual affair ~ perhaps it’s the writer in me, perhaps the egomaniac, or maybe it’s because I know that to have a free voice is a privilege in a world where so many still die for that right. With each update, I was simultaneously hiding and casting myself out for validation and before I knew it those little ‘like boxes’ became life-sustaining as food. But, I tell you this: Facebook ‘likes’ are the currency of the damned. Damned you are to the refresh button, damned you are to the desire for validation, damned to the digital thing you think loves you but in fact just increases the value of its IPO.

Yet here I am, back in the digital space that both inspires and terrifies me but with renewed consciousness. I have learned to make better use of the list functions of Facebook and have streamlined my user experience blocking anyone who is likely to fuck with my oxytocin high. I have learned that when Facebook truly reflects my ‘real life’ social experiences, it works. It augments, it doesn’t replace.  I keep in mind anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s proposal that there is a cognitive limit to the amount of people we can have durable social relationships with (somewhere between 150-230 is the estimated number)**.  I finally see that, as with all long-term relationships, the one we have with Facebook has to be worked at. Sometimes, we’ve got to blow the whole thing apart and sift through the ashes to find the diamonds in the dust and decide if they’re enough to keep us together. Facebook can teach us nothing or it can show us why, how and who we love.

Now, where’s that bloody corkscrew?

**NB: If your Facebook tribe adds up to substantially more than this, consider the possibility that you are mistaking your personal profile for your brand which is more effective as a Page rather than a Profile.

Musings on Kite Hill: Earth, Air, Marriage and Trees

Kite on Kite Hill

I recently spent an afternoon on Kite Hill, one of the highest peaks of London’s ancient public land known as Hampstead Heath. The Heath, all 790 acres of it, is about as wild as the city gets; unruly tufts of long grass dance upwards to an expanse of rolling sky, pockets of unhindered nature abound indifferent to mower, trimmer and shear.

The view of London from Kite Hill is exuberant; it’s as if the land has embedded the awe of everyone who ever climbed to the top; the summit offers all the comfort of a giant collective sigh. The hill is officially known as Parliament Hill and legend has it that this is where Guy Fawkes planned on watching the destruction of Parliament in 1605. I have always known it as Kite Hill because its topography captures the breeze and creates an ideal location for kite flying. My husband loves this place as do I, so we traipsed to the top of it with our five-year-old a few Sundays ago.

The husband was flying the kite equivalent of an F1 Tornado aircraft, streamlined and breathtaking in its high speed drops and turns. My daughter and I struggled for half-an-hour to launch a kamikaze paper butterfly which is now residing in the ‘shit toy’ pile at home. With her kite launch aborted, my five-year-old removed her shoes and ran off to try and adopt a stranger’s dog and I was left to contemplate the world to the buzz and hum of airborne diamonds, dragons and sails.

As usual, the summer in London was doing about five different weather fronts at once. Ominous sulky clouds petulant with rain hung below fluffier ones skipping along on a different breeze. Sunny fingers pointed down from the heavens lighting up the edges of buildings; glimpses of Mediterranean blue played a tantalizing peek-a-boo with the fug.

Why, I thought, do people fly kites? For me kite flying is an engagement with an element I’m not that comfortable with, air. It’s just so unpredictable! I watch how my husband patiently holds the strings of his kite while it twists and pulls against his grip. I witness the kite’s incredible instinct for pockets of friendly air, for slipstreams to dance in. In my husband’s hands the kite is tugged and repelled into a hissing, buzzing gambol. It is an air dervish.

This is how many a marriage works I think to myself; one partner will have that instinct for air, a chaos in their soul which leads them to perpetually arc and crash. The other will be anchored in the earth, solid and resolute, always catching the falls and admiring the acrobatics. Most of the time it works, this ground to air gavotte. But I know that when a kite tumbles to earth, it can do so with surprising viciousness. Things can turn from joyous dance to broken heap in a moment and it makes me sad to think how many times I’ve seen it. How fragile and how predictable these things are. How incredible it is that the loving intention of one can save both flyer and flown, and how sometimes the only thing to do is let go.

I grew up on the edges of Hampstead Heath and have been walking its paths and feeding its ducks since I born. I have watched saplings planted in the Seventies grow into sturdy kings. If we are lucky, we find somewhere in Nature that provides us with an outer landscape that mirrors our inner world and in many ways this is mine. I am struck by how I have loved in different ways all those whose hand has held mine up on Kite Hill. All those who’s reassuring grip has steadied my course; those who unraveled me and anchored me, and those who let me fly.

I am thinking of my dad’s baseball-mitt sized palms wrapped around a hardback copy of the Observer’s Book of Trees which I still have. Between us, we could identify every genus of tree between the bandstand and Kite Hill; Silver Birches, Oaks and London Planes giving way to shrubs and Rosehips on the upper slopes. When several mighty Elms were felled in an attack of Dutch Elm’s disease, I actually wept.

My little brother’s hands, covered with mud as we raced each other to the top, fire in our lungs.

My arm linked through my best mates’ as we made the trek from our school on Swaine’s Lane towards the running track for the annual humiliation of sports day.

A lover’s hand curled around mine a lifetime ago, and the same hand letting go.

Now up on Kite Hill, my youngest daughter fills my arms with wild bouquets of daisy and couch grass and I lie on the slopes longing for sunshine while kites sing among kestrels.

(Copyright Sara Bran 2011)

My Friend the Watchmaker: Notes from a broken heart

Notes on a broken heart

I am sitting with an old friend in the last few warming rays of summer. We are at the edge of the days now ~ the season of endings when the long shadows  descend.

You are deeply sad.

You ask me what I know, and it is this:-

What I know is what I see, and what I see is the majesty of your heart and the vastness of your soul. I am awed by the gentleness of the former and the immeasurable warmth of the latter.

I know that life  gives us the test first and the lesson too late.

I know that we are repeatedly uprooted from our dreams, not realizing we were sleeping so deeply. That we are constantly propelled into the wilderness not having realized we were on trial until we have either lost or failed.

I know that the road ahead is perilous, littered with broken stems, lost compasses, illegible maps and glass splinters. And I know that if you have to, you will walk it blind and still find your way home.

I know that buried in your heart is a masterful clock. Its skeletal coils are wrapped around invincible cogs that move too quickly through the joy and too slowly through the shadows.

And I know that soon, in some arbitrary second, this clock will silently reset itself and you will begin again.