My wife has a bit of a flair for the dramatic. Years of chronic drug abuse have left her emotionally unbalanced. This morning, I woke to find her standing fully clothed at the foot of the bed.
“I”, she said, fixing me with an unnervingly level stare, “am going out!”
“What’s up? Have we run out of milk?”
“No. I am going out. For the day. Alone.”
“But what abou….”
“I”, she cut in, “am going now.”
“Are you taking the ki…”
“ALONE!” her voice cracked like a whip and she was gone.
I’m still not quite sure what she was on about. While I’ve been slaving away at the coalface of Christmas in retail, she’s been at home relaxing. Even better, the kids have been on holiday for nearly two months now, so she’s had a wonderful chance to spend some real quality time with them. She even went on a little mini-holiday with them; a quick seven hour drive followed by four days of real closeness in an isolated bungalow out in the bush. They even shared the same bed. Some people have all the luck.
Anyhow, she’s gone now (maybe she’s going to get me a surprise for all my hard work!), and I can go on with my day. I have plans. I’m going to find my centre.
I’m not a religious person, nor a spiritual one. But my head isn’t in the right place at the moment. I’ve been working like a dog leading up to Christmas, and stressing (don’t you hate that that is now a legitimate verb!) about the future of the book trade. I need to come back down to earth. Simplify my life. Empty my mind and soul of all but the most important things. I need to breathe. I need to just be. I need me some Zen.
I’ve taken some days off, to relax with the family and tidy up my life. But first, I need to find that still, quiet place within myself. And I know how to do it. Haiku. I’m going to spend a little time sitting quietly out in the garden, distilling the calm beauty around me into a series of perfectly captured instants, using words to channel the serenity around me into brief, black and white images of peace.
But first, I have to feed the family.
That should be easy enough. Time to whip out Larousse’s “Cold Cereal Cookbook”. Or not. I made the mistake of asking them what they wanted. Not wise. In order to protect the identities of the innocent, and out of sheer laziness, I’m going to call the three year old girl “D” and the eight year old boy “S”.
ME: “Time for breakfast, guys. What would you like? Cereal or oats?”
D: “My tummy hurts, Daddy. I’m not hungry.”
Me: “You have to eat something………”
S: “Two minute noodles.”
Me: “What? You can’t have two…….”
D: “Two minute noodles!”
Me: “I thought your tummy hurt.”
D: “It only hurts for cereal. I want two minute noodles.”
S: “Mom lets us have two minute noodles all the time.”
Me: “You do understand that I actually live here. I see you eat breakfast every day. I’ve never seen you have two minute noodles. Cereal or oats?”
D: “My tummy hurts.”
Me: “Two minute noodles it is.”
That was simple enough. I thought it would even buy me a little peace. After a brief but acrimonious discussion about which channel they were going to watch, I settled them down in front of the TV and headed outside with my laptop. Ah, serenity. Haiku time. Or so I thought. I was a little distracted by the small, black and white bundle of fur bouncing up and down next to me like the little yellow ball on one of those karaoke screens, and barking shrilly (also like karaoke). Bugger. I forgot to feed the dogs.
No problem. I took them inside and laid out their bowls. That was easy. Serenity time. I settled down again.
D: “AAAAAEEEEAAAARGH. NOOOOOOOOO CHARLIE!”
I rushed inside to find D standing on top of the backrest of the couch, clutching her noodles to her chest and staring fearfully down at the perfectly placid little dog looking calmly up at her.
D: “Charlie’s trying to eat my noodles!”
Me: “Fine. I’ll take him outside.”
I let him out the kitchen door and headed back out to my haven of silence. And I very nearly got there.
D: “I finished my noodles.”
Me: “You most certainly did not! You haven’t even touched them!”
D: “But I’m not hungry.”
Me: “But you said that… Oh, fine. I’ll put them in the fridge in case you want them later.”
Time to head outside. I reached for the door.
Me: (Sighing deeply) “Yes.”
D: “I want a biscuit.”
Me: “But you sai……..
S: “If D’s having a biscuit, I want one too.”
Me: “Right. Here’s how this is going to work. I’m going to fetch the whole bag of biscuits. I’m going to put them on the table. You are going to share them. The first one of you to come outside before they are finished is going to watch the other one’s TV for the rest of what I’m laughingly going to call a meal. If your mother asks, you had oats. Understood?”
D & S: “Yes”
I don’t know why people say this parenting think is tricky. It’s all about psychology. Haiku time. I paused as I reached the door, just in case. Nothing. I stepped outside. Time to get those creative juices flowing.
After I find out what a haiku is. Hello Wikipedia.
A haiku is a strange little thing. No other form of verse is shorter. And none has more rules. In English, it’s supposed to consist of three lines, of five, seven, and five syllables. It’s supposed to contain a seasonal word. It must display some sort of contrast, highlighted by a “splitting” word. And that’s just to start.
What you’re supposed to do is that you’re supposed to have a “haiku moment”, a moment when you are struck by the beauty of an image. An epiphany. Then you’re supposed to think the crap out of it to make it fit all the rules.
Clearly I need to do a little more reading on this whole Zen thing. I thought it was all about emptying your mind and living in the moment. Not haiku Zen. Haiku Zen is the Gulag of Zen. The U.S. airport security of Zen. Zen designed by the tax man. To practice haiku Zen, you glimpse a moment of perfect beauty, then turn your back on it to go inside to beat it and twist it and mould it and stretch it until it fits the rules.
Sounds relaxing. I’m just a beginner, so I don’t think I’m ready to be that relaxed yet. I decided to start with a simple five, seven, five, and see how it went. I looked up and saw the bright morning sun filtering down through the wispy green leaves of the pepper tree. Perfect.
Harsh light of summer
Softens down through feathered green
And falls on THE NOW DOG-EATEN SHOES I TOLD MY SON TO PUT AWAY LAST NIGHT!
Not bad for a first try. I even managed to get a seasonal word in there. I think I might have gone a little over the five syllable limit on that last line though. Maybe a little walk around the garden will inspire me. I’m very proud of our garden. When we moved in, it was mostly bare earth. Now it is a riot of colours and textures, all put in by us. But first.
D: “Daddy, I want to come outside”
Maybe this innocent request needs a bit of an explanation. South Africa is a bit of a tricky place. It’s beautiful and warm and friendly and exciting. And pretty bloody dangerous. In the last few months, two of our neighbours have been burgled in broad daylight. Two weeks ago, some other neighbours were surprised in their home by six armed men. They, and their two small children, were tied up and held at gunpoint. This is not unusual.
So we don’t just have doors. We have security gates. And we keep them closed. Even when we’re around. I opened the gate.
D: “Hello, Daddy. I am a mom”
Me: “That’s nice. I’m going for a walk. Do you want to come with me?”
D: “No. I want to go inside.”
Me: “But you just came outside!”
D: “But I need my baby.”
I opened the door for her. And closed it. And set off on my stroll. I got ten steps.
D: “I want to come out.”
Me: “But….. Fine.”
Open. Close. Set out on my walk.
D: “I need to go inside.”
Me: “Of course you do.”
D: “My baby needs a blanket.”
D: “I want to come outside.”
Me: “Right! Here’s how it’s going to go. I’m going to make you a tent. You can play in there with your baby. You need to get everything you need right now. No more in and out. OK?”
D: “OK, Daddy.”
A mere thirty minutes later I was ready for my stroll. Relaxing time. I set off.
S: “Dad, can I play Nintendo.”
And I was off. This was it. Instant inspiration. I was ready.
A riot of green
Pushing up through rich brown soil
Except for IN THE TRENCH THE GODDAM DOG HAS DUG IN MY GARDEN. WHY?
This whole garden thing didn’t seem to be working. It kept messing with that final line. But I had an idea. Roald Dahl used to do all his writing in a shed. I have a shed. Or at least the children have a Wendy house. I painted it like a little stone cottage and everything.
They don’t use it. They say it’s creepy. But if it’s good enough for Roald Dahl, it’s good enough for me. I gathered up my laptop and set off. Almost.
Me: “What now?”
S: “Can you come and play this level for me?”
S: “I can’t get past this level. I need you to play it for me.”
Me: “Why don’t you play something else?”
S: “NO. I like this game. Play it for me.”
Me: “But I want to…….”
Me: “Fine. But then you need to leave me alone. I’m Busy.”
Lego Star Wars. Cool. I’d spend a little time with the boy, and then head off to the shed. I sat down and picked up the controls.
Me: “Where are you going?”
S: “To my room.”
Me: “But I thought we were doing Nintendo?”
S: “No. You need to do this level. I’m going to my room to play with my toys.”
Me: “So your plan is to force me to play TV games by myself while you go off and do something else?”
D: “I want to come inside.”
Me: “Right! I’ve had enough. We’re going to have lunch, and then it’s nap time. What do you guys want? A chicken salad? Quiche? Some Amuse Bouche?”
S: “Can we have two minute noodles?”
Me: “No. You had two minute noodles for breakfast. No more.”
D: “I want two minute noodles, Daddy.”
Me: “But you didn’t eat them this……
D & S: “TWO MINUTE NOOODLES!”
The morning seemed to be a write-off. But they ate. I watched them eat. I was not inspired. I was too busy looking out for the early signs of rickets or scurvy. And then it was nap time. Sweet, blessed sleep. While the small one slept, the boy could play his own bloody Nintendo and I could write a relaxing bloody haiku and find my bloody centre before I killed the bloody dog.
At last, peace. I headed down to the shed. I sat myself in a children’s plastic chair and looked up to the roof for inspiration. And started to write.
Eight legged horror!
A thousand eyes stare me down!
A waking nightmare!
Jesus! Up on the roof was a huge round ball of leaves held together with a net of silk. Around it sat at least a thousand small black spiders. I looked around. There was another nest in the corner. Smaller spiders. But more of them. I’m not an arachnophobe, but there is a critical mass to everything. Two thousand spiders is apparently pretty close to my critical mass. I stood. And then I felt it. A soft but substantial bump on my shoulder. I froze. And then nothing. For a few precious seconds I felt nothing. It was not to last. A gentle creeping sensation moved from my shoulder onto my back. I shrieked like a girl and leapt for the door, desperately trying to make my forty year old arms slap at the middle of my back. And I got it! Something hairy brushed my flailing hand and fell to the floor. It was one of these.
Time to leave the shed.
There is nothing like mortal danger to focus the mind. I have conquered the haiku. And my children. My moment of epiphany happened on the way back to the house. My wife had taken a picture of a beautiful red-hot- poker just days before.
It was dead.
Dried petals hang slack
Vibrant red gone forever
All beauty must die.
Brilliant. Five, seven, five. Image captured. Time to put these haikus to good use. I went back inside just as the kids woke up.
Right! Sit down you two.
We are going to colour in
And you may not talk.
There is no more food
Just bread and warm tap water
Until supper time.
S: “Can I just….”
If you want something to do
Go play in the shed
D: “I want to go ou……
The gate won’t open
The key has metal fatigue
And I can’t stand up
This was it. I had found my peace. And a whole new parenting style. It was magic. The kids even went off and played quietly in their rooms. I thought about writing a book. “Gulag Zen Parenting; Mastering Your Home Through the Ancient Art of Haiku.”
I breathed. I lay back on the couch and just was. I found my centre. Until suppertime.
Me: “Right kids. Suppertime. I’ll go and get your two minute noodles.”
D: “But I don’t like noodles.”
S: “Can I have some oats?”
D: “Yes, Daddy. We want oats.”
Sadly, I went and made them some oats. Still, I had parented the hell out of them that afternoon. Or so I thought. Until I went through to their rooms. My daughter had spent a happy afternoon drawing a cheerful family scene in life size on the back of my son’s door in permanent marker.
Before she found her mother’s makeup.
My son hadn’t noticed this, because he had found my precision screwdriver and had taken apart my calculator and my electric razor.
‘Round here, things don’t fall apart, they are taken apart. The end result is the same. The centre cannot hold.
My wife should be back soon. I’m not looking forward to it. Not that I didn’t miss her or anything. I’m just not sure how she’s going to take it when I tell her I’m going out tomorrow. For the whole day. Alone.
Maybe she’ll feel better about it if I write her a haiku.