Outside In: The Art of Play

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In September my kids changed school because my teaching husband also changed schools. One of the things that I LOVE about their new school is that they have rediscovered the art of playing. They don’t have a massive space in which to play, but all 85 children, from tiny to teenage, interact together in the playground before and after school. Such is their love of this time, kids race to be first to school and most are reluctant to leave at the end of the day.

Here’s what it looks like. You’ll see some towering, cool-looking teenage lad comforting a tiny tot of a girl who has just tripped over. You’ll have older kids teaching younger ones how to do the monkey bars. You have extended games of ‘mums and dads’ that involve great numbers of sisters, aunties, babies – and teenage mums and dads. In this small space they invent their own games with detailed rules – like sand tag. They become amazing basketball players – because there are hoops, and basketball is a great way to play with one another. They become filthy from scrubbing about in the dirt, digging holes in the sand pit and making homes for the beetles. They become healthy and strong from playing on the equipment. And more than anything they develop a love of play that fuels their imaginations.

I feel that in our world of amazing, advanced toys, computer games and screens, we are in danger of forgetting the pure and simple beauty of PLAYING.

The developmental benefits of play are astonishing. Play lays a foundation for literacy, because it enables children to practise and experiment with new vocabulary; it stretches their imaginations through storytelling. (This is currently so true for my children who are learning more Arabic these days, and who conduct many of their games in a fake Arabic language, testing out the sounds and letters that they are learning in class).

Play enables the development of skills in coordination, dexterity and movement. Educators are noticing problems with children who a lack strength and dexterity in their fingers for writing because only one finger is well-exercised – the one that swipes!

Play enables children to work on their beliefs, morals and ethics. When children interact with one another they are forced to deal with concepts such as sharing, negotiating, mediating, advocating. They impose on their imaginative play the things that they see modelled around them, and they experiment with how those things mete out – role-playing families, doctors, school. This type of play can even help them master and conquer their fears as they play out adult scenarios and roles.

As a parent it is all too easy to feel guilty for simply leaving our children to play. We are influenced by the idea that their time should be scheduled; that they develop best if they are engaged in structured, stimulating activities; that their musical, artistic and sporting skills should be honed and developed through clubs, and classes, and courses. These things clearly have benefits, but to what cost do we cut out free play?

Play is so important that it has been recognised as an individual right by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 31). There are so many children in the world for whom play is a luxury. There are so many children in Egypt for whom play is a luxury. They must go out to work at a young age to earn a living. They must participate in running the household. They must work diligently at school to improve the lot of their family. Yet even in constrained circumstances the desire to play will break out.

The South African comedian, Trevor Noah, tells a brilliant anecdote about his childhood in a Sowetan township where the kids would use bricks as cars. The goal was to find a strong brick that would stay in-tact throughout a barrage of car crashes. Once you had found a strong brick, you would feel so proud! Others would be intimidated by the power of your brick! You see similar things with the kids in the streets here, being creative with different items in order to create their own imaginative worlds. Even my kids, with access to ‘luxury’ toys, find endless entertainment with sticks, stones and dirt. The other morning, I sat for a good 15 minutes at the side of the road while my youngest collected sticks and carefully snapped them into pieces to build a ‘fire’.

It is easy to think that because we live in an urban jungle, play is harder for our kids. But we need to allow them the freedom to be creative. Kids will use anything to fuel their play.

In this season of my life, my kids come home from school, exhausted and filthy and with holes in their clothes. My laundry pile seems greater than it ever has because clothes are rarely fit to be worn two days in a row, and yet I delight in this. I delight in their dirty, sweaty exhaustion because in it I see the beauty, the joy and the art of PLAY.

This article was published in the March edition of the Maadi Messenger

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Outside In: No Magic Formula

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If only there was a magic formula for life. We are still early enough in the year for the glimmer of New Year’s Resolutions to be alive. These are a form of magic formula. Through our own will power and determination, we commit to a pattern of behaviours that we think will improve our lives – exercising more to keep our bodies trimmer; eating healthily to prolong our lives; aiming to be more spiritual to improve the quality of busy lives. If only we can find the magic formula, we might be able to achieve beauty, long-life and happiness.

There is so much information at our fingertips offering to help us find the magic formula. You can find them for every area of life: 7 ways to improve your marriage…3 top tips on being more positive…5 ways to be smarter with money…There is new wave after new wave of ideas helping us to find our magic formula – and a whole load of money seems to get made with each new solution. Think about the Chicken Soup for the Soul books…Paul McKenna’s hypnotism books and videos.

Parenting seems to be an area particularly targeted by magic formulas. Perhaps it’s because it is an area of such vulnerability. We want our kids to turn out well. We worry that we’re doing a bad job. We want the guarantee of a positive outcome. If only there was some magic formula to determine this.

I tend to feel depressingly overwhelmed by all the resources, suggestions and solutions on offer to parents. I feel at a loss as to how to digest all this information and apply it to my children. They can even seem contradictory. Do my children feel encouraged by the presence of firm boundaries or suffer separation anxiety through ‘time out’ in their room? Do my children benefit from discipline centred around a reward system or does it teach them to act only if they can get something out of it?

A current area of growth in my life is learning to know myself and my family more. We are all unique. What helps one person may not benefit someone else. This is especially true when it comes to family. Each family is a unique group made up of unique individuals – often quite diverse in their emotional make-up and personality type. There is no one magic formula that can work to transform each child or each family group. I am realising more and more that I need to study my family and know what works for us; to be able to look at one child and understand what their individual needs are in their current season – and it might be a completely different set of needs than their sibling had during that same season. Even if the needs are the same, the way to meet them, the manner of approaching them may be completely different.

This is not easy. It isn’t neat or straightforward. It would be so much simpler to reach for the bookshelf and pull out one book that told me how to parent my children perfectly. Sadly, I suspect that it requires more effort on my part than I tend to dedicate to it. Confidence is required to be able to say, I know that this works for my family at this time, and then stick to it. It’s so tempting to look at the family next to me and want to mimic the methods that they employ. Invariably, when I try and apply copycat approaches to my family it falls flat.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we never learn from the experiences of others, or never take advice from the many wise books, blogs and articles that have been written on parenting – especially those that speak directly to our situations of raising kids overseas – but it does mean that we adapt this advice.

A friend recently gave me a parenting book that seems to attempt a different approach. The introduction even acknowledges the expectations, disappointments and guilt that can result from parenting books that promise too much. Instead, this book takes the line of providing a tool box of ideas. It acknowledges that different things work at different times, with different children, in different situations. I warm to this idea and it is wonderfully adaptable. It is a way that can enable me to learn from others without necessitating that I mimic them. I can observe, learn – and add it to my tool box. I can read blogs, books and articles, gleaning tips that work for our family and pop them into our tool box.

Having the confidence to know who we are, experimenting with different approaches and learning from our mistakes is surely a more healthy way to be looking at our lives than searching for the unattainable holy grail of a magic formula. Attempting this is part of my resolution for 2019.

This article was published in the February edition of the Maadi Messenger

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Outside In: Story Yawn

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We have a specific type of yawn in our family – a story yawn. You know the scenario. You’re nearly at that golden moment where the children are all in bed but first you have the hurdle of story time to overcome. Hoping that they don’t choose anything too long, you settle down on the couch with your cherubs snuggled in beside you. You read a couple of pages and then it happens…story yawn! Our kids are now great at identifying them and will shout out “story yawn” with great enthusiasm. Although evenings are the most prolific time for story yawns, they aren’t limited to a particular time-frame, they can strike at any moment that stories are being read.

We are all captivated by story – books, television, YouTube videos,  even computer games tell a story. But have you ever thought about the fact that your life is a story? When authors are writing stories, they use the following layout as their framework:

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Think about a given moment in your life, maybe coming to Cairo…What was the problem or crisis, how was the problem addressed, what risks did you take? What was the turning point and how is the problem getting better? We can find this pattern with many things in our lives. These are our stories. We have a joke in our family that the adventure only happens when something goes wrong – it is a truth that our children seem to have grasped at a young age. Take, for example, a recent trip that started with us going the wrong way on the ring road and resulted in the car being clamped in Tahrir Square – it was a great adventure and makes for a fabulous family story.

We are surrounded by stories. We have plenty in our own lives but there are also the stories of the people around us. We are involved in so many at one time – our individual story, our family’s story, and we’re also a part of the stories of those around us – many times we are oblivious to the role we may have in the stories of others. All these stories interacting and impacting on one another, it’s mind-boggling when you think of it.

I love drawing stories out of other people – what brought you to Egypt? How did you meet? But recently, after many years here, I have had a sense that I am getting tired of the stories. There are just so many. There are so many people coming and going. There are so many people to meet and interact with. The other weekend my husband invited a couple over to dinner who were only in the city for one weekend. And I felt the story yawn coming on. I just didn’t have enough energy to ask them their story, I didn’t have enough energy to invest in the highs and lows of their story arc.

It is easy to have story yawns at this time of year. Christmas reminds us of one of the greatest stories of all time – the journey of Mary and Joseph, the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise men, the holy family fleeing to Egypt. But we’ve all heard it so many times. We all know it, inside out, right? Children’s story books, Christmas films, even children’s jigsaws! As much as we love the annual Christmas pageant, we’ve seen it all before…haven’t we?

But maybe we shouldn’t tire so easily of stories. Children don’t tire of them as easily as we do. Think about how many times they are prepared to read their favourite book. Consider how much joy they find in reliving the same moments over and over again. This year we have been walking to school each morning and it has become an excellent opportunity for the telling and retelling of real-life stories. Countless times they have asked me, “Tell me the story of when I was born.” Children learn from stories, they realise that this is where life’s valuable information lies. As our kids get older they learn less and less from our instructions and boundary-setting and more from the stories that we tell and the lives that we model.

I’ve tried to rediscover my energy for the stories of others – after all, I love people and the essence of the person lies in the story. It is in the story that I can learn about an individual, but also learn lessons that could apply to my own life. This Christmas, try and rediscover the joy of stories – the joy of THE story – what you can learn from them, what you can apply to your own life. Don’t be overcome by the story yawn.

This article was published in the December-January edition of the Maadi Messenger

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Outside In: Not what we lack

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One of my musings the other day lead me to question why I spend more time reflecting on what I don’t have than on what I do? I’m an expert commentator on the things that are lacking in my life. I’m not as good a mum as so-and-so, my house isn’t as nice as so-and-so’s. It would be better if I spent more time doing this, it would be better if I was more like that. I wish my children were more like those ones, I wish my husband was more like him. If only I had more time to…if only we had more money to…

It made me wonder why our brains are so quick to find fault with our lives and wish for things to be different. I came to realise that this is how society conditions us to be. Capitalism functions by creating in us a desire for more. Adverts show us over and over how our lives would be much happier, much easier, more fulfilling if we only had this product, drank this coffee, ate this food. They paint pictures for us of worlds that are only obtainable by spending money. They promote a lifestyle in order to sell a product.

This month of thanksgiving reminds us that we should focus on what we have rather than what we have not. November is not about thanksgiving for us Brits, unless you count Bonfire Night as giving thanks that Parliament was not blown up, and it’s something that we’ve learnt to enjoy since living overseas with many North Americans. It is more a part of British culture to be negative about things, to be slightly apologetic, as if being thankful is somehow being boastful, perhaps even tempting fate to have the tables turned. I do this frequently when talking about my children to others. I was taken aback recently when a friend was introducing herself to a group. She described her four kids as “a great bunch” and that she really liked “hanging out with them.” I rarely see the best in my kids, I forget to value them for who they are. Even when someone praises them or gives me a compliment, I’m prone to push it away with a dismissive, “They have their moments.” It is so tempting to focus on what we lack.

Even over silly little things, I’m quick to dismiss the positive and to focus on the lack. My mum recently commented positively on a new throw on my sofa. I responded by saying that it was only there to cover the two holes that needed repairing in the chair. I’ve heard it said that women are particularly quick to do this, being notoriously bad at receiving compliments. A positive remark about how our hair and we say, “Oh, I just threw it together,” a compliment on our clothes and we say “Oh, this old thing.” It is as though we are much more comfortable with the idea of lack. A counsellor friend of mine says that she makes an effort to receive compliments and praise graciously, like receiving a bunch of flowers, accepting them for what they are rather than trying to push them away.

As my daughter rapidly approaches her tweens, I’ve been thinking about how I can instil in her feelings of self-worth and value to counter a cultural narrative that will point out to her all the things that she is not. How many times do I stop to tell her that she is beautiful instead of nagging her to pick up her dirty washing? How often to I remind her that she is bright and witty instead of complaining that she hasn’t done her piano practise? A friend was babysitting our kids the other week and she covered my daughter’s door with post-it notes, each one affirming all the wonderful things that she is. It was a reminder to me, as her mother, to do this regularly. To help her to see the beauty of what she is and not to focus on what she lacks.

Probably the most effective way to instil an attitude of thankfulness, value and appreciation in my children is to live it out myself, to shake off my own inclination to focus on lack. I should watch who I am comparing myself to, be careful about what I complain about and communicate gratitude. Wish me luck!

This article was published in the November edition of the Maadi Messenger

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Outside In: A Time for Everything

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The writer of Ecclesiastes did not say, there is time for everything, he said that there is a time for everything.

A strange thing has happened to me. It is something that has long been anticipated and dreamt about. But now that it is here, it feels a little overwhelming and alien. For the first time since being in Cairo I am home…alone…by myself…on a week day! My youngest has just started going to preschool three days a week. Someone has given me the gift of time – and I feel like a kid in a sweetshop not really knowing where to begin.

One of my main goals to give some attention to the projects that I was just managing to scrape through last year. But I also want to do more study, more writing, more reading. I want to have more time in silence. I want to have more time for others. I want to have more time to be creative. Looking around the house, I also realise that I should spend some more time sorting out the dark recesses of my closets – including the much-feared craft cupboard! But to quote Shakespeare, ‘there’s the rub.’ There just isn’t time for everything.

Isn’t this part of the problem in today’s society? Aren’t we all trying to live life like there is time for everything. A couple of people have recommended a great article that includes the comment, ‘The Chinese word for “busyness” means “heart annihilation”.’ It goes on to point out that we are literally killing ourselves through the speed by which we’re living and all that we’re trying to accomplish.

We are so quick to use busyness and exhaustion as the measure of an abundant life. It is easy to feel judged as being lazy if we don’t appear to be mentally or physically preoccupied every moment of the day. A friend and I have made an informal commitment to not answer, “I’m so busy at the moment” when people ask us how we are. Our sense of worth should not depend on how much we are involved in.

Having the discipline to establish different habits is challenging. I am so quick to want to fill my new-found time with projects and activities that I’ve been wanting to do for the last four years! And other people are just as quick to want to fill that time. We’d only been back in Cairo for three weeks, and I’d already had three invites to join different projects.

Somehow the answer lies in establishing margin – to intentionally build in times where nothing is scheduled. Not even times to ‘rest’ but scheduled times just to ‘be’. I feel that this is an art that we have lost in the Western world. Time to simply be, to connect with our environment and engage in the world around us, rather than just rushing through it to our next appointment. If we cannot do this, if we cannot take care of ourselves and give ourselves time to breathe, how can we even hope to attend to the needs of those around us – our families, our friends, our communities? Many of us are frequent flyers. How may times have we listened to the safety announcement tell us to fit our own oxygen mask before we assist those around us? How rarely to we apply this logic to our emotional and spiritual lives?

Those of you who attend Maadi Community Church will know that the current teaching series is about taking a health check as a church. As individuals we might be quite diligent about taking care of our physical health and going to the doctor for a check-up but we might be more neglectful of our emotional and spiritual well-being. There are plenty of sites on the internet to help you evaluate these areas of your life, so I won’t reinvent the wheel here, but remember: time is finite. There is not time for everything. We need to be careful to use the time that we have wisely, not to watch it flutter by in a rush of busyness.

Here are some apt lyrics from the Scottish singer/song-writer, Donovan:

If you want your dream to be

Take your time, go slowly

Do few things but do them well

Heartfelt work grows purely

If you want to live life free

Take your time, go slowly

Do few things but do them well

Heartfelt work grows purely.

(‘Little Church’ Donovan)

 

This article was published in the October edition of the Maadi Messenger

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Outside In: Sound of Silence

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Have you noticed that famous musicians often cite their parents as the source of their inspiration? In interviews they’ll make comments like, “my mum was always singing when she did the housework”, “there was always music playing in our house”, “there were musical instruments in every room.” My husband and I are both musical and enjoy playing instruments, but I’m not sure that our children will ever have such idyllic memories of their childhoods.

When we were younger and had fewer children, we did manage to develop a tradition of ‘Friday night is music night’ – an opportunity for little ones to make a lot of noise on percussive instruments, and for my husband and I to play some folk tunes. These days the habit has been neglected, though each of our children enjoy music, singing and dancing, and we are keen to expose them to musical influences.

Something that has struck me as I’ve got older is how my relationship to music has changed – or maybe it’s just my attitude to noise! Once I had learned to drive there was nothing that I loved more than whizzing around English country lanes with my windows wide open and music blaring out – 80s summer tunes, rock music, Top Ten hits and a bit of diddly folk in the mix. I could never understand why my mother drove without music, to me it was all a part of expressing my freedom as I hit the open road. I would want music around me in the house as well. No teenage house is complete without the parental shout: turn it down!!! In contrast to my need for loud, invigorating tunes, my step-father would request silence as he listened to fine classical music on perfectly balanced, quality speakers. In those days, it seemed to me that I could only function if I had a soundtrack accompanying me, and I was baffled at my parents’ seeming ability to manage without one.

But now I have three children, and I understand. When I was younger, it was if I was afraid to be alone with my thoughts. Now, a few moments of silence give me a rare opportunity to be able to listen to narrative in my head as opposed to the chatter of the children vying for my attention. Silence has never seemed so attractive. I always wondered at the appeal of silent retreats, or quiet meditation…now I see the absolute value of these things.

Not only the children but also living in Cairo, we rarely experience silence. Even if you were to take away the traffic noise, the car horns and the hubbub of street life, you would still be left with relentless background noises like the whirr of air conditioners or the chugging of generators. I’m convinced that these things drain us, that they demand some of our attention even if we think that we’re blocking them out. It is as though an urban orchestra is always playing, always tapping away in our heads, never allowing us the space to be alone with our thoughts.

Our most recent trip to the UK made me realise just how noisy Cairo is. Britain is astonishingly quiet. And my children really aren’t. We were sat in a supermarket café to break up the journey from the airport and I had to point out to them how much noise they were making. I made them stop and listen – can you hear any cars honking, any people talking, any TVs blaring? Can you hear any other children shouting apart from you? It made me realise that their personal volumes are always turned up to be heard over the background noises of the city around them. When I transplant them into England they can be clearly heard over everything else.

I seemed to find silence everywhere in Britain. In back gardens you can hear the tweeting of birds and the buzzing of bees. In woods, up mountains, in fields, by the sea, it is blissfully and peacefully still. Even supermarkets seem quieter than the hustle and bustle of Carrefour – somehow everything seems more sedate and ordered and…well, quiet.

The challenge for those of us living in Cairo is finding spaces where we can be quiet. Taking opportunities to leave the city, or to escape to little havens of beauty and silence are important for our well-being and sanity. Whilst music continues to be a big part of my life, whilst playing music will always be a key way for me to be able to express myself, the sound of silence has become something that I seek out and value as never before.

This article was published in the September edition of the Maadi Messenger

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Outside In: Reality Check

My husband was laughing at me. In one breath I had been discussing the encouraging feedback on my article about having a toddler – in the next breath I was saying how exhausted and how draining I was finding each day spent with our youngest. He laughed at me and challenged me to consider the hypocrisy. He suggested I’d become one of those people who presented everything as rosy in my articles, portraying myself as wonderful parent with wise advice, whereas the reality looked somewhat different.

I questioned this because I strive hard be transparent about my struggles as a parent, not least as a parent in Cairo. I also pointed out that, as any good preacher in the pulpit would tell you, I’m speaking to myself as much as to others. I am sharing lessons that I am learning, rather than telling people what I’ve learnt.

Nevertheless it has caused me to reflect that many of us work so hard to create poster images of ourselves, seeking to hide our struggles and our brokenness. Not a single one of us is whole or perfect. How much better would it be to accept our brokenness and see the beauty in it?

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Several times recently I’ve found myself talking about the imagery of broken pottery. Consider the beauty of the Japanese art of kintsugi. This is the practise of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum. The philosophy behind, the gold-ordained cracks is that breakages and repairs are part of an object’s history and are not something to be hidden. I watched a video featuring a lady discussing a teapot repairer in Afghanistan who fixed teapots by using nails to staple the pieces together. She asked him, who would want a broken teapot, because won’t it leak? The man looked up with bright eyes and said, oh no, it won’t leak, it will cry in the broken places. But he assured her that the teapot would still function, brewing and serving tea. Our wounded pasts, embarrassing failures, broken relationships, heartbreak and griefs are all part of who we are. They are what form us as people. We may still cry in the broken places but we cannot whitewash them out of our lives, instead, perhaps we should celebrate that they form our characters and outline them in gold.

In this world of fake news, social-media-formed self image, and pressures to live to some impossible standard, it is a challenge to present ourselves as we really are. This is a soap box upon which I regularly stand, but it is a counter-cultural challenge. And it is one that I believe is important that we model for our children.

It is so much easier to present ourselves as perfect samples of maturity that our children must obey and emulate. If we know everything and behave perfectly, they can do nothing but obey us, right? Whilst I strongly affirm to small children that ‘mummy knows best’ – as she certainly does when it comes to sleep requirements, eating habits and screen time – that doesn’t mean that I shy from my weaknesses.

I was taken aback by how early the fakery confronts them. My seven-year-old reported the existence of mermaids because she had seen a video on YouTube where a man had met and interviewed a ‘real’ mermaid. I talked to her about faking photographs and videos and it was heart-breaking to hear her innocent astonishment, “But why would he lie?” In my parenting, I don’t want to mimic this world of pretence. I don’t want to fake it. I want to present myself as I am, complete with failures and struggles.

When my kids talk about being naughty, making mistakes or behaving badly, they delight in reminding us that no one is can be completely good, everyone gets things wrong…even Mummy and Daddy.

I don’t know the outcomes of this kind of upbringing. I don’t know if it will harm them in the future to already have shattered illusions about the abilities of others. But it seems to me that this is much healthier than putting our parents (or other heroes, leaders, and role models) on a pedestal and feeling that we can never live up to their precedent or their expectations for us.

But it seems to me that this is much healthier than them attempting to live up to some impossible ideal that parents – or other heroes, leaders and role models – might set before them.

So here is my reality check. I am not the perfect parent and I don’t ever want to present that image in my articles. I am not the perfect parent and I don’t want to pretend that I am to my children. I have been hurt, wounded, and broken. I am weak, fragile, and prone to continued breakages. But those breaks, cracks, and chips are a part of who I am. They shape my character and have helped direct the path of my life and, as such, I want to celebrate the fact that they are a part of who I am and I cannot hide them away.

This article was published in the summer edition of Maadi Messenger

 

 

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