Day 195: the place where we live

Donald Winnicott’s 1968 paper, “The Place Where We Live,” asks “where are we when we are doing what in fact we do a great deal of our time, namely, enjoying ourselves?” He notes that psychoanalysis tends to dwell either on a person’s experience in the world of objects—the outer world—or the world of dreams—the inner world. But there is a third zone, Winnicott says, where we live when we do things like “listening to a Beethoven symphony or making a pilgrimage to a picture gallery or reading Troilus and Cressida in bed, or playing tennis.” (In case his reader finds these examples too egregiously highbrow, he rather endearingly also throws in the example of teenagers “participating in a pop session.”)

It struck me walking back from drop off this morning that the place where the kids and I had been living this morning, Friday December 14, 2018, was precisely such an intermediate zone, raucous and poignant, sacred and profane, in which cultural references piled up and ran together. It was a zone in which the children tried (again) to teach me Orange Justice, at once delighted and horrified by my poor execution. It was a zone in which I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe aloud to the younger over the breakfast table while she ate yogurt and drew characters from Naruto.

We were (we remain!) at a climactic moment in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It is the middle of the night: Lucy and Susan, unable to sleep, follow the lion, Aslan, into the woods. He sees them and tells them that they may walk with him if they promise to leave when he says so. They walk on in the woods. The girls notice he seems dejected and ask him what is wrong. “I am sad and lonely,” he tells them, “lay your hands on my mane so that I can feel you are there and let us walk like that.” Then Lewis writes,

And so the girls did what they would never have dared to do without his permission, but what they had longed to do ever since they first saw him—buried their cold hands in the beautiful sea of fur and stroked it and, so doing, walked with him.

Reading the words aloud this morning reminded me of how viscerally this passage affected me when I first read it. As a child, reading these words made me realize that I too longed to touch Aslan, to bury my hands and face in his mane and smother him with kisses, as Lucy and Susan do before he leaves them to walk alone to the Stone Table, where the White Witch waits. Even as a child, my pleasure in Lewis’s evocation of Aslan’s lioness was bittersweet; that sentences could conjure such a semblance of softness and warmth seemed almost cruel, all the better to leave one feeling cold and alone when the image vanished—a bit the way, I thought to myself now, over the breakfast table, that enchanted Turkish Delight leaves Edmund longing for more .

I was adrift in these thoughts when the elder chimed in, ominously, as if he were a spy uttering a secret password, “The lion sleeps tonight.”

Then he added, “Was The Lion King really big when you were young, Mom?

“No, I was too old for The Lion King. But I loved that song when I was a kid.”

I found the song on my phone. Not the original—the version that was a hit in early 1982, when I was seven.

It transported me—not to the jungle, the mighty jungle, I hasten to add, but rather to the exotic climes of our living room in Tufnell Park, where I sat cross-legged on the floor, glued to Top of the Pops, completely entranced and quite sure that I would be perfectly happy to listen to a loop of the chorus (the part where the lead vocalist sings Weeheeheehee, dee heeheeheehee, weeoh aweem away) forever and ever.

(This feeling, apparently, runs in the family: I am typing this, I swear to God, to a background soundtrack of “in the jungle, the mighty jungle” in an endless loop, as the younger sings to herself in the bath).

At bedtime, I suppose—when she gets out of the bath, that is—we’ll pick up where we left off—at the stone table.

Oof.

It’s time.

The lion sleeps tonight.

lion

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Day 176: believe in the wonder

I thought I had a psychotic break this morning.

Often, when it’s not one of my days with the kids, I will bolt out the door at the time when He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved usually walks the younger to school, so I can give her a hug on the way.

This morning I was a little late, and they had already passed by my front door, so I called her name and then ran, in my socked feet, along the sidewalk and through the dewy grass, my arms folded tight across my chest because I didn’t have a bra on under my T-shirt.

I felt slightly conspicuous, dodging the other families in my strange cross-armed run, like a particularly standoffish jogger.

The two of them stood, a little awkwardly, waiting for me to catch up. When I finally caught up to them, breathless and wet-footed, and knelt to hug her, I found that the face I nuzzled against was encased with a silky fringe: a beard.

“Awesome!” I exclaimed.

“Err, thanks,” she mumbled, sheepishly.

As I walked back home, arms still crossed, I looked to see if I saw any bearded or otherwise unusually adorned children en route to school—but no.

So I texted He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved when I got home.

“What’s the story with the fake beard?!”

His answer genuinely shocked me.

“What fake beard??”

I started and texted back, “She was wearing a beard! Am I going insane?”

I replayed the scene in my mind. I was running in my socks through the wet grass. I was wearing the black leggings and grey T-shirt I slept in last night—the T-shirt Brandy gave me that says “BELIEVE IN THE WONDER” on it. My arms were crossed over my chest, though, as if striking out those lines. The sun was shining. People were staring as I ran. I bent down to embrace my bearded child.

It did have the quality of dream.

Was it not a beard?

Had I not run through the wet grass?

But my wet socks were lying on the floor where I had discarded them!

I texted him again.

“What was that furry thing around her face?”

text 1

Was it some kind leonine halo? Some kind of ruff or fur collar? The prospect of my daughter wearing a fur collar, honestly, seemed much more implausible than the idea that she would be wearing a fake beard.

But I couldn’t rule out the leonine halo. For it seemed that I had indeed hallucinated that soft fringe. Was it possible that hair falls into that category of objects that Elaine Scarry, in Dreaming By the Book, says lends itself to the imagination—a category that includes objects like shadows and gauzy curtains?

Today, it was a bearded child; tomorrow might it be a shadow cat? Or perhaps an imaginary mosquito net canopying my bed?

So this is what madness feels like, I thought: the same as reality, but more interesting.

I remembered a quote from Winnicott. “We are poor indeed if we are only sane.” If my insanity consisted only in bestowing soft fringes upon the hairless—a beard here, a mustache there; perhaps a luxuriant tassel once in a while—perhaps it needn’t be the end of the world: I’d just be another, slightly downy, shade in the neurodiverse rainbow.

Then He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved texted back.

text 2

Later he told me that her first words upon waking up this morning were, “it’s beard day!”

Later still, when I picked her up from school, I heard the full story from the (still) bearded lady’s mouth.

And later still she asked, “Mom? I need to get something from Dad’s house before school tomorrow.”

“What is it?” I asked.

“My mustache,” she said.

Before bed, she wondered sleepily if we might make a pair of wings like Maleficent’s out of wire, paper, and feathers.

Bearded one day, mustachioed the next, bewinged tomorrow? Why not?

Believe in the wonder.

believe in the wonder

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Day 174: good-enough mothering

The children are perched up in the top bunk hitting each other rhythmically on the head with empty plastic mineral water bottles. As you do.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga,” they chant euphorically in time to the beat, as if this is a ritual gathering of Perrier guzzling cave-man-babies.

I am in the next room lying on my bed reading Playing and Reality by Donald Winnicott.

“Mom! Come hear our song!” they summon me.

“In a minute.”

I try, not particularly successfully, to tune out the chanting and continue reading.

“Mo-om! Come on!”

I sigh and dutifully shuffle next door.

The elder starts up the beat.

“Goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga,” they begin in unison.

“Is this it?” I ask.

The elder continues with the “goo-goo, ga-ga,” while the younger chants, “Suck on a frozen nipple, with a dead bird on the side.”

They both break into hysterical laughter and then re-commence chanting “goo-goo, ga-ga, goo-goo, ga-ga …”

“Cool,” I say. “Carry on.”

I go back to my room, pull the door almost closed, flop on the bed, and get back to Winnicott, whose works I’ve been devouring with a strange urgency in recent weeks. Although I’m nominally reading Winnicott “for work”—for a seminar on attachment theory and literature—his writing’s pull on me feels oddly primal. I also feel vaguely uneasy that my desire to read about raising children takes me away from the day-to-day business of … raising my children.

The concept in Winnicott’s work that especially compels me is that of the transitional object—that beloved object such as a stuffed animal or blanket that Winnicott says shepherds the infant’s initiation into the world of others. The object is “transitional” because the infant experiences it, Winnicott argues, as at once external and self-created.

Winnicott writes of the transitional object that “it is a matter of agreement between us and the baby that we will never ask the question: ‘Did you conceive of this or was it presented to you from without?’ The important point is that no decision on this point is expected. The question is not to be formulated” (From “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena, in Playing and Reality, 12, italics in original).

What Winnicott means is that there is a tacit agreement between parent and infant not to ask the infant whether the object belongs to the world of imagination or the external world—in other words, not to ask the infant whether she found the object or whether she created it. For Winnicott, what the infant experiences is a marvelous convergence between their hallucination of the object and their experience of it as belonging to the external world.

As I flop back on the bed, I attempt to I pick up where I left off and to tune out the relentless chanting and drumming emanating from the next room.

“Responsible persons must be available when children play,” I read.

 Uh-oh, I think. Must they?

Winnicott continues: “but this does not mean that the responsible person need enter into the children’s playing. When the organizer must be involved in a managerial position then the implication is that the child or children are unable to play in the creative sense … (“Playing: A Theoretical Statement,” in Playing and Reality, 1971, p.50).

Did I find this moment of marvelous convergence or I did I create it?

As a warm glow washes over me to the strains of “goo-goo, ga-ga,” and the rhythm of plastic-bottle-meeting-head, I decide, with Winnicott, not to ask the question.

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