Tuesday, 26 May 2015

The forgotten and the fantastical

There's all sorts I need to write about at the moment, and a million books I've loved and want to rave about, so much I've been overwhelmed and paralysed into not-starting. Plus, and I know this sounds like an excuse, but don't even dare to dismiss it as one unless you too have more than one pre-school-age child and an evening job, I really am finding time hard to manage. It's not just about deciding to work harder or stretch myself thinner: there really are only a few hours in the day when I can be at a computer, hard in the day with the children, then in the evenings I absolutely must earn a living, and when I've done the money-bit and turned to my own projects the boys get into the phase of evening when they just take it in turns to wake, and won't settle without me. I'm trying to think of innovative ways to eke out more time, and drawing a blank. Setting the alarm "an hour earlier" as is so commonly recommended doesn't work amazingly well if your children's start time varies so massively - today we've all been awake since 5.30 and I'm not sure I'm committed enough to my art that I'd have been able to leap up at 4.30. Plus, I feel fairly sure that my getting up early would just wake them, and it's hard enough as it is, getting to that time of morning when you've done all the activities and good mothering and stuff, and it's still only 9am....

I loved The Forgotten and the Fantastical because it did that thing to me that some books do - it made me want to join in. It made me think about fairy tales, and which ones I'd like to tell again in my own way, and what messages they're giving us. I blogged a little about it a while back, about the hidden values and their dangers, but that didn't really say much about the book.
There are 11 stories, varying from fairly straight re-tellings through creative re-imaginings and brand new stories. It's hard to pick out which ones were particularly special, but I did think the opening and closing pieces, from N J Ramsden,. were properly disturbing, in a good way. The boy and the bird was just magical and lyrical and troubling and I had to read it twice before I could carry on.
Then there was the glorious Red Riding Hood retelling, Footfalls of the hunter, visceral and urgent and a proper making the story her own. Gepetto's child has a Blade runner kind of feel, but it's more original than that makes it sound. And I was deeply impressed by the versatility of the two Marija Smits stories - assuming a range of narrative voices is something I'd love to be able to do with any kind of skill, and she does just this, with Screaming Sue having a Holden Caulfield sort of tone.
I'm not trying to belittle these stories at all by comparing and referencing to other things, in fact quite the opposite. Really worthwhile reading for me gains its value through creating resonances, echoes of what I've read or seen or thought about before and noises that keep chiming through my head making me want to try my own reflections. So when writing puts me in mind of something else, then something else again, it's properly paying for itself, giving me lots of fuel for my money.

And on what might seem like a slightly shallow note, it's a physically beautiful book - a lovely size to hold, and eyecatching cover, and quirky little pictures at the start of each story. It doesn't matter as much as the words inside, but it helps to make it feel special, and this matters to me when more and more of the books I buy these days are for my kindle - I like a book that I can enjoy physically as well as intellectually and emotionally, if that doesn't sound too pompous. It's a feature of everything that Mother's Milk Books sells - a physical loveliness that pulls you in before you even begin reading.

Not such a blog silence until next time, I swear. I want to write about the stresses and strains of work, about trying to balance the callings to do so many things, the rough rough challenges of a sensitive yet boisterous four year old displaced by his brother, the glorious smell and feel of a plump baby, the fun and games of learning to use a sewing machine, oh, all sorts, there's so much in there waiting for a chance to tumble out....maybe some speech recognition software and a bit of benign neglect are called for.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Why Doulas Matter

It's taken me a while to get round to writing this: often I write about books from my memory of them, relying on my impressions, which is quicker. I have huge time and respect for proper book bloggers who have lots of quotes and obvious results of careful notes, but it's not how I usually approach things. This one, though, I wanted to pin down why I loved it so much, because it's the kind of book that could seem slight and unnecessary, and wouldn't be well served by a write-up that just says it's amazing.

But, it's amazing.

Maddie McMahon is a practising doula, and has written this beautiful pocket-sized book to explain what a doula does, perhaps mainly for mothers considering using one, but also for anyone who thinks they might want to be one (and, maybe, for health professionals, to understand who the strange lady in the corner is). It's so far, though, from being a checklist or a textbook.

Really, it's suffused with love, her love for her clients, the presence of oxytocin and incredibly strong emotions in the birthing room, the sense of the relationship between a mother and her new baby. With such a strong current like this running through it, maybe the actual words would hardly matter, but they're lyrical and powerful, elegantly written, with a lightness of touch but at the same time a perfect understanding of the grave solemnity of the act of birthing.

I loved the assurance to mothers about what a thrill doulas get from being with them, and how they truly want to be woken in the night to come to a birth; I loved the descriptions from Maddie and others she quoted of relationships between doulas and their clients, showing just how deep a bond can come about from sharing this most intimate of times.

In fact, the only false note in the whole book, for me, was a quote early on from Suzanne Howlett, which read to me as suggesting that women suffering from infertility might just be able to fix it if they tried hard enough. The quote doesn't say that, it says that releasing stress might cause alignment with conception, but I still don't like it, with its implication that anyone who doesn't relax themselves into conceiving is just doing something wrong.

Such a tiny niggle, though. I'm not doing this justice, here. I can't explain the excitement that I felt reading it, the way it fanned my flames, made me desperately want to be a part of this, thinking a series of wild thoughts, I could be a doula! Or a midwife! Or have another baby! Just, really, anything to get to stay involved with this wonderful thing, and no, I'm not denying that so so many people have not had wonderful experiences of birth, but I have, and when it goes well it is the most extraordinary, life-changing, self-defining experience you could imagine. I thought this description was perfect: "Watching the bag of waters balloon in the water before the head is born is like watching a mother lay a beautiful, mother-of-pearl egg" - what a way to show the mysticism and complete everydayness, in combination, of this happening.

In the areas that I properly know about - breastfeeding - it's spot-on, accurate, supportive, again *loving* and tender and gentle and yet unflinching.

And oh, the aspect about stories, about a doula's role as a story-keeper, and the important of listening. This rang so true, both from my experiences as a mother sharing with others, and from being a breastfeeding counsellor. So often I talk to a mother of a newborn, and I ask about the birth so I can get a sense of the context of her call, and it all comes pouring out, she obviously has such a need to tell the story, and I'm honoured to hear it, and they stay with me, they all do, and I feel it again with her, and it shows me so much about her, and lets me see another angle to what's going on with her now, and I LOVE IT, and am I using "love" enough yet? I love the book, and I love the love in the book, and I love the way that both this and the next book I'll write about (H is for Hawk - watch this space) have a kind of love in them that's not a romantic partner-love, it's a deeply felt something else, but love's still the only word for it.

Now, seriously, where do I sign up?