soooooo out of the loop - fear, race and fairy tales

Its been so long, I have so many excuses, and none of them really count. Coming back to my blog feels like opening the door to a cupboard that I haven't been in in such a long time that I am scared what I might find there. Moths come flying out, clothes are scattered about, some of them even make me feel embarrassed - I was wearing THAT??? Anyway - good excuse or not: I started studying - for the third time - and am slowly finding my way around text books, computer based courses and whole mornings spent at school with classmates the age my kids should really be by now, had I made up my mind about having them, before starting my midlife crisis. Most important lesson learned so far: teenagers  (or people the age my kids should be by now) are really just people who are (a lot)  younger - but other than that, not so scary-alien as previously believed by me. They do of course like their own company and regard me (and the other oldish girl in my class) like one indulgently looks upon an elderly person who takes up skydiving or parachuting at an age where most people start to notice retirement villages in their area. So as I am busy enjoying myself in the company of youngsters, my writing is taking second place and I somewhat guiltily open this blog, wave the moths out of the way and start thinking about what I want to write next.

As my children grow older and noticeably change from being blissfully unaware of skin color to being only too aware of the differences in status, prospects and privilege that come along with the color of our skin, I go through a borderline-spectrum of emotions, ranging from "I will change the world"  to "I have totally and utterly failed them" and anything in between.

When my six year old daughter asked her dad the other day, if a person her color could ever drive a car like that  - referring to some fancy brand that I don't have an eye or memory for - I was once again thrown deep into the guilt and I-will-never-be-able-to-get-this-right scenario. Feeling that what we say to her now might influence her for the rest of her life, and at the same time not wanting to make a huge issue out of her question, which we of course sort of did, with her scowling at us, saying she didn't want to talk about it, I was at a total loss at to what to do or say.  And that's the thing: there is so much we could say, like:

Sadly in this society black people or people with brown skin are still so much worse off than "white people". This has to do with the history of apartheid, where black and colored people were treated badly by white people, who had all the power and made all the decisions. Today things should change but they don't change very quickly and it will still take a long time before black people all over the world will have the same chances and opportunities as white people. But you can change this for yourself, because you are a resourceful, beautiful and intelligent human being who can achieve whatever she wants in this world. And you have your papa and I who will fight for you and support you and be at your side for as long as you let us and probably even longer.

 Only I could not say that because she doesn't want to talk about it, she does not want to talk -period. Whenever I raise the subject of color or race or any subject for that matter, like what was nice at school today or what did she play with her friends all day, she gives me about 5 seconds of grudging attention before zooming out or changing the subject. She is no dialogue-communicator my daughter. There are no cozy mum-daughter talks (yet???) about her school day or disputes with her friends on the long drives to and from school or at meal- or bed-times. All those golden archways of opportunity that the relevant textbooks suggest  somewhat fail to work for us. So either I am getting this whole talking-to-my-children-thing totally wrong or it's simply something in her nature that I will have to come to terms with. I suspect she has an overdeveloped probing-adult radar that detects the slightest hint of a conversation that only tentatively steers in the direction of approaching her emotional landscape. She immediately clams up and disappears. So,  as I see it, I have two choices here: I can either accept that I have totally and irrevocably fxxxxd up in my novice attempts at mothering a 6  year old teenager or I can come to terms with how and who she is: An intensely private yet uncompromisingly authentic person, who hates to talk about herself but at the same time expresses her emotions in ways that might not be agreeable to me but could teach  me new ways of communicating  - if I don't give up here.

 So next time she has a meltdown because she does not want me to do her hair in the morning ( but what she is really saying is that she hates how she sometimes feels so different from other girls in her class and just wants to fit in and look like everybody else) - I don't look so hard for an opportunity to corner her into a conversation about being different and how I understand that she feels awful and that it is hard for her - because all that achieves is her talking about something else (best case scenario) or shouting "don't talk to me, I don't like you (x-rated version for young mothers and fathers of a not yet 6 year old).

What I only recently learned instead (pat on shoulder from myself here and huge thanks to my beloved, beautiful and wise friend Brooke ) - is a  new way of approaching her, which came about as a total "coincidence" when once again we had a highly emotional scene: She had psyched herself up all week to go for a camel ride at Imhof farm, but when the moment arrived, was so overcome by fear (So was I - at the sight of the enormous mouth full of hugely unattractive yellow teeth, repeatedly attempting to bite the bum of the person in front of him) that she had to be rescued from the saddle and burst first into tears and then into a fit of rage. The rest of the afternoon was spent in different attempts to talk to her about fear and how it is ok to feel it and that it can in fact help you to be safe when other people are not, and that you can only be brave when you know that you are afraid and so on and so forth. With - you will have guessed - no effect whatsoever and only resulting in her getting more and more livid with me for being such an annoying and persistantly ignorant mothercow.

That evening she asked me to tell her the story of the witch Babayaga (check it out  babayaga) which I had started telling her before bedtime. Next thing I noticed that the story coming out of my mouth was a more or less accurate retelling of the afternoon's events with the beautiful girl with dreadlocks (Wassilissa) being bullied and ridiculed by the horrible witch Babajaga for being too cowardly to jump on one of the fiery red horses gallopping through her house at sunrise every morning. She then threatens to eat her in the evening when she  returns from her day's work as a witch, where upon Wassilissa has to come up with a plan to escape, which is obviously to steal one of the horses and ride off.  Wassilissa has a little doll, that her mother gave her on her deathbed, and which she always carries close to her heart. The doll,who can talk and helps her whenever she is in need of "mothering" could tell Wassilissa what I had tried all day to impress on my child :

Don't be ashamed of being afraid Wassilissa, fear is your friend. Fear will always warn you when something bad is about to happen and when it is better to run. But fear also tells you when it is wise to step back and think about what could really happen. Only brave people know fear. If you are not afraid you can not be brave. The whitch is not brave, she is unafraid because she is not human. So think about it Wassilissa, maybe there is not so much to be afraid of. 

They then discuss the worst thing that could happen -  falling off the horse and getting eaten by the witch - and the most likely thing to happen - that she will be able to stay on the horse and get away as she is young and fit and strong. In the end Wassilissa manages to jump on the witches horse and ride off into the forest. It amazed me how totally unaware Leah was of how the fairy tale was all about what happened to her during the day. She was so utterly absorbed in my story that she never once interrupted, or got bored or started doing something else. She just wanted to hear more and more and we are  now on the third episode, where Wassilissa - after returning to the witch - goes on adventures with the witch as her guide to find out about race and fear and some of life's  mysteries.

The next Saturday we went to the Constantia Waldorf fair (yeah, still in Waldorf world :-))where they had a sky high and scary long fuffy-slide. Leah announced she wanted to go up, and I almost did not dare to look at her for fear she would lose her nerve again and come back down, defeated and humiliated and angrier than ever.

But she did it. With her whole face a mask of fear and determination she whizzed passed me and down the hill where I ran to her and could not stop admiring and praising her. And again, she did not really want to hear it or talk about it. Her eyes were just a tiny bit shinier, when she heard the words brave and courageous and great and wonderful explode out of my mouth- but she would not acknowledge her feelings. Much later, when I brought it up once again ( I do have an annoying persistance) in a by-the-way- kind of way, she said to me:

Mama, I was afraid but I was also curious, like Wassilissa.

I never felt so rewarded, proud, happy, elated, wonderful, jump-in-the-air-happy in my whole entire long life. Wassilissa has become my saviour, my new way of communicating with my daughter, she allows me to reach her secret inner world, to become a part of it, and maybe even plant a little memory there of my huge love for her.

It just occured to me, that my next post will be the beginning of the Wassilissa tale as adapted for Leah.


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