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One in Twelve: how we invent problems

The ugliness of uniformity and weeding things out.

Daffs

In a clump of about twelve daffodils under a tree in our front garden, there is one daffodil facing a different way from all the others. The rest of the group face in a general southerly direction, but this one daffodil faces north. It is as tall and strong and straight and healthy as all the other daffodils. It looks just like a normal, bright, yellow daffodil, but something has caused it to take a different direction in its growth, and therefore face a very different world from all the others. It seems to have a pretty good life though. To its right in the morning is the sunrise, to its left in the evening is the sunset. It faces the birds nesting in the hedge and the traffic going by. Daffodils have so much character in their appearance one can almost imagine it is looking out on the world (well, I can imagine it).

I relate to this daffodil. I feel as if things about my early growth caused me to take an individual view on the world. I crouched in the wet grass to photograph it being all different and taking an alternative view on life, and I sniggered “Ha. Good on you, pal.”

I guess in a perfect show garden, in a public garden, in a neat little controlled garden this one daffodil might have been sacrificed, plucked out, discarded for not fitting in. It might have been planted in an orderly formation in a perfectly boxed-in little patch of neatly-bordered ground, and when it didn’t quite line up it may have been removed or replaced. Some people can’t cope with visual difference or glitches to their own idea of order. “It’s just the same in almost every way,’’ perhaps an obsessive gardener might have observed, “but… well… there’s something about it that makes my ordered, daisy-free, straight-lawned world look messy.”

I often look at the ideas of an ordered world that our systems and societies try to create. In institutions such as schools with their rules and their uniforms, for instance, there’s an obsession with making everyone look the same, making them fit. This insistence on order says, “Don’t embrace difference, don’t accept wonky, individual, new or surprising, and for heaven’s sake don’t challenge our idea of the norm.” Uniforms are getting smarter and smarter and more and more samey. The idea of smart samey children troubles me enormously.

I wonder how life would be for all the thousands and thousands of children who grew up being the one in twelve – who wanted to face a different way from all the others – if teachers, parents and society had said “Good on you, pal.” I wonder what life would be like for the other 11 in every twelve who did find it easy to do what they were supposed to do, to have been allowed to witness that it’s okay to have something about your classmates that makes them seem a bit unusual. Maybe some of them could have been more brave about their own differences, and would have learnt to accept that just because someone has something about them that causes them to look at things differently from you doesn’t make them all that weird. Maybe we would all be better at just allowing, just accepting, just letting be if we weren’t so focussed on sameness being a positive thing.

My intense dislike of uniforms probably amuses others. Especially those who see them as benign, harmless or even good for everyone. I see them as the quite the opposite. I see uniforms not only a symptom of a society gone wrong but also a cause. They are anything but benign. Uniforms are for grouping together and for separating out. They are for armies to show whose side we are on and to identify the enemy; they are for workplaces to show who is serving and who is the paying customer. They divide people and they create subservience. Uniform says you need to look like everyone else or you are not with us. It says defining us by looks is important. It encourages us to weed out anything that doesn’t fit: to fight an enemy, or to send home a child who doesn’t look like all the others at school. It teaches children that fitting in and looking the same helps you get on in life.


Looking different may not even allow you in.

The message this gives is “If you want to be with us sort out the way you look first. If you can’t, you’re out.”

Nuts.

My suspicion is that there are probably at least 2 children in every class with a strong need to express their difference and many others who would like to be quietly non-conformist without the attention. But they are all squeezed in or kicked out. Sometimes discarded like a weed or planted elsewhere.

Now I’m older I don’t think of myself as the only one who felt a bit weird or a bit as if I was looking at things differently from everyone else. I feel like I’m one of the one in twelve, who probably exists in almost every situation, and who feels this way. There are loads and loads and LOADS of us! And I often wonder how many of the other eleven secretly sympathised with us and would love to have joined us if they hadn’t been forced to fit in. Maybe they would like to turn around to see the birds in the hedge too.
But maybe it’s too late for some of those who were forced to fit so much that they can’t ever look at things differently; their brains have be trained to admire 12 straight daffodils and no weeds without questioning why that might be a bit bonkers.

Yesterday, I was fairly pleased, after fifteen years of the damn things, to finally read a school report that didn’t suggest one of my children needed to change in any great way. Ever since our eldest child’s first report at age three, we have been told our children are too something-or-other, not enough this, perhaps a bit that. There has often been some unnecessary character assassination. In this latest report for our youngest, there was reference to her messy handwriting as a concern but no mention that she needed to change who she was. I felt it was okay for her to be her and that there was perhaps a certain amusement and fondness even for her character. I’m not going to let her get uptight about her writing though. From my previous experiences, a child who is concerned about his or her handwriting – especially because of what adults want from them – tends to tense up and write in an inhibited way and it can make things worse. She loves making up stories and has a marvellous imagination but already refuses to sit at the table and write at home because she says she does enough of that at school and she doesn’t enjoy the actual physical process of writing (<- my choice of words!). Her father struggled with his handwriting and too much was made of it and he never recovered; her brother struggled with his handwriting and I tried to not let too much be made of it, and these days he writes just fine; now here’s our youngest “struggling” with her handwriting too and I don’t want her worried or discouraged by expected standards. When I say “struggling”, I actually mean “isn’t writing as neatly as is expected for their age group” and “isn’t reaching the required standard”

But if it wasn’t for these required standards there wouldn’t be a problem. It seems to me we invent problems -which is a bit silly because there are enough real problems already.


I’m keeping a close eye on the next clump of daffodils about to flower. I hope there’s one facing it’s own way again and that there’ll be others just generally looking relaxed about their free-thinking neighbour.


And do I pull out weeds? Do I remove things that don’t fit in my own garden? Yes I do – I don’t want unwelcome plants crowding out my vegetable patch.

But weeds are not people.

People are not weeds.

Life is like a day

I probably would have been more happy if I’d…

Happy Day

This morning I read this in the Guardian:
This Marie Curie advert may herald an age of death acceptance, by Andrea Gillies. She discusses the latest TV advert for Marie Curie cancer care, where the emphasis is not on cancer but end of life and the speed of life. The advert “journeys through the span of life from baby cot to death in 90 seconds”
This line stood out for me:
“Life passes this fast, from first shave to last rites, from first awkward kiss to last soulful and sorrowful one. It is likely to make the casual observer burst into tears. “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know…”…”

It seems strange to me that people avoid the subject of death in order to avoid unhappiness because it’s possibly the acceptance of death that makes many people more contented and more able to get on with their lives in a satisfying, purposeful way.

Take me for example (if you can bear to). There are things to do today: things I have to do, things I ought to do, things I want to do; things that can’t wait, things that can wait, and things that I will feel sad about if I don’t do them. There are also plenty of things I will regret doing and there will be time lost that I will regret losing. Life is like this.

At the end of life – if we get the chance to know when it is ending – we will probably think about what we did or didn’t do. At our funeral loved ones will probably talk about what we did do. What do I want that to be?

I am the only one who will think about and talk about what I wanted to do but didn’t at the end of today, and at the end of my life. A year ago, if I was to find out I was about to die, my biggest personal achievement regrets would have been not being more in touch with the earth, not making a successful go of growing my own veg, not being more green, not giving something back to the planet. I would regret all the time spent worrying about appearances and housework, and time wasted. (No, my bucket list isn’t very exciting to some!)

I want to leave a small legacy at the end of every day. I want to say I was thoughtful to society, a good influence on my children, that I and my family ate healthily, that I did one or two things to make me glad I had today – such as enjoying the sunshine, playing the flute, taking photos, writing, or gardening.

Today I have some work to do for our shop and the family, I ought to eat, I want to sow my lettuce seeds, I want to play the flute. I need and want to get outside in the sunshine and walk the dog. I will not be glad or satisfied or leave a small legacy if I vacuum or clean or faff about on the Internet or worry about the way I look and end up not having time for things I will feel pleased I’ve done.

In my life I want to be useful to the shop and the family. I want to eat well and take exercise to perhaps prolong my life and it’s quality, I want to have said I fed my family on home-grown veg and wasted less money at supermarkets, I want to be a good role model for my children by taking time to experience life-enhancing enjoyable things and challenge conventional habits. I won’t leave any kind of legacy if I don’t remind myself every single day that this is my life today, I am living it now. My children will think that they too have all the time in the world and that life is somewhere out there waiting in the future.

Imagine, for a moment, that this is it. It’s all over. What would you say?

Off the top of my head, right now, I’d say:
I wish I’d written more.
I wish I’d done more yoga and kept the weight off my stomach
I wish I’d done something to make my children proud
I wish I’d kept chickens*
I wish I’d had a positive effect on the world in some small way
I wish I’d worried less about a whole host of needless and shallow things
I wish I’d been nicer
I wish I’d sat down at the kitchen table and talked to the kids together about sex education and sexual equality
I wish I’d been greener
I wish I’d read more books.
I wish I’d kept up with my music
I wish I’d spoken to my mother more often
I wish I’d got out and dirty more often instead of being inside and clean

I can begin or do something about a lot of those things on the list today.

Bucket lists became popular after the Jack Nicolson and Morgan Freeman film – but they often involve quite ambitious and wild experiences. A year ago The Top Five Regrets of the Dying the work of Bronnie Ware – a palliative care nurse – became a very popular talking point and was shared a lot on the Internet. People mostly seemed to regret working too hard and worrying about expectations instead of allowing themselves to be happy and spend more time with their families. We put off the things that make us happy (I know I do) and continue to do things we are used to doing instead of questioning why we are doing them. I suggest the reason we are not questioning why we continue to do things that don’t make us happy is that we haven’t allowed ourselves to think about death, about how short life is and about how suddenly it can all be over. Fear of change has us pretending to ourselves and to others the research suggests.

Life is today. Death could be at any time. I have regrets now that I can’t do anything about but maybe it’s time to stop adding to them, and stop assuming there is a limitless pile of “one day”s to fall back on.

I’m glad I wrote this. I don’t regret it. I will be pleased at the end of today that I didn’t put it off.



(*Would have to move house to keep chickens so that one might not happen!)

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