Running Down the Clock

Time is a funny old thing. The ticking hands of the clock fool us into thinking it’s a constant, moving at the same speed regardless of what’s going on, but time is actually surprisingly malleable. It passes slower the further you get from a source of gravity, so skiiers on a mountain are measurably ageing less rapidly than sunbathers on a beach. Likewise, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, so the astronauts on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than if they’d stayed at home.

Of course, we’re talking nanoseconds here – nothing that humans could notice.

Subjectively, however, time passes at vastly different speeds, depending on our mood, level of attention, hormones and the amount of processing our brain has to do. Ten minutes in the company of a bore can feel like hours; hours in the company of your lover can feel like minutes. The car about to crash into you seems to take forever to hit, but sit down for an exam and half the time is gone before you’ve finished writing your name.

And the larger scale passage of time can be a paradox, being both squashed and at the same time incredibly stretched – especially when you have kids.

‘Can you believe she’s almost four?’ they say. ‘I can’t believe she’s starting school in September.’

On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday she was born; like yesterday we took her home from hospital; yesterday she took her first steps and said her first words. But at the same time, it’s been one hell of a long  four years, the longest of my life. And thinking back to before she was born – back when our lives weren’t dominated by children – seems like peering into the distant past. I read about it in history books and it isn’t me.

And another irregularity of time is when you get yourself stuck in a rut – when the days fly by without anything to mark their passing, but they go by So. Freaking. Slow.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into over the past few weeks. I know we’re supposed to pay attention to every single moment, to enjoy our kids every second of every day because it goes so fast and they’ll never be this age again, but damn – at the moment I’m just running down the clock.

The days have become so slow, so repetitive, and I’m so freaking bored, all I’m doing is waiting for their bedtime, counting down the hours until I can be me again. But as soon as they’re in bed, I’m too tired to do anything, so I too go to bed. And that’s how I’m living. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Park, soft play, beach. Painting, play-do, bath. Every day, the same, the same. Life has been stripped of its fullness.

Time drags, but suddenly it’s the end of week and I’ve done nothing. And I just feel empty, this horrible sense of ennui, this existential nothingness.

Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.

So today, to adjust my relationship with time, I have filled my day with fullness. I’ve driven through yellow fields of rape; explored old buildings cloaked in wisteria; and tonight I’m hunting for ghosts in the ruins of an old prison. Because life isn’t about counting the hours, it’s about making the hours count.

I just have to remember that.

Through a Baby’s Eyes

When people talk about parenting, they tend to focus on sleepless nights, nappies, screaming, tiredness and poop. What people don’t mention nearly so often is how much that we, as parents, can learn from our babies – about living in the moment, the dangers of preconceived notions, the creative possibilities of human ingenuity, and what our bodies are really capable of.

Everything Izzie touches, picks up, looks at and experiences, she comes at for the first time. Being around her as she stares with giggling delight at bubbles floating in the air, or screams with joy if I pick up my guitar, or laughs uproariously whenever she sees the cat, you start to realise that the world is full of wonders that we, as adults, simply take for granted.

As I was pushing her around town this afternoon, focusing on things to do, stuff to buy, she was pointing upwards and cooing. Stretched between the buildings were red, white and blue bunting for the Queen’s ninetieth, a sea of triangles fluttering in the breeze. I took a moment to stand in the sunshine and watch them, and it was beautiful, a beauty we don’t see because as adults we don’t live in the now.

It’s the same with her approach to the world. We live by rules, and fixed ideas, and received wisdom, but for babies the rules are not set. Earlier today I was trying to get Izzie to pound on her drum, but she kept turning it upside down and spinning the feet. ‘You’re doing it wrong,’ I kept thinking, and turning it right side up, and encouraging her to bang on the top, because it’s a drum.

But then I realised that there’s nothing wrong with what she was doing. To me, with my learned, conditioned way of seeing things, there is only one way of positioning a drum – upright – and one use for it – music. Her creative approach, with no concept of the ‘right’ way to use a drum, was to treat it as a toy. And why not? Why can’t we play with drum feet? Why, as adults, do we fix our viewpoints in place and categorise things as this or that without considering that they could be other? Babies teach us about the possibilities in life if we only dropped our rigid notions of how and why and simply allowed ourselves to experiment.

That said, I wasn’t overly pleased when she picked up Lizzie’s car keys and decided to bash them repeatedly into my guitar, revelling in the noise she made in the time between scratching the body and me snatching them off her. So I guess there have to be some rules in place.

What I’m really impressed by lately are a couple of navigational tricks Izzie’s come up with that reveal the incredible capacity humans have for problem solving. She’s discovered that if she puts a smooth object under her left hand when she crawls, she merely has to slide that hand and not pick it up, reducing the amount of labour involved and increasing her speed across the floor. And if she can’t reach something on the coffee table, she wheels her trolley of wooden blocks up to it and climbs inside to give herself an extra few inches of height. She’s ten months, for crying out loud – it makes you feel proud to be human.

And then there’s what she teaches us about our bodies. I see my body as a stiff, battered thing that isn’t capable of all kinds of movements – mostly exercise, to be fair. But Izzie – from sitting on the floor, she simply stands straight up without using her hands or getting to her knees first, all through the power of her legs. If she can do it, why can’t I? As we get older, we stop using certain muscles, spend too much time sitting, and our tendons tighten up and things turn into knots. But babies can do it, people who do yoga can do it, which means we can do it – we’ve just become lazy, is all.

And she’s taught me something about my body that is mind blowing – Izzie has started rolling her tongue. Since neither Lizzie nor I can roll our tongues, and I was taught at school (erroneously, as it turns out) that tongue rolling is heritable, I rushed to the mirror to make sure that there hadn’t been a mix-up at the hospital. And, after a few minutes of experimentation, straining muscles I’ve never used before, I managed to roll my tongue for the first time – after 36 years of being incapable of doing so.

Babies, then, remind us of everything we lose as we grow up, and everything we can get back if we only pay attention, and open our minds, and stop taking everything for granted. They show us how we can be creative and unfettered in our everyday lives, appreciate the world around us, and free ourselves from the prisons of our minds. And that isn’t mentioned nearly enough.


Learning to Switch Off

Nobody ever said that parenthood was easy, and no new parent seriously thinks it’ll be a walk in the park, but deep down you figure you’ll survive because, well, you’re more awesome than any other parent that ever lived. Nonetheless, after seven weeks of broken sleep, emotional upheavals, psychological torment and disrupted meals, it’s very easy to become run-down in body, mind and spirit. It’s not enough just to say you’ll survive – you have to figure out a way of doing it. And for me that is learning how to switch off.

As might be clear for regular readers of this blog, I think about things. A lot. I’ve always been driven by an insatiable need to probe beneath the surface and figure out why things are the way they are, how they work, is there a better way, what should I do, is it right, what are the consequences, is anything objectively true, what does it all mean? My brother used to call me Johnny 5 after the robot from the movie Short Circuit: ‘Input, need input!’

By way of illustration, the subject matter of the books I’ve read this year include the search for the North-West Passage, the Battle of Waterloo, the afterlives of dead bodies, the origins of English idioms, the life of Jane Austen, the war in Afghanistan, round-the-world yachting, serial killers, psychology, mythology and, of course, babies. Plus a smattering of fiction. And an awful book about how a cat changed its owner’s life by being an uncontrollable, violent, wild beast that also happened to look cute, but the less said about that, the better.

Certainly my obsessive desire to understand how the world works and my place within it could be said to stem from my autism, but where it comes from is moot considering I am my autism and my autism is me. The unfortunate result is that I’m almost incapable of switching it off.

Every minute of every day my mind is a whirring mess of thoughts and counter-thoughts, ideas and connections, fears and resolutions. When I go to bed I lie awake at least an hour, struggling not to think. But of course, that only makes the thoughts come quicker.

So yesterday I did something I’ve not done in a long time. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea, closed my eyes, felt the breeze wash over me and listened to the sounds of the world around me. Just me, alone. No babies, no partners, no trying to control things. Watching the thoughts come and go like waves upon the shore. My breath in and out. Accepting what is. Allowing it to exist in that moment. Knowing that it’s okay.

It’s a technique called Mindfulness. I learnt it many years ago during a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Like most Eastern philosophies adapted for a mass-market Western audience, I considered it pseudo-spiritual New Age pants. How can you ‘watch’ your thoughts? Who’s doing the watching? And what was the point? How could this possibly help me? Sure, for the duration of the exercise I felt peaceful, but immediately afterwards it was gone. Hardly a worthwhile use of my time.

Or perhaps I just wasn’t stressed enough to feel the benefit.

Somehow yesterday I managed to recentre myself in myself. I know that that sound like wishy-washy crap – or a euphemism for masturbation (‘I recentred myself yesterday.’ / ‘Well I hope you cleaned up afterwards.’) – but I found the resilience and sense of identity that was missing the past few days, enough to feel like me again. I think you spend so much time thinking, worrying, tending to and caring about and for your child and your partner, you find you can’t work out where they end and you begin. So for disentangling your thoughts and emotions from another, for that, Mindfulness is indeed a tool.

I used it again today. I sat on the swing chair, sheltered from the rain under the canopy, and watched the leaves on the bushes blowing in the breeze. No thoughts of babies – no thoughts at all. Just me with myself being me.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Izzie crying, Lizzie demanding my attention, phones ringing, people at the door, bottles need sterilising, dog to walk, nappy change, we’ve run out of baby wipes. But for those few minutes I’m managing to switch off, and I’m okay, and I’m surviving.

It’s not a miracle cure, and I still feel tired, and irritable, and paranoid that if I’m not there to sort things out then Izzie will grow horns out of her forehead, but I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed. And yes, I know it sounds bad that forgetting about the child you brought into this world to cherish and love can be therapeutic, but ten minutes of switching off can make the difference between coping with the day or burning out mid-afternoon. And if you burn out, well, who’s going to keep those horns away then?