As a Work Exchange Volunteer at Easter Bhakti Gathering, a weekend spiritual festival in the South of England, I wasn’t entitled to a bed in a dorm. Instead I was expected to sleep on the hard floor of a beautiful wood-panelled dining room which turned out to be, essentially, an oversized fridge. I’d borrowed an inflatable mattress but, regardless of the effort my fellow roomie and I put in to get the thing pumped up, it was having none of it and, in frustration and exhaustion, I gave in and slept on my yoga mat.
Well, I say, “slept” but you should read “shivered with cold and discomfort”. Boy, did I feel sorry for my little self. I was feeling so miserable with the pain of the hard floor that colluded with the sub-zero night-time temperature to ensure I didn’t get any sleep, that I actually cried with self-pity. And you know when you can’t sleep and you get to thinking? Well, I got to thinking.
I got to thinking of something I always push to the back of my mind in the hope that it’ll go away: of how agonising it is that I can’t imagine myself having children. You see, the model I see all around me of parenting is nothing short of horrific: babies bawling relentlessly for hours; bad tempered children playing up in public places; depressed, disconnected teenagers skipping school to get wasted; disillusioned university graduates working jobs they hate; knackered parents at the end of their tether from frustration and a lack of sleep and/or money; state schools with teachers forced to focus on academic results instead of the pupils’ needs; a society that divides us and makes us compete with each other… and a pharmaceutical industry raking it in from the catastrophic mental health problems created from this highly dysfunctional system.
Who in their right mind would want to bring a child into this? Not me, that’s for certain. I couldn’t do that to myself, let alone to another human being. “Where do I go from here?” I silently but desperately asked the air around me. “What’s the answer?” I admit I felt lower than I’ve felt in a very long time, and was certain I was asking in vain. My thoughts were broken by the squawking sound of a baby coming from the mountain of duvet in the corner of the room. I’d got in bed late with the lights off and hadn’t seen who else was in the room. “Terrific,” I thought. “With a baby in here, sleep is definitely out of the question.” But that was pretty much all I heard – two squawks and nothing else all night. Unusual, for sure.
By dawn I felt like hell. My back was hurting from the floor and I’d barely slept in the struggle to keep warm. I tried, half-heartedly, to join in with the singing in the kirtan marquee but I just wasn’t feeling it so ended up slumping in the chai tea tent not wishing to connect with anyone because I’m not the same as these people, you see, and we have nothing in common. Even the event organiser is a married Asian woman with a phenomenally cute young baby and a wonderful husband who plays tabla (hand drums) to accompany the singing – so, other than the event organising thing, she and I are dramatically different.
My roomie who’d tried to help with the stupid mattress that wouldn’t inflate came to sit opposite me in the chai tent and she looked a bit blue. Turns out her back was hurting from the hard floor and she’d barely slept for shivering all night from the cold. Hm, OK, perhaps I could relate to her... She's in her early 20s. I found out she was brought up in a community where everyone looked after everyone else and she was home-schooled until her early teens when she then went to a Steiner school. This bright, young thing left school with no qualifications, not because she couldn’t get the grades (she was well spoken and clearly intelligent) but because her particular school didn’t offer them! Instead, they’d go camping in the woods, they’d learn crafts such as how to build an outdoor stove, how to live sustainably, make clothes, grow food, and their creativity and well-being were the main focuses of their education. She now works in an ethical, organic establishment which sits beautifully in line with her own values. She told me that those of her classmates who wanted to go to uni did so and having no formal qualifications was of no hindrance to them. She “loved school” (I’ve never in my life heard anyone say that!), stays in touch with the teachers (what?!) and regularly goes back there to help out with lessons. (Wild horses couldn’t get me back through the gates of Crossley and Porter Grammar School! I winced just typing that.)
My roomie and I hung out a bit discussing ways of getting ourselves a cosier sleeping environment which ranged from simply asking them to put the radiators on to sneaking all the blankets off the chai tent sofas to sloping into dorms looking for spare beds. (We went with the radiator thing but by some miraculous twist of fate, I ended up with a bed in a dorm next to a warm radiator and spent the whole night in blissful gratitude for something that I would normally take for granted – I sure noticed the lesson in that.)
During my time in the chai tent I was entertained with card tricks from little girls, eavesdropped on stories told by excited and breathless little boys about what they found in the woods, and met the chilled out 6 month old baby girl (who had failed to compound my belief about babies and sleep), and her beautiful older siblings. Their family lives in a community in Wales where they share home-schooling and practise non violent communication. I also chatted with a fabulously sexy and colourful character (it’s rare I can use those words to describe a mum, it’s more often “tired and frumpy”) who is learning Shakti dancing and plans to go and teach it in Goa at the end of the year. Her young teenage daughter can’t wait to visit India to experience the culture.
By the third day, I had stopped wandering aimlessly trying to “bed in” and began to feel some genuine love for and connection with the people around me. I felt grounded and finally joined in wholeheartedly with the ceremonies. I helped to create a mandala (symbolic picture of the Universe) from rose petals and sang my heart out to the devotional music of Tim Chalice which, I have to mention publicly, just speaks to me.
And it was while Tim’s music connected me with the Universe and everyone around me, while I sang with such eternal happiness that tears soaked my cheeks and dripped off my jaw onto my lap and I didn’t care, that the penny just dropped like a bag of gold coins from heaven.
I glanced over at the organiser’s husband with his happy baby on his lap while he played the drums, I looked at his wife singing and swaying also with tears in her eyes, I watched the home-schooling mum dancing with her children around her, I noticed the sexy Shakti dancer rest her head emotionally on the man next to her. And I saw a new model. I looked sideways at my roomie sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me, a shining example of the end result of this model of creative, nurturing, non-violent, self-sustainable community parenting brought about by two spiritually wide-awake parents. Right here was the answer to my conundrum.
I sat there in timelessness, as I let go of the repressed agony and my heart swam in joy at the realisation that I could do this – I could be a parent. Me.
At that moment I felt a trickle of blood escape and realised I’d entered my menstrual cycle. Then, as the music subsided, all the children - some dressed as bunnies - entered centre stage carrying chocolate eggs. I laughed and sobbed at the same time. Of course: the egg and the rabbit, symbols of woman’s fertility; and Easter, its roots in the Pagan festival of Ostara, a celebration of Eostre, the Northern goddess of fertility!