Shutting up

Not to size. The Netherlands, 2014.

There was a quote that I scribbled down about six years ago on a scrap piece of paper. Its words are attributed, but I’ve no idea where I came across the quote. What I do know is that the other day, when it fell into my hand, I decided that it would work as inspiration for some writing. Except now that it’s Monday morning and I’m facing the blank screen the quote is nowhere to be seen.

It must be here somewhere, among the lists of Spanish words which I have so far failed to translate into English, the scribbles I make as my students speak, an unfinished letter I’m writing, a drawing of a hamster, my to-do lists and grammar notes.

But I have swept all these papers aside so that I have a clear desk to write on

And in doing so have jumbled up all the components of my life. The past lies with the present and the plans and intentions for the future. Things classifiable as work hide with the deeply personal. Recipe books, grammar guides and the advice of the Dalai Lama make a united heap, crowned by a tiny book of Chilean legends.

Some people like to keep a strong separation between different aspects of their lives, but I find that the more I do that, the more it feels like I’m defining myself by the roles I play. I’d rather avoid that.

We all play roles, here in my parents house I am a daughter, but when class begins, I’m a student or a teacher. If we identify as the roles, and the roles change from situation to situation, who are we?

We act differently in different situations

But in the past, I believe there would be greater differences in my attitude. The more the role I was playing mattered to me, the more attached I got to the associated behaviours and responsibilities. I identified myself as the role. Inevitably this leads to a crisis. When you feel strongly attached to something, whatever it is, the potential for loss increases. The more attached you are the more you tighten your grip, driven by a fear that it could all disappear. Should such a role disintegrate, you fall.

For me, the better option is to engage a little obliviousness towards the role I’m supposed to be playing.

Any time I’m consciously thinking of the role over the moment, my mind has turned inwards and is analysing the past and planning the future. If I’m thinking this way, my actions and thoughts are going to be limited by what I feel I should do. I’m seeing myself through other people’s eyes, but I’ve shut my own. My behaviour will likely be pre-programmed rather than responsive to the people actually in the room.

Teaching is a good example of this

The hardest thing to do when you’re teaching is shut up. You take on a role of influence and power and this can very easily lend a bit too much spark for the ego. University lectures are the pinnacle of this egotistical teaching. For an hour, the students sit and take note of the professor’s great knowledge, but at no point does the professor seem to consider whether what they’re doing is assisting the student to learn. Why not pause at the end of the slide and let some cogs turn?

The most important part of any lesson is the moment where the teacher shuts up and gives the student time to think, meanwhile listening and watching to see if what they’re trying to do has worked. Frequently, the student’s mind is going in a different direction. The teacher wants to jump in, to stop the student and bring them back on track with the teacher’s plan, but often what the student needs is time to think through their thought, time to realise the connections.

The teacher wants to teach because that is what they feel they are supposed to be doing, but often the best teaching comes by saying barely anything at all. Learning is a slow and laboured process and it has to be given time. But the teacher’s ego, so proud of its knowledge, desperately wants to sabotage it all and interrupt.

I’m not saying that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with roles

They remain strong components of the functioning of society. However, using them to define ourselves leaves us vulnerable when the role we held ourselves so tightly to no longer exists. And it can prevent us daring to bring anything new to the table.

The Netherlands: And the King’s birthday celebrations

king's day
The streets were crowded with people and their unwanted belongings. King’s day is the only day when it’s legal for anyone to be a street seller.

Looking out of the apartment window, on the evening of the 26th April in the Netherlands, I could see teenage boys in hoodies washing the street. This is not quite as friendly or community minded as it sounds. The marks they were washing away were the names of other Dutch children. The territorial battle ready for the day ahead: the king’s birthday.

So the next morning, I awoke to the sound of young girls singing American cheerleading songs. I assumed they were also dancing, but they were down on the street, and I was up in the apartment sleeping so I couldn’t see.

So why a territorial battle and cheerleaders?

The 27th April is King’s Day. Or at least that’s what the English language marketing calls it. It’s the celebration of the Dutch King’s birthday. There’s occasionally some confusion with tourists as for a long-time Queen’s Day was on the 30th April and older guide books will quote this date. To make matters more confusing, the 30th April wasn’t really the Queen’s birthday, it was her mother’s birthday. The Queen’s actual birthday is mid-winter, but moving the festivities from the end of April (where they had been previously) to mid-winter wouldn’t have been good for a celebration that typically takes place out on the streets.

Suitably prepared, I wore my orange dress

Which was borrowed of course, because orange is not a participant in my wardrobe. By the time I’d dressed and eaten my breakfast, the cheerleaders had run out of puff. Their chanting gave way to the quaint tune of the barrel organ.

Meanwhile, the children who weren’t pom-pom aficionados had brought out their old toys, clothes and other belongings and were flogging them to one another.

king's day
You had to walk slowly through the streets to marvel at the contents of people’s lives.

King’s day is the only day where anyone can sell stuff on the street

People crowded the streets. I cooed over Spot books by Eric Hill (I learnt to draw by copying pictures of Spot – Dribble in Dutch). And saw a pair of old fashioned ice skating blades. The sort you tie to the base of your boots.

If you wanted kitchen equipment, old videos or a satellite dish, you could have found what you were looking for. It was like a car-boot sale on mats on the street.

A girl arduously playing her cello impressed me. I tossed her a few coins to keep her spirits up. She played well, and for the briefest of moments, I wanted a go.

Mostly though, the displays made me think of all my excess belongings

Many of which I haven’t touched for a decade. I can’t help but think I might have got something out of trying to sell them when I was younger in such a fashion. There’s got to be some good bargaining and money management skills learnt in such an environment. And I liked that the children were both benefiting and working for their toys.

But most of all, I liked that in a culture where throwing stuff away is the easy norm, this second-hand stuff was getting a new leash of life.

What toys and games could you put on your mat?