The seeds of a dream were sown when I was twenty-one that have taken me on an extraordinary life journey. I heard a woman yelling from the house next door and looked out of the window to see two small children in the yard, hand-in-hand, looking towards the house with total confusion on their faces as if asking, “What have we done wrong?” I thought to myself: There has to be a better way to treat children.
Shortly after that I declared to my mother-in-law, as she handed me a sudsy plate to dry after a Sunday roast, “I am going to write a book about divorce,” explaining that I wanted to show that children are not resilient. Since I was about eight I have not been able to shake a strong feeling that children are not as resilient as adults would like to believe. I can still see a little boy coming into a kitchen full of mothers, screaming hyterically after getting hurt in the rough and tumble of a game outside. “So many tears. A cup of tea is what he needs to replace them,” one mother said. While the mothers tut-tutted over their own cups of tea, the little boy sat quietly at the table drinking his. But what I remember most was one mother’s remark, “Children are amazing; they are so resilient…always get over things quickly and bounce back before you know it.”
Even at such a young age I instinctively knew this wasn’t always true. For somewhere within me I knew that children bury their feelings of hurt and keep silent about the ways they have been harmed because adults often don’t listen or want to hear what they have to say, but instead rudely dismiss them with a wave of their hand, followed by the words, “Don’t tell tales.”
That’s how I buried my ‘tales’. But they wanted to be told, and created so much anxiety within me that I began writing the book about my parents’ divorce. It involved a kidnapping, the hiring of private detectives to prove adultery, the stress of my father’s access outings which our mother grilled us about when we returned, and two years of emotional and physical neglect. Finally my brother, sister and I were sent off to live with our father and we never saw or heard from our mother again. But we had worse to come when we became victims of our stepmother’s anger and resentment for six years, made worse over time with alcohol abuse. I suppose her last wish in the world was to bring up another woman’s three children.
I didn’t get far writing my book before I was engulfed by overwhelming pain and grief. It reinforced my belief that children are not resilient for, at twenty-one, I knew I had had not recovered from my childhood experiences. But I knew I had to do something, and decided to become a teacher. Apart from the rational belief that it would provide me with job security for the rest of my life, I had an underlying feeling that I could do a lot of good by making school a more enjoyable experience for students than it had been for me.
And so I began studying to complete my final two years of high school by correspondence. This turned out to be one of the happiest times in my life, for I discovered that by studying in my own time and exploring in depth what interested me, I achieved far more in terms of my personal growth than I ever did at school with its compressed, production-line-learning to complete the curriculum requirements for the year. From this experience I become a life-long learner, fascinated with exploring the underpinnings of our current social problems.
After I became a teacher, these social problems were all too evident in the classroom and my students showed me in so many different ways what was going wrong for them at home. Some children became disruptive in class because of domestic violence, abuse, and numerous problems in their parents’ lives and relationships. Some remained emotionally distressed years after their parents’ divorce. I was disturbed by the depth of sibling rivalry and hatred and how self-esteem was squashed when parents launched into angry tirades of name-calling which created crippling negative self-beliefs.
However, what I was even more shocked to learn was that my students mirrored to me where my own childhood had gone wrong. Before I could help them to more effectively develop a healthy self-esteem so they could fulfill their potential one day, I had to navigate through the reefs of my own destructive self-beliefs and find a way to “wholeness”. This has become my lifelong work. It is what Abraham Maslow termed “self-actualization.”
My greatest teacher in this regard was Zeehaen, our eighteen-metre yacht that sank at anchor after my marriage broke up. By stripping out the interior to begin the refit, I quickly saw that this was what I needed to do to rebuild myself – from the inside out. In computer terms, it means to change the default settings.
Two invaluable gifts that helped me in this work were painting and writing, both giving me powerful transformative experiences that cut through layers of fear and negativity, and brought back forgotten memories so I could heal and begin to connect with who I really am, eventually enabling me to become ‘whole’.
While living on Zeehaen during her refit, I completed the book I had wanted to write twenty years earlier and, in 1989, I headed off to North America in search of a publisher. Thankfully it was rescued from Doubleday’s slush pile and a rewrite was recommended – not only to tighten it up, but to tell the whole story. I was mystified. I mean, wasn’t 850 pages enough! Following their advice, I read Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and settled into my first winter in the snow (in New Hampshire) to begin what would become nearly twenty years of rewriting to find that elusive whole story.
This experience, along with the breakdown of my health and subsequent years of struggle to restore it, led me to connect the dots between the impact on people’s lives of domestic violence and child abuse and our most pressing social and health problems.
Then in 2007, with a small class of six students and working in an atmosphere of strong sibling hatred, bullying, self-hatred, low self-esteem and fighting, I was able to put what I had learned into practice. The “better way” focused on treating each other with respect and guiding the children through creative arts experiences in drama, painting and writing, along with reading stories about social issues that showed how a “payback mentality” can lead to ongoing fighting, broken relationships, and eventually to war – thanks to Michael Morpurgo’s wonderful story, War Horse, about the First World War seen through the eyes of a war horse.
Painting and creative drama allowed the children to see and feel their ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characteristics (which everyone has) and that they had the power to choose what they wanted to develop rather than habitually react in negative ways to real and perceived slights and threats. In an atmosphere of respect and safety, they chose to develop their positive qualities and gained greater self-respect through a corresponding improvement in their self-esteem. As a result, their schoolwork dramatically improved and peace and harmony was restored inside and outside the classroom.
The journey to achieve my dream continues. There is much ignorance surrounding how children need to be treated so they can grow up healthy and whole of mind, body and spirit, capable of achieving their full potential. My time in school classrooms showed me that we are failing too many children because we do not understand that to become a successful student, a child needs to have a strong foundation of love and safety from which to grow to achieve their full potential as happy and productive human beings living their individual dreams, giving something of value to the world rather than seeking to take whatever they can to fill the emptiness within their hearts and souls.
What is even more alarming and frightening to me is that we are failing to see the enormous harm done to children trapped for seemingly endless years within a war zone of domestic violence, or with parents who neglect and abuse them, or the insanity of parents who abuse drugs and alcohol. It is why so many are falling victim to the soldier’s “curse”, one of the most dreaded legacies of war: PTSD. I guess it was no accident that in 1989 I saw so many homeless Caucasian men sitting cross-legged on the streets of San Francisco holding signs which read, “Vet. Will work for food”, for they enabled me to understand how the violence of war (and the war within our homes) translates into hopelessness, helplessness, apathy, despair, and poverty on every level – both individually and collectively.
At present we are like the crowds of people who gathered on the beach that fateful Boxing Day in Thailand in 2004, to watch a huge wall of water coming towards them, totally ignorant of the imminent danger they were in. And while we stand by on the shores of our own imminent danger, mystified as to why violence and drug taking and alcoholism and health problems are swelling to tidal wave proportions, we will remain ignorant of the fact that each and every one of us carries the answers within, and yet for various reasons, fail to act to elimate the harmful impact of our own violence on others – be it angry words, violent acts, neglectful or ignorant caretaking of vulnerable lives, or even the unwillingness to listen.
Therefore it has become my lifelong work to develop greater awareness of the huge (and often irreversible) harm done to children within the so-called safety of ‘home’ and show how we can heal and transform our lives. Self-transformation can empower us to work on initiatives to turn back the tidal wave of violence that so often derails lives and destroys any hope for future happiness.
That is what this website is about.