I was rather lucky growing up. For me, childhood dreams, adventure and play are all intertwined with memories of long summer holidays with my parents – my mother, a teacher, who got two whole months of time off, and my self-employed engineer father. Their side gig was selling antiques they had bought from all over the world. And so I was lucky because during my summers I would pack my belongings in our campervan and go along with my parents on their long trips around Europe, visiting markets, antique stores and people’s backyards to buy objects my parents would then resell. All the absences and bad moods of the winter vanished into long drives and countless adventures, only to reappear for some epic, explosive fight somewhere along the road. I developed a flavour for foreign languages.
I also started to feel what it was like to be an outsider who did not understand things and could not speak to people directly: it took a lot of observation, asking and listening to get anywhere. Sometimes the endless markets and stores felt like chores, making me long for the same sedentary holidays my friends had: every summer in the same town somewhere in southern Italy, with the same friends who eventually turned into girlfriends and boyfriends, returning with many stories to tell at the end of the vacation, and connections to go back to the following year.

I now know that I also had stories to tell, I just didn’t know how to do it. The people we met were often older, people my parents did business with. Sometimes there were other travellers, and we didn’t share a language. I also met some kids my age, but I could hardly speak any English at the time, and so we communicated by playing together.

It was during one of these summers that I had a revelation. “When I grow up, I want to be an archaeologist,” I told my entire family. It made sense: I was born and raised in a city, Naples, where every stone is at least a few centuries old and is somewhat historical. My mamma loves art history and I visited my first museum when I was just a few months old. A lot of our summer adventures involved walking through ancient excavations in the scorching sun. One summer, we even visited the ruins of ancient Troy, a site inn modern-day Turkey that is believed to have been where the Greeks, led by Odysseus, won a long, exhausting war. (If you believe Virgil’s Aeneid, they did so inside a wooden horse.)

At the time of the visit, I was 8 or 9 years old, and reading a book about a German businessman called Heinrich Schliemann, who had a passion for Homer’s work and enough money and privilege to explore archaeological ruins around the world. The excavation of ancient Troy in the 19th century is credited to him. I learnt from my book that Schliemann had managed to learn Turkish in a few weeks while he waited for a permit to dig in the site where he was to eventually find Troy. He already spoke dozens of languages – he claimed that it took him only six weeks to learn one – and he kept the practice of writing his diary in the language of whatever country he was.

Wow! That was it. I wanted to be like Schliemann: I would learn at least 15 languages, travel the world, and explore both above and below the ground I set my feet on.

Nobody is an archaeologist these days! Came the recriminations from my dad.You will be broke all your life! You won’t be able to find any remains anywhere! If you do find anything of relevance, I will come and steal it from you and keep it for my private collection.

My dad is a bit of an ogre, but he’s not unlike other men I know from his generation. He’s also just a father, with his own fears: the fear of not making ends meet, the fear of not being able to provide for his family, the fear of pursuing his own wild dreams. While I never studied archaeology and never pursued that specific dream, I do speak five languages and a half, and I’m now learning a new one, Greek. And I do make a living out of travelling around the world and digging into things, if only figuratively speaking. (I even got to write a story about a cool archaeological find!)
 

We develop our dreams and fears in our first formative years

Why am I sharing my childhood memories with you, you may be asking yourself? I believe that we need to pay closer attention to what happens in the first years of life, because it is during those formative years that we develop our dreams and our fears, our sense of self and of the world.

And the actions and reactions of adults around us can play a huge role here. What happens when a girl in Brazil starts showing interest in playing football? Up until recently, she would be told that football is only for boys. What about a boy who wants to take ballet classes? (Billy Elliot still makes me cry whenever I watch it.) Or any child that shows a deep interest in painting, or storytelling? The way we adults react to their dreams impacts the way they themselves approach them. I’m not saying that we should obsessively watch every step a child takes to guess what they’re good at, nor am I saying that we should take every single spark of interest completely seriously. What I’m saying is that we need to be aware of what gets in between ourselves and the children in our lives. Are we speaking to them out of our own frustrations and fears? Are we being supportive enough?

I started off 2021 by having one more go of The Artist’s Way, a book with techniques to unleash our inner creativity. (I had tried twice, and failed, to follow the 12-week programme. The last time I set myself up for failure by attempting to do the programme just before my son was born…) In the book, Julia Cameron refers to a famous quote by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist, about the “unlived lives of parents” and the effect they have on their children’s lives. In which ways did our environment growing up hinder our creativity and dampen our dreams?

There’s another thing that Cameron says that really got to me: “My creativity heals myself and others”. When I first read that sentence I had no idea what it meant, until I connected it to the idea of the “unlived lives of parents”. Can we become more supportive of others, and of children especially, if we fulfil our own wishes? Can we support our children even if we don’t quite understand what they’re up to?

The frog who wanted to play the drum

“The biggest mistake Pokko’s parents ever made was giving her a drum.” This is the opening line of Matthew Forsythe’s beautiful book Pokko and the Drum. Pokko is a young frog, and she loves playing the drum. But hers is a quiet family, living in a quiet mushroom, in a quiet forest. How could her parents get it so wrong and gift her a loud drum of all things?

But were Pokko’s parents really wrong? Or were they just unaware of what they were really giving their daughter? Just like my dad telling me that archaeology was a no-goer but at the same time supporting me to learn languages and travel widely, Pokko’s parents may have provided their daughter the space she needed without knowing it.

Now, a disclaimer. I know Matt Forsythe, Pokko’s creator, in person. (You can find out more about Matt later in this newsletter, in the section about who’s inspiring me this week.) But that’s not the reason I’m writing about this book. Pokko really made me think a lot about creativity, persistence, and the role parents play in fostering (or hindering) their children’s dreams.

In Pokko’s story, the young frog persists despite being told she shouldn’t. As she does, things around her start changing, even for her parents. Just a children’s book, you say? Well, one girl who did not give up her dream to be a football player in Brazil is Marta, now regarded as the greatest female football player of all time, six times winner of the FIFA World Player of the Year. Her success has become a huge inspiration for generations of younger girls who are trying to make a career out of football. While it’s true that real change needs to be systemic (when it comes to women’s football there’s a need to address the sexism of the game, plus a need to bridge the pay gap between men and women that play), sometimes one person pursuing one dream creates just the right initial spark.

Now over to you: What did you dream of when you were a child? Did your family encourage those dreams? And how did it all turn out? What would your imaginary career be these days? Please hit reply to let me know. (I will soon unveil a site where you can comment directly under the story, if you’re a paying member of The First 1,000 Days, so stay tuned for that!)

As for me, I still dream of being an archaeologist, but also a mountain guide, a children’s book author and a shaman.

What I’ve been reading

The Artist’s Way has become a classic since Julia Cameron first published it almost 40 years ago. It’s considered a self-help book, but I find it to be more like a practical guided course to achieving something concrete. The concrete thing is to let yourself be more creative, playful and connected. Play is a key word in a lot of Cameron’s writing, and she keeps going back to how important it is for adults not to lose connection with the child-like ability to have fun. “Remember, your artist is a child. Find and protect that child. Learning to let yourself create is like learning to walk. The artist child must begin by crawling,” writes Cameron. “It takes nurturing to make an artist.” An important detail to add: The Artist’s Way is not only useful for those out there who want to write children’s books, or a weekly newsletter. 😬 Cameron says that activating the creative side of the brain is good for lawyers, top executives, and pretty much anyone else. (Cameron later wrote a book called The Artist’s Way for Parents. So that’s where I’m going next.)


What I’ve been listening to

This interview that NPR’s Terry Gross did with Maurice Sendak – a year before the acclaimed children’s book author died – is really moving. He spoke of the expectations his parents had of him and his siblings, and how adult expectations can be vicious. (He then admits to stereotyping a possible daughter over a son, saying “I am just a human.”) He speaks of life and death, of writing children’s books, and of losing the people he loved.


What I’ve been watching

The Reflection in Me is almost cringeworthy for how cute it is. It’s a perfect reflection of how I feel about positive affirmations about myself. Do I consider myself perfectly perfect? I most surely don’t. But why shouldn’t I? And oh, I so wish that my son will love himself like the child in this animation.


Who’s been inspiring me

I met Matt Forsythe during my diploma in journalism at Concordia University, Montreal, in 2005. He was always a little too creative for the constraints of the reporting we were trying to learn back then, and had already published some comics. Some 15 years later, he’s an award-winning author and illustrator and I buy his books whenever I can for all the kids I know – including my own son now. When I have one of his books in my hands, I send him a picture. Back in November 2016, the day Trump was elected, I came across a book of his for the first time in Buenos Aires, on display in one of the big commercial bookshops. I was so surprised I had to stop and buy a copy for one of my nephews straight away. Then I sent Matt a picture and this message: “It made me feel that no matter what happens in the world of politics, there will always be international connections and people who make the world better by chasing their passions!” So, thank you, Matt, and all the other inspired and passionate people out there.


What I’d love to hear from you about

If you have children in your life, how do you encourage their creativity? Please let me know your tips and ideas by replying to this email.

Until next Wednesday!

With love and care,

Irene

This is not a space to simply comment. This is where you take part in the community.
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