TRANSITIONS: Help from Cookie the Chicken and a Hopi Elder

Mural on our living room wall by Tenar McDermott


One of those things that are meant to be famously hard for kids, especially for neurodiverse and/ or highly anxious ones, like mine happen to be.

And there are so damn many of them. The day – just an ordinary day – is full of hundreds of thresholds, little shifts and changes. Sleeping to waking. In bed to out. Night clothes to day clothes. Bedroom to bathroom. Upstairs to downstairs. Inside to out. Outside to in the car. Out the car to into school. And that list just covers up to 8.30am (and names my daughter’s least favourite transitions of the day). The other top three toughest transitions in our household, all of which can take hours and involve huge emotions, include:

Hungry to fed.

On screen to off screen.

Waking to sleeping.

And the strategies listed in all the parenting literature that are meant to help?

Routine. Strong predictable patterns.

To allow plenty of time.

To give early warnings. Count downs.

Music, songs, soundtracks …..

….which are all, I am sure, wise in many instances, but in our case don’t do much or can even escalate matters. Whenever I start giving my kids ‘early warnings’ they scowl at me and tell me to go away and shut up, because – let’s face it – I am just being the bringer of bad news. I am letting them know that change is coming. It’s on its way in half an hour. In fifteen minutes. In ten. In five. It’s nearly there. And if I then start to sing, or put on a soothing or upbeat soundtrack, that doesn’t help either. Not anymore. They know what I’m doing. I used to put on ‘Mah Nah Mah Nah’ from The Muppets in the mornings but they cottoned on. I might as well put on The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s entry tune – actually, I have tried this a few times), as all I am doing is letting them know that the thing they are dreading is nigh, and they don’t want to hear it. Who would?

I know I don’t want to hear it. Or rather I do – I want some kinds of change – I am longing for them, but not the sad, ending part. That part of the transition is horrible. And right now, everything in my life is in that phase:

I have just finished writing my novel. It’s over. And the next book has not yet begun.

We need to move house. I don’t yet know to where.

We need to move schools. I don’t yet know to which, or if we should start our own learning initiative.

My mother is recovering from pneumonia- the long phase in my life where she cared for me, and then helped with the children is shifting into the phase where I care for her.

The children aren’t little anymore, but they also aren’t big.

Oh, and I am peri-menopausal. Not yet an elder. But definitely not a younger now either – my years of a regular cycle are done.

Many endings then, but they are slow and messy. Sad and muddy. Like the weather. Not invigoratingly cold, or ablaze with tremendous autumnal hues. Not dying in style. But mild and wet. It’s pissing down as I write this and I might have to go out into the dark shortly to rescue the hens who have their coop perilously close to the river. My phone just buzzed with a flood warning.

My daughter wants to be inside the warm, dry cosiness of a new chapter already – to skip over the transition. She knows we need to move house, but she hates my mentioning it – she says it makes her too sad and she gets cross the moment the topic comes up. She wants to be already in the bit where the moving is done and she has a bedroom all of her own with pink, purple and gold painted walls, a bunk bed with a slide down from bed to floor and a cat basket in one corner for a kitten, called Sodie, who will be white, with a black spot over one eye.

Well, yes.

I’d like that too.

But even in Harry Potter (to which we are re-listening, over the bedtime threshold, courtesy of Stephen Fry) the transitions are hard. Disapparating (vanishing and reappearing elsewhere in an instant) is painful. Even when using magic, you can’t avoid it – change hurts.

Especially when you don’t yet know what you are going towards.

Especially when there is just the soggy, muddy, undignified ending part and the new thing, the next one, hasn’t started yet. It’s vague. An idea only. A fantasy. Or a complete unknown.

Rereading this I realise there are far more huge and terrifying transitions people undergo than the ones we are facing, couched as we are in a high degree of privilege. My father fled Nazi Germany at 16, having no idea what he was heading towards. Nowadays the number of people seeking refuge is only going up, with the water levels. Fleeing all they know. Going to towards everything they don’t.

But if inside every transition, however tiny, is hidden the same combination of sadness and fear – grief at what is being left, and terror of what is coming – I am not surprised my children howl and resist it with all their might.

What might help us? Since the official parenting tools I am meant to employ aren’t doing the job right now. Not in the tiny shifts, or in the big ones. And I feel downhearted. And scared. As the rain pours down outside.

So far, I have found two things that help:

Cookie the Chicken and a Hopi elder.

First, Cookie.

Cookie is not one of the hens out in the dark, currently at risk of drowning.

No. Cookie, lives in a little soft, pale blue hand-stitched pouch, on a pink thread. Cookie is there at the school gates to greet my daughter in the morning. If I manage to ease her from sleeping to waking, from in bed to out, from night clothes to day, from bedroom to bathroom, from upstairs to down, from inside to out, from outside to car…IF I make it as far as Cookie, waiting at the school gates, I know the rest of the transition will go just fine. My daughter will hop and skip over that final threshold into school, with Cookie by her side, or hanging round her neck, no backward glance.

Cookie comes to my daughter, care of one of the quiet hero’s of this chapter of our lives, who I will be very sad to leave when it does finally come to an end – the Wellbeing Lead at my children’s school. What I love about Cookie, (and the Wellbeing Lead) is that she is what I call ‘a threshold guardian.’ She does what all good threshold guardians do – she gets on with her own clucky business. She nibbles at chocolate chip cookies, sews seeds, and the other morning she even had a little chick, but she doesn’t bat an eyelid (if she had any), or drop a feather, in patronising concern for my daughter as she steps over the threshold. She doesn’t bring news of the doom of change, or promise glorious golden bedrooms or cute kittens to come. She is just there, at the point of transition.

I wrote a piece years ago called ‘Angels in Doorways’ which was about these threshold guardians. I wrote it at a time, long before parenthood, when I found it hard to leave the house. It helped me to think of these figures, stretched in the doorways like great webs, not doing very much, but making all the difference in the world. If you are old enough to remember him, the shopkeeper, of the magic costume shop in the children’s TV series Mr Benn is another example of just such a guardian: he’d quietly appear, beside Mr Benn, at his elbow, when it was time for the transition back to ordinary life. No warning. No countdowns. No soothing music. No questions. He was just there. Without fail.

So Cookie, who is there to help my daughter, also helps me. We all need a Cookie in our lives, I think. Pecking at biscuit crumbs, clucking in her little bag, while change comes.

And then there’s the Hopi elder…..

I’ve come across this quote a few times, and as I was listening to the rain outside, waiting for my son’s breathing to change to the slight rasp of sleep, wondering whether I need to head down the hill to rescue the actual hens, it came to mind again:

“There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above the water. And…see who is in there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves.”

I find this oddly relieving. Terrifying, yes, but also relieving.

It is relieving that it contravenes the (perfectly sound, often untenable) parenting advice to sustain clear routines and rhythms, to respond to flux and change by trying to keep as much as possible stable and orderly. Because more and more I find myself wanting to do the opposite. To let myself and the kids break the rules, undo the rituals, eat on the sofa, draw on the walls, leave the dishes in the sink, stay up late, as if it were a special occasion, a carnival, a party. Sometimes I do these things, sometimes I don’t, but even acknowledging the impulse somehow helps me through the changing days. Actually, the one from this list that has most notably occurred of late is the drawing on the walls: what began, when we first moved in, as small illicit scribbles in a corner, done furtively by my daughter- then a toddler with a crayon- and which I vigorously expunged, has bloomed rapidly in recent months to become great figures meandering unchecked across the dining and living room walls. There are so many of these – all either girls or cats – that they do in fact look like a group in transit. They remind me of the graffiti on school desks – evidence that we were once here, and that we won’t be soon.

The Hopi’s advice also lifts me out of my small story, of books and houses and schools, and wakes me up to the fact that what I am experiencing isn’t actually personal – it’s a huge global shift. Transition is a condition of life, but it particularly describes the age through which we are living. I know the world is changing – can hear it in the hardness of the rain outside – I do not yet know how things will unfold. None of us do.

Every two hours, through the night, I get up and check on the government’s ‘flood alerts’ page – there is a graph of the river Medway’s water level near me. The black line shoots upwards at an alarming rate, reaching 1.36 metres at 1am but by 3am it has levelled off. The hens, for now, can stay tucked up in their coop.

And Cookie is there to meet my daughter in the morning.

All is well.

And much is ill.

My mother, convalescing, listening to Radio 4, tells me the news is bad.

No way round it. Change is coming. As the Hopi elder says, and as Michael Rosen tells us in We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,’ there’s no way round it. No way under it. No way over it. Got to go through it. So I will gather up the hens, the children, my mother, my husband, and push off from the shore, and along the way I am deeply thankful for the Cookies, the angels, the quiet shopkeepers of the magic costume shops, for accompanying us, across the threshold of this time.

How about you?

How do you weather the transitions, in your lives and in the world?
What are your strategies? Who keeps you company?
Or – to put it more prosaically – how the heck do get yourself, and the kids, out of bed in the morning?

Image by Zoe Gardner @limberdoodle


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