Here we are again, the end of one month and the dawn of another. So much has happened at the Caterpillar Cafe in the last 5 months. We had 5 day/wk Freeplay to 4 day/wk English, monthly pass down to daily pass and now moms and kids under 1 enter free of charge. I was told nobody would put their kids in an apartment to play, but they were wrong. I was told nobody would pay to sit and watch their kids play, but they were wrong. I was told, Libyans only care about getting a baby sitter and English classes, but they were wrong. I was told expats and Libyans wouldn’t want to sit in the same room and chat with each other, but they were wrong. I didn’t believe them, not all the way. Because although I know old habits die hard, I do feel there are honest needs that aren’t being met here, and this was my way of meeting them. Libyans and foreigners came, they saw the space and they let their kids play, they paid for their time there and every single kid that came only left after their mom agreed to bring them back to play again. The kids loved it, the moms that took the time to sit and soak it all in alongside their kids enjoyed it as well. Some made lasting friendships. Some went out and told all their friends about it. And some didn’t. And that’s fine, because it’s not for everyone, and I respect that. English classes were an add-on, but ended up being the main focus for a few months. But now school is at its last leg and we are starting with Freeplay again. This time there are no monthly fees, sessions are daily, mornings and afternoons, 6 days per week and even when crafts are going on, the other kids can still play freely. If anyone needs English help, they can call me and book ahead, so I can put aside time for them. Flexibility is the word. I wish I had a big garden with an enormous tree for kids to climb, sand pits and a mud kitchen, a little water station, real tools for kids to tinker with and grass as well as plenty of space for kids to run around in. I don’t. This is what I can offer, and I gave it my 100%, my kids and I shared everything we have and plenty of our time and it paid off. We made some new friends, the kids and I always have a magical place to go to when we’re sick of staying at home and daddy can’t take them out. I have managed to paint and craft and read more than I could have ever imagined, because my kids were too busy playing in any one of the other rooms and I actually had the space and time and didn’t have to look at dirty dishes to wash, laundry to iron and whatever else and could fully put my mind on my project and my kids. NOTHING ELSE! And this is the main reason why I embarked in this. I counted the money I had saved up through my part time jobs over the years and decided that THIS was something worthwhile and I would gladly put all of it into it if it meant peace of mind for my kids and me and whoever else wanted to join us. I couldn’t afford to buy fancy furniture or rent a villa, this is what I could afford and it was extremely convenient, and convenience when you have 4 kids under 10 means it’s doable. So I leaped at it, and I am so happy we did. If nothing else can be drawn from this experience thus far, I know I have done everything I could have possibly dreamed of and gave it my all, I know I have gotten to love this special time away from my home, even if it did mean going to another apartment and not to a spa. I know my kids loved the idea of it and still, even 6 months after acquiring the space, they ask me daily if they can play at the Club (it’s the mom and kid club), and when we go they PLAY. The word to describe this is SPENSIERATEZZA, which is Italian and means without worry, without thought, but not careless, and full of joy and freedom. This is the treasure we’ve gained. No matter what goes on outside, whether school had to be cancelled due to strikes or the security situation, whether there was shooting in the city or not, we could just make this trip and feel SPENSIERATEZZA. And here, in Tripoli, in 2014, this is a gift. And we are grateful! Thank you to all who have contributed in one way or another, joined us through play, crafts or classes or even just for a chat, thank you for believing with us and sharing, somehow, this adventure with us. It has been a pleasure!
I have been devouring literature on play and everything related to it for maybe a year now. I am blessed with very bright children, so teaching them things has never been an enormous challenge. But despite reading and wanting to try out every new technique on child play, according to each one’s developmental stage, I found this to be extremely difficult. It frustrated me to no end, this is PLAY! It should be fun, easy, natural. Kids should just want to jump in and be silly with me at the drop of a hat! So why aren’t they? Of course they do come to me at least once a day, requesting that I join them in whatever game they are playing, usually one at a time, to get their alone time with me, but if I break out in song, start dancing or take out some toys and ask them to join, they’ll look at me with bewilderment and wonder if I have temporarily loosened a few screws. Crafting is something else entirely, it’s like teaching, they sit (most of the time), I explain what they need to do, one step at a time, showing them an example and trying to make connections with useful knowledge they might have or want to have and help them if I see them struggling or lagging behind. Play is a beast all its own. It has nothing to do with academic learning, sure I can explain to them scientific or mathematical notions as they try things out and observe various phenomena, but they are usually dismissive of these little tid bits, as though I had just muttered something completely irrelevant to the task at hand. Occasionally, they will notice something odd and excitedly tell me about it, like when the colors mix and make completely new ones, or when a piece a play dough makes a movement resembling a bent arm despite the fact that nobody is moving that part, but only one extremity. Or they might come to me in frustration because the rounded block won’t stay vertical despite their repeated efforts to keep it that way. But these are all instances in which the kids were exploring different ways to use the tools provided (be it toys, blocks, dough, sand, kitchen utensils or whatever may be the case) and sharing a particular instant with me, to smile with them (because happiness is not real unless it is shared, and nobody knows it better than a child) or to comfort them and let them know they aren’t making a mistake, that’s just the way things work. It has nothing to do with me participating actively throughout their game, actually, quite the contrary.
Well, while reading about play I realized that it wasn’t that my kids didn’t find my games amusing (in fact they sometimes giggle when I let lose), nor is it that I forgot how to play (although I might have forgotten a lot more than I can remember). But it’s simply that they can fully experience play when they are completely immersed in it themselves. Play isn’t something we can give them on a platter, like fast food, here, take it, enjoy! It’s a process and they go about it at their own pace, with whom they chose, when they chose and the least amount of parental involvement, the better. This doesn’t mean that we let them go lose and try out everything completely unsupervised, especially not the younger ones, who absolutely need a close watch, but it means that we can’t come up with toys and expect them to be as excited as us and become enthralled in a game of our own invention and under our own structured methodology. In a way, it would be like asking an explorer to stick to the paved road, or a scientist to only follow what his predecessors have discovered and proven. What’s the point?
In the last few weeks I’ve taken a few hours off of my sleep to be able to finish reading the Dostoyewsky short stories I very boldly began to tackle during one quiet afternoon of Freeplay. The kids were safely exploring in one of the rooms, I could see them from my position in the living room, and I curled up to attempt to finish one of the author’s highly acclaimed works of fiction. Of course it was a tall order of business and I only managed to finish a quarter of a story on that session, but I did finish the book eventually and the final sentences in it were these: “”Awareness of life is of a higher order than knowledge of the laws of happiness.” That’s an adage that we must fight. And I shall fight it. And if everyone wanted it, everything could be arranged immediately.” This was in reference to a dream the narrator had had, in which he had encountered a utopia, where people were happy and living in complete harmony with themselves, others and the entirety of their environment, including plants and animals because they had sure knowledge of a Higher Existence and they always acted for the benefit of everyone, and not just themselves. Of course the narrator, his interlocutors, the author and the critic presenting the work all had reservations about the applicability of such an ideal, reservations exemplified in the fact that this utopia was easily tilted into oblivion by one bad influence. Nevertheless the ideal persists not because it is eternal, but because it is feasible, attainable, though fleeting and “could be arranged immediately.” Obviously this, just like the author’s previous fixation with socialist ideals is fully theoretical, and just as he found out through his own very personal experience how these ideals were detached from reality, one can easily give examples of how his new found ideal could be turned inside out and tossed simply by the implication that general sure Knowledge of a Higher Existence is something that comes from within and cannot be enforced, despite repeated efforts to this effect by various cultures at different times in History, including very recently.
What I drew from it, which is not only applicable to children’s play but also to our very own present struggles in a nation in its infancy, is that we put way too much emphasis on collecting data, spreading information and using this information to add credibility or to discredit something or other, testing each other’s abilities (including pre-schoolers) to absorb as much data as possible and reproduce it verbatim at the drop of a hat, thus building fickle towers that for the sake of continuity I’ll call “awareness of life” rather than using our talents and self discipline to help others do their job, being able to take one’s own urge to act and do and say and simply be there to support whoever is in the process of acting, doing or saying, or in fact PLAYING; lending a hand when needed and overcoming our need to prove to the world that we too can perform. It isn’t always about us WITH them, or us AND them, or us VERSUS them, but sometimes it’s just about us ALONG with them, being there for them without interfering and helping to the best of our abilities when and as needed. By taking baby steps in this direction, be it by observing our kids play instead of intervening at every turn, or by listening to what the problems are and trying to find a way in which we can help those in charge solve them rather than disrupting each failed attempt they make at solving them in their desperation to finish their mandate before being ousted, we might catch a glimpse of what Dostoyewsky’s utopia looked like, likely not permanently, but like play, it is a process and baby steps in the pursuit of “Knowledge of the laws of happiness” may just lead us in the right direction, raising happy children who may not know their ABCs by age 4, but are fully capable of recognizing a happy moment when they feel it and maybe finding some happy stability where it is badly needed.
There have been people wondering about life and its purpose for about as long as humans have had intellect and practiced its use in a leisurely manner. Theories have fluctuated from purely physical in nature to metaphysical throughout the centuries and across cultures, in ways that can probably be explained by our constant disillusion with our lack of perfection. Each one of us, I would like to think, goes through this phase of wondering about our own particular life, and why we are here and then, often, when we don’t find answers we look beyond ourselves and look at others to find such answers, sometimes we can look beyond differences and identify a path that suits us, other times we might get caught up in them and perhaps even fall into perpetual judgement mode (ie: nobody’s perfect, so why should I be?). Some find their answer in religion and others continue searching their whole lives, never quite satisfied with the answers they encounter. One could philosophize about the purpose of life in general, of the human presence and what each one of us is expected to do to fulfill his/her duty or we as a whole should do not only to guarantee the survival of humanity, but also to improve our existence and that of our offspring and beyond. Many theories have been brought forth and many variants are being practiced by people everywhere, with varying degrees of success and/or enthusiasm.
I have known people of dozens, if not hundreds of cultures, languages and religious affiliations and have found affinities with each one, and have noticed this internal struggle to a certain extent in most, if not all of them. I do not expect to have answers, not because I haven’t found any, but because I believe each one of our paths and natures and, consequently, our answers are different and, like everything else in life, they change with us and our surroundings. We have to adapt to what is around us, we may have been born Queens and find ourselves refugees in foreign lands, longing for something we can never recuperate. We may have been born into the most miserable poverty and somehow manage to work our way to satisfying not only our own material needs, but those of our extended families as well, finding great joy and satisfaction in what we do. We may have thought we would become influential lawyers or even judges and end up deciding to put all our studies and careers on hold to care for our families, and find out that motherhood, if done responsibly, is much harder than we ever anticipated. We may have thought we would be crushed under the pressure of life’s stresses and disappointments, instead we flourished in ways we never would have even dared to dream of. Life is full of unexpected turns and turmoils, joys and sadness, and how we deal with each one, paves the path for our continuation.
I was born into a middle class family, with a hard working dad and an astonishingly bright mom, who put her promising University career on hold when my dashing father swept her off her feet. She taught me the love of books before I could even read a single letter, she spent time crafting with me before I could even hold a pencil or handle scissors, she taught me to upcycle before that was even a word, she listened to my invented stories and made up fascinating endings with me to entice my imagination beyond my immediate perception. She answered my questions, she questioned my answers and took the time to hear every song, every tale, every excuse I ever came up with and she made sure I had a full tummy when I went to school, knew how to tie my shoe laces and tuck my shirt in. She went out of her way to ensure we had a connection with her culture, which was so far removed from where we lived, and would tell us about the news emerging from her neck of the woods and ancient stories she had learned from her mom. She even managed to get her Nation’s newspaper delivered to our home and got an illustrated copy of traditional stories so we could see pictures while she read the tales to us. This was decades ago, long before internet and way back when a holiday half a world away would cost nearly a whole year’s salary.
I appreciated this, but never as much as I do now, raising my kids a world away from my own cultures, where although we have skype and wikipedia, a holiday across the world costs about half a year’s salary, and given that the other half is going towards our kids’ schooling, it takes about as long as it did 30 years ago to be able to actually touch our loved ones and see the places with our own eyes. The irony is that I left my home young in order to find myself and pursue my studies and be able to sustain a lifestyle that would not keep me away from my family for as long as my mom had to stay away from hers. I pursued my studies as far as they go, and excelled, and absolutely loved everything I learned from every Professor and Teacher I had the honor of studying from, but I also knew that if I ever had kids, they would come first. I found bits of myself in my mother’s community, I found bits of answers in the literature I studied (and I have always had an affinity for literatures that dealt with identity in its various manifestations), I found great solace and serenity in religion, I found an amazing partner and friend in my husband and then put everything on hold when I had kids.
My personal development came to a dramatic shift; all the literary theory, the Islamic fundamentals and fiqh, the history, psychology and philosophy that I so loved and cherished were shelved, literally and almost completely, to focus 100% on how to be the best wife and mom I could be. I subscribed to the best journals in the country on parenting, I devoured all the information that crossed my line of vision, I invested all my time taking every course and reading everything I came across that would make me a better wife and mom; nutrition, toddler play, child development, child psychology, family dynamics, family structure in Islam, raising morally strong kids, boosting kids’ IQ through talk, music, play… you name it, it has crossed my line of vision.
Now, more than ever, I understand my mother. Now, more than ever, I can relate to the importance of sharing, belonging and making meaningful connections beyond our immediate surroundings. Now I know why it was important for my mother to read her Nation’s news, now I know why she would rather read Glooscap’s story a hundred times rather than pick up any old story book she would find at the grocery store. Now I know why she encouraged us to be friends with our Baha’i neighbors and our Protestant neighbors, and our strictly Catholic neighbors. I appreciate why she always welcomed Jehova’s witnesses and Are Krishnas in for tea, despite being an obedient, devout Catholic herself and religiously observing Sunday Mass with all of us. Now I understand that it’s not enough to be and to do, you must have a feeling of belonging, you must have a purpose, and it doesn’t matter if your purpose is the same as mine, or if you belong in the same groups or share the same ideas, what matters is that you do share and that you do make connections because this is what allows us to grow, to expand our horizons, to look beyond what is immediately available to us and dream bigger dreams. To go beyond our enclosures is surprisingly satisfying because we learn that we have a lot more in common at our meaningful chore than would ever meet the eye. To allow for the possibility of something new isn’t to reject what you have, it’s to embrace it and feel comfortable enough with it to be able to share it and in so doing we can appreciate and understand it in so many, so much more intricate and profound ways, than we ever could have imagined sitting in the comfort of our own solitude.
A friend recently shared a story, which I will briefly summarize to you here: A group of esteemed academics, who studied together, after years of pursuing their careers meet again at a revered and now retired Professor’s home, and all they could manage to do was complain about the stress and dissatisfaction of their busy lives. The Professor listened carefully and then offered them all a cup of hot chocolate, which they all eagerly accepted. But he didn’t pour it for them, he provided a wide variety of cups and a jug of hot chocolate and invited them to serve themselves. They all picked the most luxurious, most expensive, most beautiful cups and filled them with hot chocolate and then began looking at each other’s cups to see if they had made the right choice. To their surprise, the Professor confessed that this had been a simple representation of how they view their lives: concentrating on the look of the cup, rather than on drinking the hot chocolate. This is eerily similar to another story my sister quoted in a recent blog of hers on Zen, in which students searching for answers came from far and wide to consult with the Zen Master, who no matter what they said or how far they had come, invited them to have a cup of tea. The moral? Settle, mellow, dig in, carpe diem, live the moment, find your chore, center yourself, and you will find it, and when you do, share it.
Who’s up for a cup of tea or hot chocolate right about now?
For this blog I thought about telling you more about me, my education, my experiences and what motivated me to start this Café, but once I finished writing it dawned on me that this isn’t just about me and my kids, it’s also about you and your kids and I don’t expect you to hand in your resume as you walk in the door! It’s about what we as women and mothers value in life. I spent all my life trying to push myself beyond boundaries, to learn more about anything that interested me, and this is no different. I am pushing myself to do something I feel is important, vital in fact, because I believe in the power of play, I am convinced that it is absolutely crucial to allow for kids to meet, play together, share and get to know each other, and for moms to watch them through it and let them dive in. Play is children’s psychology at work, a mom can learn a lot about her kids by watching them play, especially when they play with other kids. But it’s also important for kids to feel that they have some independence and that they can be trusted to take care of themselves for short periods of time, and for moms who are at home with their kids 24/7 this is of the essence. Socialization is learned by kids observing their parents deal with other people, so it is also important for your kids that you get some social interaction as well. As moms, especially with infants and babies, it can become exhausting, as a new mom or as a mom with older kids who compete for your attention as well. It is indispensable to feel like you have some sort of support, be it in the mere distraction that the kids get from seeing different toys, games, books and kids, be it in the extra couple of hands that might come in handy the moment your baby is crying and the toddler needs the potty, or maybe just in knowing that you have a place where you can sit, drink a cup of tea or coffee and simply get out of the home without fearing being judged, told what to do, or stared at by unscrupulous bystanders. Mi casa es Su casa. I won’t accept that you judge me and I won’t judge you. I may have been in your shoes, and can lend a hand if you want it, a word of comfort if you need it, or a sincere smile if that’s all you want and if I haven’t, then maybe you’ll grace me with some useful knowledge. And maybe you’ll find another woman, in your shoes, going through similar paths you are going through and you can share ideas, discuss shortcuts, laugh it off or just be there for each other, exchange numbers and keep in touch afterwards. Maybe everything is fine and dandy and you just want to meet different people and see where it takes you. Or perhaps you’re bored with all the other play opportunities and want a change. I could have probably subscribed to any of the above, at some point in my life as a mom, and this is why I see this need and am trying to fill it.
I believe that this kind of place is for a special kind of mom, an extraordinary mom who pushes herself to be more, to be all she can be and to do it consistently, but in order to be this kind of mom, you also know what it’s like to fail, to stumble and have to dust yourself off, because if you go out of your way, you are bound to find obstacles, to get lost and have to find your way back, just as if you stay put, you will never know what lies beyond your walls. With this wisdom comes respect, patience and understanding, and such lessons are invaluable to us as human beings but more so as women, mothers and care-givers. So I am very confident that you will find very special women here, who may look very different from you on the outside, but share this chore belief in the importance of what they are doing right this moment. Moms who are raising amazing little caterpillars that will break out of their cocoons to become fascinating butterflies of various sizes and colors, all beautiful and all mesmerizing. So you don’t have to know what my cv looks like, just as I don’t have to see yours, because it’s not about what we studied, where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing with our time, but about how we feel about life, where our priorities lie and how we see ourselves and our children now and into the future. This is not to say that I’m a closed book or that you should be, but maybe we can discuss these particulars over a cup of coffee and some scones, everything is so much more interesting over coffee!
To all those who have expressed an interest in Caterpillar Cafe’s activities, I think I need to explain to you the change in pricing that has just occurred. When I first thought of this project my idea was to have a monthly membership that would cover the cost of rent and other expenses, but as I realized that not all those who wished to come would be able to commit to coming every month, I decided to introduce further activities and a daily pricing, always prioritizing those who had agreed to commit to monthly passes. As the Cafe opened and activities started, the situation became such that I wasn’t sure if I could sustain this initial policy. I tried to encourage monthly applications for the other activities and introduced more English courses. Almost 2 months into this it became apparent to me that monthly commitments were just not practical for most moms, no matter how eager they were to make it a regular engagement. As a result I am lowering the daily prices for all activities. As a consequence of this though, I will no longer be able to provide 50% discounts on Crafts and Playgroup for monthly members. The price is nevertheless most convenient for monthly members, but so as not to discourage people who just cannot, no matter how much they would like to come on a regular basis, I have taken this difficult decision to shift in focus. I hope that this will cater to a wider audience and reach those who have been thus far looking in without daring to walk in. This is to let you know that you are indeed welcome to come in and bring all your kids 0-12, whether they eat, drink, play or not!
Friendship is what makes life magical, it’s sharing what is special and valuable with someone who is happy to see you happy. It’s a unique bond, brought about through regular, meaningful interaction. For kids this might mean playing together, sharing toys, meeting frequently enough to create lasting memories. As we grow and become more sophisticated and in tune with the outer world, we start relating friendship to loyalty and commitment and these traits will pour over into adulthood. These bonds often happen haphazardly in school, playgrounds, neighborhoods, or within families. But what if you just moved to a new country, don’t have any neighbors or have no family close by? Or what if the neighbors or family that you do have, don’t share the same language or simply play significantly differently or spend all their free time studying? Kids go to school for 4-5 hours per day, 5 days per week and spend most of that time glued to desks, listening to the teacher.There is very little time to bond and share, and these relationships are often relegated to the school grounds, since kids live so far apart and don’t spend extra curricular time together. Then at home it can be all the more complicated to feel safe sending kids out into the yard, not knowing who might pop by, or what might be flying overhead. Supervised play may be available, but limited to bouncing around for an hour while moms get gocked at or even harassed, and in such environments, kids engage in physical play that doesn’t necessarily require interaction with other kids. They might see each other, exchange a word or two, such as “move” or “careful” and there you have it, play time is over and no bonds were created, no links made.
Friendship is characterized by mutual sympathy, honesty, altruism and understanding and is fostered by time spent in each other’s company, in the pursuit of enjoyable activities, feeling free to be oneself and make mistakes, without feeling judged. This becomes increasingly important as kids grow into young adults, valuing each other’s viewpoints and relish being a part of a bigger whole.
If at first geographical closeness might be the determining factor, parents can facilitate a more sophisticated outlook by seeking out further alliances with parents who share more than location, perhaps a philosophy, a way of life, a world view. These friendships can then blossom into life long relationships that can enrich one’s life in countless and invaluable ways. Making friends is a process, and it is facilitated by proximity, regular interaction and opportunities to share ideas, feelings and moments with each other. The Caterpillar Cafe aims at being this catalyst for moms seeking out meaningful interactions to enrich their kids’ lives as well as their own. But before you toss this blog to the side as a meager attempt at self promotion, let me share with you that I am in the same boat, a mom, seeking meaningful interactions for my kids and with like minded moms in this city that we now call our own. I know I am not alone, but after years of waiting for someone like me to make this opportunity available, I decided to facilitate it myself, and invite you to come along and see for yourself if it’s as valuable for you as it is for us.
Some of you may be wondering why a Cafe would be called Caterpillar? What does a bug have to do with that sumptuous, delicious hot drink? Actually Caterpillar came to me long before Cafe did, in fact Cafe was an incidental last minute addition! A Caterpillar is a bug that comes from an egg and after growing sufficiently, wraps itself into a cocoon and eventually turns into a butterfly. I love the idea of the various stages it undergoes in order to become something beautiful and admirable. This is how I see childhood, and this is what I would want for my kids, a healthy upbringing, complete with all that makes life whole (love, play, community, friendship, sharing, laughter, strong morals and a proper education along with healthy nutrition, sleep and physical activity), so that they can then go out into the world and make it a better, more beautiful place. For me, growing up in Switzerland, was amazing in many ways, but there was a magical place, where kids could meet other kids and play with intelligent toys they either didn’t own or had nobody to play with at home, I took this place for granted as a child, but when I had kids of my own I realized how many toys I could remember playing with, but never owning. Here we learned responsible handling of toys, because if we ruined them we’d have to pay for them, and it all came out of our allowance, this place was called Ludoteca (library of toys). When my oldest son was born I lived in Montreal and I liked to take him to a very similar place called the Joujoutheque (same name, same idea, but it also offered a wide variety of courses related to parenting and running an efficient household). I realized quickly after moving to Libya that good quality toys were practically non existent here and the social structure is such that comfortable socializing for women with young children is extremely difficult. I yearned for a place where I could take my kids to play with quality toys and socialize with other kids like I did growing up and my oldest son did as a toddler. I yearned for a place where I could sit and actually talk to their moms without feeling stared down by anyone and without having to worry about my kids getting bored or hurt. So I got busy and collected as many toys and books as I could carry and brought them here, found a place, made a plan and got going. I cannot give my kids my childhood, but a ludoteca, joujoutheque, or something like it, I can, this is something I can offer them, and with them other kids in the area who might also be yearning for such an outlet. This is an exercise in sharing for my kids, but surprisingly enough they were all to glad to do so, if it meant they’d make some friends. So Caterpillar is a description of childhood (including my own kids’), but also an idea that wants to help make this a better and more beautiful place, it’s a small project in its infancy that wants to open new horizons and opportunities for children and mothers alike. In many ways, it’s everyone’s story, it’s everyone’s potential, it’s a hopeful approach in a place where hope is a lifeline fueled by optimism, and what is more hopeful than childhood? And… of course anything looks and feels better over a nice hot cup of java!