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  • Jackie Nagtegaal


A couple of years ago, my son looked at me one afternoon, with his sly smile: “You should really stop talking to other parents, they’re a bad influence on you.”

He was responding to some new notion I had that he should get more sun. His complexion had taken a translucent tinge, like that blue hue of skimmed milk.

An afternoon with other parents and their boastful children with tanned complexions and sports trophies … and for a second I forgot who we were. A sudden surge of parental guilt for not always being present, not being home and not always being right got me. And then, as one does, you think a tan might help the whole thing.

“You’re right, you know that?” I answered him. “So what are you playing anyway?”

I have made a point of getting into his world as much as I like him in mine. We trade tales from our hobbies and interest. I treat him to Bob Dylan, Nabokov’s love of butterflies and how the future can unfold. He pulls me into anime, the Dyson sphere hypotheses and games. Hours of games.

“Beginner’s Guide, it’s a story game. Sit, we can play it together.” Playing together means I sit without touching anything while he navigates us through.

And there I am, deeply taken by the game. “It’s meta,” I say, and he nods. The artistry. The imagination. The social commentary. The depth of it all. We float through the experience together and meet each other at touchpoints and share perspectives. It’s at this part that the most significant mutual learning takes place between us.

For all intents, we are different. At varying pinpoints on the gender spectrum. The neurodiversity spectrum. Generational spectrum. The emotional spectrum. But here we are, in the splendour of our requisite variety.

Submerged in the Beginner’s Guide, I find myself thinking of Faulkner’s As I lie dying. I think of conversations in the subconscious. I think of Berkeley and observations and what it means to be. I think of my need to be seen. I think of him with securities I don’t have and insecurities I wish I could solve. I think of the future.

He thinks of the gaming community. Of critique on social systems with a sprinkle of existentialism.

We trade our experiences, perceptions and take-aways over coffee, post-game—both richer as a result.

Beginner’s Guide has now settled at the top of my game recommendations, trumping my long time favourite Undertale. I’ve never been a gamer, but I think, so many of them are beyond poetry. Experiential art, philosophy – some of them hold more than many parents know.

Sidebar: My Top 5 Games

The Beginner’s Guide by Davey Wreden

Undertale by Toby Fox

Lisa: The Painful RPG by Austin Jorgensen

Hollow Knight by Team Cherry

Persona 5 by Atlus

There are no experts when it comes to kids. To life really. We tend to fall into some script of listening to how-to’s and linear solutions, dismissing our contexts. My son keeps reminding me of mutual learning. The context of our relationship is so rich and unpronounceable, and no one can reduce it to advice. It’s been forming over 13 years, but really for generations before.

And he’s right. Other people do tend to be bad influences if we don’t interpret them. The trick is to share, mutually learn, gain new insight. Knead out our brains. Our cultural perspectives. Our version of the world.

My work taught me that, too, this year. Managing through the pandemic with a thousand best-practice tips, that you know are all too flat to solve the grand mess we’re in. At work, I tried to listen as best I could. To what people are thinking and how they are thinking and what contexts they are shaped by.

My word for the year has to be symmathesize. It’s a word made up by Nora Bateson. A beautiful one that takes my story, this year and, most probably the future, into a preferable action. Sym is the Greek prefix (together) added to Mathesi, which is to learn.

Symmathesy is to learn together. What else do we have to show for this year?

I am learning from the people I work with. I am learning who they are in crisis. How they think to solve things. I am learning what their deal is. I am learning about my city, which is changing. My country. I am learning about the world. I am learning new things about myself as everything else keeps shifting, and this mutual learning is what is making the difference.

I stopped listening to advice. I mean I still listen to it. I hear it, but rather pause to hear underlying perspectives, relational exchanges and try to broaden my understanding of how we all fit together and how we’d like to be.

Nora Bateson describes the word as an entity composed by contextual mutual learning through interaction. This process of interaction and mutual learning takes place in living entities at larger or smaller scales of symmathesy.

Let’s take that from 2020.

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