If I could choose again

February 13, 2019 § 1 Comment

When journalists are writing personal profiles, a favourite question is to ask the subject something along the lines of, “If you could have your life over again, what would you do differently?”

I don’t know why so many of us (myself included) persist with this question, because usually you are interviewing someone who has some experience, wisdom, gravitas. And so the answer you get, most often, is not one of regret, but: “Nothing. Everything that has happened to me in my life has made me who I am today.”

And they’re right, I think, despite the temptation to daydream about a do-over, about being able to go back and make a different decision so that you don’t land up in the mess you’re in now.

Sure, you can use the ‘coulda, shoulda’ stick to beat yourself up over the bad choices you’ve made in the past, for being stupid, irresponsible, unkind, or thoughtless. You can sigh and press the back of your hand to your forehead, and say, “If only…” Or you can be a real-life Marty McFly and change your future story, by making a different choice today.

You can choose again – the question is whether or not you will.

* Thanks to Dave Luis for the topic suggestion.
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10 good things I got from Twitter

February 6, 2019 § 3 Comments

I’ve been bashing Twitter a lot recently – it has turned into a fairly toxic place – and then someone suggested I write about this topic, so here I am, taking it as a challenge!

My first Twitter account opened and closed within a week, I think. I hated it. Then I tried again, and fell in love with it. Now I venture there sporadically, take its temperature, and decide whether or not it’s worth hanging around – I guess it’s a bit like some long-term relationships.

But that’s not to say it’s all bad. I have benefited enormously from the platform. So here are 10 good things I’ve gained.

1. New friends – Some of my best friends are people I met through Twitter. Yes, I forged relationships with strangers on the internet and then met them in person. Please don’t tell my children. (I did so with great caution and a lot of research, don’t worry.) But it is a good reminder that while stranger danger is a very real thing, the vast majority of strangers are just ordinary people like you and me, and worth getting to know.

2. Old friends – I’ve reconnected with old friends and colleagues, which has been wonderful.

3. Heroes – The beauty of social media is that it gives you direct access to the thoughts of people you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to talk to. Authors, musicians politicians, poets, celebrities – many of whom do their own tweeting. And sometimes they even respond when you talk to them. (Nigella. Twice. Squee.)

4. Work – I have had work directly from people who follow and interact with me on Twitter and it’s opened up all kinds of different avenues for me, and expanded the scope of what I do.

5. Professional development – Like-minded people and experts in my field are generous with the information and articles they share, so it acts as a kind of aggregator of the latest thinking about transactional and non-fiction writing, journalism and plain language, which are my main interests.

6. Fiction writing advice – There’s a lot of writing about writing, and a lot of writing on Twitter by other authors, so I’ve picked up some good tips for my own fiction writing projects – and been reminded that even the famous authors are often filled with self-doubt. That’s comforting.

7. Challenging opinions – I deliberately follow people with different views to my own, because it makes me think about other lifestyles and world views. I stop when their views make me angry or upset, and think about why. Sometimes I change my mind, sometimes I don’t, but I enjoy the mental stimulation.

8. Puns – I can never have too many, and Twitter loves a good pun. And a bad pun. All puns, really. Basically, I’m there for the puns.

9. Resilience – because if you express your opinion, there’s always the chance that someone with a bazillion followers will retweet it and it will take off. And then the trolls come out from under their slimy bridges, and you will be batting off insults left, right and centre – literally. They’re all as easily offended as each other, poor darlings. It used to upset me – I’ve been called some terrible things – but I’ve learnt to deal with them.

10. My voice – I’ve left the best for last. After years of being treated as though my opinion didn’t matter, or at least didn’t deserve to be heard, I found my voice. Twitter taught me to write, it taught me to write tight (140 characters to say what you want to say, in the old days), it rekindled my wit and my wisdom, and I learnt to speak for myself again. And even if it all implodes one day and ends up as a toxic puddle of offence making and taking, I will always be grateful for this.

 

The penguin in the stable

December 12, 2018 § 4 Comments

nativity

 

On my piano is my favourite Nativity scene. All of the usual suspects are there – Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, an assortment of angels – plus a mutant sheep and a penguin sporting a Santa hat.

The Nativity scene, you see, has been compiled from a collection of various figurines my children made when they were little, either as school projects, or during their brief flirtation with pottery.

The mutant sheep is so named because he’s bigger than Joseph. The penguin? Well, we felt he just fitted in the scene. It may not be the traditional way to depict the Nativity, and it probably wouldn’t warrant a magazine spread or an Instagram post, but it works for us.

I am unashamedly the very opposite of the Grinch. I love Christmas – I love to gather family and friends and feed them till they’re busting. I love to sing carols and play them in the car as I go about my December business. And while I hate shopping, I do love to find a gift that I know the recipient will love, and witness their delight when I’ve got it right.

But most of all, I love to decorate the house in red and green and silver and gold. I love putting up the Christmas tree with my daughters (with compulsory carols playing in the background). We giggle over the stickiness of the branches – let’s just say rock candy canes and Johannesburg heat are not good companions. We nervously wait for the lurching angel atop the tree to come crashing down. We hold our breath as we plug in the lights and wait for them to blink alive.

I’m told I have something of a tree ornament problem, but I promise I can quit any time. I still have the ornaments I made from bits and bobs in my flat many years ago, because I couldn’t afford to buy any decorations. I have treasured ornaments from a December trip to Athens, and a myriad tiny wooden trains and teddy bears given to me by a friend who died several years ago. I treasure my fat pink ballerina fairy and the matching fat Santa, and my elder daughter brought me a bauble and a twirling angel from Prague last year.

But my favourites, by far, are the stars and reindeer made from salt dough and paper, painted and daubed with glitter by small, fat fingers many years ago. They, and our strange little Nativity scene, remind me every year that Christmas isn’t about food or gifts or perfect decorating. It’s not about shopping and stress and maxing out your credit card.

No. For me, Christmas is a wondrous gift wrapped in twinkling lights. It’s about love and laughter, and friends and family, and most of all, about the memories you make.

Eulogy

December 5, 2018 § 4 Comments

When Shakespeare wrote Mark Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar, he wrote, “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” Today, we come to do the opposite for my dad. We are here to praise him. He was an honourable man and we are gathered here to celebrate his life and legacy.

As the messages of condolence and tribute have poured in via various channels, there has been one overriding theme: my father’s sense of humour. It seems to have been the thing that people most loved about him – his quick wit, droll comments and the ability to drop a terrible pun into any conversation.

So durable was his sense of humour, in fact, that two weeks ago when we all came to see him in ICU, and he was hooked up to a million monitors and tubes, at the height of his confusion and frailty, through slurred speech, he managed to direct a few rapier sharp quips at the nursing staff.

He raised us on The Goon Show and was a huge fan of Spike Milligan, which meant we all grew up with a very quirky sense of humour, to put it politely. I do recall that when I was at school, Spike Milligan came to PE to do a show at the Opera House and it was quite possibly one of the highlights of Dad’s life.

For weeks afterwards he would cackle to himself at odd moments, remembering some or other joke from the show. Or he’d suddenly pronounce, “There’s nobody here but us chickens, sir!” Then he’d laugh merrily, and carry on with whatever he was doing, while we wondered what on earth he was on about.

In his younger years, my father was a wonderful public speaker and a stalwart member of Toastmasters. Again his sense of humour stood him in good stead on the podium, helping to keep audiences engaged.

And when it was his turn to adjudicate other speakers, he loved nothing more than to take out an axe and place it pointedly on the table beside him as they were about to speak. He thought it was hilarious – I’m not sure they shared his sentiments!

His sense of humour was just one side of the coin, though. On the other was a man who took certain things very seriously – things like honesty, integrity, hard work and commitment.

When we were growing up, we knew exactly where the boundaries were, and what was expected of us. And while we all certainly had a few hidings in our time for overstepping the mark, the worst punishment, actually, was to hear the words, “I’m disappointed in you.” Nothing stung more than that.

Those very boundaries and his strong moral core, mixed with a good dollop of fun and lots of love, made him the wonderful father he was. We always had his support and he only ever wanted the best for all of us – that we should be happy, productive members of society, whatever path we chose.

As the eldest, I think I was expected to produce offspring first, but he never breathed a word for six long years after I got married. Not once did he put pressure on us about grandchildren, but when I called him to say I was pregnant with Tessa, all he said was, “Finally! I thought I was never going to get any grandchildren!” Today we have each produced two, and all six grandchildren are here today. He loved them all fiercely.

When our mother died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1985, my father was – understandably – at his lowest ebb. In the months that followed that terrible shock, I would come to understand what it means for someone to be ashen.My father’s face was literally grey with grief for what felt like an eternity.

And then he and Sandy started to forge a friendship and relationship, and the colour returned to his face. In what must surely be one of the greatest acts of bravery the world has ever witnessed, Sandy married not only my dad, but the three of us, aged 17, 14 and 11. And what a wonderful choice my father made, not only for us, but for himself.

Sandy has been the very opposite of a wicked stepmother, and the most devoted, loving wife a man could ever hope to have. If you ever needed a picture of what love looks like, you need only to have witnessed the way she cared for him for 32 years, and most especially, in the last year when his health deteriorated significantly.

It’s incredibly difficult to express just how grateful we are to Sandy for the way she looked after him, and how much we love her, when all we have are words.

Many years ago, I worked with a woman who remarked that you only really feel like a grown-up once both of your parents have died. The three of us, however, have been saved from this cruel fate, because while we have lost two parents now, we still have a third. And while most people feel blessed if they have one wonderful mother, we are lucky enough to have had two.

My father would want me to wrap this up now. He’d be caressing the axe handle if I were speaking at Toastmasters, so all I want to say in conclusion is that my father was a man of simple pleasures. He didn’t believe in having a cup of coffee all by itself, and besides a good buttermilk rusk, one of his favourite coffee accompaniments was an apricot jam sandwich.

So if you ever think of my dad, and wonder how to pay tribute to him, from time to time, toast him with a good cup of coffee and an apricot jam sandwich. And whenever you can, brighten someone’s day with a smile and a joke – the world can always do with a little more humour.

 

Leaving the cult of motherhood

October 31, 2018 § 1 Comment

We need to stop overthinking things. And one of the things we need to stop overthinking is parenting – mothering in particular.

I’m no sociologist, but my casual observation is that with the rise of social media, we’ve seen a rise in many mothers trying to do more, be more, have more – and all they’re doing is burning out. There’s almost a cult of motherhood that has arisen thanks to phenomena like ‘mommy blogging’ and Pinterest-inspired birthday parties, and I don’t think it’s doing anyone any good – not least, our children.

Of course, we do need to be good parents. Our job, as I see it, is to raise healthy, well-adjusted adults who will be functioning, contributing members of society. If you believe everything that’s written about millennials, then somewhere, we have gone horribly wrong.

So here are some bossy injunctions to some of the mothers coming up behind me. They are, of course, delivered in my mom voice, which is formidable. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. You don’t need about 80% of the stuff on that checklist in the baby magazine you’ve been poring over. Your baby needs somewhere safe to sleep, clothes, nappies, some basic toiletries and a few toys. Don’t overdo the clothes – they grow faster than you can ever imagine.
  2. Your child – at any age – does not need every item of clothing to be brand new. Swap with your friends because, again, they grow faster than you can ever imagine.
  3. Your child does not need to look like they just stepped off the pages of a glossy magazine. They need clothes that are comfortable, that they can move in, plus a hat for the sun and a raincoat for the rain. Small children and umbrellas are not a stellar combination – someone is likely to lose an eye.
  4. From about six months onwards, your baby doesn’t actually need food between dinner and breakfast – which means you can sleep train them. Find a method that works for you and grit your teeth for a week. It’s hard – but it won’t kill them. They are manipulative little sods even at that age, and they will try every trick in the book. But it’s not cruelty to insist that someone who can sleep, should. And if you do it at that age, they’ll be conditioned to sleep in later years.
  5. Like cats, children often prefer to play with the box. Don’t waste your money on the most expensive educational toy you’ve decided your child simply must have. The best toys are all around us – trees, parks, piles of leaves, mud, the contents of your Tupperware drawer, a pot and a wooden spoon, and so on.
  6. Remember that the baby joins your life – not the other way around. You don’t quite have to go all ‘children must be seen and not heard’ – but stop sacrificing your own life on the altar of being the perfect mother, for crying out loud. She doesn’t exist. Children need to know their place in the family – which is junior to the adults. A family is not a democracy – the adults are there to raise the children and they are the ones in charge. Be a good adult.
  7. Let your child get bored sometimes – and learn to sit through it. I’m talking about church services, or weddings, or speeches. It won’t do them any harm to learn to sit quietly for an hour or so once they’re five or so. Younger kids may need something to keep them busy, but make sure it’s analogue, and quiet – soft toys, a colouring book, or just a piece of paper and a pen will do the trick quite often. But they need to learn that there are times when you have to sit still and be quiet – even if you are bored stiff and the chair is uncomfortable.
  8. Boundaries are everything – and you have to enforce them even when you are tired and you’ve had enough and that child is pushing you again… Draw the line in the sand, and make very sure they know they may not transgress it. This is how we raise men in particular, who know without a shadow of a doubt, that ‘no’ means ‘no’.
  9. You may need to raise your voice sometimes – or at least change the tone to one that is stern and no-nonsense, so they know you mean business. If you always sounds sweet and kind they’re going to push their buttons. I’m not suggesting you scream hysterically at your children, or shout like some crazed lunatic (although some days…) but speak like you mean business – and then follow through.
  10. Consequences are key for undesirable behaviour – and they may have to be different depending on the child. I don’t agree with smacking children, but you do need to make them feel the impact of not behaving well. So while for your social child, being sent to their room might feel like the end of the world, for the introvert, it won’t be punishment at all. Think about what they love – something that’s a privilege – and remove. For a good long time. One of my daughters – whose greatest pleasure was TV – kept lying. We took TV away for two weeks, and she tells the truth now.
  11. When your child falls in the ordinary course of things – and I meant this literally and figuratively – allow them the opportunity to pick themselves up and carry on. Often they’ll get up without any fuss and run off to the next game. This is called resilience. We all need it. (Obviously I don’t mean serious falls that involve blood and loss of consciousness…)
  12. Limit screen time. Yes, your phone, tablet and the television are great babysitters, but you’re opting out of parenting. Children eat more when they eat in front of TV – and we have a childhood obesity epidemic on our hands. Those screens disrupt their sleep, keep them indoors so they don’t make enough Vitamin D, impact on their fine and gross motor co-ordination – the list is long. It’s not just scaremongering. You are doing your children a great disservice.
  13. Don’t let your kids get fat. You’ll set them up for lifelong weight problems. And that doesn’t mean you need to watch every morsel that goes into their mouths. Just do the basics – lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of water, lots of exercise, and portion control. Junk food is for birthday parties – it’s a treat, not an everyday occurrence. It’ll probably do you a whole lot of good too…
  14. Trust your gut – no one knows your kids as well as you do. If you think something is wrong, check it out. It’s better to be proved wrong than to ignore something you shouldn’t have.
  15. Finally, and most importantly, make sure your children know that you love them – even when they are driving you up the wall. Tell them you love them, often, and remind them that you are always there for them – no matter what they have done, and how much trouble they are in. Dole out plenty of affection, listen when they’ve had a bad day, and don’t put pressure on them to achieve anything other than their best.

Remember, your job is to provide a loving environment, guidance, boundaries, food, clothing and shelter. All of the rest is probably just making you tired.

Walk on the wild side

September 27, 2018 Comments Off on Walk on the wild side

I had accidentally shattered my phone screen. The phone was miraculously still working, but I didn’t want to tempt fate, and so I set off for a walk in the mountains without the umbilical cord that connects me to so much of my world.It was a cool morning, and a breeze carried the almost-silence to my ears. The sun had risen, but not yet crested the cliffs to my left. To my right, the just-waning moon sank into salmon-edged clouds, its bright night vigil ending at last.

I rounded a corner and sensed the herd of eland before I saw them. They, of course, had been aware of me for some time. Frozen in time, with their young ones gathered close, they stood and watched me, perfectly still, on high alert. A large male cleared his throat gruffly as I approached and they cantered as one to safer ground a little way off. On a slight rise nearby, a swart wildebeest stopped chewing for a moment to watch the herd move, then lowered his head again.

I strode on towards the overhang of “Holkrans” – a large, hollowed-out void in the sandstone mountain ahead. I paused on a rock, cellulited by millennia of weather beating, and listened. Somewhere I could hear water, underneath the dawn chorus. The ubiquitous hadeda wailed on the wing a short distance away. And then 10 birds of prey rose in tight formation from behind the cliffs and cruised across the sky, high above my head – near enough to count, but too far to identify. 

And I wondered how much of that I would have noticed if my phone were with me – if I were looking for the perfect post for Instagram, for Facebook, for Twitter.

Because as much as social media is part of our relaxation, it’s also work. And left unchecked, it can rob us of the very healing power of just being fully where we are at any particular moment, in immersing ourselves in the beauty of right here, right now.

I didn’t photograph the eland or the eagles or the impala I saw on the return journey. I didn’t struggle to focus on the minuscule white flowers that grew by the footpath. But I saw them all. I heard the birdsong, the water, the unmistakable bark of a baboon. I smelt the bush all around me. I trailed my hand over smooth boulders and through whispering grasses.

It happened, I was there, and that is enough.

Divorce isn’t the problem

September 21, 2018 § 3 Comments

My friend Cath remarked on Facebook yesterday how very uncomfortable people find it to talk about divorce. I found myself nodding my head as I scrolled through my feed. We do need to talk about it more, make it less uncomfortable, and be more honest about what it means, what it’s like, why it happens.

This morning, as I was engaged in my daily ritual of journalling, these thoughts arrived on the page. I share them with you as they spilled out – raw, unedited, unfiltered – as just a part of a much greater discussion, the beginning of a conversation, perhaps.

Sometimes I think divorce isn’t the problem – marriage is. Because society’s collectively held belief about marriage doesn’t give it space to have some flexibility, some looseness – it’s this all-or-nothing kind of arrangement.

And that is bound to set people up for failure, particularly when those people are anxious, deeply insecure and place their identity centre-stage in the court of what other people think.

Then it becomes about keeping up the facade, painting the idealised picture, rather than doing what works. Or just being honest – early – and saying, “This doesn’t work. How can we part peacefully?” And, if there are children involved, how do we co-parent and co-exist constructively?

Marriage needs a really big societal conversation. Less “happy ever after”, more “it’s going to be hard, much harder than you ever imagined”. Less “you have to make it work against all odds”. More “it’s okay to admit when it doesn’t work”. And definitely less pressure on people to get married.

The expectation that marriage provides stability for children is complete bullshit. It’s a legal transaction – nothing more, nothing less. And nothing makes you realise that more than divorce – which is essentially a financial separation of two people’s affairs.

The commitment you make is a separate issue – and can’t be governed by a religious or governmental body – the latter only really has power over the children you have together and your individual and joint responsibility as parents.

No, it’s that all-or-nothing, forever-together, till-death-do-us-part thing that sets up the divorce problems. Because there are all kinds of very good reasons for people to call it a day, to say, “I have given this my very best shot, but it’s just not working.” And the problem is that the pressure means most people do that too late – and then you get the train wreck and the damage that ensues.

The more I think about it, the more I think marriage is a very strange, often deeply dysfunctional institution, and yet it’s held up as something to aspire to, something to hang on to by all means necessary, and for many, this comes at an enormous personal cost that has nothing to do with money.

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