10 things I want my daughters to know

May 28, 2014 § 14 Comments

My darling girls,

Sometimes I want to tell you things about life that I suspect you’re not ready to hear yet. But someday you might be, so here are a few things I’ve learned, and am still learning, which I hope will help you some day.

1. I will never love anybody the way I love you. Even when I’m angry with you, or tired and grumpy, or yelling at you to do your homework or hang up your towel, I love you with every cell in my body.

2. The world really is your oyster, and you are already magnificent pearls. I look at you every day – every freaking day – and marvel at how strong and beautiful you are. Yes, you’re both beautiful on the outside, but that’s not what interests me. You both have beautiful minds, beautiful souls, beautiful hearts. You make me so proud that the tears well in my eyes and my chest wants to explode with the intensity of it. I can barely believe I had anything to do with creating such splendid human beings.

3. You have weaknesses. But it’s okay, because so does everyone else. We all have them, and it’s part of what makes us interesting. Don’t dwell on them. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t waste energy lamenting them. Be honest with yourself by all means, but work on those you can improve, forget the rest and focus instead on your strengths. Because you have far more of those, and they are what will propel you through life. Be proud of your strengths, don’t squander them, and use your powers for good.

4. You don’t know everything (despite what your adolescent brains believe). You never will. Stay curious, ask questions, investigate and question everything. Don’t take things at face value – find out for yourself, and life will be an endless adventure.

5. You will make mistakes – it’s unavoidable, and it’s how we learn. Learn the lesson, and keep going. It’s character-building, and it makes you interesting.

6. No matter how well you plan, things go wrong. But that’s how memories are made. Stay calm, and focus on what’s really important. Because the way you respond to life’s curveballs will make all the difference to your emotional wellbeing.

7. The world doesn’t owe you anything. Work your butt off to get what you want, and don’t give up. Things take longer to come to fruition than you think they do. There is no magic bullet. It will be hard, but it will also be worth it when you get there.

8. Travel and read at every opportunity. Those two activities will teach you more than any university can ever teach you. That’s how you get an education. That’s how you expand your mind.

9. Be kind and gentle. It applied in playschool, and it applies equally in the adult world. Life is hard for many people – a kind word and a gentle touch go a long way.

10. Have fun. Lawdie, this is important. Life is about balance – and what’s the point if you aren’t enjoying it? Make friends, do silly stuff, laugh often. That’s what adds the colour to life. That’s what makes it sing.

I love you.



Divided attention

May 21, 2014 § 13 Comments

I had to attend a funeral last week, one of those where someone has died far too young under gut-wrenching circumstances, and the funeral was a just a bedraggled collection of broken, bewildered people with nothing but questions on their lips.

I sat in the pew in a chapel that seemed too bright and sunny for the sombreness of the occasion. My insides were twisted, gnarled at the pain in evidence all around me. I listened to heartbreaking eulogies, and flinched at the desolate wail of a seven-year-old who just wanted her daddy back. Until the pastor stood up to preach, and the bile rose in my throat and threatened to choke me.

He smiled beatifically, encouraging those present not to mourn, but to celebrate that the person we’d gathered to commemorate was in a better place. That he was whole, and happy and waiting for us to join him someday.

It angers me every time I hear this – I’ve been at funerals where people were practically dancing on the grave of the person who died in “celebration” that they were in a better place. And it angers me because funerals are not for the dead. They are for the living. They’re for the people left behind who have a person-shaped hole in their lives, a hole no-one will ever be able to fill.

We need to be a little selfish at funerals. We need to be comforted. To be held. To be rocked and cossetted and heard. Deep down inside most of us know that we’ll be okay, that things will work out in the end, but on that day we need to grieve, to lament, to feel really sorry for ourselves. We don’t care that the person who’s died may or may not be in a better place. We just want them back.

And so, as he preached, I seethed in my seat, wanting desperately to administer a sharp slap to his simpering face on behalf of my friends, who cried silently in the front row.

And then he took my anger to a whole new level. Halfway through the sermon he reached into his pocket, pausing mid-sentence to pull out his cellphone and check his messages. He placed it on the lectern where he could keep an eye on it, poking at it from time to time. And, having pronounced the blessing, he stood on the podium, tapping on the screen to answer his messages while a family member ran through a list of thank yous.

It took every ounce of self-restraint I possess not to stand up in my seat and yell at him to put his f*cking phone away. Every ounce. What on earth is wrong with people? How has it come to this?

That man’s complete lack of respect for the bereaved, for the situation, for his office as a minister, gave me pause. It made me think about how tethered I am to my smartphone. It made me worry anew about society as a whole, myself included. Do we really not know how to be out in the world without staring at our phones, answering messages, taking pictures, Instagramming, tweeting, or posting to Facebook? Do we even remember how to make eye contact? How to experience something without putting a smartphone inbetween us and it?

I know someone who leaves his phone at home or in the car while if he’s having a cup of coffee with you, or grabbing a bite to eat. While he’s with you, he’s unavailable to everyone else, and focused on you – only you.

That’s something we can all learn from. That’s something I’m trying to remember. That I don’t have to be instantly available to others simply because technology makes it possible. That my smartphone is for my convenience, not yours. That nine times out of ten, a response is not required immediately. And that it’s far more important to be fully present when I’m with others and to give them my undivided attention.

I haven’t quite got it right, but I’m trying. So if you need to get hold of me, do leave a message. I’ll get back to you.


Effortless harmony

May 18, 2014 § 1 Comment

When I was a student, in the late 1980s, I was lucky enough to attend a church service that lasted just over four and a half hours.

Yes, lucky.

There was nothing grand about the building or its Christians. It took place on a Sunday morning in a township just outside Grahamstown in a hot, humble tin church, furnished with simple wooden benches and a lectern. No stained glass windows, no soaring pipe organ, no columns or frescoes or hangings. And yet, one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever visited.

For those of you who aren’t South African, one of apartheid’s strategies was to sequester non-white people into townships, or ‘locations’ as they used to be known – far enough away from the centre of towns and cities so they didn’t ‘blot’ the landscape of white utopia, but close enough to commute and provide cheap labour. And it was in one of these townships that I attended the church service.

I remember marvelling at the children. Anyone who wasn’t a babe in arms sat upright on those benches for the duration of the service. There was no fidgeting, no distraction, no passing of notes or poking each other in the ribs. They sat dead still, long after I began to tire in the heat and dust, attentive and participating in all of the singing.

And there was a lot of singing.

There were the usual hymns and songs, sung in glorious, rich, multi-part harmony, and completely a capella. Every time someone agreed with the minister, instead of calling out their agreement, they would stand up and burst into song. The entire congregation would rise, sing its full-throated agreement, sit down again and the sermon would resume. You can see why the service took so long. And I loved every minute.

It’s one of the things I love about South Africans. We sing when we’re happy, we sing when we’re sad, we sing when we’re angry. Sometimes we sing purely for the joy of being together. I did a workshop at a school recently where the choirmistress told me that at the beginning of every school day, the whole school gathered in the quad to sing: I wish every day could start like that.

Because for much of my life I sang in choirs, and for me the best part was never the performance, but the moment when, having gone to separate rooms to learn our parts, we would reconvene and for the first time hear the glorious whole in all its intricacy and beauty.

And that is my wish for this still-fractured, still-scarred country. The glorious whole, the effortless harmony, the soaring heights I know we can achieve if we just remember how to sing.

Note: this post was inspired by the tweet below:


Making space

May 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

I should not be writing this blog post.

I’ve just returned from a meeting with someone who wants his book edited. I have another book to write by the end of August. I need to send my own novel out to do the slush pile sashay and a recipe book sitting at an e-publisher that I really must follow up on. I have a couple of small bloggy-type pieces to write for one of my clients. I have a business writing course to design. I’m hatching a plot to record some of my songs, and writing new ones in what feels like a mad frenzy. I want to do a life coaching course, but I haven’t had time to look for one. My office is a disaster. My home admin is non-existent. I don’t have the time to write this blog post.

And I am as happy as the proverbial pig in mud.

A little over a year ago I sat in Judy Klipin’s office and sobbed for an hour. I was burnt out – physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. I think I probably sobbed for most of the first four or five sessions while Judy listened and passed the tissues.

At some point I remember her asking me what my ideal working life would look like, and I answered that I’d like to be writing books, predominantly. I didn’t mind doing a bit of journalism, but I loved the substantial body of work that a book gives one, the sense of achievement when you hold it in your hand. I’d like to continue teaching writing as well, I said. I love seeing someone’s face light up when they finally get it.

So, look at my to-do list again. Admin and tidying aside, largely I’m doing everything I want to do, and more. And the songwriting is just the lushest, plumpest, darkest, juice-running-down-your-chin cherry on the cake. Nothing makes me happier than producing a song I’m proud of.

How did I get here? By making space. With Judy’s help I put down all the things that weren’t serving me, all those things that were draining the life out of me, that I was doing out of a sense of duty or guilt or any number of other negative emotions.

I’ve had a fallow period since I did that, one where having nothing to occupy me in the evenings has been the weirdest sensation on earth. Because I’m a doer. Like my grandmother, I always have Things To Do.

But now, after a long recovery period and plenty of time to think and ruminate and plot and plan, I feel like I’m back. Like I’m me. I’m starting to dress like me again, I’m thinking like me, I’m speaking like me, I’m doing the things I like to do. And mostly importantly, I’m giving myself the space – the permission – to be whoever I want to be. It scares the hell out of me, but I’m doing it anyway.

And that, dear friends, is the very best feeling in the world.

Mother’s Day musings

May 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

It’s almost the end of another Mother’s Day here, and I’ve spent most of it feeling incredibly blessed by the children I’m privileged to raise.

Mother’s Day is always a bittersweet time for me; my own mother died when I was 16, so inevitably my thoughts turn to her and there’s still a bit of a pang, even after all these years.

But spare a thought today for those whose Mother’s Day isn’t some picture-perfect chocolate-box, Hallmark-ordained day.

Those who’ve recently lost a mother, or the mothers who’ve lost a child. Those who are estranged from their mothers, or whose mothers lie desperately ill in hospital. Those who long to have a child, but cannot, for reasons beyond their control. Those whose children are missing, or terminally ill, or lost to addiction. Those who sit in the threadbare chairs of the old age home, twisting gnarled hands in their laps, hoping desperately that this year, their children will pop in for a visit or pick up the phone and call.

I know what it’s like to lose a mother. The loss of that bond leaves a wound that closes slowly, and when it finally closes, the scar is always there, even if it fades with time.

So tread carefully if your Mother’s Day is a happy one. There’s no need to be in sackcloth and ashes, of course, but be sensitive. Remember that others might be finding it painful, and might need some extra love or affection.

Reach out to them. Put a hand on their shoulder, hug them tight and close. Wipe away the tears that well in their eyes. And understand that being – and having – a mother is a privilege and a blessing to be cherished.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Brolly folly

May 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

Look, I’m just going to go right ahead and be all controversial. I hope you will forgive me. It’s an unpopular opinion, but I feel it has to be said: umbrellas are the most useless rain gear mankind has ever invented.

I know. You’re feeling shocked and confused. Why would I say such a thing? Why would I shake the very foundations of culture in places like Britain? Why would I attack the humble brolly?

Well, because it’s stupid.

First, umbrellas are completely ill-equipped to deal with wind. What’s with that? Rain and wind are best friends – they love to go down to the shops on the same day that you do, especially when you’ve parked in the furthest parking bay from the entrance. And all your umbrella can say is “Whoop! Time to turn inside out and be utterly useless!”

Then, at the risk of sounding like someone who says “they just don’t make things like they used to,” they just don’t make things like they used to. My mother had an avocado green umbrella that she’d bought as a student, which was in perfect nick until the day I lost it somewhere in Grahamstown when I was a student. It’s probably still going strong.

Modern umbrellas? Bah, humbug. They last three months at most before the spokes come out of this little thingummies at the end or the opening mechanism fails completely and they hang like a limp, wet plastic bag around your ears.

I suspect, at umbrella factories around the world, executives around the world meet at least weekly to slap each other in the backs and laugh at us. “They’re still buying them!” they screech, wiping tears of mirth from their well-fed, florid faces. “The saps are still buying them!”

Third, they’re a hazard, particularly when I’m carrying one. Seriously, avoid me. You’re likely to lose an eye. Maybe two. I’m surprised Health and Safety hasn’t devised umbrella safety goggles for the rain-braving public. In fact, I might invent them and take out a patent next week. At least then I’d have a good reason for carrying an umbrella – it would be part of my business strategy.

But finally, and perhaps most importantly, even in the most ideal of rains – the rain that falls gently, and perfectly vertically, they don’t keep you dry. And that is their sole purpose. They only have one job.

Sure, your head and shoulders might stay dry, but everything else is wet on a scale from damp to sodden. Just try walking with an umbrella through driving rain that’s coming in at a slight angle and you’ll see.

So I’m starting a lobby to bring back raincoats. The kind with a hood that roll up into a compact package, not the kind that flashers use to show off their, um, package, obviously. This is not some smutty campaign. No sirree.

Down with umbrellas, I say. And up with raincoats. (Except if you’re a flasher.) At least that way we get to keep our eyes.

Unexpected lessons

May 7, 2014 § 5 Comments

My daughters and I have just returned from an 11-day road trip across South Africa. We travelled about 3 500km in total, and it was wonderful bonding time.

Travel, they say, broadens the mind, even if it’s within the borders of your own country, so here are some of the lessons I learned, in no particular order:

1. South Africa still owns my heart. From the beautiful coastline and staggering mountains, to its broad plains and scrubby savannah, it owns me. Because quite apart from its natural beauty, it is filled with the most amazing, beautiful, pig-headed, funny, chaotic, interesting people. And for me, it’s all about the people.

2. There are more good people in the world than bad. We need to stop allowing the minority to to ruin it for the good folk. Start talking to strangers (yes, even you, Capetonians). Get involved. Make friends. Get to know people. If you don’t, you’ll be missing out.

3. To view a partial solar eclipse, it is not advisable to stare at the sun with the naked eye. (This is a lesson I keep having to learn.)

4. Once you’ve recovered from looking at the sun, you can use the dappled light through the leaves of a bush to create a kind of pinhole camera that will project the image of the eclipse onto a sheet of paper, or even your hand. It’s like magic.

5. Rediscovering childhood paths is a bittersweet experience. Your first love – the beautiful, blond boy who held your hand on those rocks at Storms River Mouth – is all grown up now, and so are you. And the bushes at your grandmother’s former house are bigger and more overgrown now, and you can’t walk all the way around the house on the concrete edging anymore without having to duck under them in places. But you will still remember where the chicken run and fruit trees used to be, even though she died when you were six.

6. Walking on the beach in the wind and rain will always be preferable to sitting on it for hours in the sweltering heat, and will top up your soul in ways you never expected.

7. There is nothing to compare with the feeling of wet sea sand between your toes.

8. Women wear far too much make-up. We should just give it up.

9. Some places are too beautiful to write songs in. You have to leave them and the special people they contain to conjure up the right balance of melancholy and longing. Or I do, anyway, and it hurts a little.

10. It is possible to be allergic to potatoes.

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