A little help from my friends

July 30, 2014 § 4 Comments

Sometimes I wonder where we got the idea that we all have to be so independent, so self-sufficient. That asking for help is a sign of weakness, or a deficit of some sort.

I’m guilty of this myself – ask me for help and I’ll jump in with both feet, do whatever it is you need, or find you the right person to help you if I can’t. I’ve even been known to help people with stuff they didn’t know they needed help with, before they needed the help. Yes, yes, I know that’s called interfering… I’m working on my saviour complex, I promise.

When I have a problem, though, my default setting is to try and fix it myself. Or it was, until my very wise coach and mentor, Judy Klipin, put it like this: “Letting people help you is letting them love you.”

I liked the sound of that. So I’ve started asking for help in big and small ways from people, and it’s been an astonishing journey.

Because I think that what many of us have lost, especially in the big cities, is a sense of community. Certainly I don’t pop next door for a cup of sugar anymore the way we did when I was growing up. I’m ashamed to say I barely know my neighbours. I haven’t made full use of my ‘village’ to raise my children – I pay babysitters or cart my kids along with me, or just stay home.

Learning to ask for help has opened my eyes to the community of people I have around me who are more than happy to do something for someone else, including the someone else that is me.

But the second thing I’ve learnt, is this: no-one expects me to do something equal in return. I think that’s a misconception many of us have: that if you give my child a lift home from school today, I must do the same for you as soon as possible so that the balance sheet is restored; so that no-one feels beholden.

No. That’s simply not true. Instead there’s a tacit swings-and-roundabouts understanding: that someday, somewhere down the line, you’ll need my help with something, and I’ll offer it, not because I owe you, but because that’s what decent human beings do.

Our community might not be the people on our block anymore – our networks are more scattered, often virtual, and they rise above the physical, geographic boundaries of walls, and towns, highways and byways. But that community is still there, and it’s ready to spring into action.

All we have to do, is ask.



I don’t need an opera

July 23, 2014 § 2 Comments

If you follow me on social media, you’ll know I am the self-appointed chief groupie of Lionel Bastos, musician, singer, producer and songwriter extraordinaire. And one of the reasons I love Lionel’s music so much, is his soulful lyric-writing. He doesn’t write about shaking your ass down at the club, yo. Instead his lyrics often tell a story, make you swoon at their romance, elicit a belly laugh, or even make you cry. They are that beautiful, that well-crafted.

A recent discovery for me is one of his older songs, Simple, off his award-winning album of the same name. At first, I wasn’t sure I liked it (sorry, Lionel) but it has grown on me, I’m pleased to report. It’s a song about writing a song for someone else, someone who likes to keep things… you guessed it… simple! The recipient asks the writer “Where’s my song?”, followed by these words, which have gone round and round in my head since I heard them:

“I don’t want a symphony/I don’t need any wise quotes/You don’t need more than five notes/I don’t want an opera”

I think those words have resonated with me because over the last while I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about stuff, about how much the world revolves around us accumulating stuff, and how little stuff we really need. And somehow, as I’ve hummed along to Lionel’s song in my car, somehow those words have changed in my head to: “I don’t need an opera.”

And I don’t. I really don’t. Increasingly, the things that are more important to me are the intangibles like laughter, fun, creativity, thoughtfulness, kindness and love. More and more I value a hug, a good sleep, an out-of-the-blue phone call from a friend. Because the rest of it is all just stuff, or as the Afrikaans language puts it, “wêreldse goed” [worldly/earthly things].

In the western world in particular, our stuff is consuming us. We live as if the things we own define us. We hoard and accumulate and acquire at an alarming rate. We’ve forgotten how to share, how to re-use, how to re-purpose. We just throw things away and buy new ones. And in the process, somewhere along the way we threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and forgot how to be human.

And that’s why children are being killed and maimed in Gaza, why our rubbish is throttling the seas and the skies above us, why so many are dying of starvation.

Because for the ‘haves’ it’s all about getting, not giving, and they don’t care who or what is destroyed in the process. As long as they have their stuff, the rest of the world can go to hell.



All in the framily

July 17, 2014 § 8 Comments

I came across a wonderful term the other day: framily. I forget who coined it, so please forgive me if I’m plagiarising. But it’s a term that describes those friends who feel like family – in a positive way, not the annual-bickering-at-the-Christmas-table kind of way.

Cherish those people. Because, believe me, when the chips are down, they are the ones who will stand by you, cry with you, pick you up off the floor, put up with tears and snot and the ugly cry, help you carry furniture, bring you a meal, send you a picture to make you smile, or just buy you a cup of coffee and give you a hug. I’ve realised this week how big my framily is, and it has completely overwhelmed me.

So even if you only have one person in your life like that, cherish them. And be their framily when they need you.


Everyday abundance

July 9, 2014 § 9 Comments

A few things came together in my head this past week and culminated in me bathing every day.

It’s not what you think. Of course I was already bathing every day, in case you’re concerned about my hygiene, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about bathing as an activity for the sheer pleasure of it. All of which means I now bath twice a day, but my evening bath is the pleasurable one.

It started like this. A friend admonished me gently for always mothering everybody around me and not doing anything to nurture myself. “I would,” I retorted, “if I knew what to do.”

It occurred to me that one of the things I love to do is read. My lifelong habit has been to read just before I go to sleep, but these days I find I’m so tired that I read a paragraph or two before the words begin to swim on the page. So I read very little for pleasure and I needed to fix that.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the fact that there is too much stuff in my life. I need less stuff, I’ve decided. I need to simplify, pare back and streamline my life a little. Of course, I didn’t mean my bank account, but it decided to revolt against me and I found myself flat, flat broke. Stoney broke. As broke as broke can be.

And then, as a result of a blog I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I remembered I had Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Romancing the Ordinary in my bedside table drawer. I’ve dipped into it periodically over the last couple of years, but never read it properly. And I love her approach – that there is simple abundance all around us, if we just pause from time to time to notice it.

So there I was, lying in the bath on Saturday morning, joyfully wallowing in Sarah’s words, when two of her mini-essays converged into one in my mind – one about the need for small rituals in our lives, and another about the joy of bathing. There and then I decided I would bath more. Every day, in fact. And I would bath in the dead time between packing the dishwasher after dinner and when my girls go to bed. That would be my daily ritual. That would be my me time.

So for three or four evenings in a row now, I’ve headed to the bathroom and run a hot bath. For 45 minutes or so, I’ve lain there in the steamy surrounds, absorbed in a book, until the water begins to cool and it’s time for a quick lather, rinse and towel dry. And it may be the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

Because when I emerge I have washed away the grime of the day both physically and mentally. I am restored. I’m warm. I’m comfortable. I’m relaxed. I’m reading more than I have in ages. And that makes me very, very happy.

And it just goes to show that you don’t need to go to a spa or on a fancy holiday to relax. You don’t have to buy that thing that you think will make you feel better. You don’t have to spend a cent.

You can walk barefoot on the grass, take a long bath, or play in the garden or a park with a small child – and I mean really play. You can borrow books from a library, swap DVDs with friends, eat your office lunch on a bench in the sunshine, take off your shoes and splash in the puddles or squelch through mud. The options are limited only by your imagination.

Opportunities for a little relaxation and fun are all around us, in abundance. All it requires is a little creativity, a little attention, a little thought.

Good enough

July 2, 2014 § 8 Comments

I had a long conversation with a friend yesterday about my tendency to put myself down, see myself as unworthy, engage in negative self-talk… whatever you like to call it. And then not 24 hours after our conversation I casually mentioned that it’s my daughter’s birthday tomorrow and I’m only doing the birthday shopping this afternoon. And I immediately labelled myself as a bad mom. Again.

That kind of talking has become my default inner conversation over the years, although I’ve been working hard to improve it, I promise. But even my children catch me doing it now and whack me on the arm if I start. There are days when I’m very bruised, I can tell you.

I know I’m not alone. I know there are many of us whose chief superpower is self-flagellation, preferably with a cat o’ nine tails, and several times a day. We make mistakes and immediately label ourselves as defective in some way. We’re a bad parent, bad at our job, a bad friend, sibling, spouse.

I lamented my failure as a mother and my friend immediately replied: “You’ll get it today. You see? You call yourself a bad mom when you still have a day to get her a present. Stop it.” And he was quite right. (And we all need friends like that.) There are good reasons why I haven’t yet bought her a present – I had a house full of relatives the whole of last week; she gave me the list of things she wanted very late; I’ve had a punishing schedule at work. Those are just three things that come to mind.

Also, it’s not her birthday yet, and I’ve set aside time to go shopping this afternoon. Chances are excellent that she will wake up to presents and cake tomorrow morning. And even if I didn’t get her something by tomorrow, does my failure to buy her a present make me a bad mother? Of course not. It’s hardly child abuse.

So where does this come from? Well, partly it must come from my past, I guess. People said things about me that I believed. I can recall specific instances over my life where I was told by others that I was a failure, lacking talent, useless. We all can. And if I’m honest, some of those people may have been accurate, even if their criticism wasn’t entirely constructive.

But I also have to take responsibility, because I believed them, even when the evidence was to the contrary. Even when I knew they were lashing out in anger or spite or jealousy. Somehow their words still had the power to poke holes in my confidence even though probably an equal number of people were telling me the polar opposite – that I had talents. That I had worth. That I could do anything I set my mind to.

Add to that mix a healthy dose of perfectionism, though, and you have a recipe for disaster. Because until very recently I’d forgotten how competitive I am; how I wear perfectionism like an irksome boulder that I’ve become accustomed to lugging around with me. I like to win. I like to be the best. But the problem is that when I’m not the best, the self-flagellation kicks in big time, with some gratuitous tar-and-feathering on the side. Because it’s all or nothing, you understand. If I’m not the best, then clearly, I’m the worst.

So here’s what I’m aiming to do now. I’m giving up trying to be the best. I’m lowering my standards. I’m lowering my expectations of myself. I will not attempt to be the perfect wife, mother, sibling, friend, daughter, employee. From now on (and possibly only for the next ten minutes, but it’s a start) I’m aiming to be good enough. I am completely and utterly over trying to be superwoman.

What does that mean? Well, there might be dishes in the sink when you come over, but you’ll still get a cup of tea and a hug, and a jolly good natter. There might be toasted sandwiches for dinner sometimes instead of meat and two veg. I might phone you a day or two late for your birthday if I forget to do so on the day. I might be late to pick my kids up from school sometimes. And the world, I’m told, will continue to spin on its axis.

Because I suspect that’s the way to achieve some kind of contentment. If I lower my expectations of myself, I won’t have as many failings to beat myself up about. And then maybe, just maybe, I can start saying and believing the good things about myself without feeling like some kind of fraud.

Where Am I?

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