Love letters straight from the heart

September 24, 2014 § 5 Comments

Sunday afternoons in the household of my childhood ran to a predictable routine. After a roast lunch and a mountain of dishes, we all settled into compulsory stillness for an hour or two.

My father would go and nap, we three children were required to go to our rooms and do something quiet, and my mother would sit at the dining room table and write to my grandmother and an assortment of other relatives and friends.

I was an erratic letter writer, but I loved to receive letters, especially from my grandmother. Her copperplate handwriting made every word seem like a celebration, and she always signed her letters off ‘with oceans of love’.

There was little to compare to the thrill of skipping down the cement pathway to the letterbox and finding a small white envelope, addressed to me, nestling among the accounts and pamphlets that demanded my parents’ attention. A letter meant someone had thought of me. Someone had taken the time to sit down and tell me a story; to weave words together, by hand, for me and me alone.

I miss the gentle art of letter writing. Sure, we have emails and text messages and social media, and they have their place, but they’re too immediate, too ethereal, here today and gone tomorrow.

A letter is something you can hold in your hand. You can fold and unfold it, smooth it out, see the faint indentations of the words on the preceding page, and the spot where the writer’s pen was being a bit scratchy or ran out completely.

A letter takes time to write. It takes effort to post: to address the envelope, place the stamp, find a post box. It takes time to arrive, which means a delicious sense of expectation if you know it’s coming, or of complete surprise if you don’t. In a world that’s all about instant gratification, that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

My daughter is away on a school camp for two weeks without her cell phone and she has no way to communicate with the family except via old-fashioned letter writing. Tomorrow the school will take delivery of letters from us and ferry them out to the camp, and I have a fat envelope of letters for her from various family members and friends, ready to be sealed and dropped off.

I am (possibly unreasonably) excited about the envelope, but to me it looks like a treasure trove of textures, handwriting, ink and words that are all there for the same purpose: to tell her we love her. No doubt they will make her cry a little, and possibly feel a bit homesick, but I also think they will affirm her, because they are a wonderful display of people making an effort, making time to do something just for her.

And that’s why I treasure the few letters I still receive; the handwritten notes and cards, even if they’re just a few words. Because they tell me that someone was thinking about me, just me, and that is a very precious thing.


The courage to be me

September 17, 2014 § 16 Comments

For quite a long while, I lost myself. I completely forgot who I was.

I forgot that I was once a girl with options. A girl who could pick and choose from a number of possible destinies. A girl who was good at a whole lot of stuff – just as long as it didn’t involve throwing, catching or hitting a ball, or running with any grace or stamina. A girl who knew her limitations, but who also knew she had great potential. A girl with dreams. Big dreams.

One day I woke up and realised I had lost that girl. She was buried far beneath the labels I’d acquired. Mandy – the essential part of Mandy – was gone.

The difficult part of that realisation was the sense of deep disappointment. Because I knew the potential I’d had, but I had failed to live up to my own expectations. I had allowed others to shape my life, my destiny. I had allowed other people’s words and ideas and world-views to have such an impact on my life’s journey that I couldn’t even find the road anymore.

I had lost all confidence in myself, in my abilities, in my worth as a human being. And in case that’s difficult to understand, here’s some of what that looks like:

  • avoiding photographs because all I could see was a fat, ugly lump.
  • taking work I didn’t really want to do, often at a laughably low rate – because I completely undervalued myself.
  • constantly putting myself down.
  • assuming every compliment paid to me was just someone else trying to be nice – they couldn’t really mean it.
  • allowing people to patronise me and treat me like I was stupid.
  • volunteering to do all kinds of things I didn’t really want to do, because I thought those things were expected of me.
  • never asking for help and turning down offers of help when they came, because I didn’t really deserve help.
  • not trying anything new for fear of making a fool of myself.
  • believing every negative message I heard about myself, and assuming the positive messages were just polite lies.

It wasn’t pretty. And it took many months of work with a life coach before I started  feeling vaguely like myself again, like that girl with promise. For too many years I was just too busy being the girl I thought everyone else expected me to be.

It’s taken a great deal of courage for me to finally begin standing up for myself. To rock the boat. To not be the good girl, the typical eldest child, the deputy head girl, the supermom.

Being me means being willing to take a few more risks, relinquish control, let people down, fail from time to time. It means letting go of perfectionism. It means putting on my big girl panties and rolling with whatever the future holds, because you don’t reach your destination without going on a journey first, and journeys sometimes feature potholes and detours along the way.

So I will write. I will sing. I will crack my appallingly bad jokes. I will love and cook with wild abandon. I will teach and coach and get back into public speaking. I will wear the clothes that please me. I will welcome my friends into my heart and my home whether they need food or lodging, or just tea and sympathy. I will cry, dammit, and ask for help when I need it. And I will not ask for permission.

I’m not perfect – not by any stretch of the imagination – but I am perfectly me. And that’s all I need to be.


In defence of nudity

September 10, 2014 § 7 Comments

I never thought I would ever have the image of a severed human head seared onto my brain. Two severed heads, actually.

One day, after a particularly nasty racist attacked me on Twitter, I made the mistake of clicking on his avatar. A severed head of a black person popped up on my screen, the eyes blankly staring off the frame. I nearly vomited. And then, scrolling through my timeline the other day, I saw that someone had posted a news report of a child who had walked into a village carrying a severed head. That was bad enough, but there was a picture accompanying the report and again, I was sickened by what I saw.

Post any kind nudity on social media, however, and anyone who tries to click on it will be confronted with all kinds of warnings and banners about the explicit nature of the image, just because it contains a penis or a pair of breasts? Just the other day a friend tried to post a story on Facebook about what real women’s breasts look like, without the aid of Photoshop or plastic surgery. Facebook would not allow it, thanks to 100 pictures of women’s naked breasts in all their splendour. Because heaven forbid we see an image of a naked body. Gasp.

Look, I know that there are lines here: that people may have issues around pornography and children and so on. But whether you like it or not, your children are going to be exposed to that stuff . I’ve interviewed enough experts in this area over the years to know that if you want your children to have a healthy awareness of their bodies and of sex, you need to educate them, and you need to do it early – when they’re three or four. You may not like the idea, but those in the know are all agreed.

The internet cannot be contained, you see, but your children can. You can teach them to love and respect their bodies, about good sexual health, and you can be aware of what they are watching on TV or doing on the internet. It’s called parenting.

But that’s not really what concerns me around this issue. My concern is the idea, that somehow, images of graphic violence are okay, and nudity is not. It’s not enough to tell us a boy walked into a village carrying a severed head – we have to be shown the picture too. We need to see the pictures of bloodied children who’ve been butchered in one of the world’s war-torn areas. When there’s been a fatal car accident, we need to see the body lying in the road.

I’m a journalist, and I understand the need to tell the stories of atrocities, not just to sell newspapers or generate web traffic, but because most journalists truly care about these things. They wish they didn’t have to report on them, but they know that if they don’t, a lot of people would get away with murder, both literally and figuratively. I get that. I really do.

But I think we’ve crossed a line here. When a boy arrives in a village carrying a severed human head, we should be focusing on the boy, not the head. On the why and how of that story. On who the poor soul is who died. We don’t need to see the head. Some things are better left to the imagination, and with any luck, your imagination won’t know exactly what it’s dealing with.

It’s a dichotomy that disturbs me. I think we’ve lost our way a little. And frankly, I’d rather let my children be exposed to some good, healthy nudity. I’d rather that they – and I – see a million naked bodies, all shapes, sizes and colours, and in all their magnificent, unique, and varied splendour, than to ever have to see one severed head.

Let’s talk about death, baby

September 2, 2014 § 5 Comments

I attended my first funeral when I was 16. It was my mother’s, and I had no idea what to expect. She died suddenly, unexpectedly and it’s probably one of the biggest shocks I’ve ever experienced.

It took me years to work through the denial stage of grief: 10 to 15 years later I was still having recurring dreams where I would bump into her somewhere and discover that she hadn’t really died, she’d just left because she needed a break, some time away.

Just before my first child was born, 15 years ago now, my friend Neville died after a long battle with cancer. I stood at his bedside with his wife and some mutual friends, and watched as he slowly, peacefully slipped away. One minute he was there, and the next he was not, and it was honestly one of the most moving, beautiful things I have ever witnessed. This time, there was no denial at all – I had seen him die with my own eyes.

It reminded me of an ossuary I once visited in an alpine village in Austria. I forget the village’s name, but it was built on a steep incline, overlooking a magnificent lake, and was a wonderland of warren-like cobbled passages and pathways, so quaint that it felt unreal, as though Walt Disney had built it as a film set.

The ossuary was in a smallish building beside the church, filled with rows of skulls and bones neatly packed onto shelves, the skulls decorated with a motif and the deceased person’s name. And it wasn’t ghoulish in any way. There was a strange peace about the place.

Our guide recalled that her childhood friend’s father was the person tasked with painting the skulls. “He would stand at a window overlooking the lake and talk to the skull as if the person were still there, while we played nearby,” she said. “We didn’t think it odd; we weren’t frightened by seeing the skull. Death was a normal part of life.”

Perhaps it’s a feature of western culture, but I think this is where many of us go wrong: we shield our children from death, and we avoid talking about it ourselves. It frightens us, so we prefer to not even think about it. We are seldom there when our loved ones die: one minute they’re alive, and the next they’re enclosed in a coffin.

Death has been sanitised to a large degree; obscured from view, except in graphic images of bloodied bodies on TV newsreels and crime series. It’s such an imbalance: by and large, we are simply not exposed to ordinary, everyday death. It’s no longer allowed to be the yin of our everyday yang. And so, when it does happen to us – and it will – it’s such an enormous shock that we are left reeling.

I’m not suggesting that we expose our children to an array of dead bodies at every opportunity, or insist on an open coffin at every funeral, but I do think it’s important to stop trying to pretend that death doesn’t exist. That it only happens to other people.

Because grief is as much a part of life as joy is. That’s normal, natural and right, no matter how many happy-ever-after stories you tell yourself. We need one to fully appreciate the other. We need the lows to enjoy the highs.

Death isn’t some aberrant, exceptional event, after all. It may be sudden, sure, or a shock, but it’s a perfectly normal part of life. It’s time we started treating it as such.

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