Hello and goodbye

November 26, 2014 § 10 Comments

I have a thing about saying goodbye. Don’t think you can just disappear without saying goodbye to me. I’ve been known to run down the road after people; to phone them back just to say goodbye when a call drops. I will always seek you out at a party and take my leave properly.

You see, one afternoon when I was 16, my mother dropped me off at a choir practice on the other side of town. I bounced out of the car, a careless goodbye flung over my shoulder, and ran into the rehearsal hall. When I arrived home several hours later, all sung out, my mother had died. Just like that.

I’ve regretted that hasty farewell ever since.

Greetings are such an automated part of our everyday exchanges, and we fling them around so casually:

– How are you?

– Fine, and you?

– Fine.

But so often, we’re not fine at all. And so often, we don’t really want to know how the other person is. We’ve taken something that’s an opportunity to connect with other human beings and reduced it to the level of a chore at worst, a nicety at best. We’re always in a hurry to be somewhere else, or we have something important we need to say and we’re impatient to get it out.

Is it any wonder so many of us feel isolated and lonely when we can’t even take the time to look someone in the eye and find out how they are? How many times do you ask: “How are you?” and hope fervently that the person you’ve asked won’t really tell you? That they’ll just mumble ‘Fine, thanks’ and leave it at that?

One of the biggest ironies of our age is that we have hundreds of online social media platforms, but people are so disengaged from other human beings that they don’t even like to talk on the phone anymore. It’s all just text, text, text. We sit behind our keyboards, fruitlessly typing, and all the while we’re moving further and further away from each other.

But greetings are important. And you only realise how important when they’re no longer there. When you can’t hug someone tightly or tell them that you love them, or kiss the impossible softness of their cheek.

We need other people – and it’s all too easy to forget how much you need them when they’re around. But when they’re gone, it’s too late. Then all you have is regrets and “if only”.

So look people in the eye when you greet them. Allow your face to light up when someone you love walks into the room. Listen when people tell you how they are. Put your hand in the small of your wife’s back; a palm on your husband’s cheek. Squeeze someone’s arm or knee. Kiss the smooth expanse of your children’s foreheads as they go to sleep. Hold someone’s hand.

Say hello, say good-bye, say I love you – before it’s too late.



November 19, 2014 § 3 Comments

I am enough.

I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need to be the best at everything. I only have to be perfectly me.

That’s all. That’s enough.

Because no-one else is exactly like me. No-one else knows how to be me. I am a complex mixture of traits, in a unique combination of weakness and strength.

I have a mind of my own. I think deeply; I think broadly, I think fast. I am intelligent and creative. I’m witty. I’m sharp.

I laugh often and easily, and my smile is wide. But sometimes, I cry.

My heart is soft, and it bruises easily and often. But I’m also strong. I’m resilient. I can weather many storms.

I love fiercely and with wild abandon. I will go to the ends of the earth for the people I love. I’m gentle and compassionate and kind. I am a soft place to land.

But I’m no pushover. Not any more. I have limits; I have boundaries, and you cross them at your peril. I will not be pushed around or walked over.

I’m an imperfect mother, but my children are everything to me. They take my breath away — every single day. Harm them and you will awaken a beast.

I never planned to be a writer. Writing found me, and in writing I found myself. I found my voice. Words delight me, and I find them endlessly fascinating. I love to craft them into stories, into songs.

I love language: I love the way we change it and it changes us. I love its endless combinations and convolutions and connotations. I love its rhythm. I love its soul.

I love to talk, and I love to listen. I hate small talk, but I love conversation: its ebb and flow, its give and take.

I love to sing. I am always singing – on the street, in the supermarket, in the car, in my head. Music heals me. It soothes and restores me, and sends me on my way consumed with energy, creativity, with pure, unadulterated joy.

And I love my friends, old and new, who accept me just as I am, perfectly imperfect. They welcome me daily without judgement, without expectation, without conditions. Friends who have taught me in ways big and small, that’s it’s okay to just be myself.

Because I am enough.


Let them eat fruit cake

November 12, 2014 § 7 Comments

My grandmother’s fruit cakes were legendary. They were rich, dark, moist and delicious, nothing like those dry lumps of dustiness that people hand out at weddings and try to pass off as cake. And it seemed like she was always making them, except for when she was making the very best milk tart in the world.

When she was in her late 80s, however, she moved into frail care, and she didn’t own much, but she passed on a few treasured items to her three grandchildren. I was privileged enough to receive her recipe books: three, in various stages of disrepair.

gran recipe books

The first is a now-coverless book printed in 1913, its pages crumbly and yellowed. It’s called The South African Household Guide, “containing practical hints on plain cooking, with recipes; useful general hints; medical advice to mothers, etc.; household work; notes for farmers”. It’s filled with the most extraordinary information, in exceedingly formal language, but it’s so fragile I’m afraid to handle it much.

It’s the other two books that really interest me, because they’re a memoir of my grandmother’s culinary history, a peek over the window ledge into a different world. They are filled with notes, ideas, remedies and recipes; filled with her personality. And each time I turn their pages and read her precise, copperplate writing it’s like falling down a rabbit hole into the wonderland of comfort that my grandmother was for me.

From the first page I can smell the 4-711 Eau de Cologne, feel the papery softness of her skin, hear her Afrikaans-lilted voice admonishing me for being messy, or telling me that her maiden name, Du Toit, meant van die dak afgeval. [“one who has fallen off the roof”]. And I smile, and sometimes the longing to see her rises unbidden in my throat.

So it was to these recipe books that I turned when I decided it was time for me to start making my own Christmas cake. For me, Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a proper cake. It stands proudly on its board or cake stand in the dining room until finally, on Christmas morning, after church, everyone has a cup of tea and a slab of cake, and the presents are opened.

And then I realised I had a real challenge on my hands: there were at least three fruit cake recipes, all different, all in her handwriting, and with no indication of which cake recipe was the right one. Unhelpfully, she had not labelled any of the recipes “My legendary fruit cake”. In addition, I realised how much of an instinctive baker she was. My father – her son – always joked that she measured things in handfuls and mouthfuls, and he wasn’t far wrong.

But I pored over them, nevertheless, smiling at the notes in the margin. One of the three recipes suggests that you can add almonds if desired. “I do not!” writes my grandmother. “Too expensive!” (Also, in her other recipes, I always smile at her many and varied spellings of ‘granadilla’. I think my favourite is ‘grundedilla’.)

So I left the almonds out. I was also relieved to see that none of the recipes featured mixed peel, because I can’t bear the stuff. It took a few failures and tweaks and adjustments until I got a good hybrid recipe, one that lives up to my memories. And now, every year, around this time, I start baking fruit cakes, both for our Christmas cake, and as gifts for friends and family.

Because I live in the southern hemisphere, this means baking cakes that take three to four hours in the oven in the middle of summer, when the outside temperature can be above 30 degrees Celsius, but I don’t care.

Because I love the ritual of methodically cutting up the fruit, so that all the pieces are approximately raisin-sized. I love mixing the raisins, sultanas, dates, cherries, preserved figs and pineapple so that they “look like a stained glass window” – her precise instructions to a much shorter version of me that stood on a stool in a too-large apron at the Formica-topped table and stirred the fruit mix, hanging on her every word. I love the smell of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves that scents the air with a foretaste of Christmas.

And I love wrapping up those cakes in foil and storing them in containers, ready to be topped with marzipan and fondant, or eaten plain with a slab of sharp Cheddar in the months ahead. It’s a ritual I cherish, partly for the joy of eating the cake, but mostly because every year, it’s like I have my grandmother back for just a little while.


It takes a village

November 5, 2014 § 6 Comments

I have two books in production at the moment, and today I had to write the acknowledgements for one of them.

As I sat quietly in the school parking lot, crafting those words of gratitude on my iPad, it struck me that just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a book too.

The process of writing a book is often compared to the jourrney of pregnancy and childbirth. The book starts off as the merest germ of an idea, and then word by word, you build it. It is shaped and moulded in the womb of your mind, and eventually you give birth to that final manuscript and the production process begins.

And that’s where the village kicks in. Because while I can string together a sentence or two, and I know a bit about layout, print production and marketing, the bits that don’t involve writing and editing are not my areas of expertise. And so I have to hand my child over to a village of co-caretakers, who will help to take the infant manuscript and turn it into a fully-fledged book.

It’s a magical process, one of co-creation and collaboration, and damn hard work, frankly. But it also involves a fair amount of trust and relinquishing control – two things I’m not terribly good at.

But oh, the rewards! There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finally holding your own book in your hands, feeling its heft and the sharpness of hot-off-the-press pages; hearing the faint snap of the spine as you open it, and inhaling the fragrance of paper and ink. As a writer, nothing makes me happier.

So two of my written children are almost grown up. I can’t wait to see how they turn out.

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