November 25, 2016 § 2 Comments

It’s 9.35pm on a perfect Friday night. I have tea, a favourite magazine and I’m in bed reading about other people’s Christmas celebrations while the rain falls softly and steadily outside.

I’ve not felt very festive this year, which is odd for me. I adore Christmas. I love the music and lights and family, the fun and the food.

And as I read through the article before me I’m suddenly assailed by an intense desire to make soetkoekies, those simple, plain butter biscuits of my childhood. I remember that I hate baking biscuits. But the urge for soetkoekies is so strong that I drag myself out of bed and head for the kitchen.

I turn to my mother’s recipe. Ten cups of flour, and seven eggs. I groan. But I do the maths and make about two-sevenths of the recipe, which I later discover will yield about four dozen biscuits.

I mix the dough – just butter, sugar, flour, eggs, vanilla and a pinch of salt. Almost anything tastes better if you add a pinch of salt. I load up the cookie press – that labour-saving imposter of the kitchen – and I begin to press out the shapes. Kerclack, kerclack, kerklack…

And then I remember. Making biscuits meant the start of the Christmas holidays. School would brea up today, and tomorrow meant biscuit baking. And not just soetkoekies from this enormous recipe, which I now calculate will make 14-15 dozen biscuits in total; there are but two other enormous recipes as well. Oats biscuits and my other favourite, coconut biscuits.

My mother had the world’s most impressive biscuit tins. They were two to three times as tall as any others, and by the end of that marathon baking session, they were bursting at their painted metal seams. We had biscuits till New Year at least, and no-one who visited ever had to suffer the ignominy of a ‘dry’ cup of tea.

But as I make the familiar movement with the cookie press, producing the shapes that adorn tables at kerkbasaars across the country, I realise why I hate baking biscuits so much. First, the damned cookie press produces too much variance in shape for a perfectionist like me, and it requires refilling far too often. Second, you spend the first three days of your summer holiday baking almost 50 dozen biscuits and see how you feel…

But as the familiar aroma fills the kitchen, and I take out the first tray, I smile. Because now my home, my new home, is getting its first hint of Christmas in this simplest of family rituals.

And somewhere, I’m certain, my mother is smiling with me.


The tenderness manifesto

November 11, 2016 § 2 Comments

Today I will try a little tenderness.

I will smooth my skin with lotion the way I soothed my children after a bath – with gentle, loving strokes instead of hasty, chore-like slaps. I will seek out the comfort of tea instead of the driving kick of coffee. I will eat food that nourishes me. I will not berate or  belittle myself. I will try a little tenderness.

I will choose between work and rest in a way that calms me. I will stop to stare at the sky, to notice the lizards, to breathe in the smell of the rain. I will fill the air with the scent of cinnamon and love. I will try a little tenderness.

I will caress my children’s unlined brows and speak to them with patience. I will listen when they speak: without distraction, without the tap-tap-tapping on some or other screen. I will think before I speak; pause before I react, remember that they are still finding their way in the world. I will try a little tenderness.

Today I will tread lightly on the earth. I will rescue bees and ladybirds; I will plead with spiders to go elsewhere for their prey. I will conserve water and be sparing with fuel. I will reduce, reuse, recycle. I will try a little tenderness.

Today I will remember that there are really only two emotions: love and fear, and I will emphasise the first. I will remember that I only have influence in my little corner of the world, and I will work to make it a place of kindness, gentleness, laughter and love. I will try a little tenderness.

I will share what I can when I can. I will help my neighbour. I will smile at people and greet them, and recognise their humanity in any interaction I have. I will constantly remember that everyone is fighting their own battles, and I will remind myself to be much kinder than is necessary. I will try a little tenderness.

I will speak out when injustice rears its ugly head. I will no longer remain silent or hang back so as not to get involved. I will speak out and speak up and I will try a little tenderness.

And when I fail, as I inevitably will, I will remember that tomorrow is another day, another chance to try again. And when tomorrow comes, again I will try a little tenderness. But for now all I have is this day, this hour, this moment.

Today I will try a little tenderness. God knows the world could use it.


Tales from a home office

November 9, 2016 Comments Off on Tales from a home office

Halfway through today I received a desperate email from an editor who needed a story done pronto. This happens quite often  – I work very fast, so I’m often contacted when someone is in a hole. I like to think I’m the Olivia Pope of magazine journalism…

The brief was simple – a 600-word Q&A profile, comprising 30 questions, so it ought to be short and sharp. At 5pm I had to call someone, ask them the questions, record the answers, and then edit it all into shape. Easy peasy.

I called the interviewee from my landline to ensure at least one part of the interview would have a stable connection, turned to a new page in my favourite red Moleskine notebook, and we were off.

About five minutes into the interview, however, one of the worst storms I’ve witnessed in Johannesburg in 26 years of living here, began to pummel my suburb and surrounding areas. The rain drove through the city in sheets. Hail bounced off my driveway; the noise in my little outside office made talking on the phone very difficult.

And then the power went out. And so did my portable phone. Of course, I didn’t think to simply continue by using my mobile phone. Oh no. Instead I clutched my notebook and pen to my chest and ran through the deluge into the house, to my bedroom, where I have an instrument that doesn’t require electricity to work. Dripping and shivering, I dialed again, only to realise I’d left the sheet with the questions outside in the office.

There was no way I was going out into that lot again. I realised I had them on my mobile phone – in my email inbox. So I opened that and continued the interview, with a phone that kept going to sleep inbetween questions, and no time to change the auto-sleep settings.

The storm raged for the whole period of the interview. Lightning, hail and thunder raged around the house, and I, perched on my bed, strained to hear the answers I had to record. The phone was gripped between shoulder and ear, my notebook was balanced on my knee, and the interview continued while I wrote with my right hand, and tapped at my mobile phone with my left hand. All the while I hoped with every fibre of my being that those stories about people being struck by lightning down the telephone line were urban legends, and I winced with every shaft of lightning that lit up my bedroom, hoping this wouldn’t be the way I would leave the planet.

An hour later, the world’s most chatty – and really lovely – interviewee finally answered question number 30 and I could finally go and sort out the terrified dogs, worried children, slightly damp rabbit, flooded garden and wet electrics.

And people think working from home is less stressful than being in an office. Yeah, right.

Do I really have to?

November 2, 2016 Comments Off on Do I really have to?


I had a friend over yesterday for a long, thought-provoking chat. She’s one of those formidable, straight-talking people, and manages to stage an intervention all by herself, but remains calm, kind and compassionate in the process. And lord knows, I needed an intervention – I’ve not had the greatest two weeks of my life.

We chatted for a few hours, and nailed down what I needed to do next to sort myself out. And as she climbed into her car, she left me with this parting shot: “Most things are optional. Don’t forget.”

And as I stood in my front garden, I had a little lightbulb moment. Because I am the mistress of the very long to-do list, which I wield like a baton for the purpose of self-bludgeoning. And actually, at least half of the things on that list – which, in my head is really an “I have to…” list – at least half of them are optional. And if they aren’t fully optional, they really don’t have to be done today.

The problem with “I have to…” is that it removes the choice. And then we feel resentful and rebellious and angry – because we may not always want to do that choice. They say that’s one of the best ways to manage a toddler, for example – by giving them a choice. Although, in their case, it’s a controlled choice: “Do you want to wear the red shoes or the blue shoes?” Not, “Which shoes do you want to wear?” But the point is that when you give a toddler a choice, they’re less likely to throw a tantrum. And if you’d see me slamming doors and screaming at the dogs the other night, you’d understand why I’m using toddlers as an analogy.

So I’ve decided to change my language to introduce more choice into it. “I have to make a slip cover for that sleeper couch,” becomes “I choose to make a slip cover for that couch.” And actually, some days it might be “I choose not to make that slip cover today.” Or even, “I choose to get someone else to make that slip cover because I just don’t have the time.”

Because I do have a choice a lot of the time, and I haven’t always exercised that choice. And so I’ve run myself ragged in the endless pursuit of those elusive have-tos, and found myself so depleted as a result that the simple act of climbing a ladder to change a light bulb has the power to reduce me to a sobbing, incoherent mess.

I read an article the other day on time management that made this stunning observation: often what we call time management is actually energy management. That was another lightbulb moment for me. It’s about working with your energy levels instead of against them, doing the tough things while you have energy, and most importantly, prioritising.

And for me that means deciding if I really have to do something, or if I can choose to do it another day – or not at all.



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