The List: 10 days in

April 10, 2019 Comments Off on The List: 10 days in

The Mary Oliver anthology arrived today thanks to the miracle of Amazon, and it took every ounce of my self-control to focus on the website copy I was trying to rework instead of buring my face in Oliver’s clean, sparse verse. There’s nothing like cracking the spine of a pristine book, especially a hard cover, and inhaling the scent of paper and ink; nothing like the anticipation of taking in all of those words and savouring each one — instead of generating them yourself, to someone else’s marching orders.

The anthology’s arrival means that item 36 on my list of 50 things is half-done. And since I unexpectedly wrote a poem last week (item 22), that makes it 48.5 more things to go! (The poem just kind of arrived — I don’t often write poetry, so that was a pleasant surprise.)

What I’ve loved about writing and sharing this list, is the sense of energy and connection that it generated. So many of my friends have said, “Count me in!” or “I can help!” and so many people have said they’re inspired to do their own list, and when I think of that, it really warms my heart.

It’s been a helpful thing for me too — I love nothing more than a long list of tasks to conquer, so this has really lit a fire under me. It’s completely broken me out of the work, parent, work, parent, work, parent cycle. Just weeks ago I was lamenting the fact that I don’t have any fun anymore, and that part of the problem was that I couldn’t even decide what constituted fun. I don’t have that problem anymore. This feels like a whole lot fun to me. There is also a mild sense of panic, if I’m honest, but mostly, I’m excited, and determined to give it my best possible shot.

What I have realised, is that I need a strategy. The list was compiled in a very random fashion, and I have tackled it rather haphazardly. Some of the tasks are quick and easy to organise, others will need a long, sustained effort — and some a miracle!

Since I published the list, I’ve worked on the tapestry and blanket squares, learnt the ‘Stand By Me’ bassline (but only practised it once), planned a day for the maze, enquired about the fabric tour, and started re-learning ‘The Listeners’.

Oh! I also  booked myself in for the next Writer’s Round, which means that towards the end of April I will be singing two of my songs to a bunch of strangers, including ACTUAL, REAL SONGWRITERS and I am frankly terrified. Plus I’ve decided to transpose one of them, which means a whole lot of practice that I have to fit in.

And then there’s that task of re-learning ‘Maple Leaf Rag’, which is a b*tch of a piece when you’re good at sight reading, which I am most decidedly not. (Any piano teachers want to volunteer to teach me? *bats eyelashes beguilingly*)

So I’m making a checklist to put up somewhere in my house, to keep track, so I don’t forget everything I want to do. Then I’m going to start with all of those items that fit into the basic first rule of time management, which is to start with items or first steps that will take five minutes or less, and get them ticked off. And then I need to set myself a little timetable for the evenings that includes bass and piano practice, needlework, Xhosa study and memorisation. Oh, and then there is that bad first draft of a novel thing. And the flash mob. WHAT WAS I THINKING?!

As the cool kids say, it’s a lot. But in an entirely good way. Apart from anything else, I think I’ve set myself up for a whole lot of laughter (mostly at myself), and why not? The older I get, the more I am inclined to think that we take life — and ourselves — far too seriously, and this seems set to remedy that for me.




Frail flesh

April 6, 2019 § 9 Comments

You do not understand
What it is to be frail
Till you have seen a man felled in mere months
By wear and tear,
By the passing of years,
By the failing of the flesh that bears him.

To see that once-strong oak
Now prone, its roots exposed,
Brittle, rattling,
Its leaves and bark
A breezy tremor:
This is what it means to be human.

Frail flesh.
The last ride on a rollercoaster
Where the screams are silent
In the slack-jawed sleep
Of those who linger here.
Translucent with transition,
They are skin and bone and stories.

Frail, frail flesh.
Too soon it fails.
While we rail against our helplessness
And theirs,
Fists pressed to our mouths
At how easily we crumble,
How quick our descent to dust.

Death loiters in the hallway ‒
Outside that other room for now.
But soon, too soon, not soon enough,
It will enter here
And release the spirit this body betrayed,
Set free the mind it could never contain.

One eye on the clock
We watch the seconds slip away.
Frail. Fragile. Finite. Fearful.

And we can sit and watch that metronome of mortality,
One step closer to the shuffling queue
In this inexorable waiting room.
Or we can step outside, into the waiting world,
Forge forward,
And live.

© Mandy Collins 2019

One year, 50 things

April 1, 2019 § 2 Comments

This is a big year for me – or so it feels. In a few short months I turn 50, and given that I don’t really feel much older than 16 on the inside, I’ve not been coping well with the concept of those extra 34 years.

I didn’t really fancy a party – partly because I’m tired of organising my own parties, cooking all the food, baking the birthday cake and cleaning up afterwards (feel free to play a tiny violin at this point).

But I did want to mark it in some way, and my friend Cindy gave me a great idea – to try and do 50 random things that appeal to me. So here’s my list, before I chicken out. And I’m giving myself a year, which means the deadline is 31 March 2020. And it seems apt, somehow, that I’m posting this on April 1. Snort.

Some of these feel very big and scary to me, but I figure I might as well go big, or go home, as the saying goes. I’ll keep you posted as I go!

  1. Do an easy day hike/walk with friends in a local reserve.
  2. Give R500 to Natasha Joseph’s RU student assistance fund.
  3. Go geo-caching – do people still do that?
  4. Go canoeing at Emmarentia.
  5. Try horse riding (I’m scared of horses).
  6. Re-teach myself isiXhosa – up to the end of my Std. 7 book at least.
  7. Learn all of Africa’s countries and capitals and be able to identify the countries on the map.
  8. Make a sourdough starter and bake a successful loaf of sourdough bread.
  9. Organise a travelling supper.
  10. Participate in a Book Dash event.
  11. Self publish my first novel.
  12. Finish a bad first draft of one of the three novels I’ve started. Ahem.
  13. Write a new song.
  14. Perform two songs at one of Alexandra May’s Writer’s Rounds.
  15. Read one work of Proper Literature/Classic. (I am not much of a classical reader.)
  16. Participate in a flash mob.
  17. Give a TED /TEDx talk.
  18. Paint something at Artjamming and hang it in the house. (I can barely draw a stick figure, so please be kind if you visit.)
  19. Try to scale one of those scary climbing walls.
  20. Do the maze at Honeydew Mazes.
  21. Walk a labyrinth.
  22. Write a poem.
  23. Learn to make lasagne properly! (Other people say mine are good, but they don’t live up to what I want them to taste like.)
  24. Go salsa dancing.
  25. Jog around the block without walking once.
  26. Visit my BFF.
  27. Do the bike tour of Joburg.
  28. Do the African fabric tour of Joburg.
  29. Sew myself a garment of some sort.
  30. Embroider something with a sweary epithet.
  31. Finish the tapestry I’ve been working on for years.
  32. Ditto the pink patchwork quilt.
  33. And the blanket I’m knitting.
  34. Volunteer at a Saturday soup kitchen.
  35. Invite chef Lesego Semenya for dinner. (I promised him I would.)
  36. Acquire and read a Mary Oliver anthology.
  37. Re-memorise ‘The Listeners’ by Walter de la Mare.
  38. Re-memorise ‘Dulce et decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen.
  39. Memorise Auden’s ‘Lullaby’.
  40. Memorise Dahl’s ‘Cinderella’.
  41. Learn a new skill by watching YouTube.
  42. Learn the penny whistle solo from ‘Special Star‘ (Eep. I just listened to it again – it might have to be a slightly simplified version.)
  43. Learn the whole bass line for ‘Stand By Me’ on the bass guitar.
  44. Be able to do at least one full proper push-up (i.e. not on my knees).
  45. Learn to play Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ again. (eep)
  46. Take a pottery class.
  47. Try sparring at boxing (without crying or saying ‘ow’).
  48. Teach Nigella Lawson to make lemon meringue (she says it’s her nemesis).
  49. Try my hand at archery.
  50. Learn how to spin sugar.

Don’t be a deadbeat – 11 tips for divorced parents

March 13, 2019 § 2 Comments

There are an awful lot of divorced people around – and it’s not just my confirmation bias speaking. The stats back me up. It’s more common to be divorced than it is to be married these days.

As I talk to people and we share our stories, I become more and more convinced that most of us – especially those who are parents – aren’t doing nearly as well as we could be when it comes to our children.

Because one of the hardest parts of getting divorced, if you have children, is to carry those children through a process that affects them deeply, even though it’s not about them, even though none of it is their stuff. And unless we are very, very careful, we risk pulling the children into a conflict that is not of their making, and in the worst cases, using them as bargaining tools, or manipulating them in deeply harmful ways. There are simply far too many deadbeat divorced parents out there.

If you’re married, by the way, keep reading – because the statistics are very much against you, and you might as well be prepared. Just last night someone was telling me the stories of two separate couples where one party was completely blindsided by the other. It happens. And I’ve seen far too many married couples proclaiming that they “just don’t know why people don’t accept that it’s over and behave like adults” – until such time as they find themselves in the same situation, and behave very, very badly.

So herewith my pointers for parenting through a divorce, my only qualification being that I’ve gone through it, and supported friends through the process. But here’s what I know for sure.

  1. Your children are not stupid. They know when you and your spouse are not getting along, even if you think you can hide it. Let’s face it – your dog knows you’re going on holiday before you even lug the suitcase out of the top cupboard, so give your kids some credit. And remember – and this is vital – that no one is better at spotting your hypocrisy than your offspring. Teenagers, in particular, are very good at this.
  2. Your children deserve honesty. This doesn’t mean airing all of your dirty laundry, but it does mean telling them what they need to know, when they need to know it. It does means answering their questions in an honest, age-appropriate way, without slagging off your estranged other half. No matter what your feelings about your former spouse are, that is their parent, and they love that parent. Your job is to be the adult in this situation and behave like one at all times.
  3. Your children need your love. They need this more than ever before, and you should constantly be reassuring them of how much you love them, and that it is impossible for you to stop loving them. Too many children – especially when they’re small – hear that Mommy and Daddy don’t love each other anymore and worry that Mommy and Daddy can stop loving them too. Tell them – as often as you can, that you will never stop loving them. But remember that older children also need to know that they’re loved – unconditionally. Tell them, even if they find it utterly cringeworthy.
  4. Manage the changes they face. Things are going to change – you may have to move house, they might be living with one spouse and visiting the other – and you can’t just expect them to roll with it and be fine. Change is difficult for all of us, but it’s particularly difficult when it’s being foisted on you and you have no control over it. So talk them through the changes, listen to their concerns, and help them to transition to your new family structure and life.
  5. Keep things as much the same as you can. Routines create security for children when things are peaceful – they’re twice as important when there’s conflict. Also ensure that all of the rules and boundaries remain in place, as these also provide security for them.
  6. Keep the fighting far away from them. This applies to the divorce period, as well as after the divorce. I cannot emphasise enough that THIS IS NOT THEIR STUFF. Do not burden your children with the problems you’re having with your ex-spouse. Again – be the grown-up. Sort out your shit like a grown-up.
  7. Remember that children are not possessions. They are human beings with feelings, and you have the privilege of seeing them from infancy into adulthood. That is your responsibility whether you are married or divorced, and nothing about that should change just because you are no longer married to their other parent.
  8. Learn to listen. If you cannot listen to your children – whether they are nine or nineteen – you’re doing parenting wrong. Nothing will push a child away more effectively than a parent who doesn’t really hear them. If you run roughshod over their feelings, you will lose them, and you will have no one but yourself to blame.
  9. Do more than the minimum. There’s a tendency among many divorced parents to only do what is required by the divorce agreement. See your child more often than required, if you are not the primary caregiver. Make all the sacrifices you were prepared to make for them when you were married – and more, if you can. There’s a reason the agreements lay down the minimum – because so many parents get divorced, and think those responsibilities don’t apply anymore. You divorced your spouse, not your children – do right by them.
  10. Deal with your issues. Get a shrink, get onto any necessary psychiatric drugs, read books, take up cage-fighting – whatever works for you, but sort out your head. Walking around raging against feelings of betrayal or injustice or abandonment, or whatever it is you’re feeling, for years on end, wallowing dramatically in your victimhood, does no one any good – especially your children. Because like a toddler throwing a tantrum, you will act out, and they will bear the brunt.
  11. Honour your financial responsibilities. And stop using money to try and control the other party. Withholding money has a negative impact on your children. Is that really the kind of parent you want to be? Too many parents complain that they are ‘just a cheque book’ or ‘just an ATM’, when the truth is that that’s how they behave. Ensure you are contributing whatever financial support you’re supposed to be contributing, but they also look at whether you are contributing other support to your children too. Are you really available to them in all the ways you should be as a parent? Or is your contribution purely financial?

As parents we’re human, and far from perfect. But intention is everything. If you try, in every moment, to be the best possible parent for your children, and do so with love, laughter and listening, you can get through a divorce with the least possible harm to your kids.

So don’t be that deadbeat divorcé(e). Deal with your shit like the adult you are, and then be the best parent in the history of parents – because that’s what they deserve.

A good cry

February 28, 2019 § 2 Comments

“What are you blubbering about now?” For too long my tears were treated as an annoyance, a sign of weakness, something to be disparaged, discouraged, dismissed. 

It hadn’t always been so. I can remember my mother’s cool hand on my teenage face as I lay in the dark, hot tears spilling onto my pillow. “Have a good cry,” she’d say. “Get it all out.” I did, and I always felt better for it. But as time wore on I learnt to swallow my tears, to smile them back into my throat, to grin and bear too many things I really should have been able to cry about.

But in recent years, I’ve rediscovered the cleansing power of a good cry, especially on those days when that’s exactly what you need, and you can’t even pinpoint a reason. And I’ve realised that contrary to the belief I previously held – that I cry too much – in fact, I cry too little. Crying things out, for me, is a vital way to process difficult emotions.

But society doesn’t know what to do with tears. We admire those with a stiff upper lip, who stoically plough through life’s slings and arrows without breaking down. “You’re so strong,” we say admiringly. Or, “You’re so brave. I don’t know how you do it.” Or we take the crier into our arms and pat them awkwardly on the back. “Don’t cry,” we say. “It’ll be alright.”

I knew a man who often pointed out that as a society we have lost the art of lament, and I believe he was spot on. We seem to have lost the ability to be vulnerable enough to put our raw insides on display, to let others in on the creatures that gnaw away at our sanity as life throws its inevitable tragedies at us. And I’m not talking about dramatic posts on social media where so many ‘pity fish’, a beautiful term my friend, Léo, coined the other day. I’m talking about the ability to really be vulnerable in the presence of another.

And I don’t think this reluctance to be vulnerable is because others might not treat us kindly, but because we must be strong, we must be seen to be coping, we must not let the façade drop, at any cost.

So we plaster on our smiles and go back to work scant days after a bereavement. We carry on regardless through divorce, disease and disaster. We put on a brave face, stiffen those upper lips, square our shoulders and keep going – and wonder why we are followed around by a rag-tag band of shuffling ghosts, ever whispering their tales of woe into the rare quiet moments we allow ourselves.

If we cannot – through choice or circumstance – be vulnerable with others, we need to learn, at least, to allow ourselves those moments of vulnerability when we are alone. On days when there are confrontations and conflict, when there is grief and sadness and a sense of loss, when exhaustion and longing threaten to overwhelm us, we must remember the value of a good cry. We must learn to sit with those awful, uncomfortable feelings in the dark, and allow them to move through us, and be rinsed away by our tears. 

Only then will we banish the ghosts.

If I could choose again

February 13, 2019 § 1 Comment

When journalists are writing personal profiles, a favourite question is to ask the subject something along the lines of, “If you could have your life over again, what would you do differently?”

I don’t know why so many of us (myself included) persist with this question, because usually you are interviewing someone who has some experience, wisdom, gravitas. And so the answer you get, most often, is not one of regret, but: “Nothing. Everything that has happened to me in my life has made me who I am today.”

And they’re right, I think, despite the temptation to daydream about a do-over, about being able to go back and make a different decision so that you don’t land up in the mess you’re in now.

Sure, you can use the ‘coulda, shoulda’ stick to beat yourself up over the bad choices you’ve made in the past, for being stupid, irresponsible, unkind, or thoughtless. You can sigh and press the back of your hand to your forehead, and say, “If only…” Or you can be a real-life Marty McFly and change your future story, by making a different choice today.

You can choose again – the question is whether or not you will.

* Thanks to Dave Luis for the topic suggestion.

10 good things I got from Twitter

February 6, 2019 § 3 Comments

I’ve been bashing Twitter a lot recently – it has turned into a fairly toxic place – and then someone suggested I write about this topic, so here I am, taking it as a challenge!

My first Twitter account opened and closed within a week, I think. I hated it. Then I tried again, and fell in love with it. Now I venture there sporadically, take its temperature, and decide whether or not it’s worth hanging around – I guess it’s a bit like some long-term relationships.

But that’s not to say it’s all bad. I have benefited enormously from the platform. So here are 10 good things I’ve gained.

1. New friends – Some of my best friends are people I met through Twitter. Yes, I forged relationships with strangers on the internet and then met them in person. Please don’t tell my children. (I did so with great caution and a lot of research, don’t worry.) But it is a good reminder that while stranger danger is a very real thing, the vast majority of strangers are just ordinary people like you and me, and worth getting to know.

2. Old friends – I’ve reconnected with old friends and colleagues, which has been wonderful.

3. Heroes – The beauty of social media is that it gives you direct access to the thoughts of people you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to talk to. Authors, musicians politicians, poets, celebrities – many of whom do their own tweeting. And sometimes they even respond when you talk to them. (Nigella. Twice. Squee.)

4. Work – I have had work directly from people who follow and interact with me on Twitter and it’s opened up all kinds of different avenues for me, and expanded the scope of what I do.

5. Professional development – Like-minded people and experts in my field are generous with the information and articles they share, so it acts as a kind of aggregator of the latest thinking about transactional and non-fiction writing, journalism and plain language, which are my main interests.

6. Fiction writing advice – There’s a lot of writing about writing, and a lot of writing on Twitter by other authors, so I’ve picked up some good tips for my own fiction writing projects – and been reminded that even the famous authors are often filled with self-doubt. That’s comforting.

7. Challenging opinions – I deliberately follow people with different views to my own, because it makes me think about other lifestyles and world views. I stop when their views make me angry or upset, and think about why. Sometimes I change my mind, sometimes I don’t, but I enjoy the mental stimulation.

8. Puns – I can never have too many, and Twitter loves a good pun. And a bad pun. All puns, really. Basically, I’m there for the puns.

9. Resilience – because if you express your opinion, there’s always the chance that someone with a bazillion followers will retweet it and it will take off. And then the trolls come out from under their slimy bridges, and you will be batting off insults left, right and centre – literally. They’re all as easily offended as each other, poor darlings. It used to upset me – I’ve been called some terrible things – but I’ve learnt to deal with them.

10. My voice – I’ve left the best for last. After years of being treated as though my opinion didn’t matter, or at least didn’t deserve to be heard, I found my voice. Twitter taught me to write, it taught me to write tight (140 characters to say what you want to say, in the old days), it rekindled my wit and my wisdom, and I learnt to speak for myself again. And even if it all implodes one day and ends up as a toxic puddle of offence making and taking, I will always be grateful for this.


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