October 4, 2017 Comments Off on A kindness of compliments
There’s a documentary that did the rounds on social media recently: a group of students, I think, embarked on a portrait photography project where they photographed people ‘before’, and then ‘at the precise second at which they were told they were beautiful. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen. Their faces lit up, they smiled, they blushed. They were so beautifully vulnerable in that moment that their humanity shone through the mask they’d been wearing a moment before.
And it doesn’t really matter what the compliment is. I have smoothed my way through the bank, the police station, the supermarket, just because I paid someone a simple compliment about a tiny thing: “That colour really suits you. What a beautiful dress. What a fabulous tie. I love your nail polish…”
Because what that compliment does, for a brief moment, is to make the person feel that there is more to them than the labels society affixes to them. They’re not just a teller or a cashier or a constable – they’re a human being. A human seen.
And I don’t know about you, but in the world we live in today, I think we could all do with a little more of that.
September 27, 2017 § 1 Comment
In the school holidays one of my daughter’s friends lost her father to a motorcycle accident. Another friend had two friends die in as many days. Still another friend got news that a young relative had been found dead at the bottom of the stairs to her flat – she’d gone home early complaining she wasn’t feeling well.
And maybe it’s this rash of deaths; maybe it’s part of my own journey through middle age, but I have this increasing sense that we – that I – have to live life with a greater sense of urgency.
I am fairly cautious by nature; risk averse, as financial advisers like to put it. I think things through and I lay my plans: “When X, then Y…” partly because it gives me the illusion of control, I think. Only Y seldom comes, because I never seem to get past the planning stage.
I think we all do this to an extent. “When I retire, I will…” or “When I lose weight, I will…” or “When I find the perfect girl/guy, I will…” or even, “When she or he apologises to me, I will…”
And so, we’re all just stuck in the waiting room – waiting for some mythical future perfect circumstance that will allow us to live our dream, take that risk, mend that fence, launch ourselves off the precipice.
“But I need money,” I hear you protest. And it’s true – you can’t just set off for Madagascar or Mongolia without a plane ticket and all the other travel accoutrements that cost you your hard earned cash. Starting a new business takes money. As does studying. As do a myriad other dreams you may have – and you might not have that money now. I get that.
But dreaming and thinking and strategising don’t cost you anything. Research is the easiest thing in the world in the information age. And if you have money for a daily or even weekly cappuccino, you have more money than most, and you can start there – by making a small sacrifice and popping the money you would have spent in a piggy bank, under your mattress, in a savings account. And then you need to take action.
Because the one thing we all have in common is that we can start. Not when we’ve lost the weight or received the apology, or retired, or found that perfect someone. Today. Right now. Just break down the goal into small steps and take the first one.
Sure, it’s risky. We might get hurt or damaged – or even broken – along the way. We might not even know how we’re going to take the second step. But is that any reason to put off living? Because sometimes you need to take the first step to weigh up your options from a new vantage point. Perhaps there’s a road further ahead that you couldn’t see until you took that step.
And while you go, remember to tell those you love, that you love them. It doesn’t matter if they’re a friend, family, or significant other. Tell them often. Tell them till they’re tired of hearing it. Tell them so often that when you’re gone, they can’t be in any doubt that you loved them. Fiercely.
Forgive, and move on, remembering that forgiveness is for your peace of mind – it’s not about letting the other person off the hook.
Stop waiting for that perfect circumstance. It doesn’t exist. All you have is this moment, right now.
Because life is short, and it can change in an instant. And if we never get out of the waiting room, then all we are left with is regret, which is really the poorest of substitutes for a life.
September 14, 2017 § 2 Comments
I lost two whole working days this week. In the early hours of Monday morning I was awoken by the first symptoms of food poisoning, which lasted well into the afternoon. (Don’t eat raw sausage meat, children. There may be dire consequences.)
Today I was also off sick for a rather different ailment, but I found the parallels interesting.
It began as I got into bed last night. A very close friend was going into hospital for a procedure that had some serious risks, and I was more than worried. I was scared. And my elder daughter, who’s 18, was planning to do something today that’s slightly outside of my comfort zone, but perfectly acceptable for her age and stage in life. It’s nothing crazy, I must emphasise. It’s a perfectly ordinary thing, but it freaked me out more than I expected it to; far more than it should have.
And that’s when I switched from worry – a pretty normal state for me – to anxiety. I felt that familiar boulder drop into its spot behind my sternum, the racing heart, the dry mouth, a million dark moths bumping into the inner walls of my stomach.
I barely slept. At almost 1am I was still awake, alternating between sobbing into my pillow and writing Facebook posts to distract myself. I read, I watched silly videos of cute babies, I joined Twitter conversations – cheery, sassy on the outside as tears rolled down my face.
I finally dropped off and woke with a jolt at 4.30am, tired but wired, unable to sleep another wink, the moths still beating their familiar refrain. In this condition, eating isn’t really possible, nor is sleeping. Nor is thinking – certainly not thinking straight. Oh you can overthink, and think yourself down the most dark and twisted pathways, till even the Big Bad Wolf seems like a knight in shining armour, but thinking well enough to work, to function, to do the simplest mundane tasks, seems impossible.
So my day today looked much like my day with food poisoning on Monday. I spent a lot off it on my bed. I napped when I was able to, but not in a restful way. The dishes remained unwashed, the curtains drawn. I treated the food poisoning with fluids, and just allowing it to run its course; I treated the anxiety much the same way. And by 5pm, just as most of the food poisoning had worked its way out of my system on Monday, so had most of the anxiety today. But I had lost another day – a day in which I planned to be very productive.
Tonight I will slowly set my home to rights – control is the flip side of anxiety – and then I will catch up on some work so that I don’t arrive in the office in a state of panic tomorrow. And I’ll probably be fine.
I tell you all of this, because I’m one of the lucky ones. We use the words ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’ interchangeably, but really, they’re very different. I’m lucky because I only have severe (for me) anxiety attacks like this every now and then. Others life with this every day. I’m lucky because I’m self-employed and can give myself a day off if my slate is not so full, although there have been times when I’ve just had to grit my teeth and push through, even though it makes the day a gruelling obstacle course and I don’t produce much of value. For others, the latter scenario is a daily struggle.
I’m especially lucky because I don’t have to explain myself to an office full of colleagues that sometimes, nothing in particular has triggered my anxiety, but I feel as if I’m choking. I don’t have anyone telling me to stop worrying, or to toughen up, or that anxiety is not a good reason to have a day of sick leave, when I know that it’s every bit as debilitating as waiting for your body to expel a vicious gastric bug.
So I will be fine. I am fine. But there may be people in your life who aren’t. Perhaps they suffer from anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder, or some other kind of mental illness. We tend to separate mental illnesses from physical illness, the head from the body, but I’m here to remind you that the head is a part of the body. The brain is just one of your organs – and just as susceptible to illnesses, which are just as physical and chemical as any other illness.
It’s time to stop making that distinction, and to treat those with mental illness, whether acute or chronic, with the same compassion you’d spare for those with so-called physical illnesses. That’ll help to remove the stigma, which should never have arisen in the first place, if you think about it logically.
If we can do that, more people might seek help and set themselves back on the way to mental health. And that’s beneficial for all of us, and for society as a whole.
September 10, 2017 Comments Off on The hawker
Sunday afternoon. A blanket on the lawn, a cup of tea and the blue, blue sky above me.
And then, a low voice at the gate – a motherly, head-wrapped woman is summoning me to buy her wares, but aware that I have only a miniscule sum of cash, I politely explain that I have no money and ask her to come back at the end of the month when, perhaps, I might have some money to spend.
She asks if I want to see what she’s selling. No need to buy anything. Just have a look. Her honeyed tones are hard to resist, and I don’t want to appear rude, so I go to the gate and she produces three beautiful wooden bowls, smooth and symmetrical. They are her husband’s handiwork. She tramps from house to house selling them.
She begins to tell me her story. She’s from Zimbabwe and she has run out of days on her visa. She needs to sell the bowls to help fund their trip back home, so they can return to South Africa. They are living in one massive room in the city centre; one massive room crammed with people just like her. No electricity. We just sit in the dark, with some candles. This is the room she will return to when her papers are sorted, because it’s preferable to her life back home.
She asks me to keep her wares till she can get back to retrieve them. Tsotsis stole my friend’s phone yesterday. I must get back before dark, before six o’clock. It’s dangerous in town.
I decline to keep the bowls. It feels too weighty a request to hold a family’s livelihood in my hands. Besides, the next door she knocks on could mean a sale. I tell her it’s four thirty. There’s time to get back before darkness falls. But I cannot keep her bowl.
I can see she understands, but her eyes are defeated. She shuffles off, her shoulders a little more stooped, her bowls tucked into a cloth bag. I pick up my blanket, my mug, and walk into my comfortable home, equally grateful and guilty, and sobered by the encounter, because I know she is but one story in a sea of others.
August 2, 2017 § 3 Comments
I’ve been working on the loveliest job – a grown-up grandchild wants to capture something of her grandparents’ lives while they’re still around to tell their stories, and hired me to ask the questions and compile the answers.
So, on a couple of recent afternoons, I have driven to their retirement village, taken up a seat on their sunny patio, with a view of the most beautiful gardens, and listened to them as they reminisced.
And what a delightful way to round up the working day! I’ve heard tales of derring-do: men who carried wounded battle-mates across the North African desert in World War II, rogue Hungarian taxi drivers, and a car full of nuns that sank into a river with tragic consequences.
But I’ve also heard beautiful stories rooted in the ordinary – dancing in the lounge to favourite tunes on the radio, family singalongs around the piano, bowls of dough set on a warm windowsill to prove. Young lovers park their cars at a meeting spot every day on the way to work. Mothers scold their offspring for wasting food in one moment and gather them into their laps for a spot of comfort. A father surprises a daughter with a new bicycle. People die, babies are born, children grow and move away.
This simple assignment, born out of a granddaughter’s love, has reminded me that the important things in life aren’t things at all. The fabric of life is woven from love, laughter and loss: the rest is just window dressing.
It’s also made me want to repeat the exercise with my own father, stepmother and beloved uncle. I have so many questions; they have so many answers. We take our elderly relatives and pack them away in retirement villages and forget that they were once just like us – young and vital, brimming over with hope and energy. They’ve walked a path we have yet to follow: they have advice for the journey we’d do well to heed.
Finally, it has reminded me of why I love what I do so much – because it’s all about stories. I love to write stories; I love to hear them. Most of all I love the challenge of asking just the right question to find the story buried beneath the apparently mundane surface of someone’s life.
And the best part is that you really don’t have to go far to hear one, because everyone has a story.
Won’t you tell me yours?
July 17, 2017 § 6 Comments
Every time you tell my daughter that her well-argued opinion is incorrect because it’s not on your marking memo, you teach her that her opinion only counts if it conforms.
Every time you tell my daughter she may not wear a legitimate part of her school uniform to be warm, because you believe she won’t look smart enough, you teach her that looks are more important than health or self-care.
Every time you hold my daughter to a standard you are not prepared to uphold yourself, you teach her that hypocrisy is part and parcel of being the stronger one in the power relationship: that there’s no need to lead by example.
Every time you punish the whole class for the misdemeanours of a few, you teach my daughter that justice is an illusion.
Every time you admonish my daughter for not being ‘ladylike’, you reinforce the notion that she will by judged by her gender rather than her contribution to society.
Every time you expect my daughter to do a pile of school work in the holidays, but are quick to point out that you don’t want to do so, you teach her that double standards are permitted if they’re held by those in authority.
Every time you flounce out of the class in frustration at work not done, you teach my daughter that throwing a tantrum and walking away are appropriate ways to deal with conflict.
Every time you decide a test or assignment is ‘not for marks’ because the whole class underperformed, you teach her that results may be manipulated to create a particular image, and that it’s not okay to fail sometimes.
Every time you fail to enforce consequences for serious infringements like plagiarism, you silently condone it.
It’s not just about homework and assessments, or finishing the syllabus. It’s not just about passing and failing.
Every time you do any of these things, a classroom full of impressionable young minds is learning how to lead and be led, how to make one’s way in the world, how things really work.
Every parent knows that children learn far more what their parents do, than from what they say. Someday, dear teacher, your charges will forget how to factorise, and identify the passive voice; how to titrate a solution, or name a cloud formation.
But they won’t forget the way you behaved; the way you made them feel. That’s where the real learning happens.