Divorce isn’t the problem

September 21, 2018 § 2 Comments

My friend Cath remarked on Facebook yesterday how very uncomfortable people find it to talk about divorce. I found myself nodding my head as I scrolled through my feed. We do need to talk about it more, make it less uncomfortable, and be more honest about what it means, what it’s like, why it happens.

This morning, as I was engaged in my daily ritual of journalling, these thoughts arrived on the page. I share them with you as they spilled out – raw, unedited, unfiltered – as just a part of a much greater discussion, the beginning of a conversation, perhaps.

Sometimes I think divorce isn’t the problem – marriage is. Because society’s collectively held belief about marriage doesn’t give it space to have some flexibility, some looseness – it’s this all-or-nothing kind of arrangement.

And that is bound to set people up for failure, particularly when those people are anxious, deeply insecure and place their identity centre-stage in the court of what other people think.

Then it becomes about keeping up the facade, painting the idealised picture, rather than doing what works. Or just being honest – early – and saying, “This doesn’t work. How can we part peacefully?” And, if there are children involved, how do we co-parent and co-exist constructively?

Marriage needs a really big societal conversation. Less “happy ever after”, more “it’s going to be hard, much harder than you ever imagined”. Less “you have to make it work against all odds”. More “it’s okay to admit when it doesn’t work”. And definitely less pressure on people to get married.

The expectation that marriage provides stability for children is complete bullshit. It’s a legal transaction – nothing more, nothing less. And nothing makes you realise that more than divorce – which is essentially a financial separation of two people’s affairs.

The commitment you make is a separate issue – and can’t be governed by a religious or governmental body – the latter only really has power over the children you have together and your individual and joint responsibility as parents.

No, it’s that all-or-nothing, forever-together, till-death-do-us-part thing that sets up the divorce problems. Because there are all kinds of very good reasons for people to call it a day, to say, “I have given this my very best shot, but it’s just not working.” And the problem is that the pressure means most people do that too late – and then you get the train wreck and the damage that ensues.

The more I think about it, the more I think marriage is a very strange, often deeply dysfunctional institution, and yet it’s held up as something to aspire to, something to hang on to by all means necessary, and for many, this comes at an enormous personal cost that has nothing to do with money.


Sunday afternoon drive

August 29, 2018 § 7 Comments

As I watch the fuel price ever increasing, it’s hard to believe that at one point in my life, going for a drive was an activity all by itself.

Sundays had their own particular rhythm when I was growing up. I’m old enough to remember a time when the shops were closed on a Sunday – all except the corner café where my father stopped every week after church to buy the Weekend Post and a peppermint crisp.

Then it was home to a roast or a braai, most often followed by instant pudding and then the peppermint crisp was divvied up. Six squares in a family of five meant one piece each for everyone, except Dad, who got two.

It’s hard to decide whether washing the dishes after lunch or having to be quiet for an hour or so while my parents napped was the worse punishment. But finally we were released, and then it was time to go for a drive.

Port Elizabeth has a well developed, commercialised beachfront, but that wasn’t a good place for driving. Instead my dad would head for the western side of town, to Seaview, Beachview and beyond, where Port Elizabeth’s true wild beauty exists, where the coastline is rocky and the wind drives the waves onto land.

There was no stopping for a paddle or an ice-cream or a pit stop. He’d just pick a route, and drive. My parents would chat while my mother watched the waves, and the three of us would wriggle and irritate each other in the back seat.

But there were requests – and not the musical sort. At one point, my 6’2″ father bought himself a Mini station wagon. He’s had a lifelong love of the tiny cars, and was well known for unfolding himself from behind the wheel of a various Minis at various points in his life, much to the amusement of the friends and family who witnessed it.

All five of us fitted into this Mini, but there was a catch. I’m not sure if the car had poor suspension in the back, or what the problem was, but I do remember that if the car went over the smallest bump, anyone in the back of the car would be jolted into the air – this was long before compulsory seatbelts.

So we always begged to go down Westview Drive – a long, one-way street that had lots of bumps and indentations, and no stop streets. Also, because a Mini is so close to the ground, it feels like you’re hurtling along when, in fact, you’re doing a fairly sedate speed. It was a win-win situation: my father would sail down Westview Drive at his customary 55km/h, while we satisfied our need for speed. We squealed and shrieked in the back seats, bouncing around like ping-pong balls.

And then there was the time, on Seaview Road, I think, when my brother begged my father – just this once – not to ease the car gently over the speed hump we could see in the distance, but to ramp over it. My father – in a very uncharacteristic move – obliged, and we flew over the speedhump, landing square in front of a traffic policeman with his hand out. There was a speed trap on the bump, and there was no point in arguing whether or not we’d been in the wrong. My father grudgingly took the fine, and my brother never heard the end of it, but I don’t think he cared.

This past weekend, as I drove in quiet solitude to the far end of town to fetch my daughter from an activity, I reflected on how much more simple life seemed back then. I realised that I still love to drive on a country road and gaze into the middle distance, and remembered how lovely it was to have one day a week when everything slowed down and shut down, and people were just at home with their families, resting.

I also reflected how something as simple as going for a drive, could bring a family together and make lasting memories – even if they don’t seem particularly significant to anyone who wasn’t there. There was nothing very special about those outings – no glitz, no glamour, no entrance tickets or bookings required.

You just had to be there – and I was. And I’m so very glad.


Missing the notes

August 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

So it’s come to this. After an hour of inner cajoling and persuading and pleading, I sat myself down at the piano for a second or two this evening. Not long enough to play, mind you. Just long enough to feel the lump form in my throat, to close the lid again and leave.

I’m no concert pianist. I gave up in high school despite my mother’s warnings, and of course she was right – I do regret it. But the piano, preferably accompanied by singing, has always been my happiest place, regardless of the love-hate relationship I have with practising, and those damned key signatures that require remembering too many black notes.

At school I heard time and time again how very musical I was. It came easily to me – I was singing whole hymns perfectly in tune long before I could pronounce their words. I was permanently in trouble for not practising, but I passed my exams regardless. I could tonk out a simple version of  almost anything by ear, and often did. And playing music always energised me – whether I was belting out a show tune for a drama production, or trying to figure out how to play Chariots of Fire or Ballad for Adeline.

At university, I’d sneak onto the theatre stage to play the grand piano in the dark – just me, and the silence, and five hundred empty chairs. I sang away my homesickness, the overwhelm of being 17 and completely out of my depth. I sang to forget the still raw wound of my mother’s untimely death. I sang to remember – her, at the piano at home; her voice, so like my own.

Later, when I was a mother myself, I got a substantial tax rebate, and I could finally afford to buy a secondhand piano. My house finally felt like a home. I took lessons again and retook my Grade 5 exams. I returned to songwriting on that piano. I found like I was finally rediscovering my own voice.

Until I lost it. Not physically – it still works. But I’ve lost my nerve, and I don’t know why. 

I want more than anything to be playing, to be singing, but as soon as I sit on the stool, or open my throat to sing, the tears well up, my throat closes, and my joy flees. It’s like it’s all locked away, deep inside me. All that musicjust waiting to be released, but I can’t remember where I’ve put the key.

So here I sit, in a little bubble of sadness for the umpteenth time, and the worst part is, I can’t go to the piano for solace. All I can do is hope that either this is a phase, and it will pass, or that I will find myself a whisperer: someone who understands and can slowly coax me into letting it all out again – without fear, without tears, and sooner rather than later.

Toxic help

August 1, 2018 § 4 Comments

A couple of years back, through gulping sobs, I got my children to call my friend, Alison. The reason? I’d been crying non-stop for several hours and I couldn’t stop. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know what help I needed.

This, actually, was huge progress. I’ve never been good at asking for or receiving help. So the simple act of asking my children to call a friend for me was massive. And I sensed that Alison was the right friend to call.

She was. For starters, she lay next to me on my bed in the darkness and laughed at me – lovingly. And then patiently – and with humour – she teased the problem out of me and coached me into finding solutions.

This was good help – but not all help is good. Sometimes it can be quite detrimental.

I’ve learnt a lot about help in the past few years – partly by necessity, and partly thanks to a brilliant life coach who taught me how to receive help. Many of us struggle with asking for help. Or we push it away when it’s offered, because the cult of self-sufficiency tells us we are weak and needy. Perhaps our pride has fooled us into believing we must keep up appearances at all costs – even if that cost is our sanity.

These days, however, having learnt (mostly) to ask for help, I’m more interested in the way we offer help. In Anne Lamott’s wonderful TED talk, she says, “Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”

That gave me pause the first time I heard it. Help is the sunny side of control.

The trouble, you see, is not so much that we want to help others. It’s the way we do it. Partly, it’s because people don’t know how to ask for help, how to express what they need, but there’s also often a large measure of arrogance – and control – in the mix.

So many of us (myself included) often have a kind of well-meaning saviour complex: we not only see that people need help – we also think we know how to fix it. So we swoop in, uninvited, solve problems A, B, and C to our satisfaction, and then shake our heads in bewilderment when the recipients of the ‘help’ aren’t grateful, or don’t respond in what we feel is the appropriate manner.

This kind of help is the toxic kind – and I’ll be perfectly honest here – I’ve had to unlearn it. It’s disempowering. Its controlling. It’s patronising. It can be invasive. It assumes people are not capable of solving their own problems. And it also assumes that they have the same priorities you have.

But I get it – you want to help. What now?

The key is to offer your help in a respectful way; with consent. Even in an extreme situation, tread lightly. If someone is lying unconscious in a ditch, for example, consent for your help might not be possible or practical, of course. But bundling them into your car and carting them off to the hospital won’t be helpful either, if they happen to have a broken spine.

I did a first aid course a couple of years ago, and one of the things we learnt there was to ask conscious patients for permission to administer first aid. Not everyone wants your help as a first aider  – some people prefer to wait for the ambulance. This may also apply in situations that don’t require bandages and CPR.

When faced with someone in a dire situation – death, divorce, abuse,mental or physical illness – by all means offer help and support, but follow some basic guidelines:

1. Don’t offer advice if you’re not explicitly asked for it.

2. Ask a) whether they need help and b) if they do, what help they require, and then do only that.

3. If you do offer unsolicited help or advice, don’t expect gratitude. You probably won’t get it, nor do you deserved it, probably.

Offer support. Listen. Sympathise. Knowing there is a resource is usually enough for most people – it is their decision whether or not to make use of it or not.

The list

July 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

One of my university friends was fond of saying he wanted a ‘wasp-waisted’ woman as a wife one day. Or as he put it, in Afrikaans, ‘n perdebylyfie. And that was just one of the attributes she had to have.

So many single people I know seem to walk around with an imaginary list of qualities their perfect lover must have: tall, dark, curly hair, sense of humour. My list, mostly, consists of ‘sense of humour’ and ‘looks like a poet’. (I know – I don’t know what that means either.) Many people have that list and some people’s lists are very long indeed.

But as I stand in queues or walk around shopping centres and watch people, it strikes me that those lists do people so much more harm than good. There’s a perception that out there, somewhere, the perfect person awaits. It’s just a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, at which point – I presume – magically, you will connect with them and the angels will sing, and you’ll live happily ever after.

I blame Hollywood, frankly. And it’s not that I’m cynical about love – quite the opposite. I am the epitome of a hopeless romantic beneath my pragmatic exterior. It’s just that when I really watch the people I see, what I see is imperfect people, in imperfect relationships, muddling along quite happily.

Because while you’re sizing up everyone you meet against that list, and finding them wanting, there’s a good chance other people are doing the same to you. And I find it quite odd – arrogant even – that we have the temerity to draw up a list of often quite impossible criteria that other people have to comply with to be with us. Because we’re all so perfect?

Of course we aren’t. And of course I’m not suggesting that people should settle for someone they don’t connect with. But I also know that people are seldom what they seem on the outside, or at first glance. And I know that really, nobody is perfect – even the people in those old cigarette ads. We all get tired, ratty and, eventually, wrinkled. We all wake up with morning breath and sleep in our eyes. We’re all imperfectly, perfectly human.

And that’s the part I’m interested in – the human part. Who is the human behind the hair, the eyes, the height, the humour? What makes them get up in the morning? Are they kind to waiters and cashiers? Do they read? Do they make good conversation? What wounds have they suffered?

People are interesting. They have stories to tell. But you have to put down the list for a while, listen to their stories, and give up the search for perfection. Imperfection is so much more interesting.

Beauty fades; perfection wanes. There has to be that frisson, of course, that little spark that you have with some and not with others. But beyond that, you’d better hold my interest.

Speak up, speak out

May 21, 2018 § 1 Comment

I understand the movements of peace, love and tolerance for all, but I’m starting to think we’ve fallen so in love with tolerance, that we’ve forgotten that there are some things we shouldn’t be tolerating at all.

We are witnesses and participants of casual racism more often than we care to admit, but we laugh at the jokes anyway. We say nothing when a husband or wife constantly puts the other down. We’ll discuss them in the car on the way home, of course, but we won’t say anything: we don’t want to get involved.

We watch estranged parents using their children as pawns in a battle that isn’t theirs, and we are silent. We witness corruption or tax fraud – sometimes at work, sometimes because our friends brag about it, about how clever they’ve been. Perhaps we even admire them a little.

“It’s not my business,: we repeat, like a little mantra. “I will mind my own business and leave them to mind theirs.”

But it is our business. Because the consequences of those behaviours don’t sit in neat, contained silos. They spread outwards through society, like the clammy fingers of a misty morning, touching everyone they encounter. People are damaged – children are damaged. Government and business coffers are robbed. And the damage quotient goes up and up and up.

And then we pontificate at dinner tables and barbeques about the state of the world: how it’s all going one way. How the country is going to the dogs.

But it’s we who’ve gone to the dogs. We’ve relegated a sense of broader right and wrong to an individual what’s right and wrong for me. And that only works up to a point. Some things are just wrong. Abuse, injustice, murder, rape and robbery for starters – many of which go on all around us in various guises, and are even perpetrated by our friends.

So be tolerant. Be inclusive. Celebrate the magnificent diversity of the human experience and recognise that we all navigate the world differently and have different viewpoints. But also have the guts to speak in those situations that make you uncomfortable – the racist jokes, the constant belittling of a friend by their spouse, the overfeeding of an already obese child.

Because no man, woman or child is an island. Damaged people make for damaged societies – and we have a lot of repairwork to do. Speak up. Speak out.


The meeting

March 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

Early this past Saturday morning, on a familiar road, I happened upon four young men. They were congegrated on a corner, leaning on an electrical supply box, seemingly oblivious to the crisp, autumnal air.

On top of the box was an assortment of drinks: a bottle of water, a take-away coffee, a carton of amasi. They chatted and laughed. One playfully punched another’s arm, as young men often will.

I drew closer and stopped at the lights, and noticed that one of them held a handwritten sign, and a paper cup loosely in his left hand. I knew his face; I’d seen him often at this very corner. Except now, the shuffling gait, the stooped spine, the pleading eyes were gone. Now he seemed tall and proud and vital.

This morning he was simply a young man, taking a few minutes before the work day began to chat to his colleagues in the sunshine. To talk about the news, perhaps, or share a joke.

Soon they would scatter to their respective corners, their sparse belongings obscured in the recesses of high walls, or the crook of a tree. Soon all of them would don their professional personas, and work the cars at the lights: shuffling, stooping, pleading: all in the name of making a few bucks for food, shelter, clothes.

And you can think of them as con artists, sure: there’s a sense in which they perform to extract money from passing trade. I couldn’t help but think, though, that many of the ‘respectable’ jobs we’re so proud of – the ones that distinguish us only by the buying power they give us – really aren’t that different when you really boil things down.

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