Your mind – it matters

January 27, 2016 § 3 Comments

I was chatting to someone the other day when he offered to give me the number of a carpenter he knew. I whipped out my phone, expecting him to do the same, and instead he just rattled off the number. I barely had a chance to capture it.

And my first thought was: “I used to be able to do that!” And I did. My recall for phone numbers was phenomenal. I very seldom had to look up a number – I just picked up the phone and dialled.

I can’t even blame ageing, because I know exactly what the problem is – my mobile phone. Remembering phone numbers came much more easily when you had to punch them in repeatedly, or if you’re as old as me, you turned a rotary dial and heard that satisfying clack-clack-clack after each number. Muscle memory goes a long way – any musician will tell you that.

And what about map reading? Less than a decade ago, if you needed to go somewhere you looked it up on the map and plotted a route for yourself. Now you plug the address into Google Maps, pop your phone into a hidey-hole on the dashboard and mindlessly follow an automated voice prompt like a hypnotists’ puppet. There’s no looking out for landmarks or keeping an eye on where you are – you just do as you’re told.

I’m no neuroscientist, but I think it’s making our brains lazier and lazier. Everything is automated. We don’t have to think, strategise or plan, and so we don’t. And every study I’ve ever read on ageing and the brain indicates that if you want to keep your mind active, you need to keep it, erm, active. Just as your body will degenerate faster if you don’t stay fit, your mind needs regular and varied exercise to remain vital.

A number of years ago my parents moved into a newly built unit in a retirement village (I’m not allowed to call it the old age home). And I remember noting, for example, that none of the taps were actual taps – they could all be operated with a single finger. Everything was designed so that someone who was quite frail and weak could live in the unit with ease.

I get where that’s coming from – except that my parents weren’t frail and weak yet. And we all know that if you don’t use your muscles, you lose them. So by moving into that house where no effort is required, they were essentially setting themselves up to decline physically.

Of course I’m not suggesting that we make everything difficult, or halt the pace of progress, or give up our labour-saving machines. I’m partial to an automatic washing machine myself. But there’s a balance to be had somewhere between convenience and laziness.

There’s a lot about ageing that one can do nothing about, but there’s a lot you can do to stay healthy and vital – physically and mentally. The more we rely on devices to do our thinking for us, methinks, the less likely we are to go into old age with an incisive, sprightly mind.

And that would be a great pity.


Better together

April 23, 2014 § 3 Comments

Two Sundays ago, I stood on my front stoep with my friend (and bona fide professional musician and producer) Lionel Bastos, and sang four of my own songs to an audience of 50 or so people. I didn’t write about it last week, because I didn’t have the words.

It was a beautiful evening. Lionel sang two sets of his magnificent music, another dear friend, Ruth Everson, performed her searing, spectacular poetry, and I bared my soul – and allowed my voice to be heard – in a way I haven’t done for years. It was thoroughly terrifying and utterly energising at the same time. I felt like I was on the cusp of something momentous.

I’ve always been involved in music in some way or another. I learned to play the piano at school, I performed in musicals, I sang in choirs, I taught myself to play the guitar and steeldrum (badly) and even leaned out of the window at my university residence and sang sad songs to the night air during a particularly dramatic phase. But I only realised late in life that the thing I love most about music is collaborating with others.

It’s hard to explain, but if you take singing in a choir as an example, the moment I love best is when, after you’ve rehearsed all the voice parts separately, the conductor raises his hand and you sing together for the first time. It’s often imperfect, but there’s something about the energy of that collaboration and the richness of the sound that creates a kind of magic.

That’s what I loved most about that Sunday evening. Lionel and I had two fairly shambolic, haphazard rehearsals of my songs. We rehearsed none of his. But there was a collaboration that happened – I sang harmonies for him wherever possible; he did the same for me. There was banter, there was laughter, there were little moments of surprise and shared grins between he and I at a faltered chord or a forgotten lyric that the audience probably didn’t see. It was perfect in its imperfection.

And for me, it felt like magic. For me, it felt like the beginning of something wonderful, something new.

I hope I’m right. Because I want to feel like that again. And again. And again.

A lost art

April 16, 2014 § 9 Comments

When I was growing up, thank you notes were non-negotiable. After every birthday party, my mom sat us down with a writing pad and a list of the presents we’d received, and we wrote proper thank you letters to friends and family members who’d spoilt us.

It wasn’t good enough to say, “Dear Uncle James, thank you for the book.” It had to be a proper letter, at least a page and a couple of paragraphs long. But somehow, in a world of texts and typing, we’ve lost the art of writing letters, and thank you letters in particular.

But there were five people I needed to thank, so I sat down to write. And a funny thing happened.

Just like forgiveness – which frees the the forgiver, not the forgiven – I found that the act of expressing gratitude was an enormously uplifting exercise for me.

It’s so easy to just say “thank you” and leave it at that. To be general, yet grateful, and hope that will do. But if you sit down and get specific, if you try to unpack why you appreciate someone, you are left with a sense of awe and wonder at the extraordinary people who inhabit your life. And your heart smiles.

Or at least, mine does.



Just an old-fashioned girl

March 19, 2014 § 7 Comments

This morning, at breakfast, a friend and I were discussing how people just don’t seem know how to do basic things anymore. Things our parents seemed to know instinctively how to do (although, of course, someone had to have taught them).

If I think back to my childhood, my dad fixed most of the stuff around the house. He painted walls and window frames. He did the car’s oil change and always seemed to be doing something mysterious with spark plugs. He even made and installed the built-in cupboards in our bedrooms with one of his friends, and did as good a job as any professional carpenter. 

My mom made us clothes, knitted our school jerseys, cooked, baked, used up leftovers and probably clipped the dog’s toenails while we were at school. We had a veggie garden and a compost heap and when the garden chairs that gave us waffle patterns on our bums were looking tatty, we all took a brush and helped to give them a fresh coat of enamel paint.

And the point is not that we lived in some kind of 1950s idyll. Both of my parents worked, and there was no gender discrimination in teaching skills to we three kids – my brother helped around the house; my sister and I helped with home and car maintenance.

But we were raised to think for ourselves, to do for ourselves, to chase the career of our dreams, to study, to question and to improvise where necessary. I can sew, I can knit, I can cook. I can also change a tyre, wire a plug and do very basic woodwork if required. I have lain under a car with my father and seen how an oil change is done (although I’m not sure I could do one today, if I’m honest).

But we don’t live in that kind of society anymore. By and large, if something’s broken, it’s discarded or we call someone else to fix it. I know people who take garments to a tailor because they don’t know how to sew on a button or put up a hem – neither of which is very difficult or time-consuming. Children don’t know how to make a cup of tea. I know one person who calls the electrician when they need to change a lightbulb, which I find a little extreme given that they’re quite capable of standing on a chair or a ladder themselves. We just don’t seem to know how to do anything other than our primary occupations anymore.

So my friend and I, over eggs and coffee this morning, predicted a return to this slightly more old-fashioned way of life, partly because – as a society – we have to get tired of conspicuous consumerism at some point, surely? And partly becuase of the impact of the ever-increasing cost of living.

We’re going to have to grow our own vegetables, change our own lightbulbs and learn some basic home maintenance skills, because we simply can’t afford not to. We may have to eat out less and cook more, fix things instead of replacing them, and waste less in all spheres of life: stop being so helpless and useless and do things for ourselves.

So, call me old-fashioned, but I quite like being someone who knows how to do stuff. And I’m not usually one to hanker for the ‘good old days’, but I think in this instance, we could do with remembering how capable people used to be. I’m glad I was raised that way. I’m glad I know how to do stuff. I’m glad I have skills that save both time and money, and have given me a great deal of satisfaction too. Thanks, Mom and Dad. Good job.

Of Marmite and men

November 20, 2013 § 10 Comments

When I was little – just three or four – we still talked to our neighbours in suburban South Africa. You could still see over the wall into the garden next door and lean on the fence for a natter, while the neighbour watered their garden in the cool of the late afternoon.

Our neighbours, for a time, were the Weyers family. I don’t remember everyone in the family, but I remember at least two sons – Werner was the youngest, there was one called Hillie (presumably short for Hillebrand or something similar) and I think one more. They were typical Afrikaans boys – barefoot, slightly grubby, and knobbly-kneed in the way of young boys, with rhinoceros-hide feet that could withstand even the burn of the notorious, three-thorned dubbeltjie.

There was also one daughter – Neevra – who I thought was the mostly glamorous  girl I had ever encountered, and who scandalised my mother by using red as the theme colour for her wedding. Apparently it’s very unlucky. And then, to add insult to injury, she married someone my mother felt was unsuitable in some way.

But most of all, I remember their mother, Ma Weyers. I honestly thought that was her name for the longest time. After all, that’s what her children called her, so I followed suit. And to this day, that’s how I think of her – as Ma. It strikes me that I don’t actually know what her first name is.

Ma had salt-and-pepper wavy hair that formed a cloud around her head, and the softest, kindest voice you ever heard. I remember the slight wobble of her upper arms, the warmth of her smile, and the faded flowery apron she wore around her waist. I couldn’t say what colour her eyes were behind the silver rimmed glasses, but they were permanently crinkled in a smile.

What I remember most was how much I loved to visit Ma. In the mornings, when her children were at school, I would be hoisted over the wall into her garden. We would go into her cool, pleasantly dark kitchen at the back of the house, and sit down at the formica table with its chrome trim, and then Ma would make tea and “roof sandwiches” for me.

Roof sandwiches were a special thrill. They were simple Marmite sandwiches, but they felt like pure decadence, made as they were on white bread – a definite no-no in our household. She would cut the crusts off for me – again, unheard of at home – and then she would cut them into tiny triangles and arrange them pointing upwards, like tiny storybook roofs, just the way I liked them. Ma and I would drink our tea, and eat our roof sandwiches, and all was well in my world.

I lost contact with Ma, although I did cycle around to her new house once or twice to visit in later years. Tea and roof sandwiches were always served, even when I was 12 and 16 and 19. And I wonder sometimes if she’s still alive, if she would remember the little girl who sat in her kitchen all those years ago feeling as spoilt as if she were the Queen of England. If she would allow me, now, to make tea and roof sandwiches for her.

Because what Ma taught me was that it really is the little things that make an impression. That it’s the small acts of kindness that can make someone feel like they’re the most important girl in the world. Not caviar or champagne or chocolate – although those things can be wonderful too. Just Marmite sandwiches, on white bread, with the crusts cut off. Roof sandwiches for a little girl whose feet swung between the legs of the chair, and who truly felt that she was seen and heard for those few minutes on a weekday morning.

So sometimes, when I’m feeling a little sad, I make roof sandwiches for myself – just the way she made them – even if my feet have touched the floor for many a year now. I remember Ma and her kindness to me, and instantly, the world is a more welcoming place.

A point of view

September 4, 2013 § 10 Comments

Monday did not start well. By the time I’d finished mind dumping my to-do list into my diary, there were 13 items, which I took to be unlucky. Then I missed the back step and fell clumsily into the kitchen, banging my elbows on the tiles. All of this happened before 8am, which did not bode well for the rest of the day.

And then, to add insult to injury, the first item on my agenda was buying a new school jersey and blazer for my daughter, which didn’t really feel like something to look forward to. Apart from the expense, the prospect of the back-to-school queues in the school clothing shop could make even the most hardened shopper shake at the knees.

But as I drove to the shops, a throwaway comment by my 11-year-old gave me pause. I was busy warning her that we didn’t have a lot of time in which to complete our errand, and that we might have to go in search of the shop, which was in temporary premises while its usual home was being renovated.

“That’s okay, Mom,” she piped up from the back seat. “We can think of it as a treasure hunt.”

I should make it clear that I’m not a huge fan of the all-pervasive motivational, inspirational think-yourself-thin-and-successful-and-rich brigade. But I did like the way she reframed that; it’s typical of the way children think. And it got me thinking: when did I become a grown-up? And why?

Why don’t I run and jump anymore? When did I stop splashing in puddles? Why don’t I climb trees? Or run up the stairs? Or slide down banisters? When did I become this responsible, obsessive planner of my every minute and forget to be spontaneous?

Last week, when I was back in my hometown, I took my girls to one of the favourite beaches of my childhood, a beach famous for its huge sand dunes and wild cross-currents. We were there to walk and splash and be blown about by the wind for an hour or two. As we looked down at the waves from the top of a dune, they remarked that it was a pity we didn’t have something to slide down on.

When I told them they could simply roll down the dunes, and it was a lot of fun, they didn’t believe me, so I lay down in the sand and demonstrated. With some cajoling, they followed suit. And I can’t speak for them, but it might have been the best thing I did all day, even if it was undignified and slightly terrifying. Even if I did sit in the sand for a bit while the world stopped whirling. It left me feeling exhilarated from the sheer silliness of it all.

Of course, I can’t get away from my responsibilities completely – that’s ridiculous. I do still need to do a lot of grown-up things, but I hope I remember to be a child sometimes; to build that spontaneity into my day and remember to see life as an adventure or a treasure hunt rather than an endless list of chores and tasks to be completed.

And I’m grateful for the sand that found its way into the strangest places – my pockets, my ears, my shoes. I hope that when I find a stray grain that has stubbornly resisted washing and shaking out, that I’ll remember to lie down and roll down that sand dune, just because it’s fun.


Scent of a woman

August 17, 2012 Comments Off on Scent of a woman

I am not a great perfume lover. Most perfumes get up my nose, irritate my allergies, and I find most of them fairly overpowering and headache-inducing. I have a favourite perfume oil I dab on my wrists occasionally when the mood takes me, and that’s about it.

But today, as I passed my neighbourhood pharmacy, I spotted a familiar bottle on one of the counters, and found I couldn’t resist spraying some 4711 Eau de Cologne on each wrist. Because it’s the scent I associate with my granny. She’s been gone for eight years now, and I still miss her terribly.

Both of my grandfathers died before I was born, and my maternal grandmother died when I was just six, so my dad’s mom was the grandparent who was around for the longest. We were very close; I took my first unaccompanied flight to Cape Town to visit her when I was eleven, and that week spent at her home in Stellenbosch is one of my fondest memories.

I had no qualms about spending a week with her and the elderly, frail woman she cared for despite being so young, and not having any siblings or friends my age to keep me company. My granny was company enough. We raced around the streets in her little green Mini visiting a variety of her friends, who cooed over me and gave me sweets and other treats, which pleased me no end. I also spent a lot of my time elbow deep in flour – her simple but stupendously delicious food and legendary puff pastry, always made from scratch, continue to inspire me in my own kitchen today.

But back to the 4711 – or Eau de Cologne, as she always called it. She always had a bottle on her dressing table, perched beside the black lacquered jewellery box that now resides on my chest of drawers. I remember being entranced by the bottle’s feminine shape and the turquoise and gold curlicues on the label. To me it was the epitome of glamour.

Of course, it isn’t really, especially by today’s standards, but she treated it simultaneously as if it were liquid gold, and a panacea for a multitude of ills. I’ve written before of how she taught me to be thrifty: Eau de Cologne was always dabbed on sparingly, never sprayed with gay abandon. But if you had a mosquito bite, out it would come, and it would – miraculously – soothe the itching and discomfort. If you were hot and bothered, again, some Eau de Cologne was dabbed on your pulse points to cool you down. There was very little it couldn’t do.

It’s the smell I associate with the inside of her wardrobe and the lining of her handbag. If she retrieved a tissue from underneath her watchstrap to wipe your nose, or dry your tears, the faint, delicate odour always seemed to be trapped in the fibres. And in many ways, the scent was a perfect metaphor for her – simple, unfussy, subtle, and a comforting presence no matter what ailed you.

I’ve really been missing her of late. So often I want to pick up the phone and call her; hear her voice and laugh at her wicked, mischievous jokes, and bask in her practical, down-to-earth advice. All I have left of her is the jewellery box, some photographs, her recipe books and an arsenal of happy memories. But this afternoon as I did my grocery shopping, her scent lingered on my wrists, and I could almost hear her voice again.


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