So many thoughts

So many thoughts, so many potential posts. Here they are, in no particular order.


  1. I’m tired. So, so tired. This morning I slept through an interview scheduled with radio Islam because I completely forgot even though I set my alarm, and that sums up 2017 for me. I have no mojo left. My enthusiasm for anything is at a low ebb. I’m getting meeting requests for 2018 and I want to weep because I haven’t even made it through 2017 yet, and I’m scared that I’m going to get to January and feel as meh as I do now.


  1. It’s been years and years since I made a real decision. By that, I mean taking control and charting a course, rather than reacting to something that either happened or something that someone else did. Now, my life philosophy is: roll with it. Something happens and I go, “Cool, this is what we’re doing now” and I work out scenarios for managing my responses.


  1. If the past two years or so have taught me anything, is that there is something to be said for saying nothing and waiting to see what happens. Maybe I should stop being so passive. Maybe I should take charge. But so far, the wait, see and keep tjoepstil approach is working out just fine.


  1. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine RaRa ever managing breast feeding. Now she’s Baby Turtle Boobfiend, and I’m wondering if she’s going to turn into Harvey from the Bitty Mummy Bitty sketches in Little Britain. Hauling out my boob for her has become as natural as breathing.


  1. Now that it’s summer, I’ve discovered that splashing with RaRa in my parents’ swimming pool is one of the things I love most. This is all the more poignant because it was in that same pool that I experienced some of my most soul-scraping misery. If I can summon up the creative energy, I’ll create a new swimming pool painting as an echo of the earlier work.


  1. School fees and worrying about how I am going to afford them are now the central concern of my life.


  1. I have a couple of projects planned for the December break, which I hope will recharge my batteries. One of them is teaching myself at least the basics of jazz piano, and the other is an illustrated alphabet for RaRa.


  1. Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram make me anxious to the point where I avoid both. For some reasons of which I’m very aware – my posts aren’t popular enough – and some which I can’t quite articulate, my life doesn’t measure up to the others I see shared there.


  1. Nobody knows how I really feel about anything. Sometimes I will write a tweet or a status update or, rarely, a blog post that reveals something for those who know where and how to look, but that’s now the exception rather than the rule. With the exception of one person I’ve never met and who may or may not be who she says she is, I never confide in anyone any more.


  1. Yesterday was the end of an era that began in 2010, an era to which RaRa owes her existence. I’m philosophical. I try to be careful about what I choose to care about to the point where I’m back in the toilet cubicles at the office, weeping beside the S-bend. As a friend once said to me: don’t go into fuckdebt.

Why I don’t want to go to a hairdresser (and what that has to do with school fees)

It’s amazing how things have unintended consequences. How, because I wanted to find duck last Friday, I went to Country Meat in Epsom Downs. Because they didn’t have any duck, I checked out the newly renovated Epsom Downs Pick n Pay. Because I was curious about the new clothing section, I then wandered down the haircare aisle, saw the home hair colouring kits and decided to buy a Garnier Nutrisse shade of golden blonde. And because my parents came over for lunch on Sunday, my mother saw the box in my bedroom and laughed, saying it would do nothing for me and that if I wanted to colour my hair, I should go to a hairdresser.

And now my anxiety is skyrocketing.

My mother has suggested that I go to her hairdresser, and says that she will pay for it. She is nagging me to book for this weekend. My husband thinks I should go to the hairdresser I went to the last time I had my hair done, back in April 2015, before we went to Japan, before I wasted so much money tilting at windmills, before I had a baby.

I don’t want to do either. I don’t want to spend money on my hair. More particularly, I don’t want anyone to spend money on my hair.

Oh yes, I know my hair is a disaster. (Right now, I have it tied up so that nobody will notice that I hacked off about 6cm of my ponytail this morning with a blunt pair of scissors I keep in my bedside drawer.)

But embracing my terrible hair, acknowledging the utter impossibility that it will ever look good, and abandoning the notion that spending thousands on it is anything but a futile attempt to fix what nature gifted me, has become a matter of principle.

Once upon a time, the idea of cutting my own hair would have filled me with fascinated horror. But when your hair is an annoyance and you have a baby demanding BOOB NOW, perspective shifts. Since I first wielded a pair of scissors on myself, I’ve done it several times and it’s deliciously cathartic. This morning was messy, but no different.

This is the principle: I refuse to spend money on my hair when I am saving for school fees. There are expenses I can’t cut back on – my new glasses cost a bomb even with medical aid covering a portion, the chiropractor helps with the headaches that impact on my productivity, and my teeth are a financial disaster waiting to happen.

But hair, like clothing and shoes and leisure travel, is optional. I’ve spent thousands and thousands and thousands on it in the past, and that stops now. I know I am being irrational, but this matters to me. It matters. And I don’t know how I am going to persuade others to understand.

Lion luck and letting go

Some places instantly evoke a powerful feeling, one that never goes away. One of those is the view from the east of the Strijdom Tunnel on the R36 in Limpopo. On one side are the rusty cliffs of the Eastern Drakensberg; on the other is the broad, flat expanse of the Lowveld as it stretches all the way to Mozambique.


It’s a view I got to know and love when I was very young. For most of my life, I have been very privileged to visit my favourite part of the world regularly. It’s a world of screeching francolins and chuckling hornbills, of zebras and giraffes and, if we were lucky, lions and rhinos – and if we were very, very lucky, leopards too. Lion luck, I called it. Sometimes we had it. Sometimes we didn’t, and we only ever saw impala and steenbok and duiker. Still, no matter what, there was always the possibility that around the very next bush might be something amazing.


At night, the fire would flicker in the dark as sparks rose into a sky full of stars. The lions would call and we would try to guess how close they are, and whether they would let us catch a glimpse of their tawny selves.


I miss this place so much. After more than two years, I had made plans to go again, and this morning they fell apart. My mother reminded me, as I should have known she would, that RaRa is under two and it isn’t safe for her to visit an area where malaria is endemic, even in winter. It would be utterly irresponsible of me to take her, and because she is still breastfed and refuses a bottle, being apart for more than a day is unthinkable.


I had invested a lot in these plans. I had allowed myself to get excited about them. They were something I was looking forward to, and that mattered because I’d forgotten how to look forward to anything.


I was frustrated for a moment or two. Angry, even. That I’ve shrugged and let go and moved on so easily surprises me. It’s a good thing. It means that the depression is not as bad as it was, and that I don’t need to hold on to a stake in some future ground as I try to pull myself out of the current morass.


Now, all I can think about is how utterly impractical it would have been to take RaRa there. A more toddler-unfriendly place is hard to imagine: the unfenced pool, the monkey and baboon shit, lurking predators like leopards, an open fire, raised decks where a child could fall. She would have needed constant supervision. There would have been no quiet sitting, listening to the birds or gazing speculatively through binoculars.


The malaria is never not going to be a problem, even in winter. The camp is never going to be suitable for children. Maybe it’s time to accept that I will never go back. This place and my love for it is in my past, and it was nice while it lasted, but it’s over now. The memories will have to be enough.

Happily Never After

I’m standing in the garden of remembrance on the grounds of St Michaels, the church where my parents were married, where I was christened and confirmed, where I sang in the choir and pronounced “womb” to rhyme with “bomb” instead of “tomb”, where I was married (first time around) and my grandparents were consigned to the afterlife. The winter afternoon is fresh but pleasant. The white-eyes are chirping in the trees and the roses nod in the hint of a breeze.

My parents are here. So are my aunt and uncle and the younger of my two brothers, and my aunt from Pietermaritzburg. The priest, a woman with a Canadian accent, has handed us print out of the service for the interment of ashes. My grandmother is in a small wooden box with a brass plaque. On top of it rests a spectacular cerise rose. She would have approved. She always did love roses.

The priest reads the prayers. We say Alleluia Amen where the copy is in bold. I read from the New Testament, the same reading at the funeral. John 14:2. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe in Me as well.”  I enunciate the words clearly and read with carefully considered expression, like the well-spoken schoolgirl with colours for public speaking that I used to be.

I don’t believe in God, I think to myself.

The priest tells us that my grandmother has joined the Lord in the afterlife, that she and my grandfather are reunited, and I think: what nonsense this all is. Once upon a time, I believed all of this, and now I don’t. There is no afterlife. There is nothing: just us, standing in this small garden, preparing to bury what, symbolically, is left of my grandmother.

The priest places the box in the ground and invites us all to take a handful of earth to scatter on top of it. The soil is cool and dry in my hand. The priest’s robes get in the way, so my uncle takes over the task of covering the box with earth. “There’s an earthworm,” he says.

Prayers and more prayers. We can come and visit the spot at any time, the priest says. There is 24/7 security, so even though the church is surrounded by walls and electric fencing, we can commune with the dead before dawn if we so wish. She suggests that we have a new plaque made with both my grandparents’ names. I think back to them, how I loved them like a second set of parents, but that I was never under any illusion that they particularly liked one another. Would they have wanted to be reunited in the afterlife? I can’t imagine it.

After the service is over, I glance over some of the other plaques. Each has a name and a set of dates. Some are parentheses to many decades. Others are shockingly short. A young man who died at the age of 23, a woman whose life came to an end shortly before her 22nd birthday more than three decades before.

Sometimes, I miss believing in God.


Now I am in my grandmother’s lounge. The parquet clicks quietly under my feet. In the display cases are the Royal Doulton figurines my grandmother collected. As a child, I used to look at them and try to decide which one I thought was prettiest. They never interested me much, though. Nobody in the family wants them, so they will be sold. Is there a market for them? Who knows. Across this city, there were probably many women who collected them and displayed them in cabinets, where they now perplex the heirs who must decide what the hell to do with them.

This is how life ends: a trail of things, of stuff, left at the high tide mark of time. Silver, crystal, tea sets, antiques, jewels. I feel no attachment to any of this, which is surprising. I’ve known this house and the things in it my entire life, and yet there’s no single object in which I’ve invested my feelings about my grandmother. I wish there were.

Life comes to an end, and nothing means anything.


I am at home now, sitting on a mat I’ve brought from my grandmother’s, trying to feed RaRa yoghurt while she plays with a new ball. I think about all the things I have collected over the years. Some are stored here. Others are at my parents’, and there are still lots of books and papers in the house with the Royal Doulton ladies and the parquet floors. I can’t imagine that anyone would want them. They are only meaningful to me: signposts to older storylines. I have far too much stuff, and the thought of what to do with it all makes me anxious.

I cast a thought to Twitter, and what people there might think. (I always think of Twitter – Woke Twitter, most especially – which has become my conscience and my inner voice.) And of course, to have stuff, to have too much stuff, is a luxury. So many people in this country have nothing, or next to nothing. The accumulation of crap is largely a privilege of the middle classes.

I take another sip of wine and regard my daughter. She has been bathed and dressed and fed, and now she is happy. “Fetch the ball,” I suggest, and off she goes like a baby turtle or a wind up toy, slap slap slap softly on the laminate floor. She brings the ball to me and I praise her for her cleverness and lose myself for a moment in her smile.

This is purpose. This is meaning. There is no God, and there is too much stuff, but there is this delightful, unexpected child and tonight – just tonight – this is all and she is everything.

Things I did on my day off work

Three days of bonus leave are nothing to be sniffed at. They expire at the end of June, so it’s now or never. When I saw that June 13 had no – no! – meetings scheduled, I knew this was a very special opportunity.

What do you do with a day (almost) all to yourself? You do something you haven’t done in a long time. You do something that used to matter to you, a lot. So, today, the plan was to watch a movie in a cinema for the first time since December 2015 when I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Once upon a time, I was something of a movie buff, watching at least two movies a week. I studied film at university and wrote movie reviews for SA City Life in the 1990s, when I got to see everything long before everything else, and with great catering. That was how I met Barry Ronge and why, during one conversation about an ex-boyfriend, he called me “Hitler with tits”.

Once I had a RaRa, movies became most definitely a thing of the past. Until today. Today, I was going to watch Wonder Woman and write later about the experience of being in a dark theatre with nothing to think about or focus on but what was on the screen in front of me.

It was never going to happen, of course. This morning, I needed to write a resumé and send it to a potential client, and give a quick overview on the job at hand. By the time I dropped RaRa off at my mother’s, I knew there was no way I would ever get to Rosebank on time.

So this is what I did instead.

First, I dropped off two paintings at the framers I use to mount my work in lipstick. (They’re next to Herbert Evans, and very good. I can recommend them.) One painting is for Gaynor Young, and the other is for a fellow fan of the Frankel, the unbeaten superstar British racehorse.

On the way to The Zone, I’d noticed several outside broadcast vans next to Oxford Road. Twitter informed me that it was the DA press conference, so I snooped around the Rosebank Holiday Inn and scored a coffee while eavesdropping on the comments of the journalists gathered there. It’s possible that I photobombed a TV reporter. If I’d run into either Mmusi or Helen – neither of whom I’ve met, but both of whom know my husband – I’m not sure what I’d have said.

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Then I ducked into the Clicks in search of a photo frame for Father’s Day. There I encountered assistant store manager Lesego Phihlela, who gave me a discount on two photo frames and happily chatted to me when I asked her about some of my clients. (Yes, I know it was a day off, but I’m never not working.)

I tweeted a pic of Thula Sindi’s Rosebank store and titled it the headquarters of Avo Haters South Africa. (The avo wars are a perennial feature of Black Twitter in South Africa.)

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After that, I went hunting for Africology. My husband had received a spa voucher as part of a corporate gift, and six months later, there was finally an opportunity to use it. I walked in, chose my treatment and enjoyed 45 minutes of bliss thanks to Aletta Khwinana. The treatment got to all the knots and I feel so much better now, which is more than I can say for many massages. Highly recommended.

After the massage, I rushed back to my mom’s place to feed RaRa and go through my mails. I typed up a quick biography for the executive creative director who needed them for a pitch, then headed to the office to chat to the MD about some proactive social media ideas. (Life hack: showing up at the office when you are officially on leave is a way to win friends and influence people.)

Then I did a spot of shopping at the centre across the road before picking up RaRa, heading home and writing about my day.

There’s something quite wonderful about being officially on leave when everyone else is at work. There’s none of the guilt, no worrying about time sheets, and always the possibility that something interesting might happen.

Oh yes – I did mention that there were three bonus leave days. I still have two more bonus days to take. I’m thinking about using those to travel to the Garden Route, which needs the business after the horrific fires of the past week. If I don’t travel, I’ll try to watch a movie in a cinema again. Perhaps I’ll use my two Sorbet vouchers, one of which dates from August 2015. I haven’t bothered to get my nails done in all that time, but bonus leave means there’s no excuse.



Passport to home

This afternoon, my husband called me from Hong Kong. Yesterday and the day before, it was Beijing, where he attended a conference. I’m looking forward to having him back home, but I’m glad he’s had another opportunity to travel, because he loves it and it matters so much to him. He might be off again to India soon for his 40th high school reunion, and he has a good friend in Vienna he visits regularly, so I am sure there will be more WhatsApp video calls in the months ahead.

I have travelled with him to Hong Kong and Vienna and India before, but next time he goes, it will be on his own. This is how it will be from now on.

Which reminds of where I keep my passport, in my cupboard wedged between my socks and my underwear. It’s next to RaRa’s vaccination records, which is apt. One document has become far more important than the other, and I don’t imagine I will use the other again except to explain to British Airways why my name on the ticket is Sarah Britten-Steyn and not Sarah Britten. (It’s a long story, which I won’t go into here.)

Travel – the kind that requires a passport – was once one of the most important things in my life. It was impossibly extravagant when I was growing up, and I vowed to change that once I had a job and money of my own. I felt ashamed that I had seen so little of the world, and envious of those who had.

When I was a child during the 80s, overseas travel was something that only amazingly rich people did. Bear in mind that these were the apartheid years, and it was less common for (white) South Africans – the perennial polecats of the world – to venture abroad.   My father traveled regularly, but that was on Eskom-related business, usually heading off to Paris to talk about high voltage power lines. My mother stayed home with us. I knew that there were photos of her visiting Europe when she was much younger, but I never saw them and as far as I was concerned, the rest of the world existed only on TV and, therefore, only in theory.

Now, history is set to repeat itself. RaRa and I will stay home. As long as there are school fees to be saved for and debts to clear, travel is the least of my priorities. Having blown so much money on a quixotic trip to exhibit my art in Japan before I fell pregnant in 2015, I’m loathe to make the same mistake again – and quite frankly, the thought of traveling overseas with RaRa does not appeal to me at all. We have no reason to go, and maybe we never will.

This is what it means to have a child, for me: to stamp out the desire for things that are no longer practical. Travel is the first to be struck off the list. Clothing is up there too, as are other things that aren’t strictly necessary: shoes, hair, dinners, entertainment. I cant justify any of it. Not now, not ever.


Things I would save from a fire

Today, Twitter and Facebook are filled with pictures of boiling sheets of flame and a post-apocalyptic world that used to be a town I’ve known my entire life: Knysna. It’s hard to believe that so much of this lovely place of lagoons and forests (and, yes, nightmarish crowds and traffic over December) has been reduced to ashes and soot.

To see this happen in Knysna of all places is especially hard because of my personal connection to the town. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve shopping with my grandfather along the main road. It was in December 2013 that Kanthan invited me to lunch with friends at Thesen Island when I happened to be staying at Hope Villa with my friend Laura. It was there that I returned in January this year to introduce RaRa to Tessa and Friedel, our hosts there.

Hope Villa still stands, but many homes have been destroyed. Not just holiday homes occupied in high season, but spaces where lives have been built up over time, where the years have laid down layers of meaning like sediment. Places of furniture and photographs, books and paintings and memories.

Looking at videos of blackened remnants of walls and windows like eye sockets in skulls, I found myself wondering today what I would do if my home was about to be lost and I had to leave. What would I try to save?

And it struck me that apart from the obvious  – family members, RaRa and her car seat, the animals, my glasses (so I could see to drive), my phone and a charger, my wallet and perhaps my medication – I’d leave all my things to burn. No paintings, no clothing, no photographs, no books. Not even my laptop. Everything can be replaced, and if that weren’t possible, it would have to live on in my memory.

If I had time, I’d rush back to grab RaRa’s vaccination card and my passport, because I keep them together, and my Flip File filled with the kind of documents that would involve a lot of queuing and sighing and cursing to replace.

It’s a liberating thought, in a way, not being so attached to things that their loss would cause me anguish. I remember a time when I would have found leaving my stuff behind very hard. Now, it’s easier, because all of the things that really matter are in my memories, in my arms and in my heart.