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.

 

On Mother’s Day, here’s to the grandmothers

There are 90 years, 2 months and 13 days between the two people in the photograph below. This is my daughter with my grandmother on the very first day that they finally got to meet. I don’t know for sure if, by then, my grandmother knew exactly who I was and who had brought her a baby, but I like to think that she did.

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On Friday, I gave one of two eulogies at Granny Molly’s funeral. She died on Thursday, May 4, at the age of 91, which means I was fortunate enough to have her in my life for more than 42 years. (42: the answer to life, the universe and everything.)

I was very close to her for much of my life. As I reflected on Friday, “everyone should have a Granny Molly in their lives”. That tribute to her was very much on behalf of her eight grandchildren, of which I am the eldest.

Some of my earliest memories involve Granny Molly: walking up the hill from my parents’ home to hers, lying on her bed while she tickled my back and told me stories about a little boy called Seedy Weedy, who lived in Plettenberg Bay and who loved to “pee in the seagull’s eye”. I lived with her before I got married and after my divorce; she was a constant fixture in my life, the family matriarch around whom the rest of us revolved.

I am so very fortunate to have had a grandmother who loved me – and spoiled me – and was there for me when it mattered most. RaRa is lucky enough to be very close to her grandmother too. Long before my daughter was born so far ahead of schedule, my mother told me that she would not let me put my child into daycare. So it is that every work day, I take her to my parents’ home, where my mother, my aunt Janet and my mother’s helper Joyce all help to feed, change and entertain my baby while I am in meetings and hunched behind my laptop drawing PowerPoint slides.

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On Friday, RaRa attended Granny Molly’s funeral. She didn’t know what was going on, of course. For most of the requiem mass, she prattled happily, speaking – in baby talk – on behalf of all the great grandchildren. Her innocent cheeriness brought smiles to an otherwise solemn occasion, and I like to think that my grandmother would have been charmed.

Later, in the church hall, we had tea and coffee and sandwiches, and chatted to relatives we last spoke to at the last funeral. RaRa got tired and hungry, so my aunt Janet fetched a bag with food and a bib from her car, and my mother and I sat at one of the tables and fed the baby before a familiar aroma signalled that it was time to change her nappy. Life goes on, and the baton passes from mother to daughter, grandmother to granddaughter. I look forward to seeing the relationship between my daughter and my mother grow, and flourish in all sorts of interesting ways.

Here’s to the grandmothers who add so much to our lives, and to whom we owe so much.

I brought a child into this awful world.

Once upon a time, I had many reasons for not wanting a child of my own. I didn’t want to saddle another human being with my dubious genetic heritage. I didn’t want to add to the burden shouldered by an already overloaded planet. And I wasn’t sure that it was entirely fair to bring a life into a world where it’s all going to shit, quite frankly.

And now here is RaRa, born in a year we all agree is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad one. What have I done?

Today, November 9th 2016, we know that Donald Trump is the next president of the United States. Who knows what effect his administration will have on us here in South Africa, but the symbolism of an openly racist, sexist candidate endorsed by the KKK is hard to miss. The notion – one I held dear – that we’re gradually advancing towards a kinder, fairer world based on universal human rights is profoundly flawed, as it turned out. Yeats, writing all those years ago, was onto something.

Then there’s the planet we call home. The world inches ever closer to environmental catastrophe, regardless of what the “climate change is a hoax” crowd who will now be running America would like to believe. Wildlife is being wiped out by the rampant march of rapacious humanity. We spoil everything we touch and leave devastation in our wake.

There will be no end to war and suffering.

There’s little cause for hope in this neck of the woods either. The leader of our fastest growing opposition party has assured us that he won’t call for the slaughter of white people – for now. Our country is run by a venal, predatory elite. Poverty, unemployment and inequality threaten the rickety consensus of the  post-Rainbow Nation.  Crime is everywhere. The economy is tanking. Education costs are spiraling.

The world is changing in ways that frighten me, even if they don’t surprise me.

On this thoroughly depressing day, it’s hard to find anything to smile about. Yet there is RaRa, blissfully unaware of the world she has been born into. Her concerns revolve around Boob. She is surrounded by people who love her. Her next great challenge is to learn to sit on her own and start solids. One day, perhaps, when she is older, and she knows more of the world, she will ask me why she was born. I probably won’t have an answer for her except this: that I love her completely and utterly, that I am besotted with her, and love does not allow any room for regret.

I wanted the world to be better than this, RaRa. I’m so sorry.

42 and all the answers

 

In The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a group of super-intelligent beings pose a question to a powerful computer called Deep Thought. What, they want to know, is the answer to life, the universe and everything. It takes seven and a half million years, but finally there is an answer.

“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Yes..!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Yes…!”
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes…!”
“Is…”
“Yes…!!!…?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

There you have it. 42 is the answer to life, the universe and everything.

As it happens, I turned 42 today. Do I have all the answers to everything? Good heavens no, but I have been busy. Over the past few years I’ve been through a divorce, dealt with years of severe depression and anxiety, had a major career setback, lost a lot of money, helped start a business, settled back into gainful employment, and got remarried after a whirlwind courtship. On my 41st birthday, it was confirmed that I was six weeks pregnant; my baby was born ten weeks premature and she’s now six months old.

These are the most important things I know now. They may not be answers to everything, but they work for me.

  1. My happy marriage is my greatest achievement. Forget books and promotions and my PhD. After the implosion of my first marriage seven years ago, I never imagined I’d say this (and neither would anyone who followed my blog posts over that time). But I’ve been given a second chance. Against all the odds I’ve hit the jackpot, and I’m not going to take that for granted. Acknowledging this matters: happiness within a marriage is so easy to lose, and I don’t want to be that person who lets something good slip away because I wasn’t paying attention.

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  1. My family matters more than anything. Having a baby brought this vividly to life. I love my daughter with an intensity that leaves me frightened sometimes. My husband, my parents and in-laws, my siblings, stepdaughters, the friends who are family to me: this is the lattice around which I am constructed now.
  1. I choose what I care about. Caring takes energy, and energy is limited, so I’m very careful what I care about. I used to let everything rattle me. Every setback was a disaster; every snarky email or cross word would spark hours of angst. Now, I make a conscious effort to let things go. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and it gets better with practice.
  1. Managing anxiety has become my major daily objective. I used to manage my life in order to get Stuff Done. Now, when I’m weighing up how to handle a situation, I assess every decision according to this question: will it increase or decrease my anxiety? Anxiety is the fraternal twin of depression, and depression is the one thing that really frightens me. Anxiety causes untold misery, which is why I organise every aspect of my life around minimizing it.
  1. I think very carefully before reacting to anything. Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned the value of keeping quiet. Watch, listen and wait. This doesn’t mean being passive – the best way to deal with anxiety is to take control of your feelings by taking action. But I’ve learned that thinking before sharing how I feel has improved my happiness considerably. I create less drama for others and, more importantly, for myself. (If I enjoyed drama and got a kick out of anger and stress, I’d generate more of it, but I don’t. I hate it.) When things get too much, I scream while I’m driving around. Nobody can hear me, I get it out of my system, and bar a little croakiness afterwards, there’s no harm done.
  1. I’m saving for school fees. Once upon a time, I saved in order to travel overseas. The Clicks home pregnancy test I took on August 27, 2015 changed all of that. One thin pink line reconfigured the entire trajectory of my life. Buying stuff no longer interests me, unless I’m splashing out on gifts for others. (The piano I bought late last year was a notable exception, and there’s a whole story there that I’ll share at some point.) It helps that at the moment I have little to no interest in hair and nails or clothes and shoes.
  1. I actively take pleasure in little things. With the exception of the piano I bought late last year, I don’t own very much and I plan to keep it that way. Instead, I try to get as much pleasure as possible out of moments. I make a point of looking forward to things like reading a new book, or curling up in bed with my baby.
  1. I’m a lot more careful on and around social media. Social media used to be my default shoulder to cry on, the void into which I could dump my angst without having to worry too much about any of it coming back to haunt me. It’s no longer so simple, and not just because my family, friends and colleagues all follow me. It might have tied into the narrative when I was an obvious and entertaining mess. But I have more responsibilities now, There are too many risks associated with sharing too much, especially when I’m angry (see point 5) or depressed. Oh, the tweets I have composed in my head, the tweets that have never seen the light of day. Social media is also a two way street. Just as I have control over whether I share more than I should, I also need to guard against being affected too much by the opinions of others. I’ve spiraled into suicidal despair more than once as a result of tweets directed at me, so the stakes are high. Social media will always affect my mood far more than it should, and I will always have to guard against getting sucked into its relentless gravitational pull. In a world where it is so easy to let it all hang out, where it is so easy to take the baited hooks and be dragged to the soggy bottom, discretion really is the better part of valour.

There you have it.

 

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

 

I don’t know what the question is, so I’ll put a placeholder here for now: how do we get to be happy?

I’ve always regarded happiness as something that just… happens to one, but by reframing it as something that takes thought, focus and effort, I have more control over whether I have a shot at experiencing it it. The work of happiness might not be glamorous, but it is good. It’s taken me four decades to learn this, and I’m not going to forget it.

So this is what I am going to keep doing. Keep focusing on what matters, keep amplifying the good, and letting the bad dissipate into the breeze, and the birdsong, and the infinite wonder of a baby’s smile.

Thoughts ahead of Mothers Day

A post written for Thoughtleader.co.za

“Sorry, you can’t pick her up. She vomited up her feed so it’s better to leave her.” The nurse in NICU is polite but firm. I nod numbly as I look at my daughter, lying in her incubator and waving her arms like a sea anemone in a tank. Three days before, she was born two months too early. A feeding tube is taped to her cheek while a drip pokes, huge and horrible, into one impossibly small hand. Her tiny body is mapped with probes linked to wires linked to screens that report on heart rate, blood oxygen concentration, respiratory rate. This is what tethers her to life, and what will record her departure from it if she doesn’t make it.

I’m terrified that she might die. I’m also terrified to admit to myself that this is what I’m afraid of. When I get back to my bed in the maternity ward, I sob noisily into the sheets. I choke out words, aware that I sound like a diva in a B-grade melodrama: I can’t do this. I can’t face weeks and weeks and weeks of this. I can’t.

This, I realise then and there, is what it feels like to be a mother. It is to place your heart on the edge of a cliff and let it balance there, for as long as it takes.

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Mother’s Day this Sunday will be my first. For all sorts of reasons, most of them very good ones, I never really expected to have a child of my own. I was one of those women who regularly joked about my ovaries being in exile. I fled whenever somebody brought a baby to the office (what if they expected me to hold it?!) and, as I headed into my forties, assumed that I would settle happily into being a godmother, aunt and, later, stepmother. Roles that involve inhabiting a parental role from time to time, but with one crucial difference: you get to hand the child back to the grownup who has to worry about toilet training, and school, and repeating the F-word in a piping voice in a public place.

Then again, I never really expected a whirlwind romance and marriage in the last year of my 30s, let alone to a man who, in his mid 50s, was game for parenthood third time around. A baby wasn’t entirely outside the realm of possibility – we’d agreed that I would stop taking the Pill – but it seemed so unlikely. Then, on my 41st birthday, my doctor’s receptionist told me that I was six weeks pregnant, and everything changed.

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No concept is as loaded with piety and cliché as motherhood. I know this only too well. Whenever I’ve written about divorce, depression and my lack of interest in having children, strangers (invariably men) would write to me to tell me that I was being selfish, that a child would fix my unhappiness. I would roll my eyes as I thanked each respondent for taking the trouble to type a mail to me; I’ve never regarded motherhood as manifest destiny, and still don’t. The notion that women must be mothers in order to be fulfilled is nonsense, and I would have been perfectly happy to remain child-free.

Which brings me to the point of these words. What does it feel like to be a mother – at least for someone like me, who never really imagined that I would become one? When I first looked at the calendar at the beginning of this year, at May 8, I guessed that I would have a reasonable idea by the time Mothers’ Day arrived. By then, I would have been a mother for two weeks, give or take, depending on when my doctor scheduled my c-section. (You can have a natural birth if you want, he said to me, but at your age, your bones are more brittle…)

Life always has other plans. On February 26, two months and three days before her due date, my daughter was yanked from my womb, where she had been perfectly comfortable thank you very much. My doctor, warning that the blood tests indicated that I had all the symptoms of preeclampsia and was about to go into renal failure, had insisted. “It’s more dangerous for the baby to stay in your tummy than come out of your tummy,” he had said in his quiet singsong voice.

So my initiation into motherhood was horribly panic-stricken at first and then strangely attenuated. For the five weeks my baby spent in NICU, her care was the responsibility of nurses. Every day, I would pump breast milk and go to the hospital to hold her, but I was a visitor. I could leave. It was only after she came home that the gravity of this small person – weighing just under 2kg – became clearer. This is it, I thought one of those first nights as I staggered from my bed, drunk with sleep, to change her nappy. This is real. There is no going back.

In the two months that my daughter has been in the world, I have changed in all sorts of little ways. Not the disrupted sleep patterns – as an insomniac, I’m used to that. The chronic anxiety is familiar, too, even if now the source of my angst is pumping enough breast milk and childcare once I go back to work. But there has been a subtle shift in other ways. I’m no longer fazed by projectile poo, for instance. I care even less about my hair than I did (the other day, sick of how long it takes to dry, I sliced off my ponytail with the kitchen scissors). When I shower or use a hairdryer, I no longer imagine I can hear a mobile phone ringing – I hear a baby crying instead.

More than anything, I have discovered, becoming a mother has restructured the passage of time. This is not just the relentless cycle of expressing breast milk, feeding, sterilizing bottles and changing nappies (according to the packaging, specially designed to handle runny poo). The existence of my daughter has also altered the meaning of each moment in the most prosaic sense. I had not expected this. Before I married her father, when I was in the grip of severe depression, I couldn’t imagine turning 40. My story had run out of road; nothing lay beyond but a dreadful shade of grey. Now the next 20 years are accounted for, probably more. Having turned my narrative inside out, this small baby now determines the arc it will follow.

Oh, we have good moments and not so good moments. I can lose track of time watching different expressions flit across my daughter’s features. (I’ve classified her changing faces, which range from Alabaster Angel through Angry Tomato to Grumpy Old Man and Naughty Elf.) I’ll kiss her toes and waltz her to the soundtrack of Amélie and our world will be filled with the magic of one another. At other times, I am frighteningly close to overwhelmed. What if I lose my job because the office realises they can manage without me? What if I slip back into depression? What if the responsibility is ultimately too intimidating? And yes, every now and then I catch myself resenting how trapped I feel. Little, inconsequential things I used to take for granted, like leisurely sundowners with friends or the freedom to spend half a day running errands, are little things of the past, which of course has made them bigger things.

“Motherhood is a role, not an identity,” an old friend of my husband tells me over dinner. (He is the president of the International Union of Psychological Science, so he should know.) Still, it is a role that dwarfs every other I have attempted. To go back to 1987 and quote the Climie Fisher ballad I loved when I was 13, love changes everything. My daughter is my magnetic north, a quietly insistent tug at the centre of my being. Whether she’s sleeping in her crib or screaming blue murder, she is the fulcrum for my heart, which remains balanced, quietly, on the edge of a cliff.

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Things I have learned from pregnancy

This is a post I wrote over two months ago, before Ra-Ra was born, and never published.

 

How can this thing feel both completely unique and desperately ordinary? Both enormously significant and utterly banal? Both normal and absolutely not?

As a confirmed cynic and lifelong environmentalist (overpopulation was a concern of mine when I was eight years old) I grapple with this every day. I knew all of this before I saw those two lines on the Clicks home pregnancy kit last year. But it was theoretical. Now it’s inescapably real.

The first thing is that there is nothing special about being pregnant. Women have been squatting in fields for thousands upon thousands of years. We happen to live in a world where some spend thousands trying to fall pregnant and fail, and others have babies despite not wanting them. Sometimes they will go to Marie Stopes; sometimes the child will end up in a dustbin.

I am wary of fetishising the experience of pregnancy or motherhood. This is something that happens all the time, sometimes out of choice, sometimes not. 7 billion people on the planet would suggest that it’s not an especially unusual occurrence. Being older and, yes, privileged, means that pregnancy takes on a different meaning for me compared to a teenager knocked up by an indifferent sugar daddy.

Pregnancy can kill you. How strange is that? Just the condition of being pregnant is enough to trigger potentially fatal high blood pressure and kidney failure. You’d think evolution would have taken care of that, but apparently not.

Falling in love

Having a baby, I’ve discovered, is a lot like falling in love. Other parents told me about the intense love you feel for your children, but I couldn’t imagine it. Until now. Now, I miss Raphaela when I’m not with her. I think of her constantly. I imagine what she’s doing just at that moment. I long for her in the way that a soul longs for a missing piece of itself.

 

She doesn’t have to do anything beyond eating and sleeping (and since she’s fed by a tube so she can do both at the same time). She simply has to be. On those brief occasions when she opens her eyes I marvel.

 

When I first saw her in the incubator, I was struck by how alien she seemed, a tiny sea creature in another world. Her fingers waved like tentacles in an aquarium. Now she is more like a person. She is still very small but she’s growing into herself. Already she is 1.47kg and over 40cm – a big change from the 26cm she measured at birth.

 

I can’t wait to see what she becomes, and I am going to love watching her as she grows.