Monthly Archives: July 2014

I just couldn’t live without …

Tea (Ceylon, full fat milk, extra strong)

Space (big skies, horizons open wide)

Old things (such as books and kists and my pre-loved wedding ring)

Beer (in fact, it’s time for a cold one right now; Friday drinks are one of the perks of this career).

[Writers’ Bootcamp, Day 4]

 

 

 

 

 

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One of my greatest fears

This is the Writers’ Bootcamp Day Three topic. I’m not a fan, I’ve got to say.

The temptation is just to write

SHARKS

And be done with it. But that defeats the point of the bootcamp, which is to spend 60 minutes writing. Unless I typed one letter every 10 minutes,

SHARKS

is not going to cut it.

There’s no way this is going to be an interesting post, to write or to read, if I just go on about the things I’m scared of. I fear what I imagine most happy, comfortable, middle-class people fear: loss (of love, money, security, a parent, a child, my home, a pet, respect); pain; being a victim of violence; failure; growing old without dignity, alone and forgotten; car accidents; plane crashes; cancer; heights; people not liking you; dying.

And my fears as a parent are fairly pedestrian: choking-drowning-suffocating-notbeinghappy-drugs-eatingdisorders-lowselfesteem-ridingintheopenbackofabakkieonOuKaapseWeg-drunkdriving-rape-emigrating-beingbullied-hatingherbody-beingstuckinaburningbuilding-notlikingme-strugglingatschool-neverfindinglove.

Nope, nothing much of interest there.

No matter how terrified I am of things going wrong, I am privileged enough to feel pretty secure almost all of the time. My husband and I are in a marriage of equals. I am university qualified and have a job I enjoy and am reasonably good at (though obviously, for financial reasons, I wish someone had steered me away from Journalism and pointed me in the direction of the BCom section of the university flyer before I enrolled). I am healthy, and my child is of robust health and developing completely normally. And even if she weren’t healthy, our private medical aid would take care of the financial side of things if there was a problem. We own our house and aren’t overwhelmed by the bond repayments. We have private security, live in a very low-crime area, and have airbags in our cars.

I am as safe in my happiness and comfort as I think it is possible to be. I am a middle-class white South African, with all the support that that entails. Through nothing more than an accident of birth, I belong to one of the luckiest groups of people alive today. (Caveat: I will continue to try to atone for the lucky breaks that people like me get for the rest of my life and that is exactly as it should be.)

My fears are vague. Occasionally, they nag, but they’re not all-consuming.

Our nanny, though.

She spent the first two years of her daughter’s life living in a wendy house that leaked constantly for five months of the year. Even though she can now afford to live in a flat, her daughter’s cough and rattling chest will never go away. When she takes her to the clinic, the nurses tell her that because she’s not South African, she shouldn’t be there, that she should pay for private medical care because her daughter is taking the place of South African children in the queue. Her daughter’s father drinks too much and doesn’t work. She has to go to Home Affairs every three months to renew her asylum seeker’s permit, every time knowing that there’s a possibility it could get revoked and that she’d end up back home, with no job and no prospects. She left her son there because couldn’t afford for him to live with her when she first arrived in Cape Town. Now she’s thinking of bringing him to live with her, but he’s just started doing well in school after recovering from breaking his leg in three places – he had to miss six months of school while he recovered because there was no way for him to get there if he couldn’t walk. She’s got a good salary but work as a nanny can’t go on forever because the child she loves (mine) is almost old enough to go to full-time preschool and then what if she doesn’t find another job, or what if she does, and it’s with a family that doesn’t respect her and kids who don’t love her like mine does? Or what if she can only find a job that pays less, which means she won’t be able to feed her daughter the preservative-free food she needs because of her allergies, and she ends up in ER again and again, and won’t be able to keep sending her son to private physios for his leg, and he ends up with a permanent limp that will mean he is overlooked for certain jobs as he gets older? Then what?

I reckon if I asked our nanny, who is about as vulnerable as it is possible to be, to write about her greatest fear, this post might be worth something, because I don’t really know what it is to be afraid.

My favourite collections of words

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Here are my five favourite sentences/lines from children’s books (the topic for Writers’ Bootcamp for today is Your Five Favourite Words, but I’ve exercised a bit of artistic licence here).

1. “That very night in Max’s room, a forest grew … and grew … and grew, until the ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around.”

The assonance and alliteration in that part of the sentence, the way it rolls around in your mouth, is just a tiny part of the late Maurice Sendak’s genius.

From Where the Wild Things Are, or, as Lil A calls it, simply “Max”.

2. “Night came with many stars.”

I never read Sylvester and the Magic Pebble as a kid. Lil A got it from an American cousin and every time I read it to her, it breaks my heart. That one sentence conveys so much desolation and beauty, wrapped in such a simple little package.

3. “It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn’t use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like ‘What about lunch?'”

There are so many lovely little gems in Winnie the Pooh. On Lil A’s bookshelf is a copy of the first version of Winnie the Pooh ever published. It used to be mine when I was little. It’s written in AA Milne’s own voice, addressed to his son Christopher Robin, who has a beloved bear called Edward. Even before he became known as Pooh Bear, the sense of exactly which kind of bear he’d go on to be is right there in that very first book.

On a trip to New York a few years ago, I spent a lot of time staring at the original Winnie the Pooh toys at the Public Library. They’re all faded and their fur has been loved off – whether by time or Christopher Robin, it’s hard to say – which made them even more charming than they are rendered in fiction. They were real toys. And despite the Disneyfication of the “brand”, I like remembering that it all started as a real story told to a little boy by his Dad, about his favourite bear.

4. “The Lupine Lady is little and old. But she has not always been that way.”

Miss Rumphius is another favourite from an American cousin that I had not read myself as a child. The watercolours are gorgeous, for one thing, but I also really love how it carries so many truths about old age that children are usually shielded from in books and pop culture. It’s about an old lady who is not a witch – which is unique in itself. But further to that, it’s about an old lady who used to be a little girl. These sentences capture that idea very neatly, and I think it’s an important thing for all of us to remember on a visceral level. As adults, we all know intellectually that the elderly were not always elderly, but I know that I forget at times that not very long ago, they were exactly like me.

5. “I know a bear and when it is sunny, we go for a picnic with brown bread and honey.”

This might sound like another line from Winnie the Pooh, but it’s from Lil A’s favourite book, I Know A Rhino. I bought this book for her because the main character is maybe a boy, maybe a girl. He or she is equally happy playing in the mud and dressing up in a tutu. Their gender doesn’t matter, which is unusual for a children’s book. So I bought it more for the pictures than the words, but now I love this sentence about the bear. It always makes me hungry and seems like a good way to live. When it’s sunny, we go for a picnic. Yes.

And, as added value, here are some great resources on feminist-y children’s books. You’re welcome.

  • A Mighty Girl’s guide to cool picture books for little ones
  • A Mighty Girl’s favourite fairy tales
  • This Guardian article from 2009 (yes, pretty old, but does include Pippi Longstocking, of which I wholly approve)

Is there such a thing as a girl brain?

Spoiler alert: no. Well, not from birth, in any case.

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My two-year-old has become obsessed with the idea of babies in tummies. We’ve got four good friends who are pregnant enough to be showing and since hearing that so-and-so has a baby in her tummy, Lil A has started saying that basically everybody has a baby in their tummy: she’s got one, one of the expectant fathers has one (which, as I’m sure you can imagine, he loves).

This obsession raised the question round drinks recently: is Lil A “programmed” to be interested in babies? Would a little boy be as intrigued?

I expected my feminist husband to jump in as soon as I started saying “She’s only interested because we put a lot of emphasis on it, and we might not if she were a boy,” and “Even if boys and girls were programmed to feel a certain way about babies and modes of transport and sport, which I’m convinced they are not, she’s two years old and I doubt there’d be any reproductive hardwiring kicking in yet,” and “You’re joking, right?”. But he didn’t.

My husband has thought of himself as a feminist for years, since we were in university and I was still scared of the term, and didn’t like its connotations (until my best friend told me to stop being insane and that to not be a feminist was not far off being a racist and I realised what feminism actually means). But when it comes to the physiology of the brain, my husband admitted to believing that those of men and women were necessarily different. And not just because of experience – because of the way they were created in the womb. The way they were wired.

And so I realised that if my pretty progressive, “enlightened” husband thought that, pretty much everybody else did as well.

So, here’s my PSA. There are no “hardwired” differences between male and female brains from birth. Except these, of course. The only differences that are at all meaningful have been created by individuals’ experience. If studies show that same-hemisphere connections are stronger in male than female brains, while women’s brains show stronger cross-brain connections, making them able to multitask and “be good hostesses”, it’s not because they were born that way. It’s because those men had been praised for being singularly focused on a task at hand since they were little boys (and probably because their fathers made a special effort to teach them how to read maps, for example). It’s because the female participants were encouraged to be able to multitask by watching their mothers help with homework while supervising a toddler in the kitchen and making dinner when they were young girls – because that’s what was expected of mothers; because their social connections were emphasised by the women’s parents and teachers while they were growing up.

And so, basically, the reason Lil A is so interested in babies in tummies is that it’s something we pay a lot of attention to when our pregnant friends are around, and she is shaped by what she sees. And also because, ew – it’s a weird thing, when you think about it. A little baby. In an adult’s body. Did I mention how broody I am, by the way?

And there’s the nod to Writers’ Bootcamp, Day 1. Even if you know me well, you probably don’t know this: that I’m finally ready for another baby.