That she BEAR children

According to the World Health Organisation, of the estimated 211 million pregnancies that occur each year, about 46 million end in induced abortion. That’s a huge number. That does not include the babies that are given up for adoption or who are killed after birth.

I am old enough now that people have stopped asking me when I am going to have children. But that was a constant question when I was younger and especially when I was married. It was expected that I have children which irritated me enormously at the time. Like it was a woman’s destiny or something.

I have a confession: I have never been particularly broody. I have broody moments which are fleeting- they seem to last for maybe half a day and then they go. Not that I don’t like children- I like them very much. I have three nieces and a nephew who I love. I hope they like me back. I love spending time with them and hearing about them. Maybe I was just scared to bear children – the thought of something growing in your body is completely bizarre to me, like something out of Alien. And, of course, there was the birth scene in Gone With The Wind which was enough to put anyone off childbirth. I always thought that if I did want children, I would adopt them. It felt kind of strange to want your own children when there are so many unwanted children in the world.

This Be The Verse

Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats in coats,

Who half the time were soppy stern

And half at one another’s throats

Man hands down misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

That is an all-time favourite poem of mine. It was said to me in Thailand by a man who is a father. He said it to me, sadly and humorously, while I cried. It kind of sums up my thinking on the matter of children. You might think it strange, considering the happy childhood that I did have. But it has taken me all my 46 years to figure out who I am and what I want in life. A lot of that time has been spent dealing with my childhood wounds. It has included a lot of time sitting and thinking quietly and a lot of time on my own. Time that I would not have had if I’d had children.

My oldest sister likes to quote a friend who says that having children is “all joy and no fun”. And perhaps I have missed out on some joy in my choice. Still, I think that the world would be a better place if more people made the choice I made. Less hunger, less poverty, less misery. That may be controversial – I know a lot of you have children and they are lovely.

Here are some of the reasons I like being child free:

  • I am determinedly un-busy in my day to day life. I have a lot of time on my hands. Time that would have been spent in carpools or cooking for children or helping them with their homework. I treasure the time I have to do other things.
  • I have a lot less stress in my life than those with children. The pressure to feed, clothe, educate and generally support other human beings, while commendable, is not mine.
  • My mother once asked my grandmother when you stop worrying about your children. She replied, “When you climb into your grave.” Although, we often laugh about this – it is true. Most parents spend an enormous amount of time worrying about their children and that never stops.

Maybe I will regret my choice when I am old and have no one to look after me.  I have threatened my nephew with having to look after me when I am older. He looked terrified.

But, just maybe, I took the road less traveled. And that has made all the difference.

The GARDIANS of the Camargue

I had never heard of French cowboys before I visited the Camargue in south-east France. It was one of the last happy trips that my ex -husband and I had together. We joined my family on a barge and traveled on the canals in Provence in the European summer of 2003. This was before my sisters had children – my middle sister was pregnant with her first child. We commandeered the barge, shopped in local stores along the way and cooked for ourselves. It is very funny going back to your family unit when you are an adult. I, for one, thought that I was all grown up and over my childhood wounds. But it didn’t take long before I was three years old again, crying, and being told by my mother not to fight with my sisters. I had a rather scary incident with a bicycle. I found out, that holiday, that I had never learned to ride a bicycle properly. I got on the bike, lost control of the peddles (I’m not sure how) and went hurtling towards a large dam – my brother-in law and my ex-husband running after me shouting “Brake, brake!”. We ate a lot that holiday. Delicious baguettes and mouldy cheese washed down with French, red wine. My pregnant sister and I nicked grapes from a local vineyard and escaped, running and laughing, all the way back to the barge.

But the highlight of that trip was the Gardians of the Camargue.

The Gardians of the Camargue are part of a Brotherhood which was formed in the 1500s. They are the protectors of the wild, Camargue region which is famous for its white horses, bulls and flamingos. In this part of France, they have bull fights, but the bulls are not killed. The Gardians look like cowboys, with their panama hats and waistcoats. I should say that cowboys look like them as the Gardians have been around for longer.

The Camargue is one of the most beautiful areas of the world that I have ever travelled to. It is 300,000,00 acres of perfectly, preserved marshland filled with groups of magnificent pink flamingos and wild, white horses which run in herds in the water. One of the closest towns is Arles, where Van Gogh lived and painted for a while. Many of his paintings are of the surrounding countryside and the town itself. Arles is an ancient city with a Roman amphitheatre and wide, cobbled streets. We stayed in a little bed and breakfast in Arles and visited the Camargue in day trips.

There are many festivals in summer which is when we visited. We attended a festival at Sainte- Maries- de- la- Mare. This is the town where the two Mary’s, who witnessed the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, are supposed to have arrived after setting sail from Egypt to escape persecution. They arrived with their black servant, Sara – who is, interestingly, the Saint of the French gypsies or Roma. It is believed that it is they who brought Christianity to France.

We joined a crowd of excited people who had lined up on a street to wait for and cheer the Gardians as they rode. The atmosphere was electric. There is something very special about being part of a group of (good) people waiting and watching. And then, there they were, riding on their white horses, wearing their hats and waistcoats, to shouting crowds. I was one of the loudest shouters in the crowd. They were magnificent. It was thrilling. My mother turned to my ex-husband, pointed at me, and said “Look at her face!” which must have been red with excitement. I have a poster of that festival on my wall in my apartment. It is a constant reminder of that day and that time.

The Gardians of the Camargue are a dying breed. Economic and social pressures are making it harder for them to maintain their lifestyle. There are, apparently, only 40 of them left. But I like the whole thought of them. I like that they were called to protect that astounding area in France. I like the way they dress, the way the people adore them, that they have a calling. In this crazy, brutal world, the Gardians of the Camargue, ride. That is a good thing.

Ah, but your LAND is beautiful

I need to write about South Africa. But I feel strangely unqualified to do so, even though I have spent forty-five of my forty-six years living here. My experience of South Africa is vastly different to the rest of the population’s. South Africa has recently been ranked by the World Bank as the most unequal country in the world. We have the fourth highest crime rate in the world. We are one of the least happy countries in the world. This is due to many things but, mainly, a system of colonisation and, later, Apartheid which entrenched inequality based on the colour of one’s skin. This resulted in the majority of South Africans experiencing discrimination and violence, daily.

I grew up in the deep Apartheid days. There were bomb detectors at the entrance of every shopping mall. There were prayer evenings when we used to go and pray for South Africa and say the prayer Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. We were headed for a civil war in those days- most people knew that. Many of the boys I dated were conscripted to the South African army, where, if they were lucky, they had an administrative job and, if they were unlucky, they were sent to the Angolan border where many atrocities took place. I know men who have never recovered from what they saw there.

I went to a whites only school in primary school and a, predominantly, white, private school in high school. Did I benefit from Apartheid? Without any doubt the answer is yes. I had better education and better living conditions than the majority of South Africans. My parents raised us to believe that the apartheid system was morally reprehensible. They did what they could do to protest the system. And yet, I benefited and continue to benefit from Apartheid because I am white.

I probably will never leave South Africa. I tried to leave, back in 2008, just before Jacob Zuma became President. I was burned out and full of despair about my country. But South Africa is my home. It’s in my blood. I feel a passion for this country and its people that constantly surprises me. One of my best friends at school told a story about her father: She had been crying about South Africa, after one of the prayer evenings at St Luke’s church in Norwood. Her father said to her, “There are enough good people in this country to save it.” I believe that, strongly. South Africans are a lot nicer than their politicians, who, for the most part, are a strange bunch.

On Sunday, I went to a community dialogue near Bezuidenhout Valley. The topic of the dialogue was “What makes South Africa great?” There were people of all races and from all walks of life there. We agreed on the following:

South Africans have a great sense of humour – give us load shedding, violent crime, corruption, discrimination or e-tolls and we will find some way to laugh about it.

South Africans are tolerant- Not all, certainly. Spend an afternoon on Twitter and you will see the worst side of South African intolerance. Generally, though, we are polite to each other and try to help each other.

South Africa is beautiful- we have some of the most breath-taking landscapes in the world.

South Africans are activists- we take to the streets when we are not happy with our government or other issues and we always have done so.

South Africans are friendly- I picked up a friend from overseas at the airport once. The ticket guard greeted me with “How are you my darling?” My friend said, “Do you know her?”. I didn’t.

Above all else, I believe in the dream of my country. The dream of a country, torn apart by racism, coming together and standing united. I believe, with my whole heart, that we can.  In the words of Alan Paton, in Cry, The Beloved Country, “But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering.” We can get this right; we can make individual differences in our areas of influence. We can choose not to perpetuate past mistakes. We can learn about kindness and love.

Whether we will, or not, remains to be seen. We have our work cut out for us that’s for sure. Stranger things have happened though. I’m betting on us.

When days are DARK…

Teenage girls fight with their friends. I think. Maybe it was just me and my friends. Terrible fights. Mostly scribbled on notes which were passed around in class. I can’t remember what one fight was about. But it was never-ending. My diaries from those days are a long list of who was not speaking to me and who I was not speaking to. When we weren’t fighting with each other, we were sending each other notes with hearts and xxxs. Pretty strange when I think about it now.

Nevertheless, I still have friends from those years. We don’t fight a lot these days, but still send each other hearts and xxxs, now on WhatsApp. Friendship is a funny thing. We have friends from very young ages, so it must be instinctual. But we don’t pick our friends based on who is good in a fight or who is good at hunting. Rather, we choose people who we like. And why we like them is a mystery, really. I mean, not that they are not very nice people, but why one and not the other?

I was very lucky to have built-in friends, in the form of cousins. My cousins have proved to be lifelong partners in crime. I have a younger cousin, four years younger than I, who I liked to dress up. I have many photographs of her: dressed as a bride, a witch and a pro-tennis player. That same little cousin flew to Thailand to see me when I was travelling there. We spent a manic time touring the islands and a bit of Cambodia. I say manic because that’s the best way to describe it. We laughed, then cried, sent up fire balloons in the air and crashed scooters (a number of times). It was a thoroughly good visit. She said to me, before she left – “listen to your own wise self.” That has stuck with me over the years and I think of those words often when I am faced with a difficult choice.

There is a saying that goes “When days are dark, friends are few”. This has not been true for me. When my father was dying, my friends were at the hospital with me. They carried me through my divorce. I have a friend who joined Facebook (against her highest principles) in order to find me when I was alone and scared overseas. That same friend held my face in her two hands and told me that everything was going to be ok and that she loved me unconditionally, when I had first left my ex-husband and was living by myself.

Another friend introduced me to Bitmoji, at the age of 45. She advised me on how to set mine up and now we send each other Bitmoji’s of ourselves. We do this a lot. We laugh about our lives too. No matter how bad things have become, she is always there, to empathise and giggle with. One of my best memories is of us driving around Scarborough in the Western Cape together, getting lost and laughing.

A word on male friends. When I saw When Harry Met Sally I agreed with Harry. Men and women couldn’t be friends because the “sex part always gets in the way”. In my life post-divorce, I have changed my mind. I have two male friends who I consider to be two of my best friends. When I am acting crazy over a guy – my one male friend urges me to “be cool”. It never fails to bring me back to my senses. He takes my calls at strange hours while I cry on the other end of the phone, because I have been dumped or ignored or a guy has just been plain mean to me.

I may have have been unlucky in love, but I have been incredibly lucky in friendship. They’re nice – friends. Easy, uncomplicated (nowadays) and full of mutual appreciation. A fan club of my very own.

C.S Lewis said that “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” My friendships have been full of joy, mostly, and a lot of hearts and xxxs.

Ring the BELLS that still can ring

“Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”

Leonard Cohen

I went to go to and see Bright Eyes when I was very young, and I became obsessed with Shirley Temple. In fact, I think I thought I was Shirley Temple for a while. There was a slight resemblance. I, too, had blonde curls and was a bit chubby. I had a Shirley Temple record and would sing along with Shirley. I remember singing, holding an umbrella, to I Love to Walk in The Rain, on the front porch, in the glaring South African sun. At my private, predominantly white, all girl, high school, I performed in musicals where the girls played boys and mostly everyone sang soprano.

On my matric holiday, at St Michaels in KwaZulu Natal, I discovered Leonard Cohen. That was it for me. I never looked back. He sang me through a lot of my life. Our wedding song was, prophetically, Dance Me to the End of Love. He died three years ago. Last December, my family and I had a karaoke night. My two nieces, my sister and her husband and I all took turns to stand on the plinth in the courtyard outside and belt out songs. It was such fun, probably the most fun I had had all holiday. I sang Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. A hymn to my lifelong friend.

I still like sad songs. The sadder the better. The other evening, I sent two of the songs I was listening to, on Spotify, to a friend of mine. He replied, to my surprise, with “Are you alright?”.

Singing and songs have been a constant in my life. My eldest sister and I used to sing a song from Chess- I Know Him So Well- while we washed the dishes. My ex-husband and I always sang to Johnny Cash, on long car trips. We sang to Danny Boy and Folsom Prison, loudly and sometimes operatically. We had camped around Europe when I was twenty-three and he was twenty-five. It was in Marianplatz, in Munich, where we first heard the Mongolian deep throat singers. The low, warbly singing mesmerised us.

I first left my husband when I was thirty-two and we were divorced when I had just turned thirty-five. The years between were joyless, to say the least. Divorce is tough. And I don’t know why it is so tough. I had been through my father’s death, but nothing had prepared me for the daily onslaught of self-questioning, misery and depression of those years. It is the dying of a dream and the end of possibility. There was not a lot of singing at that time. I used to drive around and around the block, in the suburb where we lived, because I did not want to go home. I do and don’t know why my marriage ended. We let it go and our relationship died. It ended. Maybe it would always have ended. I don’t know.

At the company where I was working at the time, a group of employees approached me and asked me if I would sponsor them to start a choir. They were mainly administrative clerks- I don’t think that their jobs were very stimulating. I loved the idea of the company choir from the start. I used to watch them rehearse in the downstairs parking lot.

We decked them out in magnificent choir outfits, and I arranged that they perform at a concert with other choirs. I went to watch them perform. They had stiff competition. The other choirs were very accomplished and had performed in front of audiences before. Have you ever seen a choir in South Africa? They don’t just sing, they move too- stamping feet, swaying rhythmically and clapping hands.

Our choir got on the stage to perform. I was very nervous. I remember standing on the stairs of the auditorium to take pictures of them. When they began to sing, and they were good, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. There is no other word for it. It remains to this day one of the best memories of my life and one of the best things I have been a part of.

Singing is one of those things that human beings do that have no real purpose. But all do it. It is important, like art is important, because it makes us human. We sing when we’re sad and when we are happy.

This is a reminder to me: Remember songs. Remember to sing.

The Princess AND the Tower

My older sisters were instrumental in the killing of one of my imaginary friends. I had two imaginary friends when I was around three or four. Their names were Waldo and Scone. I have no idea where I got these names from (Scone may have come from my grandmother who baked scones). Scone had a motorbike and I can’t really remember much else about him. One day, my sisters were teasing me about Waldo and Scone. Teasing is something they were good at. I spent a lot of time crying as a result of their teasing (and so, they made up a song about how much I cried.) Anyway, I digress.

On the day that that they were teasing me about my imaginary friends – I walked out of the room, to return about a minute later to announce that Scone was dead. He had died on his motorbike in a nasty accident. My sisters thought this was hilarious.

Oh, how I adored those two sisters of mine. I couldn’t get enough of them and their abuse, even though they made me cry. To me they were all in the world that was super cool. And I longed to join them in their games which were very advanced and adult. I’m not going to detail every aspect of their terrorisation of me, but what I can say is that there were moments of respite when they were kind to me. I never knew when this was going to happen, but it was always awesome when they were. I was endlessly forgiving of them, copied them and wanted to be with them all the time. In fact, my nursery school report records that I was a bit of a loner and preferred spending time with my middle sister. To outsiders, they were fiercely protective of me, and still are. It was only they who could be mean to me. They can make me laugh like no one in the world. They can also make me furious. We still fight terribly. I still adore them.

What a strange and complicated relationship is sisterhood. My mother, who had two sisters of her own, always said that it was the most honest relationship you would ever have with someone. Her sisters slept at the hospital, when my father was sick, never leaving her side. They have cared for her when she was sick. I love watching them giggle together, like girls, when they are together.  

It was my middle sister that flew to India to join me when I was travelling alone after my divorce. We spent ten days laughing, swimming and talking. We drank Lassis and bought Punjabi dresses and took very funny selfies. One of the best memories I have is of her being driven up to our hotel in a white Ambassador when she arrived in India. I have a picture of her smiling, in that car, at that moment, in my apartment.

My oldest niece discovered the movie Frozen when she was very young. It is still one of her favourite movies. Frozen tells the story of Anna and Elsa who are sisters. Elsa is cursed at a young age and is told that only true love will break the curse. Elsa shuts herself off in an ice tower of her own making. It is Anna that saves her. It is True Sister Love that saves her.

I grew up believing in handsome princes rescuing princesses in towers, from witches and all bad things. I believed, as many small girls did and do, that true love would save me. And then I built a tower of my own and was stuck there for a good long while. My tower was high, terrifying and very lonely. It was my sisters who risked our relationship to rescue me. They fought bravely for me. They held me, talked to me, shouted at me and loved me. Throughout my whole life, there they have been. Persecuting me, guiding me (whether I wanted guidance or not) and supporting me.

Isn’t that the truth about all love anyway? You take the good with the bad. Scone may be gone, but I have my sisters and their steadfast, imperfect love. And I am grateful.

How’s your LOVE life?

My father’s first cousin was an eccentric redhead who lived in Bathurst, a small town in the Eastern Cape. The Pig and Whistle was his local pub and, I fear, he spent rather a lot of time there. My earliest memories of him were of him shouting at all of us “How’s your love life?” This was a difficult question because our love lives were complicated, even then. It is slightly weird to remember that, even at our young ages, romantic love featured as an issue in our lives.

Firstly, my older sister had boyfriends. A lot of boyfriends. I think we made her life miserable by our intense fascination with these boys. I know I did. Once, a boy called our house to speak to her and I shouted, “Its either John or Paul or Mark”. We teased her mercilessly – sang songs about love to her and made up poems. Her love life was endlessly interesting to us.

My earliest memory of my interest in boys was at nursery school- a bunch of girls and I charging after a small boy so that we could kiss him. When we had finally caught him, we pinned him to the ground and took turns to kiss him. I still remember his traumatised face. There was another boy, also at nursery school, who I quite fancied. Our mothers had arranged a play date for us and I was to go to home with them in their car. But I chickened out. I caught a lift home with our normal lift scheme and was lambasted by my mother for being rude when I got home.

I never quite got the hang of romantic love. When I was about eleven, I received a Valentine’s Day card from someone in my class. The card depicted dew on a leaf, artistically drawn. I finally tracked down who the boy was. His initials were D.E.W. Instead of appreciating the astounding creativity and plain sweetness of the gesture and, heady with new feelings of sexual power, I am ashamed to say that I was very mean to him. I’m sure that he ended up wishing that he had never sent me the card in the first place.

My father had a standard question for us whenever we came back from a date. It was, “Does he make you laugh?” I think that was because my mother and he laughed so much together. They found each other very funny. They had jokes that only they understood. I remember my mother telling my father about her day and him, listening quietly, and laughing.

Another Country, a movie starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and a very young Cary Elwes was a movie that played on MNet in the 1980s. It is based on the student life, at Eton, of Guy Burgess, a British spy.  I saw it in my early teens – my middle sister and I recorded it- and we watched it over and over again – primarily to admire the Eton boys.

And, when I was fourteen, at our holiday house near the sea, I met a beautiful boy who looked like one of them. He was seventeen, a friend of my older cousin. I remember calling a school friend at home and saying, “I’ve met a guy who looks like someone from Another Country.” In the December holidays, when I was seventeen, I decided to pursue him, which proved to be more difficult than I had thought it would be. I spread the word that I liked him and spent an enormous amount of time getting ready each night to go out to the local disco at the hotel where I would see him. But he remained frustratingly elusive. He was an angry young man, fascinatingly cynical, with a great sense of humour. We kissed on New Year’s Eve that year. He was at university in Cape Town and I was in Johannesburg and so we wrote letters to each other throughout the years that we were apart. Remember writing and receiving letters? My middle sister vetted every single letter that I ever sent him ruthlessly censoring the romantic drivel that I wrote. And he and I spent time together every December.

That was joy. That was love. He made me laugh a lot- we laughed a lot together. We were best friends.

I was to marry that beautiful boy and lose him.