Island Blog – Little Fires

I believe that grandparents have a gift. One that is gifted to them. They also have a gift to give, through translation, nothing lost, unless they choose to ignore the opportunity it brings them, and by extension, the generation below and the one below that.

On the first gift, I can say it comes as a surprise. This gift is one of a second childhood. Not physically, of course, but in a renewed lease of life. From banging on about arthritis to clambering over a fence with a cackle of glee; from medication programming to random acts of play; from soup at midday on the button to fish finger sandwiches just because we’re hungry – with ketchup, naturally. The awakening of the sleeping child is painless. Sparkles return to rheumy eyes and stolen carrots from the veg counter at Tesco’s are an absolute must. An old woman who has plodded, fallen- arched, and for many years, up one aisle, politely rounding to the next, might suddenly find herself speeding up for a swing-wheelie at the top. The giggles of the little ones egg her on and she just can’t help herself. Her mind is full of naughty ideas that came from nowhere. After all, these half-pint charges of hers have been sternly groomed for a perfect public face and mummy never does any of these things.

As mummy, we don’t either. Many of us are so caught up in right and absolutely wrong that we contain, without intending it, the free spirit of our children until their bodies can barely bend at all. And here comes the second gift, the one given. With granny we can fly and fly high. My granny was like that and we all adored her. The mischief in her eyes set little fires in our own and although she was in all ways the perfect lady, she showed us a side of her true self that my mother rarely saw as a child. I feel sad about that and wonder how much, and how often, I contained my own children in boxes at least two sizes too small for their exuberant personalities. But how else to protect, teach and develop a child into the adult we want them to be, hope they will become? This, in itself sounds like a box, but only to my granny ears. So is it just that we can ‘hand them back’ or is it that second chance to what, make amends? My own children, now parents, are not always delighted at granny’s antics. Initially I faced a few stern reprimands on my behaviour, feeling like the child in trouble and most uncomfortable. Can I say God or should I pretend he doesn’t exist? Can I answer questions on where babies come from, asked by a ten year old, or should I say “Ask Mummy’ thus making it very mysterious and serious? I get my nickers in a right knot at such times, and dither like an old woman who never thought an original thought, or was never allowed to.

9 grandchildren in, I now am more relaxed about the nicker knot thing. I pause a lot after a question is asked. I might distract, as I would a puppy chewing on a cat, suggest some toast or a bounce on the trampoline. I might answer the baby question, but vaguely, with something safe, like ‘Mummy’s tummy’ and leave it at that . As to God, I might say, some believe he exists, some don’t, and round with a question for them. What do mummy and daddy say? Always a safe bet, that one.

I don’t remember my mum having any bother with dithering. She just answered as she saw fit, no matter what parental bans we had put in place. And blow it. Thats what she said. She had no intention of bending to our whims and I cannot imagine ever being brave enough to challenge her. In my day and with my mother, challenge was verboten. However my generation have been confounded with all the new information about parenting. Strait jackets were out, for starters, and choices offered to small people on the best dinner plates. My own children, and I have heard them all employ this, would ask their 3 year old what she would like for supper. I managed to keep my snort silent, although it gave me indigestion and required my scrabble into handbag depths for a Rennies. Now, I am used to it. I remember, once, tapping a child on the leg when her tantrum threatened the entire neighbourhood, and being strongly warned never to touch a child again in anger. It wasn’t anger, I began to say, but said no more after making eye contact with the parent in case. The Childline number is readily available, after all, and there are posters in every school in most of the rooms, and at a child’s eye level.

However, the joys of playing hooky with grandchildren are the best. Naughtiness and mischief fan the embers of my internal fire any time I am with them. And I am reminded, often, of the gift I have received and the gift I can give – that reconnection with my own childhood and the chance to be the child free, the child outside the box, setting all the other children free from their own boxes and, together, heading off into a fantasy world of mischief and fun and laughter.

I am going to have to live for decades more, it seems.

Island Blog – Smoke and The Beyond of Things

Today it is humid. I won’t say we can barely move but it’s close, in both senses of the word. 40 degrees and humidity is way above that, leaving our bodies slimy and lethargic, our minds on ice and aircon. Outside, the animals must work with this for they have no option. Rain, much needed and in copious amounts, threatens, lands us a few fat drops and then rolls away laughing. We fill the water bowls, big deep terracotta things close to the house for we know that the water hole is shrinking. It leaves cracked dry mud at its edges and offers little in terms of relief for all the giraffe, zebra, buck,nyala, wildebeest, warthogs and birds who need it to be full and rain-clean. Thunder grumbles, lightening flashes, but it is just a game to them. They are not down here and wasting away for the lack of what they hold in their power – the knife crack that will split the clouds, forcing them to dump their precious cargo on this hot sandy desert. Even the buffalo grass is holding firm, refusing to push shoots above the surface. The only grass that is visible has risen beside the outside tap that leaks. These wispy green shoots look surprised. I imagine them wondering where all their mates have gone and feeling just a tad foolish for having been so keen to get above ground. The blue mountains have spent the day in a blur as if coated in smoke. I see nothing of the laval deposits, nor the faces of, now let me see…….at least 12 creatures from real to mythical and clearly cut from the now solid rock. I have a hippo mother and her calf, a rock biter, an ape baring his teeth and a rather wonky-chops horse who appears to be melting, to name but a few. They are all hidden this day.

It thinks me of relationships, those ships that bounce across the same ocean, yet each travels alone. One, like the keen grasses, bursts out too soon through excitement or anticipation. Sure, this person may regret their action once faced with, well, nobody else, but it is his very nature that brought him into the sunlight and, who knows, his might be the better choice.

Although the smoke hides the mountains from me, it doesn’t mean they aren’t there. I have watched and studied their faces for weeks now. Someone else might tell me they are just mountains. They have no animal faces carved into their solid rock shoulders. These are merely fictions of mine, something to be fondly allowed. What they really mean is that they cannot see what I see. The beyond of things. When someone is completely living in the worldly world, they rarely see the beyond of things, and people who do are drunk or deluded or children.

I swim in the pool, feeling the fat drops of rain fall on my shoulders. At 40 degrees, this is a blessing, not a curse. But, it is only a few and I can hear the clouds cackling like old witches who had the power to fell fortresses back in the day and now can only, at best, halt the cloud dump, which is inevitable and will come one day soon. The swim is a relief and a pleasure. Zebra trot across to eat the early grasses…….oops! Warthogs do the same but the rest of the bush is sand and hot and empty of cover and carpet. For now. Until the rains finally come.

Right now, the retriever pup is being dunked in the pool. His super warm coat is a disadvantage in this hot country and yet he is bouncy, well and full of puppy nonsense. His human parents teach him to find the steps in the pool for easy exit, should he ever fall in by mistake. The acacia is greening up daily, the giraffes visiting ever more frequently and Spring is moving in. So weird to have left Autumn behind and to move into Spring. I watch socking great wasp queens looking for nesting sites, bugs of all colours clattering across the decking, some safe, some lethal. Lizards leave droppings everywhere and geckos who seem quite joco about living under the eaves of the thatch drop the same from above. Tiny pellets land on me at odd times, but I can see nothing when I look up.

Doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Island Blog – Curiouser

I think, if asked right now, what is my favourite book, I would answer Alice in Wonderland. I say ‘right now’ because I read about 15 books a month and they range like mountains in their diversity, over continents and across the world, ignoring oceans and other stops in the proceedings. I read books on Nature, History, Spirituality, Science (well, easy science and including Geology, Astrology, Mountainology and other ologies) Novels, Poetry, Essays and whatever else catches my eye at any one time. That time depends on mood, openess of heart, time and weather. In the colder days, cold writings pull me in. The Eye of the Reindeer being one that springs to mind. In desert times, when I am too hot for toffees, I might pick up something about a woman in the Amazonian jungle fighting mosquitos and other things that bite or swell, like a river, for instance or the chest of a malefactor.

But, when someone asks that question about my favourite book, and I am obliged to answer, I will say Alice. She walked with me through childhood. I had the long hair, the curiosity, the wilfulness and the desire for escape into adventure. Even my mum said so as she rolled her eyes and shook her head. Oh Alice! she breathed, even if that wasn’t my name, but I knew what she meant. Inside I smiled, even though she may not have intended a compliment.

To be curious is to be a child, so they say, but the greatest thinkers counter that, urging us to remain curious throughout our lives. When we put away childish things we might be excused for chucking curiosity out too, but we make a mistake in doing so. I agree that we should probably stop sucking our thumbs in public, or eating soup with our fingers, but, in the chucking, the very core of what makes us human goes too. Suddenly we have to be sensible, and that word has distorted itself. It originates in a late Middle English ‘perceptible by the senses’, its origin from Old French or from the Latin ‘sensibilis.’ Either which way it refers to what we sense, not what someone else senses on our behalf, such as ‘sensible’ shoes or behaviour or choices. In other words, not my choice at all.

Watching a child or puppy or kitten or small thing learn something new, with a little fear and a lot of bravado always fills our mouths with Aaaws and our hearts with a skoosh of watery warmth. Is that nostalgia for what we left behind so long ago? Why did we leave it, and where? Have we, in our sensible shoes and with our sensible choices got just a bit lost in the forest? I get that we are required to live politely inside our worlds. Anarchy is scary and nobody wants that amount of unrest, not least because there is quite enough of it on the inside of our own front door, but our choices are never hung on the horns of dilemma. It is never either this, or that, either black or white, either crazy or sensible. No way.

There is a place in between This and That, where the BFG and Winnie the Pooh and Alice, Dr Zeuss and children all live in perfect harmony. This place is not for anyone who has understood sensible to be ‘it’, that turning into an adult, minus all childlike fantasy, hope, fun, play and curiosity is what we all inevitably morph into; that life becomes a circular saw on repeat. I know it threatens when we are overly influenced by worldly pressures and opinions, I know this well because I fell for it too. But, and this is the wisdom of old age, I now know that my falling wasn’t new. Generations have done it, turning into stuffy and distant dads and over-chirpy controlling mums, both of whom concealed and protected their self medication in the face of emptiness like a ‘precious’. Those of us who lie sleepless and disappointed, full of wonder but not the Alice kind.

Well, the good news is that nothing is ever lost. We might have agreed, momentarily, on the sensible shoes, but we have not lost the curiosity knack, any more than we have forgotten how to ride a bike. All we have to do is turn, ever so slightly towards what we know really matters; the play of our children, the sudden sunset that begs us to watch right up to the end; the time when cats reset a computer just by walking across the keyboard. Or, that moment when someone says ‘Coffee?’ when we have a long list for Tescos and are running late. Those times where Curiosity beckons. Where we could just find laughter and sharing and suddenness and light and all those things you never find in a Tesco queue.

Even though Curiouser is not a dictionary word, in fact, precisely because it is not, I call it to the witness stand. We need wild things in the witness stand, even if the sensible and judgemental world would have a conniption at the very thought. At least the wild things can swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth without thinking a single thought.

And be believed.

Island Blog – Patching and a Merry Dance

As I complete my task of sewing up a hole in Sheepy, it comes to me. All my days I have worked on repairing the tears other people made in things, in each other. From Sheepies to hearts, from fixtures to fittings, through burned casseroles to burned chances, I have pulled out my needle and thread or my magic wand or the car keys and set out to patch and heal. I felt like an angel at times when it seemed to work and an obstacle in the way when it didn’t. This morning’s epiphany showed me that a lot of my actions were, in fact, self-gratification. Although my intent was to dry sad eyes and to mend broken hearts, I had set myself up as the answer to the problem. In other words, it was really all about me, not them. It saddens me to realise this. My own longing for love manifested itself in my attempts to please others, more, to be the one inside their lives who could patch to perfection. A wiser me would have done it differently. A wiser me would have stood beside them in their desert and listened, comforted, told them they can sort this and asked them how they might see themselves doing just that, whilst assuring them I would stay right beside them at all times.

I am grateful, always, for the way life teaches me important lessons. Not as an opportunity to blame myself but to move forward in my learning, with curiosity and acceptance. The way a new understanding comes into my head whilst repairing a hole in Sheepy chuckles me, even if I do immediately dash back over the decades past with a machete in my hand, ready to take revenge on my earlier ignorant self. Woa! I say. Steady girl. That woman back there had the best intentions and did good, really good, mostly. She didn’t know what you know now, old woman. She didn’t know the lack of unconditional love in her own life would drive her to select herself as guardian protector of pretty much everyone in her care. Give her a break and tell her Thank you for all you did in love.

These are wise words. Seeing something old in a new light, one that illuminates all the faulty wiring simply means I tried my very best under the circumstances. No matter that I was naive or seeking to fill my own black hole with good deeds (which never works by the way). Let the judge in me leave the courtroom. I recall my mum saying a similar thing to me once after she had felt criticised and judged by us. She said, simply, I Did My Best. And so she did.

However, whilst we girls and women of good intention repair until our fingers bleed, we may forget that we too need that care and love. I certainly did. I took the smallest portion, the back seat, the last straw. I taught myself to accept mean graces because all the best ones were doled out to others. I was the one who cleaned out the landcover with a smile, allowing everyone else to run indoors for toast and jam. I was the one who couldn’t sleep if a child was troubled at school. I was the soother, I was the warmth and the safety net. But what was I to me? Not enough and there’s another learning. In my day to think of self for more than five minutes was heresy. Women who shared the same turning of the earth, at the same time as I, knew this too. To be accused of being selfish was devastating.

Now we know different and thank goodness for that. However, it does present us with a problem. If we have loved and patched and healed others for most of our lives, how can we now place ourselves centre stage? The super trooper is too bright and we have forgotten our lines. Do we have opinions or did we just repeat the ones we heard others opine? Do we like pasta, kangaroos, thunderstorms, cats, driving, dancing naked in the rain? Can we quickly make a decision when someone asks Early Grey, Darjeeling, Builders, or coffee? Oh……I’ll have what you’re having. Wrong answer. But we all make it. We have spent so many years obliging that we have mislaid ourselves.

Recently I have been stopping myself from answering like a well trained robot when faced with a question. I pause. this pause can irritate the questioner. It’s a simple question after all but I am tossed on a stormy sea and feeling seasick. In the past I was a I’ll Have What You’re Having sort of woman and she is quick to come forward at such times with her pinny on straight and her bright voice loud in my ears. I push her back. Hold………! What is it I want? I know what I want but I don’t think it will be popular so I can’t let it out. Speaking my truth takes balls and I am terrified of critical judgement, of upsetting the others, the applecart. However, it also feels free-ing.

I suspect it is never too late to learn. I’m curious, too. I might discover what I do like, what I do want and that learning might lead me a very merry dance.

Island Blog – Puppies, Babies and a Sofa Sale

When engaged in the process of training a puppy or a child the level of exhaustion and frustration are much the same, as are the joyous delights and the easy times which are usually when the aforesaids are asleep. Over the days the adult human begins to question their own sanity. I remember it well, but it is way too late for any such questions. Lured, as we all are, by the sweet cuddly images of peaceful obedience, we forget one vital thing. This baby, this puppy, they are not toys and this is not a Disney movie we can pause when the doorbell rings. These invaders arrived complete with an individual personality and it will show itself no matter how many times we read the manual, which, by the way, is never site specific. In my day, this manual was penned by Spock, now relegated to the ‘weirdo’ section of child raising books. Discipline and parental control, ie ‘My way or the highway’ was rightfully in question among we young mothers, all of us having been bashed into shape by the age of 3 months, too terrified of all authority figures to say anything in a loud voice or, even in a whisper, unless, that is the whisper was deferential.

Now it is all turned on its head, this training thing. Now we are advised to distract when our child (or puppy) is chewing up the sofa. We don’t shout or smack or in any way give in to our own raised temperatures. Calm at all times are we, consistent, patient, for hours and days and weeks, months and years. Just that reads as exhausting, and not at all possible for we have work to do, lives that already include other children, other people, other lists of demands, all requiring us to react immediately. But babies and puppies have no concept of that old person trouble. Focussed entirely on their own needs they will make certain to escalate the noise level until they become the only one who needs you right now. Trouble is that ‘right now’ can take over a whole day and half the night until the adult human can barely stand, never mind go again being consistent, patient, positive and happy to sit on the floor, now that the sofa has been considerably reduced.

Everyone has their own ideas about raising small noisy creatures and not one of them holds back on telling you theirs; how it was when they went through this nightmare period and how much better it would be for you, distraught by now and sofa-less, if you changed to their way of thinking. After all, it worked, didn’t it? But you cannot take this in, not whilst in the thick of clearing up endless ‘accidents’ despite all that attention given from 0400 onwards; not while your sleep pattern is no longer a pattern but distilled into one squiggly line, one that keeps stopping and starting until it runs out of ink altogether. Then comes the day you pull your trousers on inside out and never notice until some kind person had a word in your shell-like. Your mealtimes are non existent, unfulfilling junk grabbed on the run, your hair needs washing, you don’t change the bed for weeks (no point, you are never in it for long) and you snap at the lollipop lady. What is happening to me? You might wail as I did for years. Puppies, children, work, sleep deprivation, demands, arguments about the right and the wrong way to train this whirling dervish, mopping, always mopping, and being upwardly cheerful at all times?

I recall a day dream I had during the years of raising a dervish or 5, plus wiggling piles of puppies and kittens. If I could pop the whole lot into the freezer, safe in the knowledge that they would thaw safely when I pulled them out, for a whole glorious week, I could recover my senses. It was a pretty dream and so peaceful. I remember voicing this dream once to a health visitor and her face fell. It’s just a dream, I said, thinking she might faint in my kitchen thus giving me yet another body to look after, and she left rather hurriedly not finishing her coffee. I watched her receding back just knowing that I, along with Spock, was firmly relegated to the ‘weirdo’ section of her mental library.

The new puppy in Africa is raising his game. The exhaustion within the home is palpable. I am tempted to join the ranks of those who know better, whose experiential learning is surely of great value, but I keep quiet. They will raise this dervish their own way and it will be a good and grand way. They have the up -to-date training manual, after all and it is 30 pages long, burgeoning with do’s and don’t’s. It is also not site specific, nor does it take into account location, restrictions, work pace and 4 suspicious cats, cats the pup longs to play with. It will all be fine, I soothe, once this tricky bit is over, this tricky bit that will last for a long time.

We all want our children and our dogs to be well behaved. We all want to encourage their own personalities to grow unrestricted. We want to teach them how to control themselves, to bark when barking is acceptable and to stay quiet when appropriate. We want to teach good manners, respect for others whilst encouraging independence and self-worth. The balance we aspire to seems daunting, and we are often daunted when we look at what we hope to achieve. The key is, I now know, to enjoy the journey. I’m not sure I managed that all of the time but when I look at my dervishes now, remembering the dogs long gone, the cats too, I am so glad I took on the task of raising these marvellous invaders for what they taught me about real life has kept me in chuckles for decades. As it will, one day, for the ones in the thick of it right now.

And there will be a sale on sofas, come the New Year.

Island Blog – Old Truths, a Library and Room for Dancing

There is a moment when thinking is flipped like a sand timer, on its head. A moment when all I think I see and all I think I know unthinks itself. In a state of confusion the old absolute makes a dash for the door. I call after it DON’T GO! but it pays me no heed. The new light thrown on this old belief has dissolved it. I didn’t ask for this new light but, then, whoever does ask for new light when that which was already is curled comfortably up in the library alongside all the other absolutes of my life?

Once the door has shut on the old I turn, reluctantly, towards the new. Now I will have to work and the thought makes me tired. I never had to think much around the old guy curled up in a library chair. Now I have a bouncing babe to dress and feed and think about, and at my time of life! It’s a veritable insult and quite lacking in respect for my retirement plans. I know of many, now dead, who staunchly maintained their library of beliefs. Although it might have been infuriating to me, I could only hand over the invitation for an alternative look at something old. I often as not withdrew my hand for these old retainers retained with iron fists, their vast collection of experiential wisdoms serving them as well now as they ever did throughout a long life. I could, in more gracious moments, see the value they put upon what and how they knew any given truth. I could sometimes, in a state of higher grace, see myself as they did. Uninformed. Young, too young to really know what I was talking about. I could take that head-on-one-side patronising half smile and climb back over their boundary wall with only a slight turbulence in my heart. Sometimes. Although I do confess to you now that this was a rare event. How could they be so stuck? Why is it that, after 20 years of my father being dead, did his ruling still rule? Was my mother a child who could not think for herself? Just because he refused to let her sew whilst she watched TV with him, did that mean she was duty bound to maintain that rule? Did I have to sit there, my hands laid still in my lap and feigning interest whilst watching Countdown? Seriously??

It was her rule of thumb. Her security. It told me much about their shared life. Perhaps she, like me, had married someone she needed at the time. A father figure, one with a well-established set of ‘truths’, and, perhaps she picked them all up and made them her own because to think for herself could have been dangerous. Many women have fallen into this old trap, me included. It is easy to do and comfortable, safe. But, unlike her, I am curious as Alice in Wonderland and always seeking a new way to do an old thing. Sometimes I bin the old thing altogether. It’s falling apart anyway, for all the patching I may have done to date. It no longer has a place in my set of truths and its voice is just a squeak, and an irritating one at that Even when I can smell danger ahead, I quest on because the world is always on the change and I do not want to be left behind. Uncomfortable it may be but what I am learning is a revelation. If I don’t hold on too tight to my own experiential trusses, will the building fall? Well, yes, it might. But, then again, it might not.

This letting go of control is my egg timer flip. All my life I was taught to adhere without more than the odd lightweight question, such as Shall I Prune These Roses?, to the establishment truths. In the parental home, my school, college or job, my marriage and my family life. Sometimes this wistfuls me a bit. Had I been brave enough to sew defiantly whilst watching Countdown as a young woman, might I have known the real security of independent thinking and autonomy? Learning this flip thing as a sexagenarian is all very well but what difference will it make now to my life?

I cannot be sure of my answer to that, but what I do know is that this new state of flux is exciting. All day long old truths head for the door but I no longer call them back. Thank you I say, and Hurry up. My house looks bigger without them, more space for dancing, more light. It doesn’t matter that I am a late learner. I am bright and strong and healthy and I say I Don’t Know a lot to the questions asked by my grandchildren, my children, anyone in fact. And I don’t. Know. How can I know, when the world is always on the change? Instead I ask them – How Would You Do It?

There should be a museum of Curious Old Ways with a nominal entrance fee. On rainy days, young families could visit the exhibits and laugh together at the quaintly out of date methods I trusted and employed for decades. They might picnic in the grounds and return, after lunch, for more hilarity. It could be a real hit with the new generations. Old thinking always generates laughter in the young. It doesn’t mean we didn’t bring anything of value to the table of life because we did, back then, when our set of truths was a newborn babe. But now they are not all relevant, nor useful as they once were, and they need either modification or release. it’s a good thing.

That library of old guys. I think I’ll move them on. I want the new light, the new books full of new truths. And all that room for dancing.

Island Blog – All of a Sudden

Writing this title tells me that Sudden has turned into a noun. I like that. How versatile it must be if you are a word to be able to traverse the grammatical genres. I employ nouns as verbs and adjectives as trampolines from which anything lighter than a giraffe can effortlessly bounce off into a sentence, landing just wherever it pleases.

Talking of giraffes…….yesterday evening I was sat sitting on the stoep, glancing from time to time at the longing shadows and feeling the sun soften into a caress (having attempted excoriation since 9 am), when something made me look up. And up. And up. A huge male giraffe was heading my way. His head bumped the sky and he towered over the acacia, now greening up fast. Behind him came slightly smaller huge giraffesses and a scuttling baby, still taller than most of the thorn trees. I gasped as quietly as possible and pressed the video button on my phone. I followed their slow and gracious walk as they loped along, watching them pause to strip the most thorny of the thorn trees. Those thorns are 6 inch nails and sharp as needles but not to their leather-lined mouths, I surmised. I saw the baby spread his forelegs in order to pick something tasty up from the ground; saw zebras drink from the water butt just a few feet away from me and smiled as two slightly less huge male giraffes, probably brothers, joshed with each other in a tease of neck bashing.

At one point a car appeared, returning to the house just across the bush from us, and stopped dead. I heard car doors open and shut quietly, low voices vibrating in excitement. The giraffes, spooked, began to wander away but, by now, the baby had taken himself off to the far side of the dirt track and was, in effect, trapped. I urged the people to move themselves and their car quick quick, but only inside my head. Eventually, on realising that their stopping had upset the whole thing, they moved away and relief flooded my heart as the ‘little one’ grabbed his chance and rose into what would count as a gallop in Giraffe. I followed their departure around the house and off off off into the depths of the bush with a great big thank you in my mouth, followed closely, I’m rather ashamed to say and on a different trajectory, with a curse for the uneducated tourists.