Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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The Marcus Aurelius Meme

One of the tacit themes of Balthasar’s Gift is that everyone we meet, whether we like them or not, has something to teach us. It’s an adage I strongly believe in and try to remember, though not always with success. In novels, we like to see protagonists learning and achieving something with that knowledge – it’s called character arc, and if it doesn’t happen, we feel that characters are flat, wooden or too self-satisfied.

Litlove’s Marcus Aurelius Meme made me think of this, and so I am shamelessly plundering her ideas bank on this Tuesday morning to give you Gifts I Have Received from Other People:

From my mother, the Gift of Relentless Optimism: Her glass is not just half-full, it is overflowing. She believes in a benevolent and provident universe, and although she doesn’t have much in the way of material things, she leads a life that is surprisingly full of good luck and serendipity and Things Landing in her Lap. It’s been the experience of a lifetime being the child of a person who lives like this – guileless and believing in the good.

From my father, the Gift of Willingness to see the Funny Side. He is one of the funniest people I know and in another world, would have been a stand-up comedian instead of a lawyer. I love his take on the world and, when I remember to see the humour in a situation instead of freaking out and railing at unfairness (which he is also known to do – call it the Gift I’d Prefer Not to Mention), problems do diminish.

From my children, the Gift of Living in the Moment. There’s nothing like a baby to make the best-laid plans transmute into a spaghetti of terrible chaos. Though I have, and often still do, fight to plan ahead and organize, the moments when I allow myself to to sniff a child’s head, feel their warm limbs wrap around mine and melt into the joy of right now, this very second, are the best in the world.

From my husband, the Gift of the Oblique View. He has never been one to follow the pack, even when I first met him as a 17-year-old teenager. He holds the surprise factor of having viewpoints, ideas and ways to explain the world that knock me off my perch. My office (what my bedroom is known as during daylight hours) is next to his and I get a kick listening to him explain software to his clients on the phone. When a sentence starts ‘It’s like broccoli …’  I lose track of my protagonist’s problems and tune into the vagaries of global human resources management, because I have to know why software is like broccoli.

From my friends, I receive the Gift of Being Vastly Entertained. I love people to be amusing, witty, intelligent, provocative, a bit off-the-wall without injuring others and I have a treasure trove of people who do all of the above.

What gifts have you received from others?


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Towards a New Definition of Friendship

Today Mandarine lists the goals he has set for his blog in 2007. One of them is to:

Keep my blogging friends. 2006 has brought me the joy of new friends from all around the world. Friends of the rare and invaluable ‘can-read/can-think/can-write’ kind (otherwise known as literati/ae). When I started out, I had no idea blogging would end up being more about enriching relationships than about writing. I will be cherishing these relationships through 2007 by practising fidelity to these blogger friends.

I agree whole-heartedly. I had no idea when I wrote my first post in March that blogging, which I regarded as a slightly weird and geeky thing to be doing at all, would bring me as much satisfaction in making friends and building relationships as it would in writing. I feel lucky and honoured that I have chanced upon such wise, funny and interesting people, so interesting in fact, that I have given up my magazine habit altogether. Twice this month, I have had a blue moment and instead of buying a chocolate to perk myself up, I’ve bought a magazine, and you know what, they’ve lost their magic. Instead, I would far rather read a few blogs.

Blogs give me so much. They provide an English island in the sea of Germany, they give me perspective on worlds far from my own, I find inspiration from other writers, beauty in people’s photographs. Book reviews, movie reviews, fashion tips, cookery advice, life skills. Who needs a magazine?

And you can’t have a friendship with a magazine. Anthromama and I had a brief email exchange about this new kind of friendship. She says that to her it’s like a speeded-up form of having a pen-pal, without the anticipation of waiting for a letter. I think she’s probably right. When I mention my blog-friends to my real friends, I feel slightly shamefaced, as if blog-friends aren’t as valid somehow, as if because I haven’t met them, they are slightly less real.

Well yesterday I was assured that they certainly are real. And even if I don’t know what they look like, they are just as kind and generous as the friends I can see and meet. First off, Kerryn and I had a discussion about the scarf I want to knit for my husband, and she very kindly mailed me some tips and a link to a pattern. Then the doorbell rang, and the postman stood there with a book that Ms Make Tea had posted to me from New Zealand. It’s a thriller called The Dark Room by Minette Walters, and I look forward to reading it very much (and I’ll pass it on to anyone who mentions in the comments that they might be interested in having it).

And then the doorbell rang again. And there stood the postman again. With another parcel. For me. From a blog-friend. The amazingly generous Lilalia had sent me the entire Stephanie Plum series to read; books one to ten. And as if that were not enough, she included two DVDs for me to watch too. With strict instructions to luxuriate. So if I don’t post much it’s because my reading list’s just doubled in size. When I emailed her to say thank you, I sent her a photograph of myself. Because I think if someone’s borrowing your books, you at least want to know what they look like.


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From the Heart

Back in the days when I wore suits, was known to give a presentation or write a report, and even enjoyed some business class travel, I was deeply, thoroughly, scathingly mocking of women who stayed at home and made stuff. To me, crafting and baking and – God forbid – knitting were tragic signs of averageness, for why make something when you can buy something shinier and prettier, why bake something when you can buy something tastier and why knit, period. To me, hand and homemade objects were sad and tatty versions of the lovely objects found in the temples of joy known as The Shops, and spending time making them was wasting hours that could be spent in restaurants, watching films or reading books.

Perhaps it was a partial rejection of where I was from, for most of the women of my family were practioners of genteel arts. My British grandmother was a milliner in Thirties London until she met her dashing young South African lawyer and, on the eve of the war, left her flourishing business to raise children and dogs in humid Pietermaritzburg. While she made herself the odd hat, for the races or for a wedding, she channelled her creativity into sewing, embroidery and cooking. She made entire wardrobes of dolls’ clothes for me and my cousins. My maternal grandmother was a talented seamstress, but a truly wonderful watercolourist. My mother’s home is filled with her beautiful paintings. As children, we would arrive in her home and the painting things would all be set up on the floor ready for us to splatter our artistic energy everywhere. All the women of my family were painters, embroiderers, bakers.

Somehow, though, when I was in my twenties, that was something to mock. I was too busy fighting racism, sexism and the over-arching patriarchy to waste my time with twee handicrafts that were too redolent of the Women’s Institute and getting third prize for the marmelade. There were bigger things to grapple with. Once I started working, I was too busy dealing with temperamental bosses and sleeping off the stress at weekends to do anything creative. When we moved to Germany to work, I made one friend who, puzzlingly, quilted and another who sewed herself clothes. While shopping with the latter (who went on to sew her own beautiful wedding-dress) in London one weekend, we ended up on the fourth floor of Liberty’s and, without knowing how or why, I found myself buying an embroidery kit. Perhaps Liberty’s reminded me of my English granny, who always kept her latest creative project in one of their lovely dark blue shopping bags, or maybe I was connecting to the young, glamorous milliner who had once had London at her feet, but there I was, fighter of the patriarchy, buying some violets to embroider.

Clumsily, lovingly, over many months, I turned those violets into a cushion and, when I next visited South Africa, presented it to my mother, who has a room decorated with pictures of violets and violet-decorated porcelain. She was so stunned she had to sit down, and I think I cried. There was something in that gift that said not only I love you, but I love your love of beauty, and I love the traditions of our family. I think it said fighting the patriarchy and having a great career on another continent is all very well, but my family and where I come from is also important to me.

And now that I am a mother, and have a family of my own, I’m starting to look at handicrafts and the skills that women pass to each other through the generations with new eyes. For me, there’s something about connecting with the women of my family who cooked, baked and sewed for me. There’s something about love, about beauty, about thriftiness and about the pure joy of making something good, whether it’s a pretty muffin or a scarf. I’m finding new levels of friendship with friends who’ve crafted and made things far longer – and far better – than me. While staying at home with my children is my choice, making something for them is my outlet for that energy that I used to give to my career or fighting the patriarchy.

People who’ve known me for a long time are still stunned that I might bake a cake. My husband is terrified that I might start sewing for him, and rightly so, because I’ve knitted everyone in the family a scarf and he’s up next. I expect my produce to be eaten or worn, and he may have to complement his chic working gear with a ratty homemade scarf, but he can always take it off in the car. My mother-in-law almost fainted when I made her a birthday cake last year. My girlfriends in South Africa, who may or may not be reading this, will laugh hysterically at my paean to handicrafts. As I fire up the knitting needles, I do enjoy a postmodernist cackle on my own behalf, because a little bit of irony goes a long way during a not-so-desperate housewife’s day.

However, between finishing one scarf and starting the next, I had the pleasure of teaching Lily to knit. Despite being left-handed, she picked it up quickly and made a scarf for one of Daisy’s dolls. There it was: her satisfaction in learning well and fast, in making something lovely, in giving it away for someone else’s pleasure. And I had taught her a skill that my mother taught me, from the heart. It felt good.


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My Christmas Present to You

I wanted to write a post about the absence of snow, the environmental consequences of global warming, how the SUV drivers of Europe won’t be able to ski this winter because it’s not cold enough to snow, but I’m not going to. You can read the NY Times article for yourself if you want to.

Instead, I’m going to give you a present. I beg you to do this with your children. If you don’t have children, try it yourself. It’s the most fun you can have on your computer apart from blogging. You come away feeling like a genius, having created masterpieces, but it’s really easy. And I should know.

Friends, bloggers, webwaifs, I give you … your very own snow-maker. Copy and paste the URL and enjoy:

Your very own snow-maker

And I wish you all a happy, peaceful Christmas season, filled with lots of presents, feasting and naps on the sofa. And for the lucky ones, some snow.