Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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The Joy of Being Older

I have been spending time with a friend who has an adorable nine-month-old baby. I love this baby for her cleverness and charm, and the sweetness of watching her discover the world. Being with them has brought home to me how my childrens’ baby time is over, and, while I loved it, how grateful I am to have moved on to the next stage. I am 40 and my youngest is four. I’ve just traveled with him to South Africa and Greece, and didn’t need to pack any special equipment – no prams, no special food, no nappies. He pulled his little roll-on suitcase and walked with his sisters the length and breadth of many airports.

I have spent the last ten years in dedicated service to small children. I adore my kids, and now I especially love their growing independence from me. I am no longer essential to their physical survival – any other kind adult could do my job. As they grow and shed their extreme neediness, I feel as if I have also emerged from a chrysalis. Their independence is perfectly matched to mine.

I spent all of last year in preparation for turning 40 in December, and then spent the next six months celebrating that birthday. It was a huge psychological turning point. I turned my mind to fitness, healthy eating and writing – doing things for me, my body and my psyche. At the risk of sounding smug, I feel as if I have arrived. I am not becoming, but being. And the best thing is, I have got at least 40 more years ahead of me to feel this way.

Today’s Observer has a brilliant focus on old age. The people they report on are extraordinary – a 98-year-old marathon runner, a 71-year-old yoga teacher, an 85-year-old sculptor – and what comes across is the fun they have in living. Of course, what  they share is the luck of good health, the fortune of living in the privileged West, but even so they have survived world wars, epidemics and economic disasters.

Here are some quotes:

For Mary, aspects of growing old are met with relief, even joy. “In a way, emotionally, you change back. I am freer now to feel intense excitement like I used to as an adolescent – being out of doors, for example, or listening to music. I somehow didn’t have time for that when I was bringing up my children and working full-time. I have been able to spend much more time with my youngest grandchild than with the older ones, and that’s been wonderful, too.” Jean Crossley, grandmother, 100

“Yoga can have a tremendous effect on you, whatever age you start,” she says, “but I find I don’t need to do much practice to keep supple, as my awareness of my body posture has become second nature over the years.” She reveals that yoga has a more meaningful message, too. “I’m aware of the fragility of health and that it can change without warning. So I always retain a sense of detachment – I’m not pleased with myself if I do a complicated yoga pose, I’m pleased for myself. You’ve never got life cracked. Yoga teaches you that.” Pam Horton, yoga teacher, 71

The key to a healthy old age, he says, is continuing to work and “doing something you like doing. You’re so much more likely to go on living if you’re happy, and making art makes us both happy.” London, where he has lived since he married Sheila 60 years ago, has been another important factor. “Old people are really a pain in the neck and one of the joys of living in London is that you see young people. You could isolate yourself and be less stressed, but one of the pleasures is seeing what’s going on.” Sir Anthony Caro, sculptor, 85

And for Fauja age isn’t even a consideration: “I do not consider myself to be old. From the moment I do that, I would lose everything, because age is a state of mind – as long as you’re positive you can do anything.” Fauja Singh, runner, 98

Apart from luck, the common denominator amongst these amazing people is joy. I’d risk saying that their wisdom, joy and pleasure in life has been partially responsible for their health and longevity. Their stories increase my belief that I have every chance of being a joyful 85-year-old yoga-practising writer.


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This is How Old I Am

My parents bought our first television when I was seven. There was one channel, alternating daily between English and Afrikaans for two hours a day.

I owned and wore leg warmers in a non-ironic way.

I peroxided my fringe.

Ultimate romance used to be The Blue Lagoon:

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I had a passionate relationship with Duran Duran.

I wrote letters to boys on writing-paper decorated with sunsets and palm trees.

The first album I bought was Madness. Up till then, I danced to my parents’ Abba and Fleetwood Mac records.

I taped the Top 40 with David “Reach for the Stars” Gresham every week on my cassette recorder.

When I was 11, I wanted to be Olivia Newton-John. Major entertainment was going to the roller-rink.

When I went shopping with my friends, we would share a plate of chips. Drinks were individual. Mine was a double-thick Horlicks milkshake.

The first dancing-party I went to I wore Deely-Boppers.

I remember the advent of drinking yogurt.

My first boyfriend wore brown jerseys and drove a 50cc motorbike.

I thought it was sexist that girls watched boys playing rugby, but no-one came to watch the girls play hockey.

I remember a time when black and white people could be jailed for sleeping together, and when black people were not allowed to buy property in the suburb where I lived.

I watched PW Botha’s Rubicon speech on TV in 1985 and Mandela’s release in 1990, and remember the brutal years in between.

I wrote all my undergraduate essays longhand. For reference, I used books and articles, which I found in a place called the library.

I wrote my first essay on computer at the age of 22.

I wore a meringue for my wedding-dress and we were the first to leave the party.

I went on honeymoon to Zimbabwe, when it was so peaceful and harmonious that I wanted to move there.

In 1995, I wrote an article for a magazine on the strange phenomenon known as the “World Wide Web” or the “Information Superhighway”.

I first used email at the age of 27.

With thanks to the lovely Ms Waffle for the inspiration. How old are you?


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Catching a Feeling

Eve has asked her readers to write about their childhood. I thought I would give it a try, because I can’t resist a challenge that is as well-written as this:

If you read here regularly, I wonder if you’d indulge me by thinking about your own childhoods, going back to the flow of days during which nothing much happened, but when the passing of time nurtured and fed you. You’ll know which days I mean by finding strings of days, days on end, whose memory causes a wave of nostalgia to overcome you. Days that now fill you with longing, or a pang of loss, deep joy, or deep gratitude. Sometimes you may think of them and feel great sorrow over something you’ve lost. Maybe it was days you spent with your grandparents, or days you spent at home doing nothing; a day with your brother or sister, a family vacation. Think back to the hours or days when life felt like an afternoon in a hammock, or time on a quilt under a tree with your very best friend.

Think about it, or feel your way back to it, and write it out for yourself. I don’t mean you have to write about it here, as a comment, or even on your own blog; but I do want you to write about it. Get it down somehow when your level of feeling or emotion (affect) rises up and squeezes you in the middle of your chest, right around your heart, and you begin to feel a little weepy or giddy. Right . . . there. That’s the part we want. Catch it like a firefly in a jar, and get very close to that feeling, and then write about it. Write it all out, the memories surrounding it: where you were, who you were with, what you were doing, what it smelled, tasted, and sounded like there; how long did it last?

The Angel in the Garden

When my father left in a storm of self-justification and golf clubs, my grandmother moved into the cottage at the bottom of our garden. It was like having an angel of our own living there. My brother and I would wake in the morning and race our beaten path to her front door, where she would open up, catch us in her arms and breathe, “Hello my darlings!” as if she hadn’t seen us for a month. While my mother was dealing with her own pain and sorrow, and gradually finding her way back to herself, my grandmother gathered us into a gentle place of wonder that offered us refuge from our pain. She had a naivete that spoke to my child’s heart, and taught us how to be silent and listen to the self within, how to shape clouds, how to appreciate an egg sandwich, to believe in fairies. Under her guidance, I developed an interest in other realms and soon our garden became, for me, a magical fairyland that was bustling with activity and solace from the pain of my parent’s separation.

This fairyland was closely tied with the plant life in the garden, starting with the enormous camphor tree that towered over us like a gentle giant. I climbed into his arms, and found comfort there, staring at the leaf patterns and imagining myself on a ship sailing across oceans, or in a palace, or in village of busy elves. I lost time there as I watched ants trace paths across the tree’s rippled bark, or listened to the doves high above, or felt the wind sough mournfully in the branches. The tree reflected my mood: he was sad if I was sad, content if I was so, but his depth of feeling was so great that after a while I could bear his compassion no longer and had to seek more light-hearted magic elsewhere.

Ivy covered the camphor tree’s earthbound roots – the perfect place for fairies to cavort. I imagined them climbing the roots and chasing each other under the green pointed umbrellas of ivy leaves. The Japanese anenomes planted nearby were special since they flowered around my mother’s birthday, and their ivory petals and fluffy yellow centres brought to mind elegant fairy princesses, wafting through my fairyland in white gowns with golden crowns. They were beautiful, and slightly removed, rather like my mother, and I couldn’t spend too much time with them without the sadness edging in.

Following the path of the anenomes, I would arrive at a bed of flowers planted by my mother that curved out into the garden like a headland or peninsula. This buttress was seldom shadowed by the tree, so it was a sunny place for both children and fairies. Roses encouraged the arrival of pink and white fairies, bold and laughing. They were enticed by the dripping tap that stood in the flower-bed, and would recline underneath the tiny waterfall and catch drips directly into their mouths. The tap also attracted an old fat frog, who croaked grumpily as dusk fell. Here in this sunny bed, I created fairy gardens, small flat patches of earth, surrounded by stone walls and decorated with flower furniture. I knew that when the moon rose and I was in bed, the fairies would be sleeping on an azalea or camellia petal and thanking me for their comfort.

Following the bed, I came up against a wooden fence, behind which lived our mad and muttering neighbour and her barking dog. If I came too close to the fence, the dog would unleash its volley of angry remarks and I would have to retreat to underneath the lemon tree for safety. It was fragrant and citrussy there, but the ground beneath was littered with rotting lemons which were revolting if I stood on them with bare feet.

Behind the lemon tree was a green wire fence covered with jasmine, and behind that a lowered area where our maid washed and hung the washing to dry. I would climb the fence, sit on the hot and crumbling stairs and watch in a dream as the washing swirled on the windy drier. The maid lived there too, in a room that smelled of soap, sweat and putu – the porridge that she liked to eat and sometimes shared with me, if I was lucky. There weren’t fairies here – it was somehow too jagged a place – but her bed was on bricks in case of the tokoloshe. There was mystery in the bamboo fence below her khaya that separated our house from those neighbours. I could walk between the tall bamboo and the fence, and be transported to a world where plants were huge and people tiny.

Following this fence, I would come upon a green patch of lawn where our jungle gym had once stood, before it grew rickety and dangerous and had to be taken away. There was my grandmother’s cottage, with the door always open. She would be reading, or painting, or gently napping, but was always welcoming to her small visitors and would find us a piece of hazelnut chocolate from her secret stash. In front of the cottage stood a bank of strelitzias, flowers which my mother dismissed as ugly and African, but which were fascinatingly bird-like. I could crawl under the bushes and hide there, enjoying the feeling of separate nearness to my family. Usually the corgi, Muffin, would snuffle me out or my little brother would crash in, demanding that I play a game with him.

Sometimes my grandmother would get a blanket and we would lie on the sunny grass, looking up at the clouds. She would show us how to shape clouds, and we would get lost in the mystery of the sky. I think both my brother and I learnt early, and from her, to take responsibility for the shape of our lives. We were taught not to feel buffetted by fate, but that our thoughts could shape our lives and that every event, no matter how sad or sick inside it made us feel, happened for a reason. Then our mother would bring out a tray of a tea and biscuits, I would put the tea cosy on my head to make everyone laugh and my brother would run off to hit a tennis ball against the wall, all life’s lessons forgotten.


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Things Left Unsaid

I’m shamelessly lifting this idea from Ms Bleeding Espresso (she lives in Italy and bleeds coffee!). It is a list of 15 things I haven’t said over the years to various people, for fear of hurting them or making them angry, but also out of embarrassment, shame or shyness.

Here is my list of things – thus far – left unsaid:

1. You were a shining light of talent and beauty; it still breaks my heart that drugs took you.

2. Of all the people I know in the world, no-one deserves a loving relationship more than you.

3. I wish you would stop yo-yo dieting – accept your beautiful body and get on with it.

4. You were a lovely, funny, delightful friend and I wish you weren’t lost to us. Oh, and I still have your book.

5. I am sorry for the situation you are in, but it is of your own making: if you try to control people, they run away.

6. You are a boring narcissist – go away and come back only when you are prepared to show genuine interest in other people.

7. Being infantile is not attractive in an adult: grow up. Also, you are not as wise as you like to think you are.

8. You need to show love in your actions – mild protestations are not enough. Right now, I’m not sure I believe you.

9. Taking anti-depressants will never remove your pain completely – you need to ask my forgiveness for the hurt you caused and then you might start to feel a little better.

10. Thanks for giving me the experience of loving a jerk early in life – it helped me learn what to avoid.

11. I think you have forgiven me, but I am still sorry for that bad thing I did to you long, long ago – it was cruel, under-hand and selfish of me.

12. Living with you is the great joy of my life.

13. Stop living in fear! Have the courage to be your authentic self, and make the demands that you require.

14. Please stop babbling at me in dialect. I don’t understand you and I don’t want to.

15. Being engaged is not the same as being married. Get married already.

That was cathartic! I can recommend it. If you decide to lighten your own emotional load, please let me know in the comments.


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A Response to Susie

The lovely Susie tagged me to respond to her post Is Preschool killing children?, where she discusses the fact that in the USA preschool (which is what we in Germany call kindergarten and in the UK is nursery school) is becoming ever more academic. In her words,

I avoid this topic like the plague. Kids need to play, explore, and build their imaginations, and preschools that put an emphasis on reading, math and handwriting steal those opportunities from kids. My statement usually incites anger and probably fear, in parents who’ve already justified the decision that their child needs to build elementary skills while in preschool, and have already spent a few happy months in a preschool that is doing just that. Plus, they are already financially and emotionally invested in the school and its teachers, and even though the child is only three, the family thinks its too late to turn back now. And besides, they believe, I am wrong.

We are extremely lucky in Germany that childhood is protected by late school-entry. Our second daughter will start school this year at six and ten months. By the time she is seven, she will be able to do only the most basic of reading. But I can safely predict that by the time she is eight, she will be a sophisticated reader in two languages, completely on a par with any US or UK eight-year-old. I’ve seen it happen. I strongly believe that early learning does not create academic advantage. By the time these six- and seven-year-olds reach school they are dying to learn, practically hyperventilating with the excitement of it all, and they catch up fast.

Having said that, kindergartens in Germany are under pressure from parents to be more than places where little Franka and Finn go to do finger-painting, jump around to music and hang out with their pals. I have been at PTA meetings where their teachers are harangued because the children are not being “challenged enough”. Our kindergarten has introduced optional English, after the exercise of parental pressure. I would not be surprised if, in the next few years, kindergartens will start to be compelled to introduce basic writing and numeracy skills. If that happened, I would be sad.

I have loved having the privilege of raising my kids in a society where childhood is still protected and nurtured. My kids are comparatively innocent: they have never been to MacDonalds, they don’t know that Bratz exist, they haven’t watched High School Musical and, while they like clothes, they don’t wear any horrible scary approximations of adult attire. It’s such a relief to live in society that facilitates these parenting decisions, and helps me to keep them innocent for as long as possible. My kids like to ride bikes, swim, play complicated games of their own making, to craft and to dance. I love the richness of their play, and I would hate academic pressure and the social pressure that comes with that to intrude.

Why is it happening, though, even in Germany? Why are parents putting pressure on kindergarten to challenge their kids? I think it’s the increasingly middle-class-ization of society (speaking as a paid-up member): kids need academic skills to survive junior school, so that they can get into Gymnasium (the academic stream), hence into university and from there into good jobs. And every middle-class parent has the unspoken anxiety that if their child doesn’t start learning to read and write at four, then there’s no chance of her getting a good job at 24. Which is of course, rubbish.

So to respond to Susie, I can’t say that kindergarten is killing childhood, but I see the potential for it happening here. I remain remain intensely grateful it has not happened yet and that German society is still wise enough to protect and cherish childhood.

For more on the US perspective, see the also-lovely Yogamum’s response to Susie’s question.


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Let Them Have Time

A friend visited me from England this summer with her three children. Since there were eight of us and our car fits seven at a push, we were forced to spend all week just hanging out with our kids at the various places of joy and thrillification that The Burg has to offer for the under-thirteens. We did the pool, the mini-golf, the walks along the river, the ferry trip, the skate-park, the multiple playground visits and the all-you-can-eat buffet at the local Chinese restaurant. We also held some in-house events: the High Tea with face-painting, the Abba discos and a lot of Tearing Round The Garden While Screaming at the Top of Your Voice (a favourite with the neighbours). Anyway, after a week of observation, she noted that Germans actually play with their children. “In England,” she said, “people take their children to the playground, but then they spend the entire time on their mobile phones or chatting to the other parents. They ignore their kids.”

Another friend visited, this time from South Africa, and she observed with astonishment how much time German men devote to their children (German mamas do too, but she was particularly taken with the hands-on papas). Here, weekends are designated as family time and parents take their children for bikes rides, go swimming with them or head down to the river to fly a kite or knock a football about. Most of the South African men I know and love spend their weekends watching TV or indulging their own sporting interests, with nary a thought for what their kids would like them to do (and here I am speaking as a child who grew up spending alternative weekends at the edge of a golf course or watching the distant speck of my father casting a fly into a river). Here, all the fathers (and mothers) I know give their kids their time. And, best of all, they enjoy it.

With those two comments in mind, it was interesting to read this excellent article in this week’s Observer. The writer attributes the fact that Britain has the unhappiest children in the Western world (from a Unicef report) not to failure of government or the gap between rich and poor, but to failure of their parents to provide them with a basic need: their time.

I am very suspicious of “busyness”, to which people of my generation love to subscribe. Sure if you’re a fulltime working mother or father of three children, then you’re busy. Sure if you’re a single parent, then you’re busy. Sure if you’ve got multiple looming deadlines, three small kids and a messy house, then you’re busy. Are you busy if you go to the gym more than three times a week? Are you busy if you have frequent coffee mornings? Are you busy if you’re on Facebook or Twittering rather than actually working on that laptop?

I’m not saying we all have to be perfect parents, and neither am I saying that a little recreational Web use is a bad thing, but I am saying to those parents who sit in the playground glued to their mobiles that you ignore your children at your peril. I am saying to parents who chase their children out of the kitchen so that they “can get on with things” (and I am guilty here), you will regret it one day when you try to get your teenagers to help you cook. I am saying to parents who won’t let a little person “help” with bed-making, the chances are in ten years’ time you’ll be begging him to pull up his duvet and he just won’t. I am saying to parents who text during family mealtimes that you won’t have a leg to stand on when your teenagers start doing the same. I am saying to fathers who work all week long that if you don’t put the time in with your children now, while they are young and unable to craft a sentence on the outcome of today’s football match, they won’t be interested in talking to you once you decide you’re ready to talk to them.

Small children can be bothersome. They won’t leave you alone. They want you to play Lego with them when you’d really rather check your blog stats. They want you to have illogical conversations with them about the existence of fairies when you’d rather talk to a girlfriend on the phone. They want to tell you in Three Different Ways how wonderful school was today when you want to zone out with a cup of coffee. They can be repetitive. They can be a little dull. But apart from ensuring that they get regular food and sleep, the most important need we can fulfil is to show them that we enjoy spending our precious time with them. That’s how they are going to grow up as well-adjusted, confident adults who believe they have something valuable to share with the world – themselves.


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A Few Good Rules

I’ve just finished reading Nineteen Minutes – Jodi Picoult’s version of the American school shooting phenomenon, in which she attributes the shooter’s act of vengeance to years of systematic bullying. Picoult spins a good tale, broad, encompassing, but never deep. Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with the same subject matter – what makes a teenage murderer, how a community responds, how parents of a murderer feel – but far more provocatively and urgently. Her tale of a mother who fails, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child, is chilling. If I had to choose between the two, I would recommend the latter. I admire Shriver’s brutal honesty and her determination to tackle deeply unpleasant topics.

Shriver’s story posits that Kevin, the teenage murderer, arrives on the planet evil. This alone, without the story’s horrific denouement, is hard to digest. We want to believe that babies are innocent, until we slowly imprint our weaknesses on them. We want to believe that the parents of an amoral child did their best to teach him. And we certainly want to believe that such a child might take revenge his schoolmates but never on his own family.

The murderer in Picoult’s tale starts out as an ordinary child, perhaps one who is more sensitive than most. On his first day of kindergarten, the bullying begins and it never stops. Each day at school is one of humiliation, shame and beatings. One part of the story I found hard to accept is that the adults around him, his parents and his teachers, are never aware of the extent of the bullying. His parents try to make him more acceptable to his peers by forcing him to play soccer, but continually compare him to his brother Josh who is socially competent, academic and sporty. Josh also teases his brother at school, calling him a “freak”, and how this fails to pan out in the family is never addressed.

In comparison to Shriver’s meaty broth, Picoult’s novel is a thin gruel, competent but never entirely satisfying. However, it did make me think a little more about bullying and how children loathe difference. When Lily arrived in her little German school class last year, she was swiftly dumped by the one child from her own kindergarten (they have since reconciled) and was left to face the hordes on her own. After two weeks of hearing that no-one wanted to play with her at break-time, I went on a playdate offensive, inviting children round, baking welcoming muffins and letting them see that while Lily may be a little different from the German norm in that she comes from an English/South African background, she is loved and cherished just like they are. Now she has lovely little friends, from whom she remains slightly independent, as is her way. Had I left it, perhaps she would have managed on her own, but perhaps she would not have. I’m just glad I acted swiftly.

However, with bullying on my mind, it was interesting that she came home today with list of rules for good behaviour at school. The children have cut them out and stuck them in their work books, and they are discussing them in class with their teacher. The rules are:

We listen to each other, and to the teacher

We don’t laugh at anyone when they make a mistake

We don’t blame each other

We help each other

We don’t run in the classroom, only in the playground

We speak politely to each other

We let each other finish our sentences

We keep our desks tidy

We work quietly, so as not to disturb each other

We solve our conflicts without violence

We wait our turn quietly

We put up our hands when we want to speak

I don’t know if this is school policy, or just the policy of Lily’s teacher, but I think they are a great set of principles, ones according to which I’d be happy to raise my children.