Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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39 Things I Have Learnt

Next week, I will be 39. I am thrilled about 39. Really, I am. I’m convinced that my fortieth year is going to be the most exciting year of my life. I feel it in my bones. I sense adventure, success and happiness and I’m embracing it all with joy.

To celebrate my birthday, here are 39 Things I Have Learnt:

1. If you don’t have the time or inclination to polish your boots with polish and a brush, a baby wipe will do just as well.

2. Cooking, if you have time and sufficient inclination, is not drudgery. It is relaxing, calming, recuperative, creative and feeds people.

3. We all breathe too shallowly.

4. Walking is better for our bodies than jogging, but swimming is best.

5. The only way to keep weight in check is to balance input and output. Eating fewer carbs helps too.

6. We can’t all be famous, but if we blog, we can pretend we are.

7. Writing every day leads to writing every day.

8. There is no such thing as “finding your other half” or “being completed” by someone else – the only way to have a successful relationship is to be a whole person already.

9. Living for your family, while satisfying at the time, can be pointless if you carry on doing it after they have left home.

10. Even very old people want to have sex.

11. Empathy is more useful to another person than sympathy.

12. No one person can be “everything” to another person. We get what we need piecemeal from all the people around us.

13. Love is all around, actually.

14. Children need time and laughter from their parents far more than they need expensive stuff and trips to fun-fairs.

15. Women should stop judging each other’s choices and stand up for each other – if someone’s anti-fashion or obsessed with her looks or works or stays home with her kids or breast-feeds or bottle-feeds or eats local or eats vegetables from Kenya, you don’t have to be her friend but don’t judge her.

16. We can’t protect our children from every little hurt or wound, but we can provide a safe place for them to come home to and talk about it.

17. I am scared of global warning and the aftermath of AIDS, but I am angry about patriarchy.

18. I don’t think any woman anywhere will be truly free until no woman is raped, abused, forced to wear clothing to hide her body from the gaze of men, prevented from getting educated or expected to carry out all the home and child-care in exchange for men’s benevolence.

19. Getting out of bed to care for the children when you’d rather lounge there, eating chocolates, filing your nails and watching Friends reruns hurts, but is also rewarding.

20. Speaking your truth is brave.

21. When you do speak your truth – without the intention to wound or hurt – you are not responsible for the reaction of others.

22. Fear is a bad philosophy of life.

23. Children get far more joy out of paper, glue, scissors and paint than they do out of big shiny plastic things from the toy-shop.

24. Being passive-aggressive is abusing the truth.

25. Whether you’re a man or a woman, earning a salary is only a small part of your responsibilities.

26. Whoever earns the most money does not own the remote control.

27. Partners who ask “What can I do to help you?” are very, very sexy.

28. What goes around, comes around.

29. A half-finished household task makes a job for someone else. Always complete.

30. We don’t have “one chance to accept God into our lives”. God, or the divine, is already there – whether we like it or not and whether we believe or not. And if you don’t believe me, climb a mountain, listen to music or hear a baby’s gurgling laughter.

31. Gossip hurts both the gossiper and the gossipee.

32. Using children as a weapon is low.

31. Having good friends, even if it’s just one or two, is essential to a happy life.

32. People who use others as audience, or mirrors in which to view their own reflections, are bores and best avoided.

33. It’s better to have a warm and friendly home than a perfect one.

34. Money, while great to have, is not the be-all and end-all. Love is.

35. Shopping destroys, in more ways than one. It’s soulless, bad for the planet, addictive, pointless and far too much fun for its own good.

36. Those who abuse apostrophes should apologise.

37. People who have benefitted from an iniquitous system – Apartheid, patriarchy, national socialism – should find a way to give back.

38. There is no such thing as too many books.

39. The only way forward is with love, and a sense of humour.

(I pinched this idea from the lovely Sognatrice of Bleeding Espresso, who recently turned 31.)


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December Planning

Much as I like to subscribe to a spontaneous, seat-of-the-pants style of operating that would allow me to take up an invitation to go trekking in Patagonia with five hours’ notice, I actually have to be fairly organised. I’m divided. The real me is a dreamy, peripatetic traveller armed with a notebook and some chocolate, but the current me is a busy mother of three, with a job, lots of friends, a husband who would occasionally like my attention and three lunches to pack. Reality is that I vacillate between the two poles, being either relatively organised or utterly forgetful.

I have friends who are really organised, who get their tax returns back in January, who have colour-coded wardrobes, and who have a place for everything in their homes. I admire them, but try not to compare myself. Some of those friends don’t have children (which opens up many gazillions of free hours), others have live-in help (ditto) and others don’t work. When I’m beating myself up for not being perfectly organised, I have to remind myself that everyone’s situation is unique. My strategy is always people over things, so my children get more attention than the kitchen cupboards, my friends get more attention than the laundry and my husband, when he’s here, gets more attention than, say, the mop.

So, bearing in mind that people come first, and that Christmas is no fun when Mummy’s running around in increasingly small circles emitting a high-pitched shrieking noise, here is my answer to BlogLily’s request to share my planning for December:

1. To hand in my last two pieces of freelance work on 14 December, and to not work again until after New Year.

2. To use some of those free hours to work on my new collection of short stories (one in the writing, another six in the planning).

3. To enjoy and relish the week of 17 to 21 December, during which time I must bake and prepare for Daisy’s home birthday, Daisy’s kindergarten birthday and a joint birthday party I am hosting for myself and two friends (potential guest list 50-100?).

4. To have enough, but not too much food, in the house for the week of 22 to 28 December. We won’t starve, even if we don’t have immediate access to stem ginger, mince pies and rum-dipped dates.

5. To relax and enjoy the company of my darling family, especially that of my lovely brother who is making his first-ever journey to Europe to Christmas with us.

6. To buy less stuff.

It’s all about the fun, the love, about some – but not too much – gorgeous food and, if possible, much less stuff.


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My Fantasy Escape

My fantasy escape is a writing retreat in the African bush. I sleep in a large double bed with white linen and a mosquito net, and have a view of a waterhole where elephants come to drink, bathe and cavort with their babies. There are monkeys in the trees and warthogs snuffling in the shrubbery.

Silent staff bring me meals – exactly what I require, when I require it, without my ever having to ask – and are available take me on game drives should I wish it.

My family are permitted to make short visits. When they leave they do not cry, but cover me with kisses and wave cheerfully. I feel no guilt when they leave.

There is also yoga, but after the class all the other participants must melt away, unless I like them, in which case they may stay for dinner and be highly entertaining.

I swim in a pool that is the perfect temperature, and take outside showers.

There is a library of books and fat, comfortable sofas in which to read.

There is a verandah, with views, for contemplation.

The temperature never rises about 28° Celsius, and never drops below 18.

I write, and dream, and wake, and sleep, all to the rhythm of the bushveld. I watch sunsets and stars, sunrises and morning mists, but sleep through the heat of the day.

I live in the moment, meditate to the sound of beetles and birds, and write and write and write.

Can I go there now?

Thanks to YogaMum for the inspiration.


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The Forest Maker

I have this little brother, Andy. He is big and quite funny. He is also kind, dreamy, hard-working, full of empathy, sporty, outdoorsy, loyal and committed. For a living, he makes forests.

When he was growing up and in his early twenties, it was never clear what Andy was going to do for a job. He tried his hand at insurance and while his boss liked him, Andy found the relentless daily grind of office work unbearable. He also became bogged down by office politics – as a non-political animal, he just couldn’t understand it and was often hurt by people standing on his head to climb onto the next rung of the ladder.

He knew it was not for him and he left. He began making my mother’s smoked trout pate and selling it at local markets. This work suited him better: he was his own boss, he could work at his own pace and it allowed him more time to be outdoors. Andy’s smoked trout pate became very popular in KwaZulu-Natal and he even started selling it to a few shops, but it still wasn’t The Thing he wanted to be doing with his life. The family, as you can imagine, were wringing their hands. What was he going to do? Who was he going to be?

What nobody knew was that, in his heart, Andy knew what he was going to be. In his time off from the smoked trout pate business, Andy took his beloved black Lab Billy for walks in the indigenous forests of KZN. While there, he would collect seeds off the forest floor, take them home and nurture them. Achingly slowly, over a period of years, Andy developed a nursery of 4000 trees in his garden. He found he was spending more time looking after his trees than making trout pate. He joined local environmental groups, made contacts and began to be known as someone who knew a lot about indigenous trees.

Going indigenous is a big trend amongst South African gardeners because plants that are local to the area attract more birds and insects, whereas exotics leach the soil of precious nutrients and can be destructive. Andy began to sell a few trees from his home nursery, started to advise the lady gardeners of Pietermaritzburg on replacing exotics with indigenous and participating in drives to replace exotics in public spaces with beautiful indigenous trees.

And then his miracle happened. He was offered tenancy at the nursery of the local Botanical Gardens. He carefully transported his 4000 trees from the garden at home to the Gardens, where he now has a shop, staff and a public venue for his skills and knowledge. He is also involved in wholesale indigenous tree sales, participates in tree fairs and has become known as one of KZN’s top tree people. He still landscapes for lady gardeners, but he has also worked on golf courses and larger projects, removing hillsides of exotics and replacing them with indigenous. He is the forest maker.

My brother inspires me because he didn’t take the traditional route into the working world, but followed his heart. He ignored all the naysayers and did what he had to do. When he found his true calling and began to live it, his miracle happened. He is not an arrogant boss; he labours with his team, digging and hacking and hauling. He speaks brilliant Zulu. His employees love him. His employers love him. He is the gentle tree-man of KwaZulu-Natal. I am so proud of him.

And the best news of all, selfish sister that I am, that he is finally earning enough money to buy himself a ticket to come and spend Christmas with me and my family. This is his first visit to us ever and the best possible Christmas present I could have.


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The Tale of the Perfect Slipper

Once upon a time, not very long ago, there lived a Princess. The Princess was a happy person, for she had everything in her life that she needed: food, a loving family, the odd glass of champagne. However, there was one thing that was missing in the Princess’s life. She needed the perfect slipper.

The Princess searched high and low in the shops of Germany – for it was in Germany that she lived – to find the perfect slipper. And indeed, Germany was a good place to search, for the good burgers of Germany were mostly very fond of the shoe that can be worn inside, namely the Hausschuh. However, despite searching for many long years for the perfect slipper, the Princess was unable to find it. She grew sad and listless, and sat around picking her bare, cold toenails. Her family became worried. How could they restore the Princess to her former happy and joyous mien? Where could they find the perfect slipper that would meet the Princess’s rigorous conditions of (a) comfort, (b) attractiveness and (c) substantial sparkliness fitting to one of royal birth?

Things appeared to be desperate. The Princess decided to make one last last-ditch attempt to find the perfect slipper. She went out, to the lovely Geschaeften of Germany. There she tried on 101 pairs of the famous Birkenstocks. Every citizen of the land (and many from other lands, including fair California) had told her that Birkenstocks were of the highest comfort and attractiveness. But, nay, the Princess could not. She could not purchase a Birkenstock to place upon her daintly footlets. That would never do. They were too crass, too sordid; the kind of shoe her vegan friend Oatmeal Baobab might wear, but not good enough for the feet of a Princess.

The Princess believed that she would never find the perfect slipper. Her heart was sad. She became mightily depressed. She lost her appetite, becoming quite unable to eat chocolate. The only good thing on her horizon was the pending visit of her mother, the Queen. At least the dear Queen might be able to cheer her up a little, cook some delectable morsels and take the children off her hands so that she could waft around morosely being really sad.

The day the Queen arrived was a very low one for the Princess. She embraced her mother listlessly. With a glint in her royal eye, the Queen said, “Darling. Have you managed to find the perfect slipper yet?”

“Oh no, dear Queen, I have not,” whispered the Princess tremulously. She plucked tragically at her gown.

“Well, darling, there is no need to mourn any longer!” the Queen announced. “I believe I may found the perfect slipper, far far away in the shopping portals of Pietermaritzburg.”

“Pietermaritzburg,” muttered the Princess, “What good is that to me, here in the lovely land of Germany?”

“But darling, I have transported it with me in the flying machine!” cried the Queen triumphantly. “I have it in my trunk.”

“Oh, Mother,” said the Princess, “Dig it out immediately.”

“Please,” she added, for she was a well brought-up girl.

And so the Queen set to digging about in her trunk and came upon a parcel wrapped in tissue paper. Proudly, with beating heart, she presented it to her child.

The Princess tore open the package with unseemly haste and there they lay. Not one, but two of the most perfect slippers she had ever seen. One for each foot! They were silver, they were sparkly, they reeked of Chanel (tho’ they were not, coming as they did from the shopping portals of Pietermaritzburg).

“Mother, how can I thank you?” the Princess cried, flinging her arms about her mother’s neck and sinking slightly, with relief.

Disentangling her daughter, the Queen said, “Well, I do have very good taste. Look here.”

And she lifted her own gown, just a couple of millimetres to reveal the identical pair adorning her own little Queenly toelets.

The Princess placed the exquisite silver slippers on her feet, and announced, “We must celebrate. A party! We shall have a party!”

And the Queen, the Princess, her husband – the well-shod Prince, and the little Princesses and Princeling, danced all night, happy in the knowledge that there would never be sadness in the kingdom again.

The Princess loves her slippers so much, so very very much, that sometimes she wears them on her head.

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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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Today Charlotte Will be Modelling …

… her very own sweat.

(Just thought you’d like to know.)

It’s been hot. Hot, hot, hot. It’s been so hot, I cleaned off the six weeks of mould that had accumulated on the paddling pool during our monsoon, stripped my three children down to their nethers and threw them in.

It’s been so hot, that we have scraped the rust off the three fans that languish unused like white suits of armour in our bedrooms, and switched them on.

It’s been so hot that I washed down our trailer trash garden furniture, dried it and arrayed brightly coloured tablecloths upon the tables to make pretty.

It’s been so hot that I swept the terrasse and hosed it down to prevent it from dehydrating.

It’s been so hot that our universally retired neighbours are scaring us by wearing their vests and skimpiest bathing costumes in their gardens.

It’s been so hot that apart from the sound of happy neighbours chatting in their gardens, all I can hear is the shush-shush of hoses as they water their well-manicured lawns and flowerbeds.

It’s been so hot I can hear our own lawn growing, along with its very good friends, the weeds.

It’s been so hot that lemon beer has been the only thing to drink.

It’s been so hot that salads have been the only thing to eat. And ice-cream.

It’s been so hot that Burg has a party atmosphere. People are jollier than the Professor of Jolly at Oxford University.

It’s been so hot that I’ve seen loads of friends, eaten lovely food, paddled in a brook, watched my kids wave sticks at pinatas, lounged on a rug under the shade of a large umbrella, enjoyed a braai at home, strolled into town and walked home with an armful of roses as a present for myself and a new vase to put them in. Best of all, on the way to and from the supermarket, I rolled down the window of my car and played Bob Marley and the Wailers loudly for the benefit of all humankind.

Every little thing IS going to be alright.


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The Sun Is Wearing a Very Small Hat

The sun has come out. May I mention that again? The sun is shining, and is predicted to continue doing so for the whole weekend, which is a good thing, seeing we have to attend an (outdoor) summer party tomorrow and host an (outdoor) braai in our garden on Sunday. Sun is a Good Thing. Especially here in Germany, where it has been raining and grey and COLDER THAN WINTER IN SOUTH AFRICA for the last six weeks.

It has just dawned on me that the lack of sun for the last six weeks is the reason why I have been so out of sorts. I didn’t mention it here, for various reasons:

1) I’m not good at mentioning depression while I’m having it. Only after the fact.

2) While there are some things I can share with the whole damn world, I don’t always like to share that I’m stuck inside with three kids, rain outside, piles of washing to put away, too many DVDs being watched and me working my way through the children’s sweet tin. Only after the fact.

3) I like to present my happy, smiley face to the world. With a hat on.

I often don’t even know I’m out of sorts, until afterwards. Then I look back and realise why I started seven books and couldn’t finish them, forgot to put the bins out, ate too much chocolate, started a diet, became unable to blog anything other than memes, wasted time watching crap movies like Elizabethtown, neglected all household responsibilities, became very slow and began a list of reasons why I disliked myself.

I blame the weather. I was SAD of course. Very, very sad. And with the sun starting to shine, with wearing a skirt instead of jeans, with kids in T-shirts and sandals, with some promise of Vitamin D, I am feeling BETTER. I have sunglasses at the ready, I am eating salads, I may even be able to take my kids to a playground this afternoon.

I don’t have this problem; unlike many Germans I find pale interesting, but just a little bit of sun is going to do me a lot of good.

I may even become bouncy.

Beware.


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Happy

I had my first yoga practice in months today, with a wonderful new teacher. Her studio, which looks over the Rhine plain all the way to the Pfalz, was a peaceful refuge from the driving rain outside. For one and a half hours I thought of nothing but myself, my body and how it was feeling. She taught me how to be conscious of my toes, how to attach four corners of my feet to the earth and anchor myself. I learnt how to make my calves, thighs and stomach muscles strong. I left with a wondrous feeling of well-being which lasted for hours.

So it seems appropriate to address Ms Magic Hands’ meme Five Things You Do To Raise Your Vibe while still feeling the afterglow. Here goes:

1. My life is busy. I have three kids, work, friends, and family who require maintenance, even long-distance. One thing I do every day to raise my vibe is to have some time to myself for reading. It usually happens late at night in the bath, when the house is quiet and everyone else is asleep. I pour in the bubbles, keep my toe on the hot tap, add more water when necessary and read, read, read. Right now it’s Elizabeth George’s What Came Before She Shot Him, which is an education in brilliant characterisation and a deeply engaging plot.

2. I plan holidays. One the advantages of where I live is that the whole of Europe is easily accessible. This year I’ve been to Berlin, the south of France, Oslo, Alsace Lorraine. The holidays don’t always have to happen – I enjoy trawling holiday websites, dreaming of what could be.

3. I dance with my children. It’s exercise and it’s fun. I can be as ridiculously silly as I want to be without feeling self-conscious. We call it “working on our moves”.

4. I have a night out with my girlfriends or a date with my husband, all involving wine, food and laughter. Come to think of it, I’d better go and put my party face on right now. I’m heading out to meet the girls.

5. I meditate and dream. After years of practice, I slip readily and easily into a meditative state. I use it in various ways: to relax, to feel better, to raise my consciousness, to commune. It always, always helps.


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The Bliss List

After reading Teuchter’s and Aphra’s lists of things that made them blissful, I couldn’t resist making one of my own. One of the things I noticed in their lists and in mine is that very few blissful things are things we’d pay for. They are either emotions, sensations or memories. We might love a new pair of shoes, but they wouldn’t constitute bliss. Anyway, it made me happy. Try it. It feels good.

Charlotte’s Bliss List:

  • The gurgle of my two-year-old’s laughter when I kiss the tickle-spot under his chin
  • A salad of green asparagus, cherry tomatoes and fried slices of halloumi cheese
  • Reading the first sentence of a new book and knowing I’m going to love it
  • Bathing late at night while my family sleeps, with that new book and some lavender essence in the water
  • Vistas of hills and trees
  • The start of a journey to somewhere new or somewhere deeply loved
  • Chai tea lattes
  • A good sentence, preferably written by me
  • A clear blue sky
  • An early morning walk
  • Dancing with my children
  • Watching my seven-year-old fall in love with reading
  • The silken waterfall of my five-year-old’s hair
  • Making my husband laugh
  • Having girlfriends who get me
  • Eating alfresco
  • Being barefoot
  • The smells of lemon, rosemary, sage, coriander, vanilla, rose, lavender, thyme – though not necessarily all together
  • Being alone in my house when it’s clean and tidy and there’s nothing to do but read
  • Pink roses in a blue jug