Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


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When I Was 35

In 2007, I wrote a blog post called When I Was 25. I had forgotten all about it, until the lovely Amanda visited and left this comment:

I’m so happy I came across this, now several years after you wrote it. I turned 25 eight days ago and I’m kind of doing research on the disenchantment and restlessness one feels around this age. I’ve certainly gained some insight in a different way than I expected from your post as well as all the comments.

I reread the post and realised that making an effort to remember a time long ago brings its own lessons, ones that are worth contemplating. It is now seven years since I turned 35 and since I believe in the seven-year cycle and the spirit of learning more, I give you When I was 35:

When I was 35, I thought my family was complete with two darling little girls. Then I fell pregnant again and our son was born. I learnt that being a parent of three children is significantly different from being the parent of two. A wise friend said, ‘Embrace the chaos,’ and once I did, life became much easier. But much more than that, my heart just expanded to include him and what a feeling that is.

When I was 35, I had never heard of blogging. Now I have a whole alternative, Internet-fuelled life and I love it. I have even met some people off the Internet and came home intact.

When I was 35, the idea of writing a book, finishing it, rewriting it multiple times, joining an online writing community, getting beta readers,  submitting to and signing with a literary agent was only a dream. I made it reality.

When I was 35, I grew tired of buying expensive (though delicious) cakes at the  bakery and taught myself to bake. This happened.

When I was 35, I thought that donning sports shoes and propelling my body in a forward motion was closer to hell than I thought it was ever necessary to go. As an asthmatic kid and an adult with couch-potato tendencies, jogging never entered my personal vocabulary. This year, I’m running in the MLP Marathon relay event.

When I was 35, I was still buried deep in the intense phase of parenting: nappies, bad nights, tantrums. Now that my three spend large chunks of the day in other places being taken care of and taught by others, I have had the luxury to do things like write, run and earn money.

When I was 35, I had never had a migraine. Now, I have worked out my cure: no alcohol for two weeks of the month. It’s radical, but it works.

When I was 35, I had just moved to the Burg from Surrey, England, and was suffering culture shock. I settled down, made lovely friends and a home for my family. The Burg grew too small, so for a while, I considered Berlin, the German city that holds my heart and where I still hope to live one day. Now I live in Heidelberg and love my new life.

When I was 35, I still highlighted my hair blonde. Then I went grey for Obama and it turns out I was leading a major trend. Just call me a rock ‘n roll fairy princess.

When I was 35, I had been married for 10 years and believed that I was in it for the duration. I still do *waves to darling*.

When I was 35, I had no idea what my future held. I trusted that things would work out, that I would be gainfully employed, that my family would be happy and well. Since then I have read hundreds of books, held dozens of dinner-parties, cooked hundreds of meals, written hundreds of thousands of words, written dozens of articles, run a few dozen kilometres, met my girlfriends for book club dozens of times. On the bad days, I have sighed and taken stock and picked myself up and carried on. While I now have an inkling of what my future may hold, I still cannot say for sure that it will turn out the way I have it in my mind. But I won’t stop hoping. Or cooking, baking, reading, wiping faces, loving, writing words, occasionally running, dreaming, sighing and imagining a world where my family is happy and well.

What was life like for you when you were 35?


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Holla back!

What’s wrong with this film review published in today’s Observer? Can you spot the anomaly?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this broad-hipped young woman with large, firm breasts picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

If it read like this instead, would you notice?

Michael Rowe, an Australian writer-director currently resident in Mexico, won the Caméra d’or last May for best first film in the official programme at Cannes for this chamber film. All but the opening scene set in a supermarket takes place in the cramped Mexico City flat of freelance business reporter Laura, a single woman of peasant stock from Oaxaca, an impoverished state in the far south. Through loneliness and low self-esteem, this young woman picks up lovers for the night, or in some cases hour-long stands. They look down on and patronise her, and when one of them, the preening, would-be actor Arturo, with a bulging package, starts abusing her physically, she draws him into an increasingly dangerous sadomasochistic relationship to win his approval and elicit a little tenderness. It’s an intense, powerful and at times deeply painful movie, a serious exercise in sexual politics, and Mónica del Carmen as Laura gives an outstanding, brave performance.

My question is this: how is the size and shape of the young woman’s breasts even vaguely relevant to the film, to the actress’s performance or to the review? They clearly enhanced the reviewer’s personal enjoyment of the movie but describing them is more than a Freudian slip, it’s a huge bloody pratfall, that in filmic terms would be signalled by bananas, Peter Sellers and mocking laughter.

In Anna Karenina, Tolsoy describes the work of the peasants in the fields and at one point lovingly describes the shape of a young worker’s breasts. Having never once described, or even alluded to the breasts of the upper-class and noble women in the novel, this brief sentence starkly signals the author’s prejudices: young peasant women represent sex and sex that is to be appropriated by the ruling class.

However, we are a long way from 1877. I don’t expect to find superfluous breast descriptions in my Sunday Observer. It spoils my morning and I lose respect for people whose intelligent reviews I have enjoyed for a long time.

Don’t do it, Phillip French.


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Zen and the Art of Switching Off Your Phone

Yesterday in my yoga class, someone took a call on their mobile phone. Not a “I’m at yoga; will call you back” call either, but a prolonged two-way conversation that involved a lot of listening, some suggesting and proferring of ideas that we all got to hear, since the yoga studio is small. My yoga teacher said, “Let’s just have a pause in the child pose while Isabel takes her call”, and then after a while, “It’s taking longer than I thought. Let’s move on then.”

The mere fact that her phone was on during yoga class is astonishingly rude. The fact that she answered it and then went on to have a four-minute conversation is staggering. The fact that she returned to the class and DIDN’T APOLOGISE is mind-blowing. I think it’s the self-importance that enrages me more than the rudeness – if you are having a crisis in your life that requires you to be available 24/7, DON’T COME TO YOGA. Otherwise, switch off your bloody phone, take a message and call back afterwards. The class only lasts an hour.

Today’s Times Online has a great article on how technology, particularly mobile phones and those relationship-threateners, BlackBerrys and iPhones, is promoting a new level of distractedness not only from the moment but from those most important to us. Couples are having to lay down ground rules as to when BlackBerry use is acceptable and when not – during an anniversary dinner, not acceptable; on the beach while on holiday with your family, NOT acceptable. The article says:

However, the only way a new etiquette can really work is through increased self-awareness on the part of the user. For starters, users have to realise how their behaviour can affect others. As Lloyd-Elliot says: “There is something arrogant about the mindset that goes with this trend — the sense of always thinking that what you’ve got to say is so important it can’t wait. There’s also an absence of thoughtful empathy; how you are making those around you feel.”

Dr Emma Short, a senior lecturer in psychology, agrees. “It’s about being mindful about the choices you make. Whenever you take a call or reply to a message in front of someone, you are prioritising what is an absent presence.” In terms of your relationship and how your partner feels, she says, think about who you are promoting above whom when you hear that beep or see that flashing light.

I remember when mobile phone use first became ubiquitous sitting around and waiting in social situations for people to complete their very important phone conversation so that they could get back to conversing with me. I resolved never to have one. Since having children, I’ve caved in and I have to admit it is a useful tool – on holiday in Greece, my kids were able to chat to their dad in Germany and I could abuse the cheap car company when yet another of their crap vehicles broke down. But a mobile is nothing more than that, a tool, and one of which we should be in charge and to which we should not allow ourselves to become victim.

Isabel’s vague shrug as she returned to the yoga class yesterday was just that, the shrug of a victim. Her shrug said, “Don’t blame me, blame my phone.”

I think what overreliance on mobile technology most underscores is the inability to be in the moment. If you have to pick up the phone to tell someone what a great time you’re having WHILE YOU’RE HAVING IT, then how much fun are you actually having? And if you can’t switch off from your life for a one-hour yoga class – a place where more than anywhere you are practising the art of being in the moment – then PERHAPS YOU SHOULDN’T ATTEND.


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Seeking a Character Flaw

I’m back at my novel, after having had a break, and I am deeply into a plotting exercise that I have to complete before I start the second draft. I’ve been trying to get inside the skin of my main protagonist, Lindiwe Dlamini, for over a year now. I know her fairly well, but it’s an ongoing process of discovery. Let me tell you a little about Lindiwe:

She’s in her late fifties, and, having started her career as a teacher, now heads up a Swiss-funded AIDS organisation. Lindiwe’s husband Andile was a community organiser who died in police detention in the Eighties. He was the love of her life and she has never – despite taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – had any closure on how he died or who was responsible. Her oldest son Peter died of AIDS in his mid-twenties. Her second child, Bongani, manages a small business and is happily married with two children. Her daughter, Mbali, is a fashion journalist in Joburg and shows no signs of settling down, though she has a handsome boyfriend who spoils her. Neither child approves of their mother’s work in AIDS: they think she has worked too hard all her life and that she should retire and enjoy her grandchildren.

However Lindiwe is committed to doing her best for her community. Shaped by apartheid and their religious beliefs, it’s how she and Andile tried to live their lives. Turning away now would be a betrayal of their shared goals. So she keeps working, helping those less fortunate than herself. During the course of the story, a series of events will challenge Lindiwe’s belief in community, and she will have to decide whether to choose a small group of individuals over the collective.

Here’s my problem: isn’t Lindiwe a bit too perfect? I’ve said before that I have a tendency to write lead characters who are too damn nice. As chief protagonist, Lindiwe needs to be relatively likeable, otherwise we might lose sympathy with her. I do feel though that she needs a flaw – apart from her sugar vice – that makes her a little more complex and nuanced.

You have more emotional distance from Lindiwe than I have. Please, suggest a flaw. She needs one.


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10 Things I Know

Litlove knows that I am given to sharing my wisdom, so she has tagged me for 10 Things I Know, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to resist. And she is right. So, off the top of my head, with very little editing, here are ten things are I know:

  1. My Fair Lady is a misogynist film (I am watching it on TCM as I write).
  2. There’s nothing worse than when bad things happen to people you love.
  3. Asking for forgiveness is liberating.
  4. The simple rule for good parenting is to model the behaviour you require.
  5. The simple rule for good relationships is keep talking.
  6. Ego gets in the way of smart decision-making.
  7. Loneliness is self-inflicted.
  8. Facebook is fun but Twitter is for the birds.
  9. It might be dull for the listener, but sometimes people just need to be heard.
  10. Exercise might not save your life, but it will put you in a good mood.

And now I tag Natalian, Ms Honey Pie, G, Diane, Aphra and Paddy. Got any aphorisms for us?


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Cold Comfort

A year ago, deep in the heart of Europe, while driving through the continent’s longest tunnel as my family slept around me, I made a decision that was momentous for me. It had been silting up for years, but as the weight of the Swiss Alps pressed down on my family, I decided that, although I love my homeland and although my soul will always be South African, I will never live there again. The tunnel was long, straight and well-lit, and I wept as I drove. I kept the decision locked into my heart, not wanting to verbalise it, because that would make it too real. Today, I’ve cried again, all day long with bitter tears as the nail was banged into the coffin of my decision.

In September 2006, 100-year-old Herbert James “Bob” Downs was stabbed several times in the home which he built and where he had lived for 72 years. His murderer stole a television from him, which he later sold for R150 (€12). Sibusiso Mbuje Dlamini (29) was caught later that day, wearing a pair of Bob’s favourite shoes. There have been many murders in South Africa, countless murders, some perpetrated by the apartheid government, others perpetrated by the freedom movement and others by ordinary citizens. Every murder is tragic, but the murder of Bob Downs caught my heart. He was the grandfather of a schoolfriend of mine, and had recently celebrated his 100th birthday surrounded by his loving family: children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. His granddaughter, K, had sent me photos of that lovely day. One picture that stays with me is of Bob, sitting amongst rows of his family, under the generous arms of a tree, the green lawns of someone’s home stretching out into the landscape of KwaZulu-Natal, the land that is etched into my heart. The joy that radiated from them made me cry. I felt, selfishly and briefly, robbed. Shortly afterwards, he was murdered.

This week, Dlamini was sentenced. He got life, plus ten. Cold comfort for Bob Downs’ family.

If you are feeling brave, look at Bob’s face here. See the wisdom in his wrinkles and the kindness in his clear blue eyes, which are those of a much younger man. When I looked at this photograph, over a year ago, I knew that I could not live in a country where a life as well-lived and good as his is so cheap. I made my decision and I held onto it in silence.

Last night, I was contacted by a young South African woman, who found me through my blog. Her husband is of German extraction. They are considering selling everything and immigrating to Germany. We spoke on the phone for a long time, and I heard the same sadness in her voice: how she loves her country, how she lives in fear, how the stress is affecting her whole family and how they are going to take the biggest risk of their lives and move. And I counselled her to do it. Germany, I said, is stable. It is green, healthy, safe, child-friendly and kind. As I said those words, my heart tore a little more. She is born and bred South African like me, whose parents are South African like mine. Her father runs a small supermarket and, she says, in order to be safe, his own private army. “Going to the supermarket there is like going into Belfast. Soldiers everywhere.”

This morning, I drove past green hills and thought how blessed I am to have landed in this safe, green place. The Heidelberg hills are so beautiful, gentle and rolling, filled with surprises like ruined castles and winding rivers. They will never be mine. They will never attach themselves to my heart with barbs that cannot be loosened. If my soul had to choose between the green hills of Heidelberg and the yellow grass of the Drakensberg, my soul would choose the latter. I dream of the smell of the air in Cape Town, and wake up with my pillow wet.

My mother and I have been having these phone-calls. We skirt the topic, we tease around its edges. For a year, we have been approaching it. And then today I said it. I said, “Tones, I’m never coming home.” And then I cried and cried. Somehow, when you tell your mother, then it is real, almost too real to bear. Since then, I have been crying and I can’t stop. It’s cold comfort for my mother that we are safe here, cold comfort for me that my life is stable and kind, cold comfort for my children that they have freedoms unimaginable to kids of their age in South Africa, but see their grandparents once a year.

My heart is breaking. I am never going home. My beloved country, exactly that of Alan Paton’s, land of yellow grass, duikers, vervet monkeys, sardine runs, dark palaces of thunderstorms, crocheted doilies weighted down with stones, the smell of mutton, rusks dipped into sweet tea, people who shout hello to each other, will always be a holiday destination for me. I am filled with love and admiration for those who stay, for those who still believe in South Africa’s future. They are brave and their courage astounds me. I can’t be that brave.