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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Me Got Skillz

I can actually spell my very own, rather long name. I’ve always liked my name’s literary connection, however, I’m not here today to talk about Brontes or pigs. I’ve been tagged by Bine for a meme. Bine says the rules are:

List one fact, word or tidbit that is somehow relevant to your life for each letter of your first or middle name. You can theme it to your blog or make it general. Then tag one person for each letter of your name.

C: Cake. I am very fond of cake. Making it, eating it, dreaming about making it, reading about it, dreaming about reading about it. Right now, I’m planning my next one – a rosemary loaf cake for my husband’s birthday tomorrow. Cake is good stuff.

H: Heidelberg. Not where I live, but almost. A happy place where I have favourite views, favourite shops, favourite restaurants and favourite bookshops. A place where I like to eat cake in restaurants while reading a book and looking at a view.

A: Angels. I believe in them. See “E”.

R: Reading. My favourite pastime, a little higher on the list than cake. If I had to choose between the two, reading would win, but only just.

L: Love. I’ve got a lot of love in my life, and that makes me very lucky.

O: Otters. I loved them and then I became one. I remember reading Ring of Bright Water and sobbing my heart out. There’s an otter sanctuary in Alsace where I often take visitors, except the regulars have taken to begging me, “Anywhere but the otter park, please.” Becoming an Otter meant that my initials are now CEO, which is a very satisfactory state of affairs. I am the Chief Executive of cake.

T: Thomas. It’s his fault I’m an Otter, and that there is a brood of little Otters. Happy birthday for tomorrow darling. Hope you like your cake.

T: Oh, look, another T. Toni. My darling mother, otherwise known as the Queen. She’s not scared of a good cake.

E: Elise. My maternal grandmother, who was a wise soul and teacher. I take my second name from her. How lucky I am to have had her guidance when I was young so that I don’t have to crash around looking for the answers now. She equipped me with many of the life skills and beliefs I have today. And she loved cake too.

Now, I’ve got nine bloggers to tag. I’m going to focus on the ones doing NaBloPoMo so that they gain an extra day’s content. That would be:

(un)Relaxeddad

YogaMum

Kerry

Lia

Kerryn

Helen

Kate

Noble Savage

Wendz

Ms Magic Hands

Aphra

Lizzy

Dorothy

Whoops, that’s thirteen. I said I could spell; I didn’t say I could count. Feel free to spell your own name, if you want to …


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Remembering The Hermitage

A strange thing is happening in my family – my mother and stepfather are moving in with my brother. My stepfather is retiring after twenty-seven years of teaching at an elite boys’ school, and while he and my mother wait to sell their house in the nearby village and downsize to something easier to maintain, they are moving in with my brother. But that’s not the odd part; what’s odd is that the house where they are going to live is where my father grew up. The Hermitage is where, as a teenager, my mother first went to meet his family, where she went to parties, where she planned to have her wedding reception (rain meant that it was hurriedly moved to a church hall) and where she took her first baby straight from hospital to a hot and humid Christmas party. Now she’s moving in there with her second husband.

My best memories of my grandparents’ house are all at child-level: the smell of jasmine as you walk in the gate, the smell of dog in the scullery where my grandmother washed and brushed her pets, the cool black and white tiles of the hallway, the gnarled trunk of the magnolia tree where we swung on a rope swing, the shady sandpit under the tree where we occasionally discovered a present left there for us by the neighbourhood cats. The garden was a treasure trove where we collected jewel-red lucky beans, ate wild strawberries and devoured citrussy naartjies from the trees near the washing-line. It was full of hills and dales where we lost ourselves on hot afternoons.

My grandparents’ home also featured animals – troupes of dogs, first bassets and later Yorkshire terriers; goldfish in a small pond; vervet monkeys that swarmed through the trees, clattered over the tin roof and sometimes taunted us through the skylight in the hallway. There is the story of my grandmother leaving the house for a party, seeing a tiny chameleon on a bush and placing it gently on her black dress where it stayed in place as a brooch for the rest of the evening. Another story tells of my wild uncle attaching a home-made parachute to one of the family cats and throwing it off the roof to see if it would fly (it didn’t fly, but neither did it die). By the time I was born, my grandfather had sold the land below the house, but I grew up hearing stories about my aunt’s pony that had lived in the field.

My grandmother was British, so every Sunday we went to her house for a roast lunch. Apparently my mother and my aunt railed against this, but they never rebelled. They dressed their four children in their Sunday best, brushed heads of hair, gave final lectures about table manners and set off hoping for a pleasant time. While I was still down at dog and cat level, all grown-up stresses went over my head. I had no idea that the fact that my father always arrived late off the golf course was the start of an unravelling of his marriage and my life as I knew it. I just knew that to preserve my corner of peace, I had to eat my peas and if that meant swallowing them down with water or visiting the toilet a couple of times during the meal to spit them out, then that was what I would do. I had to remember my pleases and thank yous, have a second helping if possible, smile and look neat. Then I would be free to rush outside again to the garden, leaving the adults behind to continue their mysterious dance of never-saying.

Later, when the predicted unravelling began, the Hermitage became a retreat for my brother and I. It was the place where we were still part of a family, where all the significant connections kept us welded to a world that had become unstable. It was the core, while all around us was the chaos. At the time, we were having identical dreams: of terrorists stealing us from our parents, of wolves in the garden, of being locked in the house with a volcano underneath. The Hermitage was place of safety, of calm, where my grandmother washed and brushed her dogs, tying red bows in their fringes, and where my grandfather sat in his armchair reading his books and nodding along to his records.

However, it was also a place to be acutely sad. Being in a place of family made it abundantly clear that we had never had a family of our own. The unravelling of our parents’ marriage had begun so long ago, long long before the events that severed that final cord, so we had always lived in a ghost family. We were often a threesome, but very seldom a foursome. When that foursome was finally spliced we had already been mourning it for some years.

The Hermitage had once stood alone on a hill overlooking town, which is possibly how it received its name, but by the time I was born and introduced to my family on that hot Christmas Eve, other houses had joined it and subsumed it into suburbia. It had a view, but not a particularly scenic one, being as it was of the wrong end of town, with its factories and low-cost housing. However, at night, the sparkling lights were magical. Later the trees in the valley grew tall and obscured much of the view, both the daily ordinary one and the nightly spectacle.

Later as a student at a far-off campus, I visited the Hermitage to remember who I was. The tinkling of ice in my grandmother’s pink gins, the spindly handwriting on letters from her sister in England, the ever-present dog reminded me that while I was wildly testing my limits in Cape Town, I was also the grand-daughter of the house. I tamed the worst of my hair and clothes and was seemly, just for an hour or two.

After my grandparents died, there was debate amongst my father’s siblings what to do with the house. My father and his older sister both wanted to sell it, my wild uncle and pony aunt wanted to keep it. Finally, the two older ones sold their share to the two younger ones. At the time, my Pony Aunt lived in Zimbabwe and my Wild Uncle was running a law practice in northern KwaZulu-Natal, so they needed a tenant. My brother moved in and started his tree nursery under the magnolia tree where we had played as children.

Once again, the Hermitage became a place of solace. He had recovered from his “accident”, grown his bones back as best as possible, and was ready to try out his life for size. Doing so in a place redolent of family, and where he felt safe, was the perfect gentle experiment. As he walked the natural forests of our province, he collected seeds off the forest floor, which he took home and lovingly nurtured into small trees. He watched and loved other growing things, and quietly did some growing of his own.

Now my mother is in need of a refuge and the Hermitage is there. After years as a commune for students and young professionals not quite ready to buy their own houses, it has lost its gloss. It no longer contains antiques, paintings and family photos. The white and black hallway tiles are cracked and curling, the skylight where the monkeys peered through is flecked with age, the verandah from where we breathed in the hilltop breezes is unswept, but the walls contain us in safety. My mother will make it sparkle, she will fill the kitchen with smells and the walls with colour. She will pick magnolias and put them in a vase, she will pour glasses of wine on the verandah and toast the evening breezes. She will remember the sheen of my grandparents’ glamour as they walked out to a party and plucked a chameleon from a bush. The house will contain her and she will remember.


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On Being Mummy

I have been someone’s mother for seven years, three months and thirteen days. I am overwhelmed by how much love – love I’ve received, love I’ve given, love I’ve witnessed – I have experienced in that time. When I was first pregnant, I wondered if I would have enough love for my new baby; when my second and third babies arrived, I wondered if my love could expand to include them. Love, I’ve discovered, is exponential. It feeds on itself and there’s always enough.

One of my three darlings is ever so slightly more challenging than the others. My mother said to me one day when I was having a big moan, “Please don’t love her less than the others.” I responded, “I don’t love her less. I love her differently.” I think that is the key when raising a gang of kids as I am – to love each one differently, according to their needs.

I am enjoying Mother’s Day – having breakfasted on chocolate, received lovely paintings and home-made cards, I am still in bed, with my family in other parts of the house being happy in their own, different ways. I am happy to celebrate, and be celebrated, on this day.

However, I don’t subscribe to being a Mother with a capital letter. I’m far more comfortable being a parent. My children’s father is as good at all the jobs I do: kissing a bump on the forehead, reading a bedtime story, making a hot lunch, admiring a work of art. He is more skilled at teaching people how to ride a bike, crafting weird objects, and explaining the difference between stars and suns and moons. I am better at teaching people how to knit, remembering what day who does which extra-curricular activity, and reading aloud in German. We are both equally good at making and maintaining friendships, earning money and keeping contact with our families. We are raising our children as a unit, with our different but compatible skills.

I remember when we were expecting our first baby. We were walking to our London home past the local pub whose refried grease smell was enough to render me pallid and heaving into the gutter, when my husband said, “When we have our baby, it will be more important than our relationship. The baby will come first.” I was horrified. Conventional wisdom, my girlfriends and every women’s magazine I had ever read told me that the primal relationship had to come first. I disagreed vehemently and felt a frisson of worry. Would we survive this huge change that was already upon us?

Seven years, three months and thirteen days later, I can confidently say that my husband was right. We have put our children first and they are better for it. Neither of us has ever been “jealous of the baby”, we have shared the sleepness nights, the horrendous trips to hospital with puking feverish children, the adrenaline-fuelled charge of a baby’s wondrous safe home-birth. We have shared their triumphs and joys, safe in the knowledge that as they grow up into confident, well-adjusted, friendly and talented people, that they will be big enough to walk away from us and still love us. Together we have learned to be a little more selfless and now we are seeing the rewards of that.

To me, today is Parent’s Day. I celebrate the wise and wonderful man with whom I have had the privilege of raising three children and who has shown me that love grows. I’ll share my chocolate with you, darling.


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Nobody, Not Even the Rain, Has Such Small Hands

Today, my oldest daughter ran home to tell me that her most favourite boy-friend had given her a handmade Valentine’s card. Red, heart-shaped, with a photo of her on the front, it was accompanied by a small chocolate which she ate for her dessert. Her grin today has been enormous.

I received the best present ever in my inbox from my most favourite boy-friend – the beautiful ee cummings love poem “somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond”. I’ll share it with you:

somewhere i have never travelled,gladly beyond
any experience,your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which i cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully,mysteriously)her first rose

or if your wish be to close me,i and
my life will shut very beautifully,suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility:whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what is is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody,not even the rain,has such small hands

I don’t know whose grin was bigger, hers or mine.


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Home Fires and Lovely Men

While I was out walking in the hills this weekend, stretching my limbs, breathing fresh air, enjoying being unencumbered by belongings, small humans or any obligations, two lovely people were keeping the home fires burning – one literally and one figuratively.

My friend’s husband was throwing logs on the fire, so that when we returned, chilly on the outside – though warmed internally by the Gluehwein we drank at a Christmas shop – the house was all toasty warm. He ate supper with us and then left us to get up to girly things – drink wine, paint toenails, watch Vera Drake on DVD – coming back every couple of hours to see to the fire and make sure we were comfortable.

Back home chez Charlotte another lovely man was looking after three small humans so that I could lie on a sofa somewhere else, drink wine, paint my toenails and relax. I came home to hear that there had been a riot of activity: mask-making, kite-flying and leaf-sweeping. Certain little corners of my home that I just never get to had been tidied, huge loads of laundry had been done, large and wholesome meals had been cooked.

Thanks to both of you. You are darlings.