Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006


27 Comments

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.


9 Comments

SA – A Slender Travelogue

Our holiday in South Africa was all about the people*, but this time we also managed to go to some fantastic places. Usually when we go home, we confine our stay to our parents’ home towns, his being Johannesburg and mine being Pietermaritzburg, and we leave exhausted from serial visiting and feeling cheated. This time, thanks to an aptly located wedding, we managed to spend the entire time in the Western Cape, mecca of tourism and holidays, and everyone came to be with us. We are immensely grateful for the effort people put into travelling long distances, since it meant we could see them AND have a holiday. Here is a slender round-up of what we did and where we went:

My first stop was Kersefontein, a wheat and cattle farm on the Cape West Coast, where I went with my three dear girlfriends ostensibly to celebrate our year of turning 40, but also to drink wine, eat loads of food, play bridge, laugh ourselves silly and, occasionally, cry. Kersefontein, situated on the banks of the Berg River near Hopefield, has been in the Melck family for eight generations and, with its beautiful Cape Dutch farmstead, is now a national monument. What I loved about it is that, despite the pristine state of the farmhouse and the very gorgeous en-suite rooms where we slept, Kersefontein is a working farm, so sheep wander around, the ancient farm dog trails you, chickens cluck around the edges of your consciousness, swallows roost noisily in the rafters and host Julian saws down trees on the river bank while you are swimming. With its original crumbling outhouses, its sweeping lawns, the slumbering river, and vast acres of farmland, it is not surprising that Kersefontein has become a destination for travellers seeking peace and solace and a popular location for film and advert shooting. Also for four busy women, it was an absolute dream to be served food three times a day without having to make any decisions about the meal except would our eggs be poached, scrambled or fried.

p1010103

Breakfast on the stoep outside our room

While I was languishing at the river and enjoying afternoon naps, my husband had driven up the N2 with our threesome to meet his family at Plettenberg Bay. Once my Kersefontein retreat came to an end, I joined them at Plett, which is where his family have a holiday house and where we have been going on holiday for twenty years. In the old days, we would occasionally grace the beach, but mostly we would lie on the sofas all day, me reading, him watching cricket on TV, now and again getting up to make tea or, as the day progressed, pour gin and tonics, after which we would hit the Plett nightclubs. Now Plett is all about the beach. My brother-in-law is a beach expert, and his beach experience always includes ice-cold drinks, snacks, umbrellas, beach chairs, buckets, spades, boogie boards and inflatable boats. It’s a military operation getting all this stuff and thirteen people to and from the beach, but he manages it with cheer. Then when he’s there, he’s building sandcastles, teaching people how to fish and making sure they don’t drown in the surf while we stand around vaguely wondering why no-one’s bringing us a gin and tonic.

img_3484

Robberg, scene of beach action

Robberg Beach is a five-kilometre stretch of pristine sand that runs from the hotel you see in the middle of this shot all the way to the Robberg peninsula, and where I jogged most mornings. One morning, I made it triumphantly all the way to the rocks, and despite claiming I needed airlifting home, all the way back again. Plett was busy: the gaggle of cousins cavorted all day long like happy puppies; we got to spend time with our US friends T and J, also out for the wedding, and meet their adorable baby daughter; and I lunched with Jeanne, the famous Cooksister, who is even more lovely than her blog.

Then we left to meet up with some members of my family – my dad, brother and stepmother, who drove two days all the way from KwaZulu-Natal to see us. Our meeting place of choice was the Teniqua Treetop Lodge, a series of self-catering treehouses tucked into the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains. Teniqua was very rustic and quiet, which was quite pleasant after the rigours of Plett, and the kids enjoyed rushing from our treehouse (the Eyrie) to Grandpa’s (the Philosopher’s Perch) and back again. They were inducted into the joys of birdwatching by my father and brother, and spent a lot of time staring into binoculars identifying small birds. Their mother also took them on a mammoth hike down into a river gorge, where they swam in cola-coloured water and then, after a lunch of biltong and apples, hiked back up the mountain again.

img_36701

Cola rockpools at Teniqua

The charm of Teniqua is that the treehouses are partially open to the elements, which means you not only have branches curling into your living space, but you get visitors like the Cape Robin, who comes looking for breadcrumbs, and the terrifyingly large rain spider. Thankfully the hosts provided a large feather duster on a long stick, which I used to sweep the latter out of the kitchen, accompanied by piercing screams from the children.

Their experience of African wildlife grew exponentially at our next stop, the Garden Route Game Lodge. This was the setting for the wedding of dear South African friends who also live in Germany. Their guests were from France, Germany, the US, Belgium, the UK, Malawi and South Africa, so it was a very international gathering in a particularly African setting. A two-day affair, the wedding kicked off with an afternoon at the pool, followed by evening game drives, where we got to see lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo, zebra and a tortoise. That night there was a kudu braai in the boma, with African drummers, fabulous food (including an array of South African desserts for which I rapidly abandoned my low-carb diet – the Malva pudding lives on in my memory), dancing and a surprise rendition by the groom of “Shosholoza”. On the wedding day there were more game drives, more swimming and more splendid eating, until 3pm when we spruced ourselves up for a very moving ceremony and a great party, where we danced to one of South Africa’s most exciting new bands, the exceptionally groovy Goldfish.

img_40791

Wedding flowers with rondavels in the background

Then it was back to Cape Town, and a whirlwind visiting session of braais, dinners and lunches, catching up with university friends, their spouses and offspring. We also managed to get out of Cape Town to see the wonderful Kit and her brood. The children got on splendidly and we grown-ups didn’t do too badly either. On my last morning in Cape Town, spectacularly hungover from the last last dinner-party the night before, I attended a yoga class and was hugely relieved that it was a restorative meditation. Had anyone asked me to do the downward dog at that point, I might have collapsed.

One of the messages of the meditation was “Observe your emotions, and let them slip by you”, which was appropriate for leaving Cape Town, my favourite city in the world, and South Africa, my homeland. While nursing my hangover, I observed my feelings of sadness, but let them slip by me. Since then I have had tinges of my usual departure grief but have been feeling mostly grateful, that I was able to have such a wonderful holiday and that I am lucky enough to have great friends and loving family. Thank you to everyone for helping us have our dream holiday!

* While I’d love to post some of the many photographs of me clasping my favourite people, I won’t since I must respect privacy. Instead you get landscapes, flowers and tiny dots of people.


22 Comments

40 Things for My Birthday

I know I have been going on about my birthday for some time all year now and now the actual day has arrived. Hooray! Bring on the champagne! To celebrate, and taking a leaf from Jen’s book, here are 40 Things for my birthday:

1. It’s never too late to read a good book.
2. Procrastination always exacts a payment.
3. Sugar is the crack cocaine of the food world (thanks, India Knight).
4. For the nameless blues, getting moving is the best medicine.
5. No-one likes a queue, so don’t take it personally.
6. Being alone is essential.
7. Having good friends is also essential.
8. Bacon is God’s gift to us. Use it wisely.
9. Going into Toys R Us one week before Christmas is like entering the seventh circle of hell.
10. Nothing beats brunch, especially if it involves champagne.
11. Love feeds on itself, but so does fear (thanks, Jen).
12. Trust is a gift.
13. Blogging is an addictive time-sucker but I love it.
14. Having the next holiday planned is critical to my peace of mind. Roll on South Africa 2009!
15. Worrying is a waste of time; make a plan instead.
16. Skiing is my nemesis, but for my family I face the fear and do it anyway.
17. Skills are empowering – teach children cooking, sewing, knitting and any other crafts you have to share.
18. It is possible to live without TV.
19. It is possible to live without the Internet, but would I want to?
20. Grown-ups need toys too.
21. Good dietary fats are not the enemy. (Sugar is.)
22. Love your special people like there’s no tomorrow.
23. Question beauty products – is it really necessary to slap on all that chemically-enhanced gunk?
24. However, try separating me from my mascara and lippy.
25. Loving my non-coloured, brown-to-white hair is a work in progress. But I’m getting there.
26. It wouldn’t bother me if all razors and hair depilatory products disappeared from the earth tomorrow – I don’t mind going hairy.
27. Though that would put paid to fishnet stockings, which I rather love …
28. Dancing wildly is good for the soul.
29. Yoga builds beautiful muscles. I know mine are there; I just haven’t seen them yet.
30. Learning to run has been the most empowering thing I’ve done this year.
31. I couldn’t do it without my iPod. Or the playlist my darling devised for me.
32. Age doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom. Actively learning from our mistakes does.
33. In order to grow, we have to separate ego from our true selves.
34. Some people can do that easily; for others it’s a long, hard struggle.
35. Going to church, synagogue or mosque regularly doesn’t automatically confer wisdom either. It may provide comfort though.
36. Intolerance of any form – religious, gender, racial – is poisonous.
37. I think the point of being here is to learn to love.
38. Loving selflessly and loving needily are two very different things.
39. On a grand scale, it’s time to love our planet selflessly now.
40. It’s also time to see the human spark in everyone, and not dismiss them as part of a mass. Even those in the queues at Toys R Us.


23 Comments

Welcoming in 40

On Saturday night, Germany’s Top Husband and I celebrated our 40th birthdays. The high point was dancing till 3am to a fabulous ska band with my friends and family. The low point was falling off the stage while holding my three-year-old and landing on him (he survived, but my dignity was impaired). Mostly I looked like this:

img_09227Sometimes, I am impossibly cool.

If you find that image disturbing, I can redirect you to a video of the band, Ngobo Ngobo, playing a medley of their songs:

And if that’s too stimulating, you could meditate on an image from the local Christmas market:
img_1024

If Christmas doesn’t end soon, I’m climbing that statue.


30 Comments

Going Grey with Obama

Please note that I:

am in very good company:

Barack going grey

I swear here and now, in the company of my three children and some discarded pieces of Lego, that if Obama gets in and becomes President of the USA, I will never dye, highlight or ever maltreat my hair again.

After all, we grey-hairs must stick together.


15 Comments

The Aging Meme

This one came from Emily, but was invented by Zoesmom. With only 80-odd days to go until my 40th birthday (yes, I’ve counted), it seems kind of appropriate.

Just fill in the blanks:

At a certain age women should stop pleasing others and start pleasing themselves.

At a certain age men should stop pleasing themselves and start pleasing others.

When I was a kid I thought I would write lots of novels and live a fascinating international life.

Now that I am older I wish I had been more selfish about carving out my writing time.

You know you are too old to party when crowds of people you don’t know bore you/freak you out/make you want to go home and pick your toenails.

When I was in high school I listened to the music of Madness, Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls, B-52s and Talking Heads

Now I listen to the music of whatever my husband or kids are listening to, including Mafikizolo, The View, Kaiser Chiefs, Beautiful Me and Beautiful Creatures.

On my last birthday I was spoilt rotten.

On my next birthday I want to party like it’s 1999 …

The best birthday present I ever got was the one I’m about to have – my trip to New York!!

The first time I felt grown-up was when I worked my summer vacation on the local newspaper at the age of 18.

The last time I felt like a kid was the last time I got on my bike.

Last year was a very long time ago.

Next year will be an awfully big adventure.

I would love to tag people, but for fear of insulting anyone, I won’t. However, if you want to share your wisdom and experience, please play along.


8 Comments

The Feminist Motherhood Meme

This is so much more than a meme. I found this list of questions about motherhood and feminism (which originated with bluemilk) over at Penguin unearthed, and have enjoyed chewing over them. Warning: slight rants ahead.

How would you describe your feminism in one sentence? When did you become a feminist? Was it before or after you became a mother?

My feminism comes from outrage at injustice: I am outraged that fundamentalist religions of all kinds oppress women in the name of their beliefs, I am outraged that women die, are trafficked, raped, abused, have their genitals mutilated, are blamed for the HIV virus that their men pass to them, do not have a voice in their own homes, do not receive an education and must serve men.

My feminism came very young: probably at 11 when my father divorced my mother and left his family for another woman. That was a defining moment for me – I grew up overnight, and took on board the message that I should rely on no-one but myself because other people let you down. As I grew older that began to mean getting into a good university and following the career of my choice: journalism and writing. As I head into my forties, my feminism becomes less about me and more about women in general.

Feminism definitely preceeded motherhood for me. I only began to seriously think about motherhood when I was 28 and started meeting ridiculously cute infants. I thought, “I want one!” but never for one minute thought about how that would change me or my goals. I was after an adorable accessory of my own.

What has surprised you most about motherhood? How has your feminism changed over time? What is the impact of motherhood on your feminism?

The intensity of emotions, both positive and negative, surprised and continues to surprise me about motherhood. I cried for days when all my children were born, sad tears, happy tears, confused and anxious ones. I remember thinking, “A baby won’t change MY life! It will have to fit in with whatever I want to do”, but then on Day Six of Life, Lily developed colic and cried for three months, so there was no going to restaurants and whisking her places because she would scream and scream. I was more her accessory than she was mine. I learnt fast to shape my life to hers, and nothing has changed since. My children have taught me flexibility.

My feminism has become far more general and less specific. I no longer rail at any personal glass ceiling I may have encountered (nor the idiot – no gender mentioned – boss who broke the news to me at the last minute that I couldn’t telecommute from London to his team in Germany, thus leaving me without any maternity benefits when I became pregnant working out his company’s insane six-month notice period. No. I won’t mention him.) or any ridiculously paternalistic boyfriends I might have allowed to patronise me as a teenager. I believe I am living out my potential. However, I am enraged that there are so many millions of women who are prevented from doing so. THAT makes me angry.

Motherhood has softened me in that I see my husband’s (different but equal) style of parenting as beneficial and lovely for our children. At first, I wanted him to parent My Way. Now I see that His Way is equally wonderful and that the children love it. Motherhood has been a kind of sacrifice for me, a putting-on-hold of putting-me-first, but has also allowed me to forge intensely close and satisfying relationships with three individuals who wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me. The joy of watching them grow and become themselves far outweighs any superficial strokes I might be receiving now in a work environment. Plus I manage to raise them AND work as a writer, so I feel lucky and honoured to be doing both.

What makes your mothering feminist? How does your approach differ from a non-feminist mother’s? How does feminism impact upon your parenting?

I’m not sure what makes my mothering feminist. My expectations of my children are identical, regardless of their gender. I encourage my children to be true to themselves, regardless of their gender. I encourage them all to show kindness to others, to listen and be polite. I kiss them all equally. I support their choices and always will, though I might disencourage them from becoming lap-dancers or suicide bombers. I like that they see their father perform household tasks, and I like that they see me at my computer working.

Do you ever feel compromised as a feminist mother? Do you ever feel you’ve failed as a feminist mother?

Occasionally, I’ve wondered how I, with my feminist principles, have ended up as a work-from-home mother but I believe that’s a choice I’ve made out of love and good fortune. I feel compromised and grumbly if my family have left the house in a mess and since I’m the one at home, I’ve got to make the choice of ignoring it or clearing it up. I certainly don’t feel that I’ve failed as a feminist mother.

Has identifying as a feminist mother ever been difficult? Why?

No, I think at times my feminism has been subdued by the all-consuming task of parenting. But I have no trouble saying I am both a feminist and a mother.

Motherhood involves sacrifice, how do you reconcile that with being a feminist?

I try to accept the sacrifice gracefully. My time in the big, wide world – should I choose it – will come.

If you have a partner, how does your partner feel about your feminist motherhood? What is the impact of your feminism on your partner?

He accepts it as part of me. He doesn’t see it as some weird addendum to my personality. He is also one of the most fair-minded, kind and non-judgmental people I know.

If you’re an attachment parenting mother, what challenges if any does this pose for your feminism and how have you resolved them?

I have used aspects of attachment parenting (sleeping with my babies, fairly long-term breast-feeding, some baby-wearing) but am not an attachment parenting proselytizer. However, there were times when all three of my children were small that I felt “in service” to them. At very tired, over-wrought moments I might have resented that, but I am grateful to the attachment parenting now – and my husband loved all the wearing, carrying and cuddling too – because we have such intensely close bonds. Our children are at home with us, wherever we are in the world.

Do you feel feminism has failed mothers and if so how? Personally, what do you think feminism has given mothers?

I don’t think feminism has failed mothers, but I do think women fail each other. Women judge each other for ridiculous reasons, usually because someone has made a different choice. Feminism has given women freedom of choice, and we should embrace the fact that some of us can go out and be CEOs, others can be stay-at-home mothers, others can juggle work and kids, others may not want kids, others will breast-feed while some would never consider it. Women need to accept each other’s choices and support each other more. We are so damn lucky to HAVE choices – there are millions of women in the third world who don’t have that luxury. Whether we’re feminists or not, mothers or not, we should stop failing each other, and start loving each other a little more and judging each other a little less.