Stepping back to Step Up

It’s like walking along, and suddenly you’re confronted with a rather deep and somewhat wide ditch. Just that little bit bigger than a normal stride would take you over. So you take a few steps back, and attach it with a little bit of enthusiasm and you’re over the ditch without a bother.

Now imagine you’re blindfolded. And somebody else has just spotted the ditch, and said take two steps back and then take a leap at it.

Life can sometimes feel like that. Sometimes we can see the obstacles, sometimes we can’t and we need somebody else to say wait a minute, back up. Take a step back and you’ll be able to get through the obstacle. The problem is, we can hear the first part of the message, and then stop listening.

So we step back. From relationships, from commitments, from our hopes and dreams. And we forget that that is only the first part of the process. We get stuck on stepping back, when we should be stepping back to step up. (I know – I’ve done it.)

Stepping back to step up has reaped great rewards in my life recently. The in-laws are still with us, and over their visit I have been stepping back. Listening. Watching. Trying to make my home as much like their home as I can. Which means I haven’t been jumping up to serve them tea, or been making them brilliant midday meals. I have moved things around in my kitchen to make it easier for them to reach the stuff that they need. And I’ve not been compulsive about the whole milk in the fridge thing, which was, I admit, probably the hardest part of all. (I come from a hot country, alright?)

But it was the party for The Dude’s Dad’s significant birthday today. The week has been scattered with conversation about his favourite things. So even though he said he didn’t want us to make a fuss, he seems to like a bit of a fuss. So I bought party hats and streamers. We made a cake. Made a giant pile of fluffy mashed potatoes just the way he likes them. And my special two-day gammon. We bought a fruitcake, because that’s the kind he actually likes).

Everybody had a fantastic time, because I stepped back and chose to use my energies to find out what he wanted, and implementing that, rather than doing the kind of party I thought he would like. (Which would have had balloons, but no streamers. Or fruitcake.)

As an added bonus, I also understand my in-laws better. Bonus.

 

The Lesson in the Laundry

My in-laws are visiting, which translates to them staying with us for a week. Sleeping arrangements have shifted, but that’s alright. As long as I remember to take tomorrow’s clothes out of my cupboard, because they’re sleeping in my bed and, well. Sleeping in when on holiday is acceptable. School run in pyjamas, less so.

The thing is, I’ve always got myself pretty worked up whenever they’ve come to visit. Frantically running around trying to give them different (cooked) lunches every day, and then different again (cooked) evening meals. That they like, and I like and Little Person likes (Mission Impossible right there). Trying desperately to make sure that there were four chairs to sit on, and the washing that happens every day would magic away into cupboards that I didn’t always have access to. Never satisfied, never still, never up to date – so caught up in making my house look nice that I forgot to think about keeping myself nice for my guests.

Not this time.

So yesterday when they arrived, there was still a huge pile of clean laundry waiting to be folded on the chair in the living room. (Normally, if guests were coming, this would be removed upstairs – but rearranged sleeping quarters and all that.) The pile got bigger during the afternoon. But I remembered the kind of food they used to serve up when I first met them, so I went to the shop and bought that. And left them to serve up their own lunch. And then gave them the same today, while serving up something different for myself.

And then I went upstairs and wrote a poem and played with Cat no 2 for 20 minutes. (Today that is, not yesterday.) Because I write poems. And Cat no 2 is part of the family too. (She’s not so keen on guests.)

Sure I’ve worked on that laundry pile, and we now have an extra place to sit, but that’s only because The Dude decided to help out with it while he was having a chat with his Dad. But more importantly, I’ve given myself space to be me, and them space to be them. Hospitality is not about Laundry – it’s about eating potatoes even though you don’t like them, doing homework with Little Person even though The Dude’s Dad decided to drill holes for a spot of DIY at that very moment, laughing that bit louder at jokes that are funny, and knowing when to keep your mouth shut. (Although, that’s not all it’s about. For the most part, I love hospitality at home.)

In my everyday life, sometimes I do get all the laundry done and put away – sometimes it doesn’t even get a chance to touch the chair. But I don’t define myself by my Laundry Pile success in real life, so why would I do that when my in-laws are here? They are people I love, value and respect, and I would much rather spend my time building the bonds, creating the memories, making them feel warm, and welcome and special. And if that means I have a laundry pile on a living room chair, I’ll sit on the floor.

So that’s what my Laundry Pile taught me.

2014-03-17 16.14.46

Homesick (or Missing Friends) – A Poem

Homesick (or Missing Friends)

 

Homesick (or Missing Friends) – A Poem

 

Yesterday’s joy is today’s sadness,

You are not here.

My heart has been hollowed out

And filled with tears unwept.

You are there and not here.

I am here and not there.

 

I want you to laugh at me,

Throw crisps in my face,

Tell me I talk funny.

I want you to say you’re proud of me;

You’re glad to see me happy;

You’re happy too.

I want you to say you still love me

The way I still love you.

 

You are there not here.

I am here not there.

Why can’t here and there be

 

Together?

Time Changes Things

When I was in my late teens, I developed the habit of asking myself when faced with a quandary “Will this matter in fifty years?” As I was a teenager, frequently the answer was no. No, it didn’t matter that people were talking about me behind my back, or that my legs were skinny, or that I wasn’t like the popular girls. Yes, my relationship with my parents was worth preserving, because even though they couldn’t relate to my now, I was surely going to need to ask them for money at some point. Somewhere along the line, the long-term perspective became ingrained in my thinking and I stopped asking the question.

Until the other day, contemplating the difference a few months had made to my life. We live in the now (or the five seconds ago, at least), from day to day, weekend to weekend. And we wake up and another year has gone by, and we get depressed because life feels so … samey. But what if we measured our lives in decades, evaluated our achievements in those terms?

When I was 10, I had learnt to walk, talk, read, engage in witty banter with my peers (well, sort of), and was starting to win arguments.

When I was 20, I could write poetry, be somebody’s shoulder to cry on, tell stories to children and dream of my future. I had developed self-confidence, and a sense not only of my personhood, but that I had a purpose.

When I was 30, I had survived a broken heart and come out stronger on the other side, experienced the power of love, and dared to risk all by emigrating to another country without employment. I was more determined than ever, but had finally figured out that I didn’t know everything.

By the time I’m 40, I will be a domestic goddess. Or maybe not.

But see the difference? Year on year, we don’t always see the progress we make. We look for seismic shifts, when life is more like continental drift. (And truthfully, would you want an earthquake shaking up your life every week?)

Time changes things. We learn to let go of disappointments, or become bitter from holding on. It distils the truths by which we build our lives – we can look back and trace our decisions, and see what really motivated us in the past, and now. It distorts things too, so that the details become murky, and sometimes it’s easier to forgive. It changes us, by our personal journey giving us space between the “nowness” of an event and the reflected memory. Sometimes that space means we can confront issues that we couldn’t deal with at the time.

But for time to do all these things, we need to sit back, reflect. Stop living by the deadlines, and start living by the decades. Give yourself space to reflect on how different you are now from that person you were 10 years ago. There are things you will have got right, and things you will have got wrong, but the important thing is, you’re still here, and you’re still going. And that’s an achievement.

 

The Curious Incident of The Responses to #nomakeupselfie

When I was a child growing up in South Africa, old women had wrinkles and grey hair, and when they laughed, their faces turned into a craggy witness to the million laughs they shared through their lifetimes. Their faces bore testament to the passage of time, and experience. Sure, their skin lacked elasticity, but they had memories, and that wisdom that doesn’t care what other people think anymore. I do sometimes wonder if my generation will understand the same lesson in the coming decades.

Last week, I wrote about #myselfiechallenge at my church, and this week, the #nomakeupselfie emerged – women taking photos of themselves without make-up on to promote cancer research, or awareness, and donating (or not) and challenging friends to do the same. Nobody nominated me, except in the generic “I nominate all my Facebook friends” kind of way. And even if they had, this is all they would have seen:

2014-03-23 15.07.23

Maybe I’m just awkward, maybe it’s some deep-seated revolt or internalised social commentary, but I don’t do selfies generally. But that doesn’t mean that I should judge those that participated (or indeed, continue to participate).

Here’s the thing. People posted photos of themselves without make-up on, and some of them even donated money to cancer research – most often to breast cancer, despite the fact that breast cancer gets a whole month of awareness every year (October, if you missed it). At last count over £2million had been donated specifically as a result of this movement, which is mostly a good thing. Unless it stops people from donating to research in other areas, or I don’t know, being able to eat at the end of the month. People shared stories of their own battles with cancer, or the precursors to cancer, and shared links to encourage healthy lifestyle choices. If that caused even one person to go and get checked out, thereby allowing an earlier diagnosis of cancer, and a more positive outcome, I think it’s worth it.

But then people started calling people names. Narcissists. Patronising. Or, for those nominated who didn’t join in, spoilsports. People were accused of not donating, and so began the endless screenshots of “Thank you for your donation”. The ugly underbelly of peer pressure, and self-justification. Or a very mild form of bullying (that’s how bullying starts, name-calling because you won’t do what you’re told). [Not to belittle bullying at all. I was bullied as a child.]

But that’s not the thing that upsets me. It’s the posts that I saw saying “I finally was brave enough to do this”, above photo’s of beautiful, self-conscious faces. Why should anyone have to feel that their naked face is something so ugly, or worthy of ridicule that she needs to stir up the bravery to post the picture? When did we start caring so much about what other people thought? And when did we, as a society, start thinking we had a right to judge these women in this way? An older woman, well-respected within her community and a mentor to the younger women, apologised that she “looked even worse in the smiling one”, beneath a stern and slightly wrinkled face. The implication was that her smiling face was too ugly to be seen in public, because it was not covered in paint. What is this world coming to, when a woman cannot smile and share her hard-earned wrinkles?

So no, people shouldn’t feel forced into doing the selfie. Or making the donation. Or proving they had made the donation. But similarly, posting a selfie like that is not necessarily a sign you’re a self-centred narcissist, looking for glory any way you can. It really could just be trying to fit in – a sign of insecurity, and trying to please people. Or it could actually be, shock horror, a person genuinely attempting to engage with the difficult road that a cancer sufferer walks (as I believe to be the case in my examples in the preceding paragraph).

My little not-a-selfie lists the issues that this phenomenon has had me contemplating: self-image, identity, peer pressure, stereotypes, beauty, sexism and prejudice. These things are never going to disappear from this world, because they are deeply ingrained in the society within which we live. I just wish we could see old women as beautiful again.

You know, like Stonehenge.

 

Love is

It was definitely early, even though daylight crept across my windowsill. Both cats were deep in their postdawn naps, thoughts of feline breakfast still some time away. Their lumpy unresponsiveness told me I too should still be asleep.

“Mummy, I done a poo in my pants.”

Love is climbing out of bed and not giving the Little Person a grumpy lecture about getting to the toilet in time. But I was right, it was too early. And the cats didn’t change their breakfast alarm clocks.

-o-

FWD (Friend With Dog) looked at me across the table. The sun was below the horizon, dew settling over the plants. Little Person was engrossed in a television programme. I’d been talking. Okay, lecturing.

“Rox, don’t turn me into a project.”

Love is taking the criticism, knowing that sometimes you overstep the mark, and saying sorry. (Also, not turning your friends into projects does help.)

-o-

Standing in front of a bathroom mirror, water dripping off my nose and watching my hands still shake, I wondered how it had gone so wrong so quickly. I don’t lose my temper often, but when I do… Relationships were hanging in the balance – and not just mine.

Love is deciding to forgive, without waiting for the feeling to grow in your heart. Saying the words to bring reconciliation, knowing that emotions are fickle and will eventually do what they’re told.

-o-

In a world that looks for a love that will light up the sky like the Olympic Opening Ceremony fireworks, love is in the quietest of places, the hardest of decision;, it’s in swallowing your pride, living with the discomfort of a moment. Love is beyond words, mostly because it is an action.

Faith, Hope and Love. But the greatest of these is love.

The Rebuilt Life

Sometimes the life we have is not the life we want – sometimes this is due to our own choices, sometimes, the decisions of others, and sometimes because a butterfly flapped its wings on the other side of the universe. Sometimes we make good choices, but bad things still result.

But we still get to go on.

We still have to rebuild our lives after problems, difficulties, catastrophes or traumas. Whether we leave the place we called home, or others leave who made it home (metaphorically, or in my case, literally), we have the choice, when we start over – how are we going to rebuild?

Again, if our lives have been shaken by an earthquake that has caused us to question everything; or overwhelmed by a tsunami of grief, anxiety, depression or fear, leaving us disorientated and with an unbridgeable chasm between now and the life we knew before; we have a choice – how are we going to rebuild?

Are we going to learn the lesson of fear, or are we going to learn the lesson of life? Are we going to build small, so that next time we just don’t lose as much, or are we going to build better? If you need to rebuild your life, think about the lessons you have learnt – if you lived in an earthquake zone, you would engineer a house to cope with tremors (by putting the parking garage on the top of the apartment building, not the bottom, for example), or if you lived in a flood-risk area, you’d first build a hill and then build your house on it.

Let’s rebuild our lives in a way that makes space for the trauma and problems – so that they don’t completely knock us out the next time. Put boundaries in place so that you don’t allow people to suck your resources dry and burn out. Find people to mentor you into a place of healthy relationships, where you can trust, and be trusted, give and receive, build a life that is better not in spite of what has gone before, but in part because of it.

Find the silver lining, and paint your walls with it.

 

***

 

This week, instead of posting a link to blog I enjoy, I’m posting a bit of a writing/photography challenge:

What does a Rebuilt Life mean to you?

You can put up a post, or a comment (hopefully I won’t accidentally delete it), or even a photo on Instagram or a tweet (#rebuiltlife).