Burnt Biscuits And Broken Lego

A few weeks back, I made biscuits with Little Person. By which I mean, we measured and mixed the dough for shortbread biscuits, and she had great fun cutting out shapes. Getting the shapes on the tray was my challenge. Smiles all round, biscuits in the oven, timer on. Little Person went outside to help The Dude wash the car. I went upstairs to write.

That’s how the biscuits got burnt. Not to the point of crumbling carbon, but very firmly brown and inedible. But it wasn’t about eating the biscuits anyway.

Fast forward. We’d bought Little Person some Lego – slightly more advanced than what she can do normally, but I sat with her and we made it together. She did well, finding pieces and working out how to follow the instructions. She had occasional times when her attention drifted, but that’s what I was there for. Not to keep her on task, but to make sure that the task kept moving forward.

She was very proud of her efforts. Her grandfather came over to take a look. He had a go. Little bricks went flying. Little Person not very impressed. But Gramps said sorry, and we fixed it. And then Little Person gave Gramps a lesson in how to play with Lego.

“Oh, very good,” he said. Which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Lego-Building.

Here’s the thing. I burnt the biscuits, Little Person forgot to stay on task building Lego, and Gramps played with it a bit wrong. We all made mistakes. A year ago, I would’ve thought the burnt biscuits were a symbol of my failure as a baker, the Lego my failure as a mother, and Gramps playing a failure of our family structure. (I over-analyse.) But they were mistakes, not failures.

The burnt biscuits were just burnt biscuits. Another day, I won’t cook them so long. Little Person is young, and it’s okay if her attention wanders. She kept coming back to the task. And Gramps? Well, if he hadn’t made the mistake with the Lego, Little Person would never have had the chance to demonstrate her skills and expertise in the area of Playing With Lego. Which was excellent for her confidence.

Mistakes? Yes. Failures? No. Don’t make your mistakes bigger than they really are.

Words That Mean No

  • No.
  • Unfortunately not.
  • Access denied.
  • We regret to inform you that it is not the case.
  • I am disinclined to comply.
  • Password incorrect.
  • In alternative reality, perhaps. But not in this one.
  • That option is not available.
  • We don’t do that anymore.
  • You’re joking, right?
  • Your offer has been declined.
  • The algorithm suggests an alternative solution.
  • You need to re-examine your hypothesis.
  • Please try again.
  • Password incorrect.
  • Why would I ever agree to that?
  • Or not.
  • Your data is incorrectly formatted.
  • Re-examine your assumptions.
  • I’m busy.

It is easy to assume that no is a bad thing. It can represent failure, lost hopes, wasted energy. Or at least, the feeling of wasted energy. Or it can be a redirection, an invitation to re-examine things, to reflect upon the way that you do things, the assumptions that you make.

It is easy to assume that the no is about you. This morning, The Dude was tired as we drove along the road. I thought he was still upset because I had been unnecessarily grumpy the night before (me? Grumpy? Perish the thought!), but he was just missing a cup of coffee. Fix the coffee, fix The Dude. (I’m the same sometimes, just with chocolate. Which would be fine, except Little Person has just found half my stash.) So sometimes the no is not about you. Maybe it’s the time of year, or maybe you are asking the wrong person entirely. Maybe what they say is wrong, is exactly what is right. Somewhere else.

Feel free to add some ways to say no to my list. The funnier the better.

An Encounter With The Perfectionist (Or, The Power Of Words)

Performance review time.

“You know I am a perfectionist.” The Boss, giving me a 4 out of 5 for the thing I’d worked hard on for 6 months.

“I know.” Me, pausing, wondering whether I would be brave enough to say the rest. “It means nothing I do will ever be good enough for you.”


“You’re a perfectionist, and you always see what’s wrong, irrespective of what’s right.”

I will be honest. I thought he would tell me off, maybe even fire me, but he didn’t. The next morning, he made me a cup of tea when I arrived – the way I did for him every day. Turns out, he appreciated my honesty. Turns out, it took a situation that was near breaking point (the Boss was a perfectionist, and I was his PA and secretary to a management team of 6 with everybody thinking their work for me was the most important) and fixed it. One sentence opened everything up; one sentence made all the difference.

That’s the power of words.

That one sentence meant that The Boss changed the way he managed. Instead of trying to point out everything that I did wrong, he let me on his team – he showed me what he was trying to do. Suddenly, I could tell him about the competing demands for my attention, the unrealistic deadlines, the problems that I could see looming. I could help him get out of meetings, and I could learn the lessons that would help him become a better manager. He became a better manager because that day he stopped seeing me as a role, and started seeing me as a person.

And he passed on some of the lessons that he learned. Like the time his boss said to him “What makes you think your time is more important than mine?” (from which I learnt that the demands on my life are not more important than the demands on yours, just because they’re mine). Or the time the big boss took him on a tour of India, and he came back buzzing about “don’t just sell the company, sell the country” (from which I learnt, there is always a bigger perspective).

Looking back, I think summoning my courage to speak up that day, when it could have cost me everything, was the start. The start of me looking problems straight in the face and naming them for what they are – problems, but also opportunities to do it better. If you name it, then you’re on your way to dealing with it.

That’s the power of words. That’s the real reason I write.

Beyond Prosperity

I remember the days when I lived on the kindness of friends, and of strangers. And the days when I lived week by week, scraping together my pennies, saving up for a month to buy a frying pan. I remember when I wore clothes from a charity shop because I had no other option, not because of ethical principles.

I remember being so scared that one day, The Dude would realise who I was, and that I was not worth the trouble. Or that social services would turn up on my door and take my child away, because I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. I remember thinking that I would live out my days, sad, and lonely, and afraid. Sad, and lonely, and afraid, and surrounded by wealth and the noise of the crowd, and nobody would ever know the truth.

I remember. I hope I never forget.

These days I live a prosperous life. I am doing the things I was meant to do. I have a roof over my head, food in my belly, clothes on my back. Tragedy comes close enough to remind me of the fragility of life, and I hug Little Person and The Dude a little closer. My family has grown, and my heart with it. Trials and troubles come, and I face them with the steely determination borne not just of faith, but of the knowledge that there is more to life than this.

I never want to be satisfied with a prosperous life.

I want to live big and change the world. I want to give to something bigger than my own comfort. Food on my table is excellent – but I want to help you put food on yours. A smile in my heart? Brilliant – but I want to put a smile in yours. But that means, I need to know that there is no food on your table, or smile in your heart.

How can I help you, if you won’t let me in?

Sticky Tape Pier (Or The Lesson The Dude Taught Me)

The other day, The Dude and I were off to the hospital for a routine appointment and I noticed a photo on the wall – a harbour in the sunset.

“Oh! That’s where we got married!” I announced.

“No. That’s Sticky Tape Pier,” he replied.

And he was right. Of course he was right. But there was a reason that the picture of Sticky Tape Pier resonated, a reason that when he mentioned the name it took me right back to that windswept day when Sticky Tape Pier got its name. (Obviously, Sticky Tape Pier is not Sticky Tape Pier in the mapbooks.)

It was two weeks before our wedding. My dad had announced he wasn’t going to wear the suit that we’d picked out. My best friend from London had broken off all contact on hearing of our engagement. My husband’s best man’s wife, who was going to stand in as a matron of honour, had decided she didn’t like the colour for our wedding and so she wasn’t going to do that anymore. And my family from South Africa, including the cousins who were supposed to form part of the bridal party (no wedding is complete without flower girls and page boys) weren’t sure if they could come because there were issues with their passports or visas (the details are vague).

So here I was, getting ready to get married to this man, in a strange country, not knowing the customs, and everything I tried to do right seemed to be going wrong. Who would marry a woman who couldn’t even get a bridal party together for her own wedding? If I couldn’t do that, how would I ever manage to run a house? What was I even doing thinking I could marry some guy, and that he would be happy with me? Didn’t he know I was different, and odd, and not really worth the bother at all? I know I thought that maybe everything was a huge mistake.

The Dude drove me to Sticky Tape Pier. I walked out, watched the waves tumbling over themselves, throwing up spray. I saw the harbour, with the ripples slapping a gentle rhythm against the wall. It’s all the same water, I realised. It’s just some is out there, getting tossed by the elements, and some had found a place of safety and shelter. Sometimes you need to go out and brave the elements to achieve things, but you also need time in the harbour. And that is what The Dude has been for me – a harbour where I can rest, repair my broken heart, strengthen and replenish myself for the next stage of the journey.

It’s not about the wedding, you see. It’s not about the pretty clothes, or who is there to see you do the thing, or what other people may think of how you did the thing you did. It’s about the marriage. It’s about the heart of the matter. Like the way that The Dude took me out to Sticky Tape Pier and promised to always keep me safe. And he’s kept that promise, every day from that day to this. Even on the days that I make him cringe (hey, I’m me, it happens), he has always kept me safe.

Epilogue: My family did make it to the wedding. I was able to incorporate the daughter of a very generous friend into the wedding party at the last minute. My Dad bought a suit to match what everybody else wore, and we bought him a waistcoat. You can’t tell from looking at the photographs. What happened to my London friend remains a mystery to this day. Some things you just need to let go.

Don’t Stop The Singing

After a morning wandering around the shops, and having made the tactical error of stopping at the bookstore first, we were headed in search of lunch. We were tired, over-burdened with parcels, pretending not to be grumpy. All of us, that is, except Little Person. She was singing.

We’re on an adventure,
We’ve never been down this road before.
We’re on an adventure,
Skipping down the road.

The tune was familiar but the words were her own. And somehow, she pulled me into her happiness. I forgot the weight of the parcels, the fatigue in my legs, the hunger in my belly. I forgot to be grumpy that The Dude was marching ahead. I smiled because I was learning a lesson.

Even when you are doing a new thing, when you have been dragged around from pillar to post, it is always possible to find a song in your heart to cheer you to your destination. Focus on the adventure- it makes everything seem easier.

Long Journeys And Daylight Saving Time (Or, All Change!)

Here in the UK, the clocks went back at silly o’ clock this morning. I am from South Africa, and so The Dude has a 30 year head start on me in acclimatising to the sudden shift in time.

I love the long summer evenings, and the way the day seems to never end, making afternoon picnics stretch into evening conversations with friends as the sun meanders casually towards the horizon. I love cold winter nights. The sun hidden away, bitter winds howling outside. Warm soups, and laughter inside as friendship and love chase away the coldness. I hate the switch from BST to GMT and back again. It takes me weeks to adjust. Weeks.

But I have no choice. Time, and how it is measured and described, isn’t about to change to suit my South African sensibilities. I know I can change the world I live in, but there are limits. Besides, if I was going to change something that big (and I still could), it wouldn’t be that. I’d rather just teach myself not to be grumpy that my world is out of synch for a few weeks.

Thankfully, life’s not always like that. We have done long distance driving over the summer – The Dude and I taking turns at the wheel as we explored the beauty of this country we call home. It’s been fun (particularly thanks to cruise control), but every time we changed driver, there was a slight delay. Mirrors adjusted, seat height lifted or lowered, one or two other things. Sometimes we’d forget who drove the car last. For me, that means getting in the car and a brief freefall as the seat turns out to be lower than I expected. But you adjust things, and it’s quickly sorted and you’re on your way.

But how often in life do we treat big changes as little changes, and vice versa. How often do we fail to recognise that yes, it might look like “just a little thing”, but actually, it affects everything? How often do we fail to allow ourselves the space to adjust for a few weeks? Sometimes, the change is bigger than you realise. Sometimes, you just need to give yourself a bit of time to get used to it.

Conversely, sometimes we sit in the uncomfortable car seat, unable to see properly, or reach the pedals, and wondering why it’s so uncomfortable trying to drive our life. But only you can adjust your mirrors. Only you can reposition your seat. It may be uncomfortable because you haven’t realised that now you are in control, and you need to make the changes.

The tricky bit is, knowing which one is which.