How Not To Buy A Mother-In-Law (or, My Blogging Ethics)

I went to collect my mum-in-law from the computer shop where I had dropped her prior to doing my grocery shopping. Parked right outside the door, expecting to see her in the doorway. Nowhere. So I went into the shop.

Overzealous store assistant: “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for my mother-in-law.”

(Straight-faced) “I’m sorry, we don’t sell those here.”

Don’t worry, I did find her. We laughed about it in the car on the way home, and again when we told my father-in-law, and again when we told The Dude.

“That’s hilarious,” he said, “You should write a blog about that.”

And therein lies the trouble, sometimes.

*

Writing is fun, and the particular fun of the blog is that it can be anything you want it to be. I could have written that story any way I wanted; taken one event and cast it a thousand different ways. Made a fool of the store assistant (who was only doing his job), my mother-in-law, or myself. Turned it into a social commentary about relationships, or technology, or identity. It was all of these things, and none of these things. It was a funny conversation with a man in a shop, and it was over in ten seconds flat. It has taken longer to describe than it took to unfold.

Of course, that’s part of the fun – the turning an event into a lesson – whether or not it was ever meant to be that. Making stories out of  events, deriving meaning from nothingness is part of the charm of being human. But we do need to be careful that the meaning that we extract, and which we send forth into the ether, is something that we would be willing to stake our reputation upon for the foreseeable future. Ethics, and all that.

So, here are some of my ethical considerations.

  • The Internet is forever. Be careful about how you describe your children. They will be reading that in twenty years. Always remember that they are worth every struggle. Even if sometimes you feel as though they aren’t, you have to write that they are. Because really, they are. Always and forever.
  • People see themselves in things you write, even when you’re not writing about them. Sometimes this is brilliant. Sometimes not. Sometimes they won’t believe you when you tell them you haven’t written about them. What will you do if/when that happens?
  • You will be misinterpreted and misunderstood. When strangers do this, it is not a problem. When it is not strangers, it can be more of a problem. Will you change your message to keep the people happy?
  • Don’t write anything you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face. If you write about something that happened to you, be sure to write something that you are willing to defend. (“But I write such nice, positive uplifting stuff, about nothing much in particular. I shouldn’t have to defend anything.” Yeah, I thought that too.)
  • Don’t write about things that it is not your place to write about. If somebody asks you not to write about something, respect that, as much as your principles allow. There is no harm in not writing about the time your friend managed to get the whole serving spoon in her mouth. But what about when keeping silent damages your integrity? And how do you decide if that’s what’s happening?
  • You never know all the facts, and there is always another opinion. If somebody doesn’t agree with what you’ve written, don’t take offence. At least they’re engaging with your ideas. There’s no need to get personal. This goes for the readers too. And what do you do if things do get personal?
  • What are the limits of what you would write about? What would it take to silence you? And why that?
  • Sometimes strong emotion can inspire brilliant writing. Just because it’s brilliant, doesn’t mean you should stick it on your blog right away. Think a little – is the timing a little insensitive? Sometimes the same writing can be posted a few weeks later without the collateral damage. (“But I only wrote what I felt. I didn’t think anybody would get upset. I didn’t write anything about them.” Yeah, got that t-shirt too.) My blog is littered with posts that were written in frustration, and then posted weeks later with only minor alterations. It makes a world of difference.
  • Respect goes a long way. Respect yourself. Respect others, as much as their actions enable you to. Respect your message. Respect your readers.

And here’s a bonus writing tip: I’ve heard it said, write what you know. I disagree. Write what you love. Life’s more interesting that way.

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A Christmas Journey (Well, I have To Blog About Christmas, Don’t I?)

The thing with Christmas is that it’s full of traditions, which is one of the sweetest and hardest things about the season.  Because traditions bring a sameness to proceedings, and that sameness encourages us (okay, me) to contemplate all the Christmasses that have gone before. And comparison is fine, if you’ve had a good year, and this Christmas is better than last Christmas. But sometimes, just sometimes, the comparisons are bittersweet.

So this year, instead of doing a compare and contrast of the previous few Christmasses, I’m taking a slightly different approach. I’m taking Chriistmas as a marker on my journey, a journey that started a long time ago, a journey that is not done yet. Sometimes the journey is easy, and sometimes it’s hard, but always it’s a journey. We’re not done. This is a moment to stop, reflect, rest, recover, or maybe just straighten our helmet and wipe our sword before we go back into the battle of life.

This year, I’m taking the long view.

When I was a kid, Christmas was all about the presents. Did I get what I wanted? Was what other people got closer to what I wanted than what I got? And the food. And the crackers and the decorations and avoiding helping with the washing up. When I was younger, it was magical, and the Christmas tree seemed to reach to the ceiling, and more people meant more presents and that was excellent.

But then the Christmas tree shrunk. And the tinsel got a bit tatty, and I started hanging my homemade decorations at the back of the tree so nobody could see them (except the lovely glittery polystyrene bell I made one year. That one looked fine, until Little Person broke it last year). And people meant noise, and presents that I had to buy, and my mum getting tense because Christmas dinner had to be just right. Or else it meant sitting on a little stool that wobbled while everybody else had proper chairs, and wondering if I would ever feel like a grown up.

And then I had epilepsy. That meant trying to avoid flashing lights. Christmas was incredibly tense for a few years, and I wanted to hide in a corner and cry.

And then I moved countries and had my first Christmas without friends or family. And the dogs opened my present because it had biltong in it. And I sat on the top of the stairs looking out the window at a grey and heavy sky and told a little girl that it was okay to be a little sad at Christmas. That I would miss my mum too on such a day, but let’s try and find the happy moments too. And I hugged my bear I’d bought myself and cried myself to sleep.

Then I met the Dude, and Christmas was weeks before my wedding, and I realised I hadn’t done enough, and I would never be good enough, and I would never ever ever fit into this family. But then we had Christmas Day, and after all those years, a hot Christmas dinner finally made sense. And it was okay that my family was on the other side of the world, because this was my new family, and everything would be alright. Wouldn’t it?

Then I was married, and I had a home, and I could finally have my Christmas. I learnt to cook turkey, and that table glitter is really a pain to clean up, and that pregnancy and Brussel Sprouts don’t go together well. I learnt to make Christmas special, with an open home, and meals cooked to family and friends’ specifications. And I felt happy. And tired. And I looked at all the faces and decided that working myself to the bone was worth it, because Christmas only comes once a year, right? Right?

But this year has been different. This year, my friends don’t gather around my table because they know the food will be great, but because they love me, and want to spend time with me. We’re marking another year in the journey of life together, we are reaffirming our place in each others’ lives. We’re celebrating all that has been good and commiserating over all that has gone wrong. Simple. Bittersweet. Slightly understated. A bit like my year has been.

And come Christmas morning, I will be waking up in my own bed for the first time in eight years. I will watch the sun catch the frost on the grass and be thankful for another year in my journey. Another year simpler, another year wiser. And I don’t know what that day will bring, but I know this. I will love, and be loved. And that is enough.

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Your Pit Bull

Roxical Thinking:

Occasionally you read a blog so elegantly written it makes you despair at your own efforts. This piece is simply too beautiful not to share.

Originally posted on The Dad Letters:

Dear River,

I want to tell you a story about your dog, Zoe. We found her cowering at the pound. She wasn’t barking like the other dogs. She was simply laying there, looking up at us. The tag said, “lab mix” and she was slated to be killed in a week. We fell for it, thinking we were buying a lab.

She is not a lab. She is a pit bull.

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As Zoe grew, we came to realize the pound had lied. I was scared. I felt irresponsible for letting this type of dog into my home. All of the stereotypes, preconceptions and worries filled my mind. Should I take her back? What would people think of us?

She is the definition of disenfranchised. When first time guests visit we lock her in her cage, not because she is dangerous, but because of unspoken fears. She receives wary glances from strangers as…

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Building Dreams

I Will Build My Dreams Around You Us

I never planned on getting married. I mean, I had a brief period of time where I thought that I was desperately lonely and a partner would solve all my problems (that’s why I joined a dating website), but by the time I met The Dude, I was determinedly and happily single. But The Dude’s The Dude, and so I married him.

I never expected to be able to have a child. The doctors in South Africa informed me that I do not ovulate regularly (TMI, but there you go), and so it was highly unlikely that I would ever conceive naturally. So I went ahead and enrolled in university after I got married. Well, Little Person is my unexpected miracle. She’s wonderful, and beautiful, and I love her. But she’s not what I planned.

Organising and planning and working out systems are my things. I love them. I love knowing what I’m aiming for, what I’m building, what my next step is and how I’m going to get there. And I had it all worked out, more or less. Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly working to plan back when I met The Dude, but I was reworking things. I had a dream, I had a plan, I was going to make it work.

I’ll let you in on a secret. The dreams from back then, aren’t the dreams I have any more. I took a slight detour to the new dreams, but it’s a beautiful journey, and I think I may just love my new dreams more. Why? Because I have learnt something, and I have loved someone, and I am a better person, and dreamer, for it.

See, as much as I love plans and organising and solving problems and fixing things, I love growth, and people, and relationships and acceptance and dreams more. So yes, I had big dreams to be a somebody, to do something big, to change the world, but I’m learning to live out my big dreams in a small space. Eventually the space might expand, but also, it might not.

For a while after I got married, I thought that I had to give up my dreams to live for The Dude’s dreams, and then I thought that The Dude had to give up his dreams to live for mine. And then I thought that maybe, we both had to give up our dreams to look after the Little Person’s dreams. But the only way she’s going to be able to dream big, the way I want her to, is if she sees me dreaming big. But then I tried to dream big again, and all I ended up with was frustration and confusion (kind of like you, right now, reading this).

Because love is not giving up your dreams to live somebody else’s dream. Love is giving up your dream to live your dream. As in, giving up the dream of the singular to live the dream of the multiple. And it can be difficult, because letting go of dreams is always hard. But it will be beautiful, because how could it not be? The Dude is a wonderful man, with a beautiful heart, and together we can dream and build something that represents each of us and both of us, all at the same time.

So no, I do not build my dreams around The Dude, or around Little Person. I build my dreams around all of us, together.

(The inspiration for this post came from a line in “The Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues. Don’t listen to it, mum, some of the language is questionable. But the tune’s nice.)

How Is It Possible To Be This Tired And Yet Write?

So, I am in a state of utter fatigue and exhaustion (entirely my bad, so don’t you go feeling sorry for me now). My Little Person is cosily tucked up in bed pretending to be asleep. My cats are asleep. The Dude should be home any moment. I should be drinking tea and drooling over crochet patterns or poems or something. But no, I’m sitting here, with legs getting colder by the second, and I’m writing.

Because why? Because there’s a little part of me that says write, and you’ll feel better. Write, and you won’t be bored. Write, because you have not written for a few days. The tap-tap-tap of the keyboard, the tingly of fingers trying desperately to keep up with the brain, the delight as suddenly a new idea, or a resolution of an old idea, appears in the words, and somehow the world is a better place. (Not that any of that tingling is happening tonight, of course. I’m tired, did I mention that?)

That is passion. That thing that keeps you going doing the thing you do, even when it makes no sense, when there is no benefit, when you’re tired and it seems the stupidest thing in the world to be doing yet you do it anyway. Passion (also, probably, addiction, but never mind that. That’s a story for another day. Sorry. Rambling. Did I mention I’m tired?). Passion cannot be bought or sold, or traded. It’s the spark that refuses to die, and will consume your insides if you don’t let it out. Find  good and healthy expression for your passion, and chances are it will sustain you through dark days, and make the thrill of the best days even greater. Don’t ignore it, don’t downplay it, don’t explain it away.

Passion makes the world of difference. It makes you do crazy things, and it keeps you sane.

What’s your passion?

Don’t Be A Put-Down Artist

I remember once I lost my temper with somebody, which wasn’t a good thing. All the apologies in the world don’t make it right. And it doesn’t matter that I hadn’t seriously lost my temper in at least four years before that, or that I can count on my hands the number of times that the red mist had descended. Because I lost my temper, and I shouldn’t have. (You will be pleased to know that I have since found my temper, and it is firmly locked up in a chest with double padlocks and a combination lock, in a cupboard at the end of a secret tunnel.) Actually, somebody helped me build that metaphorical secret tunnel.

A few weeks back I read about the blokes that like to call themselves pick-up artists, and the techniques that they use in their “art” (shudder). The one thing I noticed was the put down, where they seem to compliment you and then take it away in the next breath. The idea is that you hang around and do stuff to get the unmitigated compliment. Only, it doesn’t just happen with  guys trying to get girls. I call the people that do it Put-Down Artists. You know the lines.

“It’s a lovely cake. If you could just get the balance of the icing right.”

“You’d be so pretty if you just wore make-up.”

“You’re fine just the way you are. But you can be a bit loud, you know?”

If. But. Except. Although. Put-Down Artists want to sound like they are being nice, without having to actually be nice. They want to be better, cleverer, wiser, more attractive than you. They want you to be running around after their approval so that they can feel better about themselves. It was a Put-Down Artist who dealt with me badly after I lost my temper. I knew I’d made a mistake. I really didn’t need my nose rubbed in it.

But I choose not to be ashamed of my mistakes, but rather to learn from them. So I found somebody else to talk to, and asked about it. Because the fact is, if I had been in a society where I understood the rules, where I had grown up, I would have been able to identify the signs much sooner and it just wouldn’t have gone that way. So, realising I wouldn’t be able to spot the signs in other people that they were about to say something that would make my head blow off, I wanted to know what could be done. (Actually, I wanted to be told that it was alright to have done what I did. But that didn’t happen.)

“No, Rox. You can do better than that. What kind of an example is that?” (Which, looking at it sounds an awful lot like what the Put Down Artist people like to say to me.)

“But how could I do it differently? Anything I said would have come out angry.”

“Silence is good. And sometimes you just have to get up and walk away. It doesn’t matter if you look rude, you just walk away. And then you talk about it when you can discuss it more calmly.”

And that’s what made it not a Put-Down Artist exchange. She went out of her way to explain to me what could be done. She told me the pitfalls of the approach (I can verify that when you walk away from a situation to avoid losing your temper, people do in fact think you are rude), but also of the benefits. I haven’t lost my temper between that day and this.

Here’s the thing. There are times to tell people that they need to do better than that. Because people need to know what they are doing wrong, so that they can do it right. But you don’t just get to be critical and walk away. Put Down Artists are not cool. They are half way to bullies. If you want to tell somebody that they have done it wrong, you need to tell them when they’ve done it right. You need to be willing to say, this is how to fix it, and stay the path until it’s done. You need to be willing to accept that, on closer inspection, maybe they are not actually doing that bad a job.

My temper tunnel only came about because somebody was willing to go beyond just telling me off and telling me I could do better. And my temper tunnel means I am a much better person – I have more confidence in my ability to speak out about difficult situations, because I now a better way of dealing with things when negative comments arise.

So don’t be a Put-Down Artist – you might think you are clever, and witty and saving the world from unfortunate incidences (even if it is just badly made cake), but really? You are just breaking people. So you only look big because you make the people around you small. I want to look small because I have helped the people around me grow so big.

Some things just have to be said.

Does Having A Message Make You A Better Blogger?

I am not a prolific blog reader, but I probably spend at least 30-60 minutes reading blogs every day. And you can tell the ones that have a distinct message, and the ones that are just “putting it all out there”. I vacillate between these two camps. My life has underlying themes, and my over-analytical ways colours my perceptions, so sometimes it feels like yes, I have a message. But then, I have cats, and who doesn’t love writing about cats?

But as the year draws to a close, and I find myself pondering the reasons I do the things I do, the places and spaces that occupy my time and my thoughts, I find myself asking different questions. Questions I can’t answer.

Do I blog better when I have a message? Or does the message get in the way of my chatty style and easy flow? (I think my follow-up question may be answering my initial question.) Why do I blog? Does it even matter why I blog? Should I try to blog better, or differently? Is this a stupid thing, a dangerous thing, to write my thoughts out into the ether, when I carry a heart that is so easily moved? Should I compare myself to other bloggers? (No. There is no point.) Am I making a difference at all? (Yes. I made somebody cry once. Maybe. But does that count?) Does all this stuff I write, about purpose, and passion, and stories, actually help anybody, or am I only adding to the noise and confusion?

Like I said, questions. I don’t shy away from these questions. I don’t think they represent a crisis of confidence, or weakness, or any kind of problem. I think it is good to stop and ask yourself questions. When you build things, you always check the reality against the plans. Sometimes you have to re-do the actual thing you’re building, but sometimes you have to revise your plans. And sometimes, you find that everything is working out just the way it was supposed to. But you never know until you check.

Of course, that analogy falls flat in the case of this blog. I didn’t plan to write mostly about life lessons and a bit about cats. I just want to know if I should do it differently, or if I should stop with the daft questions and just write, or if I never had a message, and only thought I did.

Yeah, I know, I’m over-analysing again. Did I tell you what happened with the cat?

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Sometimes you just need to remember who you are

Sometimes you just need to stop and remember. Remember where you are, where you’re from, where you have been. Sometimes we can get so busy in the doing-ness of life that we can forget that we were beings first. We should not be what we do, but rather aim to do what we are.

I have been doing housework this morning, which is (as you may have guessed) not my most favourite job in the world. But I have realised that is because I have been trying to be a housewife, rather than doing the housework as a Roxical writer. What’s the difference? Well, a housewife likes having a clean house (and nothing wrong with that), whereas I am more strongly motivated by creating an environment where people (and specifically my family) can flourish. I am, as the mug I drink my tea from this morning so eloquently puts it, a Very Special Mummy.

So, instead of allocating an afternoon to catching up with the laundry, and two hours to sorting out Little Person’s bedroom, I give myself tasks and times of housework love. The laundry gets folded and put away while I run Little Person’s bath, which allows me to reflect on the special moments and memories that each garment is associated with. Here’s The Dude’s shirt from Monday, when he went to work and had a bad day, but carried on regardless. And I’m grateful for his faithfulness, and his job, and commitment to his family. Here’s Little Person’s pajamas from Tuesday, which were too small for her, but she wore anyway. And I’m grateful that she’s growing, and strong and healthy, and learning new skills every day. And look! The laundry pile is done, and the bath is ready.

I spent a similar morning cleaning up in the kitchen – remembering all the little moments that made me laugh and smile over the last few days. Realising that I can be a writer, and a mother, and an admin manager, and a wife, and still find a way to do bits of housework.

As long as I just remember who I am.

The Great Regret

Q: How do you spell mousetrap in three letters?

A: C-A-T

I learnt that joke when I was about 7. It was the first joke I ever found for myself (in one of those long thin jokebooks that did the rounds when we were kids) that I actually understood. I still like that joke.I told it to my mother-in-law this last Christmas and she laughed delightedly. Little Person, like you (or at least, the you that you were when I was 7), is not a fan of that joke. She’s more of a physical comedy kind of girl (again, like you, if I recall correctly).

As Little Person grows up, and I see more and more of you in her, I find myself remembering the good things that we shared growing up. Things I had chosen to forget, so that I could keep the easy narrative. You know the one – where I cast you as the baddie, and I’m the helpless victim, who finally has the courage to stand up for herself. The truth is much more complicated than that, and so I rewrite history in my head.

But twenty years on, I’m still left with my great regret. The one thing in my life I wish I could definitely go back in time and change. The thing I definitely and most assuredly got wrong. You offered a peace offering, and I said no. I know why I said no – I was hurt, I was surprised, I wanted you to feel the pain that I had been feeling, I thought I would get another chance.

But sometimes there is no second chance. Sometimes there is just that moment, that decision. And a lifetime of unknowable consequences. I wish I had understood what I had been saying no to. Because I thought I was saying no to letting you hurt me again, but I wasn’t. I was saying no to family Christmasses, and shared jokes, and memories, and adventures. I was saying no to guitar lessons for Little Person, and saying yes to a lifetime of regret.

I should have done better. I could’ve done better. I knew better. That’s the disappointing thing. I could have done the thing that opened the path to restoration and healing, and instead … instead, tears run down my face just thinking about it. Because no matter how much I hurt, no matter what the stories I told myself about you, that did not give me the right to judge you, and throw your peace offering in your face.

I have always been good with words, but I have always avoided writing about this. Because I was always so upset, I was always so angry. Maybe I have spent the last twenty years being angry at the wrong person. Maybe I was lying to myself, hiding from the truth. This truth: I said no, because I was too afraid to say yes.

There are so many things I could have said on that day long ago. Words between no and yes, like I want to, I don’t know how, this is too difficult for me, I don’t know what to do. I could have tried harder to do the right thing.

And that is my great regret.

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I Was Going To Write This Really Cool Post But Then…

You know how it is. There’s been a few days of quiet, and a lovely little phrase has been blowing about in your mind, gathering wisps of ideas, and you think, “Yes! I’ll write a blog about that.” And you realise that you will have the house to yourself for the evening. Perfect writing time.

And then I accidentally let my finger dip in the bubbling oil from the fry-up. I had to phone The Dude upstairs to turn the hob off, because I had just rushed over to put my hand under the cold water tap. (An hour later I was still doing this intermittently.) And then Little Person was upset. Partly because The Dude was going out, partly because I had hurt my finger, partly because … well, it had been a long day.

So she cried after he left, and when I came to sit with her on the sofa, and when it was time to bath, and when it was time to get in bed. And I phoned my mum in the middle of all of this, because I did not know how to stop the pain in my finger, and I did not know if I could cope with a sore finger and a sobbing child all at the same time. My mum helped. She listened, and suggested petroleum jelly (“it’s what we would do in Africa.” The thought had crossed my mind). I slathered it on, and wrapped up the finger in cottonwool, and everything was manageable for 15 minutes. And then the pain became unbearable again.

So I unwrapped the cottonwool, rinsed under cold water (again), put on more goo, and a new batch of cottonwool – doubled-up this time. And fifteen minutes later realised that the fifteen minute time limit would keep on happening, unless I found a different way to handle things. I realised I had throbbing pain and achey contact with cottonwool pain, and some kinds of pressure made things better, and some made things worse. And I determined that I wasn’t repeating the cycle of taking the cottonwool off every 15 minutes. Because, well, I had a Little Person to sort out, and she was still periodically crying.

So now I type this, because the pain in my figure wobbles to the forefront of my mind from time to time, but I’m not about to let that stop me. And through her tears tonight, The Little Person has learnt a little something about love. Love doesn’t mean that the person never leaves. Love means you don’t have to be afraid that the person won’t come back. Perfect love casts out all fear.

And somewhere between the pain in my finger and the pain in my Little Person’s heart, I may be learning another lesson too. About pushing through, and knowing that I will see love and healing on the other side.

Which may not be as cool as what I was going to write, but I don’t mind. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be.