(Sort of) Writing Wednesday Holding up the Mirror To My Soul (Or, Why I Write)

It’s Sunday as I write this. (The joy of scheduled posts and all that.) The Dude is at work, and I have abandoned Little Person downstairs to the Disney Junior channel. And I am still wearing my pyjamas. Because Sunday. And hayfever.

Sunday is, according to my faith, supposed to be a day of rest and reflection. Time together with family to refill your heart, to remember why you do what you do the rest of the week. Reconnect with who you are, and maybe dream about who you were meant to be. In our family, we don’t always get that right, but today, I think I may be doing alright. Even with the hayfever.

My daydreams for today have been about writing. About what I want to write, about what I do write. About how much the two match up. Sometimes I think I’m doing okay, because the word count goes up on my novel, and the little graph on my blog stats page goes in the “right” direction. But then I think, is that it? Is that all? Just because the numbers say it’s right, does that mean it is? Or are the numbers just a distraction? I didn’t start writing so that I could get lots of people reading what I said.

I don’t write for lots of people. I think I may just write for one.

I write for the invisible one, who feels no one can see your pain, or your hard work, or your struggle with depression, anxiety or any number of unseen issues. I have been invisible too. You are not invisible to me.

I have been invisible, stamped down and ignored because I dare to be different. I have held up a mirror to my soul and thought that there was nothing there worth looking at. Writing has helped me tilt the angle and realise that what I may have thought as nothing was merely depth of feeling. Passion rendered meaningless by a trick of the light, the way sunlight makes a fast and deep river look tranquil.

I held up a mirror to my soul and saw nothing, at first. Now I see the invisible, their silent voices screaming for a way to be more than this. Tethered down by the crying baby, the special needs child, the insurmountable debt, the crushed dreams, the abusive relationships, the rejection, neglect, addiction. The every day invisible walking among us.

For now, I write to you, echoing my experiences and lessons to say that there is hope. Hang on. You’re not alone. You’re not invisible. I can see you.

I want to write for you. I want to say “Look at these people, these ones that you overlook. Look at the bravery, the way that they rise again each morning and try again. The way they stand up knowing that it means only they will be knocked down again. Look, and don’t see the label. Look, see the person and know that they are worth the looking at.”

I want to know your story, so I can tell it back to you, and you can see your own strength. I want to be that tilt in the angle so that you can see how deep and strong you really are. Like a river in the sunlight.

I write to be a mirror to my soul.

I should write to be a mirror to yours.

How To Be Friends with Someone from a Different Culture

I grew up in a multicultural society that tried to pretend it wasn’t (South Africa, in the time preceding and during the transition to a democracy). Heck, I grew up in a multicultural family (my dad was born in Yorkshire and my mum … wasn’t). I moved to London and was pleasantly surprised that the culture shock was not as severe as I had feared it would be. Then I moved to the North East of England and married a man from Northern Ireland. I have learned some hard lessons about what it means to be the foreigner looking for friends. This article examines how you might be able to maintain your friendship with somebody who is not from the same culture as you, especially if you are from the majority culture and they are not.

How hard can it be, being friends with somebody different to you? I mean, none of us are really the same, are we. Deep down, we’re all unique and it’s the beauty of our combined uniquenesses (unique-complex?) that makes the magic of friendship what it is. Except, when the person who is your friend comes from a different culture, there are frequently assumptions and perspective differences that can make maintaining the friendship challenging. But keeping a few things in mind can help keep the relationship strong, and make it easier to negotiate those pesky trouble spots.

  1. Remember that you are from two different cultures.

This sounds pretty obvious, but sometimes it can be easy to forget, especially if your friend has a similar appearance to you. Culture isn’t just in the way we dress, or the language we speak, but in our way of relating to our peers, our elders, those in authority, our animals. It’s as much in the way we select food at a buffet as it is in the stories that we tell, and the ones that we don’t. Your friend might be timid or aggressive or talk with their hands because that’s just the way they are, or because that’s the way their culture has taught them to be. It’s not why they are that way that matters, but who they are.

  1. Sometimes, the same word can have a different meaning, or worse, a different connotation.

I grew up speaking English. I moved to London and spoke English (well, I changed a few words and rapidly developed a super posh accent so the kids I took care of understood me). Last week, I discovered that some people might be offended by one of the nicknames that I use for Little Person – a nickname that is not only acceptable, but common in my country of origin. Needless to say, I’m working very hard on not using that anymore.

But these things happen. I still end up asking The Dude whether it’s okay to say this or that. If your friend says something inappropriate or that you don’t understand, I refer you to 1 above. They don’t know any different. And they won’t know any different until you tell them. Get over it, laugh about it, talk about it. Being your friend’s cultural translator should be a source of amusement for you both, and should help make your friendship stronger. But you need to be wise enough to look beyond any perceived offence. Remember: the same words from a different culture are not really the same words.

  1. What’s rude to you can be acceptable to them. And vice versa.

Sometime your friend might shake their head or burst out laughing because they can’t believe you dared to such a thing. Sometime you might find yourself tugging at your friend’s arm begging them to leave it and stop what they are doing while you wish for the ground to swallow the two of you up. The subtleties of cultural differences come to the fore in situations where there is a conflict to be resolved, or a need to be met, or a favour to be asked. If you take the time to really understand your friend, and educate them on the norms in your society, you might be able to use their relative timidity or brashness to your mutual advantage. Plus, your friend can honestly say “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend. I’m not from around here.” If they’ve been around your new (to them) culture for a while, they might have plenty of practice at apologising. It’s a useful skill.

  1. Chances are, it’s not deliberate.

I’m referring to that text that was a bit blunt, or that hesitation in the conversation that was a bit too long. The turn of phrase that made you think “what does that mean?” or even “how dare she! I thought she was my friend!”. Those encounters that are just between the two of you that leave you scratching your head, or maybe even hurt. Especially since your friend said or did that hurtful thing with complete nonchalance.

I can almost guarantee it was not deliberate. If they knew how you were feeling, they would be rushing over to apologise. Again, if they don’t know, the only way they will find out is if you tell them. But wait until you’re not so mad or upset or hurt. Because you don’t want to denigrate them or their culture, because that would just be disrespectful. And there’s one thing worse than been disrespected accidentally, and that is being disrespected intentionally. You’ll probably find that you have said some unintentionally hurtful things in your time together too.

  1. How come this person from a different culture is in your life anyway?

A person doesn’t end up in a culture different from the one that they were raised in by accident. Are they a refugee? A student? Looking to build themselves a better life? Any way you look at it, living a life immersed in a different culture, either temporarily or permanently, takes a great deal of bravery and perseverance. You don’t know what your friend has been through to get here, and they may make light of it (often brave people really don’t want to be pitied). But that same strength of character, and bravery, can make it difficult for them to ask for help.

  1. What makes a friendship a friendship?

I haven’t been talking about making friends with someone from a different culture, but maintaining the friendship. Sometimes making friends is the easy bit – the sparkle of new acquaintance, the novelty of this person with a story so different from your own. It can be a bit like young love.

But here’s the thing, friendships require work. Fun work, most of the time, but work nonetheless. Friendship across the cultural divide require their own sorts of work, but also present their own rewards. You may find yourselves rubbing off on each other a bit – your quiet friend may teach you to hold your tongue, or your more confrontational friend may teach you to stand up for yourself. Cross-cultural friendships are more likely to run into misunderstandings, which means they have more opportunities for real and honest communication, which means they should be deeper and more meaningful. As I always tell The Dude, “I’m hard work, but I’m worth it.”

I hope these pointers help you to develop stronger and more meaningful relationships with your friends cross the cultural divide.

Raising a boy in a world of gender stereotypes

Roxical Thinking:

This is not a topic I tend to write about but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. Since I am female and so is Little Person I have no real experience of gender equality issues from the male perspective. (Apart from what The Dude explains to me. But again that is his experience not mine.)

Originally posted on crazy grad mama:

During a recent conversation with my parents, the subject of college-branded baby clothes arose.  (My parents live near my alma mater and are fond of purchasing such themed items.)

“Little Boy’s going to need a new college onesie,” I said.  “He’s already nearly outgrown the one you gave us for Christmas.”

“We’ll keep an eye out,” they promised.  “Mostly what we’ve seen in stores lately is baby cheerleading outfits, and those aren’t for him.”

They’re not for him.

Why not?

For this particular question, the answer is personal taste.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to dress my hypothetical baby daughter in a cheerleading costume, either — it’s just not my style.  And lest you get the wrong idea about my parents, they raised a boy who played with dolls and a girl who won science competitions.  They would be appalled to think that I was using them…

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Sorry My Creativity Offended You

Once I was part of a social organisation that was heavily involved in community projects, including outreach programmes and hosting regular entertainment events. I thought I might have something to contribute. I spoke to one of the leaders of the social club – the lady in charge of the creativity team as well as community outreach.

The conversation went like this:

Me: I’m creative. I write. But I can’t sing, I can’t dance. I don’t do drama. {I can do drama, but not that sort!}

Her: Creative? Can you draw?

M: No

H: Paint?

M: No.

H: But what do you write, apart from your blog, I mean?

M: (I told her about the projects I’m working on. I would tell you but that’s not how it works.)

H: Huh. So you more think creatively rather than do creative things.

So basically, because my creativity is not performance-based, because you can’t stick it on the wall and call it pretty, it doesn’t count. Leastways, not to her and her social club. I am sorry that my creativity wasn’t good enough for her. I’m sorry that she thought my creativity didn’t warrant inclusion into her little club of all-singing all-dancing-ness. I am sorry that my creativity offended.

But not for the reasons you think.

When you get offended, when you decide that such-a-such is not good enough, or not worth it, when you dismiss somebody’s effort or talent as trivial or unimportant, you rob yourself. Sure, sometimes you rob the other person, but they still have the talent, and the capacity within. You’ve lost out. You’ve let the talent get away. You will never know what you and that person could have achieved together.

And worse yet, by denying my offer of my talents, such as they are, that leader narrowed her definition of creativity even further. The next time a writer turns up, she’ll say no to them too. And more than that, she’ll be teaching her followers that creativity consists predominantly (if not solely) of the performing arts and painting. The great irony? She’s a (song)writer. She sings. She should know the power of words.

Still, she was right about one thing. I am a creative thinker, and writing is just one of the ways that I express that creative thinking. The conversation ended too soon, because she was dismissive of “creative thinking”. (A leader that is dismissive of creative thinking is less a leader and more a manager in my opinion, but that is a topic for another post.) My “brand” of creativity didn’t mesh with her “brand”. I was the cheap knock-off, while she had the real thing. I was the pretender, but she was the one getting on the stage and singing her heart out and showing what real creativity was all about. My creativity offended.

I’m sorry, because I was looking to express my creativity in a meaningful way that would contribute to the greater good not just of that social club, but the community at large. I wanted to help people tell their stories, to write encouraging notes, maybe even write scripts or songs or come up with random ways to interact with the community. I wanted to apply my creativity to their systems and help them do better, help more people with less effort. I wanted to network with people to enable others to grow their own creative voices.

But I was asked “how does your creativity fit in with the way we do creativity here?” instead of “how can we use your creativity to do what we are trying to do?”

She denied my creativity, and stifled an avenue where it could have been expressed. How many people are now living a poorer life because I was unable (not unwilling, but unable) to share some consequence of my creative thinking with them? That is why I am sorry my creativity offended. Not because of the cruel lesson I have learned, but because of the lost opportunity.

Let’s not be quick to judge because somebody is different. Let’s look at people who don’t fit into our definitions as an opportunity to expand our horizons, instead of an identity to be denied.

Writing Wednesday: That Which I Never Knew I Knew

“Write what you know.” “Write what you have to write.” “Write every day. The Muse will accept the discipline, with time.” “Write fast. Edit slow.”

Writing advice. You have to love it. I mean, it’s good to give you a starting place, something to try.

But if I followed the writing advice as I had intended to, I would be writing a fuzzy-wuzzy faith-and-love tale of victory and joy. Because, you know, I wanted to write something that included my faith, and that’s how all those books go.

My manuscript doesn’t go like that. I’m temporarily paused because I don’t want to write about the darkness, and the sadness and the despair and the stupidity. But I’m persuading myself that this may be the most important part of the story, and if I shrink back from that, the whole point of it is lost.

It’s something I never knew I knew. It’s something that it feels like I have always known.

Just because the darkness is real, just because people are stupid, just because we face horrible things like depression and fear and guilt and hopelessness, that doesn’t need to make the story dark. The darkness doesn’t define the story, anymore than my struggles define my life.

People are stupid. All of us. We make stupid decisions, and sometimes it takes a terrible thing to make us realise our mistakes. We throw away the invaluable, we walk away from the most worthwhile, we hoard the poison.

But that’s alright. Because that’s not all we do. We also learn. We apologise. We rescue. We try again.

That’s why there may be darkness in my story, but my story isn’t dark. Hope wins. Always.

Sure, we can write what we know. Or we can do something just a little bit crazy – go out on a limb, do the dangerous thing.

We can write what we never knew we knew.

A Time To Lament

The cat was grumpy. I was standing at the counter waiting to pay for the consultation and to get an appointment for the booster shot (Not-So-Little Cat’s jabs had lapsed). The receptionist was stood talking past me to the slightly older lady with two terrier type dogs.

“I’m like a radiator, honestly. In a way that my family doesn’t understand. Not an actual radiator, but it just feels like it.”

“Oh I know, I’m in my 50s and I still get flutters of it.”

Two late middle-aged women talking about getting hot? Not a conversation I wanted to hear.

“Okay, no, stop it right there. I don’t want to hear about it.” Not-So-Little Cat meowed her agreement.

“I don’t know what you’re on about,” said the receptionist oh so primly. The cat offered her opinion. The receptionist gave me an appointment time. The cat disagreed.

“Someone’s a little grumpy,” the receptionist observed. I decided to assume she was referring to the cat.

And when I got home I gave myself a think-over.

Because apart from the fact that I was obviously not supposed to act on my suspicions that they were discussing menopause symptoms (it was a public space, I’m not stupid, I really don’t want to know about women doing radiator impressions!), my response had definitely been more aggressive than I would like.

Feelings on the inside wanting to come out, and leaking through in a moment of impatience.

And not happy feelings either.

I know, because they have been dancing their way merrily up the stairs from my sub-conscious for at least a week (and probably longer. Some had been hiding a while.)

Loss. Grief. Sadness. Doubt. Fear. Brokenness. Missed opportunities and lost potential. Anger. Despair. Anxiety. Regret. Sorrow.

All those things we are not supposed to admit to feeling. All those things that, when bad things happen, we try to sweep under the carpet or stuff in a box in the cupboard and say that we’ve “dealt with it”. We are pushed to “move on” and “get over it”, and then we wonder why, months and years down the line we break down – except we never admit how broken we really are. Not to others, and more importantly, not to ourselves.

We go from feeling like a radiator – everything exploding with heat on the inside – to “I don’t know what you’re on about” as fast as we possibly can. Or faster, even.

But the title of this post is “A Time To Lament”, and lamenting, as a rule, is a vocal, expressive thing. In South Africa, the black population has a tradition of ululating at times of great emotion, including as a display of grief at funerals. Of course, it is sometimes excessive, and it’s definitely loud, but it’s also expressive. It’s a sound beyond words. It’s grief in loud moans, and it gets the feelings that are inside out. It’s the start of a process whereby you can acknowledge the feelings, and find a way to live with them.

*This is just an example I found. I’m not endorsing the website or anything. 

Acknowledging feelings. Talking about them. Being honest. Bringing uncomfortable realities out into the light of day so that we don’t have to deal with them on our own. Owning the sadness. So that is won’t own me.

Those are all skills I learned as a South African. I sure wish I could pass them on.

Perhaps that is my real lament.

But it’s alright, I understand. I know that you don’t know what I’m talking about.

When You Have to Throw Out The Parenting Books

Do you remember how when your kids were babies, and they were teething, they would scream the house down? I mean, the crying just wouldn’t stop. Niggly and grumpy for days.

Not in our house. Little Person just wouldn’t go to sleep. It took us a while to work out the slightly mismatched red cheeks and not going to sleep were signs of teething. But actual crying was very rare.

We should have known then.

But it took me a while to throw the parenting books out entirely (even though nothing has been like they said in the books. Nothing.) Even within the paradigm of special needs, as her doctor neatly puts it “she doesn’t really fit into a box”. Her challenges, and her abilities, conflate each other when it comes to a diagnosis.

What to do?

I’ve written about giving up on the dreams I never knew I had, appreciating all the beauty and joy Little Person brings to my life, being brave. But you know what? I really thought they (the doctors and all the specialists that have been assessing my child) would be able to give me a label, a description, a prognosis. An idea of what I might be heading into. Nope.

So I guess I can throw out all that helpful advice you might get from the special needs community. When they say, create a safe space for your child, and I realise I am my child’s safe place. Which is fine. Until I need a break. And nobody can tell me how to make somewhere else her safe place, because, what kind of mother would want that, isn’t it sweet the way she loves you so much? (Yes. And no. I’m conflicted.)

But you can see how it can get awkward. It’s not that I want my daughter to have a label, or life-limiting condition. It’s just, I want to know how to help her. I have ten years of experience with children across ages 2-13, a postgraduate qualification in developmental psychology, and I haven’t gotten the faintest whiff of a farticle of a clue. Never encountered a child like her. Ever.

What to do?

I realised a few things though. In the midst of all this, is a beautiful soul trying to understand her world, trying to make her world a happier and a more beautiful place, to share a heart full of love, and hope, with those around her. In the midst of all this, is a child defined not by all she can’t do, but by her delight in all the things she can. A jumping, twirling, painting, laughing, tickling, singing, dancing, building, watching bundle of promise that relies on me to show her how amazing the world is, and how she has a unique, and beautiful, contribution to make.

What to do?

Throw out the books.

Burn the diagnosis sheets.

Take what help is offered to get her through the school day.

And then love.

Watch, observe, share, learn, listen, accept, trust, believe, promise, build, paint, live. Forget the what she can and can’t do lists. Find out who she is, and help her be that.

I know who she is now. Or at least a little bit.

She’s creative. She is much an observer of the world as I am.

So while the reality may be that I am a special needs mum, there’s a greater, more pressing truth. I’m raising a creative.

Now that’s something I can do.

(Maybe. But not if I have to fold the laundry too.)

Writing Wednesday: Facing The Fear

I have spent most of my life afraid. People, bullies, teachers, matches, glass that might break, stairs, roads. To a greater or lesser extent, I have been scared of them all. And then there is talking on the telephone, eating contaminated food, forgetting to run an important errand (although that one diminished when I forgot to collect my wedding dress), accidentally swearing or a host of other things.

I’m less afraid these days.

All the fear, and much of the anxiety, goes into my writing. I have come to recognise that there is a dark place within that would take over my soul if I would let it, but somehow writing is my scouring pad. Little by little, I have been taking back the territory. When things happen to me, when I have been hurt, abandoned, excluded and left feeling despised – when the things I feared became a reality and I realised even adults can be bullied – it all went on the page.

As a writer, I can fear many things about my art. I can fear not being heard, or being misunderstood, or somehow “doing it wrong”. I can fear finishing, and not finishing, or trying the wrong thing, or missing my  big break. I can fear that this project will distract me from the project I was always meant to write, that my life is getting in the way of me doing what I was always meant to do.

Some days, it feels as though if I’m not hung-up about something to do with my writing, I must be missing the point.

Here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter if I’m not heard, or if I’m misunderstood, if I fail or if I succeed. In writing, and in life, the world continues to turn. Life goes on. I have failed at the things that I defined my success by. I face a reality every day that I named as being one of my great fears when I was younger. I have been made to feel as less than worthless by some of the people I thought would love and support me forever. And yet here I am.

Still writing.

There is something worse than your fear coming true. There’s letting your fear stop you.

(Except for snakes. I have no intention of attempting to address my issue with snakes.)

The Star That Stayed

She came home from school  with a silver star on her jumper, hidden under her coat until Granny spotted it.

“Oh! What’s that for?”

I was going to say that we never get a sensible answer to that question, except she piped up.

“Miss Smith gave it to me. For sitting up straight and helping.” (Miss Smith is one of the supervisors at dinnertime at school.)

“Oh, very good.”

I thought that was the end of the exchange. I was wrong.

“Miss Smith gave it to me, but you can have it.”

And so the little silver star sticker was transferred from school jumper to red Granny jumper. And there it stayed, all afternoon, and all evening.

And the next day too.

“Look, I still have your star.”

And they smiled together.

The next day, I saw the jumper neatly folded on a chair, silver star uppermost.

I think that star is still there. The star that stayed. The star that is a love remembered, and shared, and cherished.

Will you share your silver star today? Will you see how long it stays?

House Guests And Hope

I We have visitors at the moment. The Dude’s parents have come up to visit for a day short of a fortnight (planned). So has some cold bugs (unplanned). Mrs Dude started sniffling on the train up, and yesterday Mr Dude was sniffling too. All the while, my The Dude is showing signs of sniffle-fighting and I can feel the lurgy trying to take hold in my throat. I suspect the only reason Little Person isn’t sniffling along with us is because she spends all day around germs at school.

Still. There’s hope.

Why, you ask. Because there’s always hope.

And that’s all you’re getting today, because like I said, house guests. And taking care of them, and myself is more important than any blog post.

So if you don’t see me for a few days/weeks, you know why.

But remember: there’s always hope. Always.