Saturday, 8 November 2008

This blog has moved

I've been meaning for a while to move across to Wordpress, which is where my other blog is hosted. From now on, this blog is posted here. Please update your records to the following URL:


Thursday, 6 November 2008

Trust, luck and the STD lottery

Less than a year ago, I wrote a post wondering aloud what people in South Africa's rural areas are thinking when they have unprotected sex. These days, I'm wondering what anyone's thinking when they do it.

First scenario this week: I'm at a clinic. A nurse is drawing blood from my arm for an HIV test. It's my fourth test in under 12 months. There were two during my pregnancy (first in SA and then again when I got registered on the NHS); then after my return home, I had another for my medical aid and yet another for my life insurance. None of these institutions - the private doctor, the NHS, the medical aid, the insurers - are prepared to trust the results of the other. Even though each one is wasting the extra R100 or so that the HIV test costs them, I can see why it's not in their interests to trust the results of the others. Why should they? Who's going to divulge honestly that they're HIV-positive when they're applying for medical or life insurance, if they think they're not going to get checked up on?

As it happens, I'm only too happy for them to run the extra tests, given my ex-partner's recent revelations about his behaviour during our relationship. Which would be beside the point, but inevitably this is part of what got me thinking about trust, luck and the ticking time bomb that is the spread of very serious sexually transmitted diseases.

Scenario two: I'm at a table with several women, some married, some not. One of the women is unhappily married, and her longstanding extramarital affair is common knowledge among those around the table. Let's call her Jane.
"How many sexual partners do you have?" I ask her.
Despite her usual bluntness about her affair, Jane seems nonplussed by the directness of the question.
"Two," she answers, and names the husband and the lover. She laughs somewhat harshly, and I can't place the laughter - whether it's self-consciousness or pride, or a mixture of both.
"And do you have safe sex?"
No, Jane tells us, because she's allergic to latex. "So until they produce non-latex condoms, I'm condom-free," she says, with a similarly difficult-to-read laugh.

So Jane is protecting herself against whatever allergic reaction she might get from latex. An excuse which is perhaps reasonable, perhaps convenient, perhaps true, perhaps not. But the excuse isn't protecting anyone in the dubious chain of trust in which she's entangled.
Jane's lover knows about her husband, obviously. The husband does not (as far as we know) know about the lover. And what does Jane know about her husband?
"Oh, he's not having sex with anyone else," she says. Confidently.

It's the confidence that fascinates me. My ex was confident that he wouldn't get caught. He was also confident that I wasn't cheating on him. Jane is confident that she's the only one in the scenario forming an open link of trust - and risk - with both her sexual partners. How well-founded is their confidence? What is it based on?

Well, Jane is confident for a number of reasons. She doesn't find her husband all that attractive any more, so she finds it hard to believe that anyone else does. She regards herself as the sexually adventurous, attractive one in the relationship. She knows she has needs, and she knows her husband is not meeting them. She is not interested in her husband's needs, so it's hard for her to think that anyone else is either. In addition, her lover makes her feel a bit more attractive. All of these conspire to give Jane an imagined edge of power over her husband.

In order to keep her affair from threatening her sense of herself as an okay, lovable person, it also suits Jane to ignore the needs or feelings or experience of her lover's wife. Or the fact that the invisible wife is now effectively one of Jane's own sexual partners (assuming that the lover occasionally services said wife.) Do we know whether the lover's wife is faithful? It suits Jane to imagine the wife as sexually nonexistent; in fact, it probably suits Jane not to imagine the wife at home. But let's imagine that she is, in fact, human. She is left at home quite often while the husband is out and about with Jane. Who knows what she's up to?

I know very few people that haven't, at some point, cheated or been cheated on. I know that in the cases it's happened to me, the culprits have always demonstrated complete confidence in my own fidelity. As though a lack of suspicion or jealousy is evidence of fidelity. Either they are correct, and they are the only ones capable of cheating and dissembling successfully. Or, perhaps, their trustworthy-seeming partners are simply even better at it than they are. How can they know which it is? And given that they know that they themselves are capable of cheating, how can they doubt that anyone else is?

Interestingly, those that cheat tend (in my experience) to have more concern about the perceived betrayal of romantic trust than about the far more pressing risk that they may well have exposed their partner to potentially life-threatening disease. In other words, they are more worried about being found out to appear untrustworthy or dishonest than about the possibility that they may have condemned another person's health irreparably. What other people think of us is, in this case, more threatening than serious, potentially chronic illness. It's a weird (but consistent) weighting of personal concern.

The nurse at the clinic asks:
"Has anyone discussed with you the implications if your test showed positive?" No, I say, but I have a fair idea of the implications.
"Do you get many people testing positive here?" I ask. After all, this is an office block in Sea Point, one of the most affluent areas in Cape Town. We're in the epicentre of the HIV pandemic by virtue of being in South Africa, but this is still a zone where most people will be wrapped in the idea that It Can't Happen To Me. She looks somber.
"It's a ticking bomb," she says. "Put it this way, there are a lot of people out there that just don't seem to keep to themselves."
Don't I know it, I think. And I can't help wondering whether Jane wouldn't better off with a bit of an allergic reaction to latex than something a whole lot worse.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

The rise and fall of the extraordinary relationship that allegedly never happened

I have, after some consideration, removed this post. If you still want to read it, please email me at greensteinDOTlisaATgmailDOTcom and I'll send it on. Thanks to those whose comments and emails have provided much sane perspective on this outrageous turn of events.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Suggestions please

I used to like the name of this blog. But it occurs to me this week that whilst enemies stab you in the back, and perhaps friends might - if they had to - stab you in the front rather than the back, the people you really want to keep in your life are those that don't stab you at all. So I'm looking for a new name for the blog. Suggestions welcome.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Family resemblance??

Monday, 27 October 2008

Passing it on

The events of last month, sadly, necessitated an urgent departure from London for me and Kolya. Whilst there is not much I'm missing about London, I was sad to abandon the little allotment plot I'd taken over earlier this year. So it was with great joy and delight that I received these photos from the fabulous Kelly and Rosanna, who've been taking care of the veggies!!

Julian among the giant pumpkins:

Beans, beans:

Friday, 24 October 2008

On dropping positive judgement

"How did I fail to see it?" I asked a friend recently.
"We need to see things As They Are, not As We Want Them To be," she replied.

Later that week, I was given one of those brainteasers where you have to join the dots using a limited number of lines. You've probably seen it. If you haven't, it's pretty simple: just join the dots using no more than FOUR straight lines, without lifting your pen from the page:

I had seen it before, but it was fun to see the other people given the brainteaser struggle with the field of dots in front of them. The field implies a shape, but the implied shape is not actually there. The brain imposes a familiar shape, and the familiar shape prevents you from seeing the other possibilities. (Out of interest, there is more than one feasible solution.)

Of course, the notion of a paradigm shift, of "thinking out of the box" is not unfamiliar to most of us. I've seen this exercise (and many like it), I thought. I've facilitated workshops of my own where I've given this very exercise to other people. It illustrates terribly nicely how our own pre-existing assumptions limit our ability to solve utterly soluble problems. Don't impose judgements. See what is there, not what you think you see. Yeah yeah yeah. We've all heard it before. I already know this stuff, I thought. But then it occurred to me that all I was doing now was the same thing, dressed in a new guise. The revised value judgement? The familiar is of less value than the unfamiliar. I'd seen it before, therefore it had nothing to show me.

Is this so? What happens when we overlook the familiar simply because it is familiar?

The work of cultivating awareness is largely the work of listening carefully, paying careful attention. Labelling situations or events as positive or negative is, in a sense, a way of washing over the reality with value judgement. I like it - so I see it through the gleaming pretty wash of my own preference. I don't like it - so I see it through the dark, distorting colours of my own dislike. Both positive and negative judgements are a distortion. The opposite of the voice of judgement is not the sweet voice of love and appreciation. The opposite of the voice of judgement is attentive, receptive silence. And writing off the familiar is simply another, insidious face of our tendency of not seeing what's in front of us.

All too often, in the literature and encounters of self-development, we hear the injunction to "drop judgement", to "listen unjudgementally." But all too often, that becomes code for "be positive and appreciative"; applaud everyone. We particularly welcome and respond to the familiar. I identify with your story; you must be just like me; I have empathy for you. I do not identify at all with your story; you are so different from me; we have nothing in common; I cannot empathise at all. Identifying positively with others is not evidence of non-judgement at all. In fact, it is often the hallmark of yet more judgement - although it's the kind of judgement that we find comforting and enjoyable to entertain.

But what is the point of dropping judgements if they are fun and enjoyable? Why not simply delight in positive identification when it coes up?

The point is that positive judgement is no less destructive than negative judgement, it's just more insidious. We live in a society where we are trained from an early age to perform for approval. I see it with my little boy, who is constantly told how "good" he is. "Good" being code for quiet, well-behaved, convenient for others. Crying is "naughty"; quietness is "good". This is where it starts. Later it will graduate towards enforcing being "nice", being "polite", doing what "you're supposed to"... And how many of us have had to unlearn this coded, deeply internalised judgement in years and years of therapy? And how many more of us live lives fraught and unhappy, locked beneath a facade of doing what they think they should do, with people they should like, partners they should love, when underneath it they don't? Living a little more authentically than that - that is the point of dropping the judgements.

It is constant work, this work of awareness. Wishing you all a week - or a day, or perhaps just a moment - of seeing things As They Are.

Monday, 20 October 2008


Friday, 17 October 2008

Quotation on mindfulness

By being with yourself, by watching yourself in daily life
With alert interest,
With the intention to understand rather than to judge,
In full acceptance of whatever may emerge,
Because it is there,
You encourage the deep to come to the surface
And enrich your life and Consciousness
With its captive energies.
This is the great work of Awareness.
It removes obstacles and releases energies
By understanding the Nature of life and Mind.
Intelligence is the door to Freedom,
And alert attention is the Mother of intelligence

- Nisargadatta Maharaj

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Two down, one to go

The cousins, and the cousin-to-be...

Who is Kgalema Motlanthe?

An acquaintance recently broke up with the guy she's been dating. The reason? He didn't know that South Africa had a new president. Now, you could hardly blame the guy if he hadn't heard of Kgalema Motlanthe before he was suddenly president. I mean, Motlanthe was the VP, but let's face it, he was not exactly high-profile. (Which is not altogether a bad thing, considering that high-profile South African politicians tend to be in the news when they're up on rape or corruption charges). But I see the girl's point. You want to be able to have a conversation in public with your man, and know he's not going to expose himself as utterly oblivious.

Still, I have to admit, I'm amongst the many that had never heard of our new president before he was, uh, our new president. So I asked one of my more plugged-in friends, who is this guy, where does he come from? And she sent me an article, appropriately titled "Who is Kgalema Motlanthe?".

The article tells you a fair bit about Motlanthe. But it tells you far more about the state of South African political journalism.

It starts with about seven paragraphs of dry biographical detail, and an outline of Motlanthe's history in the anti-apartheid struggle. We read about his surprise when he first met white people that washed their own dishes and did social work, and about the cameraderie he experienced during his years on Robben Island. In other words, this bit is code for - this guy was involved in the struggle. Fair enough, but isn't his stance on, say, HIV and Aids more relevant? Only about sixteen (yes SIXTEEN) paragraphs later (and how many people read past the first two, I have to wonder?) we start to encounter a few shreds of Motlanthe's peculiar vision.

For example, he expresses admiration for a book on the Broederbond, entitled Super Afrikaners. He is quoted as saying:

one can't help but admire their determination because they were exactly more or less in the same situation that we find ourselves in today..." [They knew] "what political power means, and how it must be utilised to advance the cause of the Afrikaner. They were very meticulous, they understood that they were now in power and that these levers of power must be utilised to advance their cause.

A somewhat disturbing view, I think, for someone now in the driver's seat of our country. Nearly as disturbing as this (also from the same article):
In early May 1998 Motlanthe told the Sunday Times that the ANC wanted to review the constitutionally protected independence of various institutions - if it won a two-thirds majority in the 1999 election - so that it could govern "unfettered by constraints". This initiative stemmed, apparently, from growing frustration within the ANC that "it has been unable to grasp the key levers of power."
Among the institutions the ANC wanted to review, the article stated, "are the Judicial Service Commission, which advises the President on the appointment of judges, the auditor general, the attorney general and the Reserve Bank." Motlanthe was quoted as saying, "you need people in these positions who buy into the value of the new nation."
These are not the noises of someone committed to the cause of a free and healthy democracy. They are also not the noises of someone committed to safeguarding against the dangers of corruption and eventual dictatorship that have threatened other African democracies. But what does the journalist do next? Scratch at the surface of these worrying quotes? No, he goes onto ... more biographical detail.

Several paragraphs further on, we learn that Motlanthe is firmly in Mbeki's AIDS-denialist boat, and also explicitly supported, until only a few years ago, Zanu-PF's reign in Zimbabwe:
In an interview with O'Malley in September 2004 he stated that in "our analysis" the MDC was in essence "not a political party, it was a protest vote." He criticised the EU and the British whose interest, he said, "was to exert pressure so that they can see a regime change" in Zimbabwe. The ANC's fear, he continued, was that if the West was allowed to get away with this across the Limpopo, very soon they would be trying the same thing in South Africa.
In a country where you have to agree with the reigning leader in order to avoid being stamped as a traitor, perhaps it's unsurprising that Motlanthe has backed up Mbeki's peculiar views up til now. Certainly, in the South African press, whenever someone expresses a view at odds with the party line, they get squeals of racism in protest. But I find it annoyingly difficult to learn anything about South African politicians and their views when our journalists present them in such insistently fuzzy light. Is it just incompetence? Or is there a fear at play: do South African journalists (or, for that matter, politicians) enjoy the freedom to comment critically on our political leaders? It does not inspire much confidence.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Rob took these great pics this weekend!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Reasons we're glad to be back in Cape Town...

(in no particular order)
1. Sunny days that are getting longer, not shorter.
2. Never having to wait for the 161 or 486 buses. (Or the tube or train.)
3. Unlimited cups of tea with warm and wonderful friends.
4. Shabbat dinners and lazy weekends with family.
5. The whales still calving along the coastline.
6. Friendly petrol pump attendants. (I don't care if it's a throwback to the bad old days - I love having someone else fill the tank for my unliberated nonfeminist self.)
7. My great car.
8. The illuminating Greg.
9. Kolya's little friends: Noah, Max, Kate, Catherine, Sam and Adam.
10. My book club aka baby club girls who didn't replace me (woo hoo).
11. Sushi. Sushi. Sooooooo-sheeeeeeeeeeee :-)
12. Seeing Kolya get to know his adoring grandparents.
13. Letting Kolya's adoring grandparents do plenty of babysitting.
14. Drives to Kalk Bay, Hout Bay, Muizenberg, Noordhoek, Simonstown.
15. Impromptu arrangements on already-busy days.
16. The bagel deli in Sea Point, and Giovanni's, and decent homely Italian restaurants.
17. Open spaces and houses that aren't all crammed on top of each other.
18. Woollies veggies. And Woollies underwear. And those soft chewy gum things. And the chocolate puffy things that blow Maltesers out of the water.
19. My tango partner, who did replace me, but is still prepared to dance with me (woo hoo!!)
20. My climbing partner, who got the fear and a promotion, but still has a rope and ambitions...
21. The Sea Point pool, which is nearly warm enough for morning swims.
22. Real mountains and friends that aren't afraid of climbing (or walking) them.
23. The Woodstock market.
24. Swimming and surfing at Muizenberg.
25. New friends and adventures clamouring to find us.
26. Waking up to the sight and sound of the sea stretching out all around us.
27. Diesel at about 60p per litre.
28. Bumping into old friends and familiar friendly faces wherever we go.
29. Kirstenbosch picnic concerts.
30. Walks along the beachfront between the joggers and the grannies and the rollerbladers.
31. Weekend visits from my lovely extended family.
32. Limnos Bakery.
33. The blazing quality of light you only seem to find in southern Africa.
34. Tons more that springs to mind each day!!

In retrospect, I'm amazed that I survived as long as I did in the UK, starved of so much that makes each day worth waking up for. Each day I'm back, I wonder whether I will ever be able to take Cape Town for granted again.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

We're in print...

For those of you in the UK, Kolya and I are featured in this month's Practical Parenting magazine, on pages 20-21. Hopefully someone will send us a copy!!

Monday, 6 October 2008

Kolya: 5 month pics

Sunday, 5 October 2008

It's not potty training, it's... elimination communication

We were on the plane to Cape Town. Over the engine noise, Kolya started fidgeting. There was a queue three-deep to get to the toilet. No way is this child going to wait that long, I figured. But the signals were hard to ignore. I stood in the queue, baby in arms, wishing that the other passengers wouldn't take so goddamn long. Eventually the little door sign clicked green. We popped into the loo, and I whipped K's nappy off, convinced it would be a complete disaster zone. Nothing there. I held him over the tiny airplane toilet, feeling like a freak. "Chhh chh" I whispered sheepishly. "Just in case you want to go."

And, super-matter-of-fact, 4-month-old child did just that. Did his thing in the aeroplane loo, probably with better aim than most adults on the flight. I tried hard not to feel smug, but the truth is that one of the best parts of being a parent is feeling that you've succeeded in meeting one of your child's needs, especially when he's too young to spell them out to you verbally.

Elimination communication - otherwise known as natural infant hygiene. Big terminology for a fairly basic concept. I first heard about it while I was pregnant, and (like so many of the ideas I read about, and later ended up taking on board) it sounded weeeeeeird (no pun intended). But intriguing.

See, the commonly held western view about babies is that they can't control their pee or poo. Leave them alone and they'll squirt the stuff liberally all over everything. Enter the nappy industry. A baby therefore must be wrapped up for about the first three years of its life in a nice, tightly-fitting absorbent nappy at all (or most) times.

Question is: what about those aeons that passed before nappies were invented and marketed (a mere 200 or so years ago)? And: what about all those children in places where people don't have access to - or can't afford - nappies?

The answer is elimination communication. Except that in the places where it's most commonly practiced, it doesn't have a name at all. It's just what people do.

Turns out that this idea that babies have no bladder or sphincter control - it's something of a myth. They don't have great control, but they do have an awareness about when they need to go. In a nappy-wearing culture, this awareness will be trained out of the child within the first six months. (Then, ironically, about two years later, the parents will embark on the project of trying to re-establish that awareness in order to "potty train" the now nappy-trained child.)

However, in cultures that don't rely quite so heavily on nappies, children are given opportunities to pee or poo when the mother gets the sense they need to go. Usually the mother will hold the child in a position that encourages them to go, generally holding the baby's back against the mother's stomach, with fingers hooked under the knees so that the child is in a deep squat facing away from the mother over an appropriate receptacle (toilet, bowl, potty etc). The mother makes a "pssss psss" sound for a pee and might make the same or different (e.g. grunting) sound for a poo.

So, when Kolya was a day or two old, we tried this - holding over the basin, making the "pssss" noise. Pretty soon, he was taking the cue to pee into the bathroom basin, or into the toilet. For the first couple of months, we wouldn't do it all that often - a few times a day, at nappy change time, or when he seemed particularly restless or fidgety. Because I was the one staying with him most of the time during the day, I was also the one most familiar with his daily rhythms. So I tended to have more regular success with this than his dad (who claimed "yeah, well, economists predicted 11 out of the last 4 recessions" - as in, if you pre-empt enough of them, you'll catch a few).

But here comes the interesting part. At around 4 weeks, Kolya started having nightly crying sessions. You might even call them screaming sessions. They would last anywhere between half an hour and two hours, and they were the dreaded bit of my day. They would usually happen sometime between 7pm and 9pm. We could usually calm him for a while with a bath, but afterwards it would start up again. Long walks in the sling, singing, rocking, feeding - sometimes one or the other would calm him down and lull him off to sleep. Sometimes not. It looked pretty much like the mysterious "baby colic". I have to admit, I don't really believe in colic. Colic seems to be the doctor-name for the phenomenon of "baby crying without known cause". It's a peculiarly Western phenomenon, which does not seem to affect babies in rural or traditional societies. It has something to do with digestive discomfort, but no one really knows what. And no one really knows how to alleviate it, either.

The screaming (colicky?) sessions continue on and off for around three months. It doesn't seem to make much difference what sort of a day we've had - whether it's been hot or cold, whether we've been out and about or stayed home, whether he's eaten or slept much or little. Some days are screamier than others. We count ourselves lucky that it's only for an hour or so a day, and we get on with the business of taking care of baby.

Until, at around 4 months, I decide, what the hell, I'm going to give this EC thing a bit more of a concerted bash. After all, I'm alone at home with Kolya most of the time. I should be able to leave him without a nappy for at least a few hours a day. I subscribe to an online mailing list that offers support for parents who are "doing EC". I chat to a couple of other mothers I know who are doing it. I buy a little potty. I ignore Nikolai's looks of skepticism when I'm holding Kolya over the potty for the third time in half an hour.

The change is phenomenal. Within a few days, we're getting 9 out of 10 poos in the bathroom, instead of in the nappies. (For a family using exclusively cloth nappies, this is a massive bonus - it's never all that charming sticking loads of shit into your washing machine.) Kolya also starts signalling more clearly when he needs to pee - he'll get a bit fidgety, or whimper a few times. We don't have anywhere near a 100% hit rate, but he's getting loads of time out of nappies, which is better for his skin, better for the environment (fewer nappies to wash), and great for our communication. And - weird but true - the screaming sessions at night just stopped.

I kid you not. I don't have the research to back this up - I have nothing but my own experience and a comment I read by a doctor who said that she suspects that colic might be nothing more (or less) than babies reacting with upsetment to their unmet elimination needs. Dunno. But happy, clean, chilled-out baby makes it thoroughly worth all the effort involved in holding him over loos (and potties and flowerpots and airport basins) - and worth withstanding all the funny looks from other parents.

For more info and support about trying EC, there are some useful books out - I got Christine Gross-Loh's The Diaper-Free Baby, which was hugely helpful. Also, there's a mailing list on yahoo called eliminationcommunication.

The eliminationcommunication group has tons of useful resources, including a list of reasons to EC. Here are a few:

  • Health reasons - less irritation for child's skin by keeping urine and excrement off body, so less chance of nappy rash; children learn how to urinate on cue (is not only convenient, but can prevent healthy problems due to holding urine or bowels)
  • Attachment parenting - encourages the development of a trusting relationship with children through communication about a basic human need; it's more comfortable to carry a baby not wrapped in a big nappy; fosters greater security in a baby - "Mummy and Daddy listen to what I am saying and respond when I need to go."
  • Environmental reasons - reduces the use of disposible nappies, a major contributor to landfill; reduces the use of water and detergents used to wash cloth nappies; reduces the use of disposible wipes used to clean baby's bottom
  • Fun - pottying is more fun than changing diapers; teaches parents how to trust their intutions; baby bottoms are only tiny for a short time; why cover up the cuteness?
  • Common sense - conventional toilet training starts with learning to "hold it" while EC starts with learning to "let go" - this can make a big difference on a baby's perception of elimination and and of life in general; contrary to the promises in advertisements, diapers don't keep the baby clean and dry, but only his clothes and environment. Who would want to wear their toilet?

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Apples and honey

So, it's been a dramatic couple of weeks. Nikolai decided that married life was no longer for him, so I decided that London was no longer for me. Which means that Kolya and I get to live in Cape Town with my lovely friends and family, great weather, mountains and oceans and penguins and all sorts of other things. The shock of change is still sinking in, but we're finding our feet. Which meant that, unexpectedly, we were with the family for Rosh Hashanah, and Kolya got to hang out with his little cousin, Adam Chad.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Lesson hard learnt

Beware the man that falls in love with you by betraying someone else. Chances are, he'll do it again, when you're someone else.
Beware the man that betrays you often in your dreams. Chances are, your intuition is more powerful than you know.
Beware the man that tells you too often you're the only one. Chances are, he's trying to convince himself of something.
Beware the man who believes he is always right. Chances are, he will be unable to listen to anyone, including you.
Beware the man that calls you a good girl. Chances are, he inwardly wants a bad one.
Beware the man that wants to cast you as his slut, his whore. Chances are, when you become his madonna, he will adoringly leave you.
Beware the man that has no appreciation for his mother. Chances are, in the fullness of time, he will cast you off.
Beware the man that values reason over compassion. Chances are, when his cold reasoning knocks you down, he will fail to help you back to your feet.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008


To the seven people that offered me and my son a place to stay, thank you.
To the friend that left a manic office and cancelled an entire day of appointments and arrangements to make sure we were not alone, thank you.
To the friends that travelled across London and stayed late into the night to offer quiet fortification, thank you.
To my family that checked on us nearly hourly - even when I couldn't answer all the calls, thank you.
To the attorneys and family lawyers that offered lucid and valuable advice, thank you.
To the lawyer that worked late on a Friday night to make sure my son's passage home would never be threatened, thank you.
To the friend that sacrificed a long-awaited holiday and instead navigated shock and turmoil with equanimity and levity, and patiently reminded me to feed myself and my child, thank you.
To the couple that hosted a tiny, meaningful satsang on my last night in London, thank you.
To the Art of Living teacher that quietly asked before offering her blessing - I don't want to give you blessings that you do not want - thank you.
To the friend that did not hesitate to take responsibility for my car and other practicalities, thank you.
To the Polish guy that sorted out the luggage with half a ton of plastic and a smile, thank you.
To the airline staff that quietly found us a place to lay down in the business class cabin, thank you.
To the acquaintance I barely knew who offered her warm and clear-eyed view to help clarify my own, thank you.
To my parents that never once said We warned you as they closed their arms around me, thank you.
To everyone in Cape Town that has reminded us that we are where we belong, thank you.
To my child for retaining his Buddha laugh, calming and charming, thank you.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Spring solstice

The length of day equals the length of night for only one night. After that, the light will grow and grow again in the south, and up north, days will darken.
Cape Town seas still stormy, but the whales are coming.
I didn't think I'd be back here this fast.
No time to say goodbye to the twisted purple beans at the allotment, weighing down the beanpoles with the heavy growth of two weeks.
No time to start the mum-and-baby salsa classes we signed up for in Blackheath.
Time only to zip two lives into three suitcases and a heap for fast shipping.
Time only for a short sharp shock to the heart and a change of direction.
Time only to keep a baby fed while winding down the vision of a shared home, a shared future, and excising ourselves from a small room of broken promises. It took a year and a half to grow all this, and less than an hour to shatter it. Sweeping away the pieces and preparing to leave was peculiarly simple.
Beware Greeks bearing gifts, said one friend.
Beware the dangerous cocktail of fickleness and conviction, said another.
Eat, said the third.
Look to the next thing, said a child with an unusual gift for clarity.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Allotment August 2008

Frilly lettuce and some beets
Frilly lettuce, with some beets in the background, and several weeds peeking through...

Purple climbing french beans
Purple climbing french beans...

First ever corn!!!
We harvested the first sweetcorn yesterday. YUM!!!

Tomatoes ripening
First few tomatoes are starting to go red..

Hundredweight pumpkin
Hundredweight pumpkin... about 2 weeks after fruit first appeared

Blue pumpkin
Blue pumpkin... a gift from an allotment neighbour that's just started fruiting...

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

The pitfalls of self-obsessed parenting

For some reasons, parenting is the domain of horror stories. If you survive the pain of childbirth, the mythology goes, followed by the agony of constant sleep deprivation and the tedium of endless crying and peeing and pooing, what lies ahead is several years of monosyllabic conversation and unfettered expense. I have a friend, in fact, who declares that when her friends give birth, she refuses to see them for at least the next four years, as they are so unbearable to be around.

I recall once, when I was in my mid-20's, seeing a cluster of new mothers gathered and exchanging the arcana of motherhood at a braai. My boyfriend at the time attempted to get involved in the conversation. One of them turned to him and snapped: "Do you have kids?" He shook his head. "Then you can't possibly understand," she sighed, turning her back to him.

Determined not to be sucked in by a vortex of sighing and complaining, I set out to find likeminded mums-to-be, the ones that approached their children as fellow adventurers, not as energy-draining pets that required training. And, with gratitude, I discovered that in the universe of childcare, there are alternatives to everything. Just like there are alternatives to hospital birth (see here for the story of my lovely home birth), to prams and buggies (slings and baby carriers), to cots and cradles (co-sleeping and babywearing), there are alternatives to every parenting strategy under the sun. For those who have faith in routine and discipline, there are the Gina Fords of the world; for those of us that believe that you can treat children like humans (and friendly ones at that), there are the Sears books and Alfie Kohn and Jean Liedloff and the like.

A while ago I was around a lovely crowd of of what I'll call alternative parents. The ones that know all those alternatives and embrace them. They're cheerful and relaxed, as friendly to their children as they are to one another. You never hear them yelling "No!" or "Stop that!" We met in a lovely garden in the middle of a big, open park. The idea was to go for a walk, but the skies were filled with heavy clouds. Two three-year-olds ran around happily yelling at each other as they got themselves full of mud and rain. The mums found some shelter under an arbour at the edge of the garden. It all seemed idyllic. Well, except that I was a bit cold and wet, and a little anxious that Kolya was getting cold and wet. No one else seemed anxious in the least: it was as if their babies played delightedly in the rain every day. I had to suppress the urge to make a beeline back to the warm, dry car.

It was encouraging and reassuring to be around women that recognised the resilience of their children. Children don't melt in the rain, and there's a lot to be said for spending the afternoon tromping around in a muddy garden.

But something jarred, and badly. After about half an hour, I realised that these parents talk about little else besides... parenting. Don't get me wrong, it's a big and worthy topic. But not the only one, surely. The conversation was peppered with little morsels of code: "It's very CC"; "Oh, we're EC-ing"; "Yes, she's another carrier"; "I mean, you're aiming for NVC, but it's not always possible". After a while I was gasping inwardly for someone to mention, like, anything... be it the credit crisis or Revlon's latest nail polish colours... anything besides all this parenting jargon.

It reminded me of when I was 15, and used to make sure that in any conversation I mentioned that I was Vegetarian. God, did I ever want everyone to know. Later, when veggie food was simply part of the normal run of things in my life, I wished that I DIDN'T have to discuss or explain it every time I met someone new.

I'm proud of my parenting choices (so far so good, anyway), and I will happily discuss them and consider them at length. But justifying oneself over and over again is oh-so-tiring. The next T-shirt I get printed will say DON'T TRY SO HARD.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Allotment July 2008

Four months on, and it's all looking wonderful. Nikolai built me a shed, which you can see on the left of this photo:
Leafy greens (spinach, lettuce) in the foreground, potatoes behind them:
The corn is nearly as tall as me now, and it has tassels where the corn is forming:

We've been harvesting potatoes and onions. This was the very first potato plant we dug up, an early variety called Robinta. You plant one potato, you get 14 out!! Next year, I'm going to try Maris Piper and Pentland Javelin potatoes. The Robintas are the earlies - we still have lots of Desiree and Homeguard varieties waiting to be dug up later this month.
Onions looking healthy:
You pick them when the leaves are all yellow and fallen over, which is about now. Next year I'm planting hundreds of onions!!

These are the runner beans and purple climbing french beans (foreground):

I built this stick support for some borlotti beans. A bit of an experiment, as I planted them quite late in the season. On the right hand side are two crown pumpkin plants. The idea is that they'll creep along the ground and suppress the weeds around the beans. Let's see...

And there are tomatoes:

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Why I love Freecycle

I thought I had discovered the cleverest thing when a friend told me to "go find it on freecycle", and I did. But, of course, the cleverest thing had already been discovered by everyone else, which was exactly why it worked so well.

For those that have no idea what I'm talking about, go to It doesn't take long to figure out. This is from the front page of their website:

The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 4,543 groups with 5,477,000 members across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It's all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them's good people). Membership is free. To sign up, find your community by entering it into the search box above or by clicking on “Browse Groups” above the search box. Have fun!

The more I've used it, the more pleasing I've found it. Here's why:

1. Freecycle provides the vicarious thrill of seeing what other people throw out and pick up.
2. Freecycle satisfies your acquisitional consumerist urge AND your urge to be a green eco-bunny at the same time.
3. Freecycle gives you the opportunity to feel generous and helpful and to make others feel happy and appreciative, for absolutely no cost to anyone.
4. You can get some really cool stuff.

Happy freecycling!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Right speech

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about." - Oscar Wilde

"Be careful of the words you say, keep them short and sweet. You never know from day to day which ones you'll have to eat." - Anonymous

I remember, when I was about 13 or 14, spending a lot of time wondering and speculating about what my schoolmates thought of me. Perhaps it was just the average self-consciousness of being a teenager. Perhaps I was more self-absorbed than most. The flip side was that I also spent ages scrawling into my diary long, convoluted analyses of what I thought about everyone else. Judgement. If there's anything that defines adolescence, it's an obsession with personal judgement.

Thankfully, although the nasty corridor of adolescence seems endless at the time, we do eventually leave it behind us. Well, one hopes. And hopefully, along the way, someone teaches us some more fruitful ways of handling personal judgement. I developed a personal checklist to use as armour against the fruitless urge to submit myself to others for judgement, or to stand in judgement over them.

1. Screw what other people think. Stay true to yourself and let the rest follow. Whatever you are, whatever you do, you'll always elicit someone's disapproval. Trying to defend yourself is a pointless pursuit; smile at their disapproval. They can keep it if they wish.
2. There are only two kinds of criticism. The criticism you can learn from and the criticism that doesn't help. There's no point fighting criticism. Listen to it. If it's the first kind, you can be grateful for it for teaching you something. If it's the second kind, you can be grateful for the opportunity to smile and practice your personal strength.
3. As for your own judgements of others, there is a fine calm to be reached in recognising them clearly before reacting to the impulse to share them. The more carefully you recognise and listen to your judgements, the more you will realise how fleeting they are, how little there is to be gained by sharing them.

Of course, then I knew nothing of the Buddha. Now I wouldn't call myself a practising Buddhist, but I do draw inspiration and instruction from several teachings of Buddhism, simply because they make sense to me. Between these and the principles I have learned from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living course, I have repeatedly found a rich reserve of wise teachings that have helped me weather many personal storms.

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. Right speech is defined in Buddhist texts as: "abstaining from lying, from divisive speech, from abusive speech, & from idle chatter: This is called right speech." The Buddhists are not the only ones that define right speech negatively, or according to the kind of speech that should be avoided. Similar doctrines are echoed in Jewish teaching, which forbids "Lashon hara" (literally, "evil tongue" or "evil language"). Islam likens talking about others ("backbiting") to eating the flesh of the dead, who cannot defend themselves. Buddhist teaching does, however, go into detail about what right speech is, not just what it isn't.

Right speech is spoken:
- at the right time
- in truth
- affectionately
- beneficially
- with a mind of good will.

"One should speak only that word by which one would not torment oneself nor harm others. That word is indeed well spoken.

"One should speak only pleasant words, words which are acceptable (to others). What one speaks without bringing evils to others is pleasant."

It's worth noting that Buddhist teachers define "pleasant" as "not bringing evils to others", not as simply charming or easy. The teaching is not, therefore inviting us to speak euphemistically or in flattery. Rather it is only worth speaking when the words are not going to bring damage, torment or harm.

Whilst the dark days of adolescence are long gone, the daily challenge to approach right speech is never far away. It is a constant practice, only ever to be approached.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Everything's growing!

Granny Anita takes time out from admiring her new grandchild, and gets weeding the onions...



Lettuce and spinach:


Broad beans:

And Kolya (with tired mummy just back from allotment):

Monday, 5 May 2008

Friday's child

Kolya Nathaniel Segura, born 10.53 am on Friday 2 May.

It was about the most tranquil, peaceful birth we could ever have imagined. My waters broke on Thursday morning, followed with a few intermittent light contractions. On Friday morning I woke up around 4.30 am with more pronounced, regular contractions. An hour later we called Paula (the doula who would assist with the birth) and midwife. Nik started filling up the birth pool (which we'd inflated a few days earlier).

At first, we were watching election results on TV, but quite soon, the labour pains had me needing to shut out everything except a quiet, single-minded focus on getting through each one. It took me straight back to the experience of my long-distance swims: simply taking one breath at a time, keeping everything very immediate. Besides some quiet background music, the room was almost entirely quiet.

The warm water was amazingly soothing as the contractions became more intense. Paula and Nikolai talked me through each contraction - focusing on breathing and visualising the cervix gradually opening and the baby making his way out. The midwives arrived by about 8.40 am - they persuaded me to get out of the pool long enough for a quick internal exam. They didn't really intervene much more than that though, besides to say that I was 8 cm dilated. I was surprised: after all the birth stories I'd heard, I was still gearing myself up for hours and hours more labouring.

By about 10.30 or so, Kolya's head started appearing, and he slowly eased himself into the world. He took his time: we spent about ten minutes with him underwater waiting for the last contraction to push his body out. Then I lay in the water with him on my chest, Nikolai splashing warm water over him to keep him warm, my fingers full of the rich waxy vernix from his skin.

Huge gratitude to the Meadowside midwives, my lovely doula Paula and, most of all, my ever-astonishing and marvelous Nikolai. And of course to Kolya for making it out with such grace. L x x