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?