Pam’s baby washing solution

My favourite kind of baby bathtime is the kind where I get to bath with the baby. But since Molly started exploring other foods, she ends up creatively adorned with avo, mango, lambchop or broccoli… whatever’s on offer. We pretty much have to wipe or rinse her down after each meal. Bathing together gets a bit impractical.  Pam came up with this clever solution:

image

Tiny bit of water, toys to play with, baby on tummy.  This would never have worked for Kolya as he wasn’t a fan of lying on his tummy and would’ve face-planted into the water disastrously. But Molly loves lying on her tummy, head up. Happiness!

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Play without agenda

The last two weeks have blown apart a lot of my preconceptions about parenting and education. One of them: The Importance of Educational Activities. You know what? I have learned something big. Kids need to Just Play. A lot, and what they want – not what you think they need – to play. Just play, not complete educational tasks dressed up as games, not “skill up” through teaching apparatus dressed up as toys. Just play.

I loved Peter Gray’s article, Children are suffering a severe deficit of play. To quote Gray, an evolutionary biologist who has made a study of the way humans (and other animals) have evolved to learn:

“Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities.Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.”

Having just read Gray’s book, ‘Free to Learn’, I’ve just become more familiar with this idea. The tough part is that we are not limiting play to the idyllic outdoor play. Kids  love playing outdoors as much as anything, but play also takes place around technology. I absolutely loved Penelope Trunk’s blog post on Why Limiting Video Games is Delusional. It made total sense to me. That said, it also scared me a bit. The prospect of unlimiting my child’s “screen time” (previously rationed out in 45-minute slots) filled me with slight nausea. What if the addictive juggernaut of video games and iPad and Playstation just caught him in its grip and never let go?

From conversations a friend who has done just this (unlimited video games) and from other accounts I read, the pattern seems to be: at first, the kid OD’s on screen time, until they realise it really is an unlimited resource. Then he will settle down. He’ll still play and watch a lot, but more driven out of their own interest in particular games, fields of interest, or the desire to explore something. In their own way.

Oh, Kolya’s face when I told him the screen time would be unlimited. He still hasn’t stopped checking with me to make sure there isn’t a catch. “Mom, can I have scr… – ” and he stops, to check I’m not going to say no. (And I have to breathe deep and keep trusting myself and my beliefs in order to say yes – because it’s not all that easy watching your kid leap into a screen world again, when it’s something that doesn’t appeal to you at all, which video games don’t. Although I have to admit that “limiting screen time” seems pretty idiotic and hypocritical from someone who can spend eight hours a day at a computer.) That said, there are some rules: he does have to switch off if we have other commitments to get to, or if there are other kids round and he’s playing stuff that’s not easy to share, or if they’re not interested in playing (or their parents don’t allow it).

The challenge, though, is finding games that are actually pitched at a level that is complex enough and fun enough to be interesting for him, whilst not so complex as to go over his head. Nearly-six is a tricky age when you can’t read yet, so we’re having to find games that aren’t reliant on fluent reading skills. I found that searches for apps turn up irritatingly education-obsessed reviews. Thankfully, some sites have reviews for kids BY kids, which is a better indicator of what’s actually enjoyable – not just “recommended”.

This is still a rocky road for me – I still catch myself making feeling irritable or disappointed when K has actually spent hours at a computer and still wants to switch to yet another screen. I have to catch myself not going back on this newly-instituted freedom before he’s had the chance to exercise it and genuinely find his own limits and interests within it.
I also loved this article I came across today: Cracking the ice cream maker whip. It’s exactly the point. Take away the patronising notion that kids need to be tricked into learning. They don’t. Take away the heavy judgment that if an activity doesn’t have an immediate goal or outcome, it’s worthless. There is much value in play. Enjoying yourself, being present and absorbed in something just because you like it – that is something that needs cultivating. All the rest will follow.

 

(This blog post is reproduced from my blog UnschoolZA.)

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Read this book.

Unsurprising admission: School didn’t do it for me.

I didn’t enjoy school. Every single day of it, walking into the gates felt like walking into a prison of sorts, and every single day, walking out felt like a return to freedom. The freedom was somewhat tainted by an associated burden: the burden of creating the impression that everything was fine at school, that I was happy, that I had friends, that I was OK.

Unlike some kids, academically I found school easy. Too easy. Most of it was unbelievably boring. I sat through classes with a kind of neverending anticipation: would today be the day that a teacher brought something new and fascinating for us to ponder? Would today be the day something would actually happen? Would today bring some sort of opportunity to break out – someone from overseas, who would fly you to a new, different, exciting place, somewhere you could actually discover some sort of talent or passion and pursue it, grapple with it, get your teeth into it and wrestle with it? I must have had a very persistent sense of optimism, because day in, day out, week after week, year after year, nothing much came up to break the tedium.

So instead of learning to challenge myself, I learned to game the system. I learned to get 90% on my essays, by presenting offbeat views in the format I knew the teachers wanted. I learned that every question has a “model answer” and it’s the job of the student to anticipate what the teacher wants to hear, and feed it back in just the right form, peppered with just enough of a personal angle to get extra points for “originality” without so much of a personal angle that you lose points for straying from “the point”. (To be fair, I didn’t always get that right.)

When I was seven, a drama teacher brought her little charges, dressed in furry rabbit suits, to perform their staged adaptation of Peter Rabbit. I was outraged. Why wasn’t I in a rabbit suit? Why wasn’t I on that stage? I promptly demanded to go to these drama lessons and beyond. There again, however, the anticipation seldom matched what actually happened in the lessons. Diphthongs and tripthongs, enunciation and projection; Reading With Expression; and learning “age-appropriate” bits of poetry and prose off by heart. It was all about Being Good. If you were Good, you’d get higher marks for the Eistedfodd or exam. You’d get honours (Good) or distinction (Better) or merit (devastating). If you were the best, you got the highest number from the adjudicator, and (possibly) a cup.

That was what you had to look forward to outside of school. On the inside,  I learned that the most interesting thing on offer was maths, so I got good at maths. I learned the most freedom-infused thing on offer was art, so I immersed myself in art.

There was the three-month trip to Israel, where I learned and enjoyed more than in the entire rest of my school career put together. There was a single weekend away where I learned about mountain plants, and learned to mentor younger kids, again, an experience that eclipsed about three years of schooling that went before it, and about three after.

There were two or three school plays, that taught me the heady, crazy feeling of being involved on a project that consumes you night and day and demands that everything else gets juggled and shifted around, that involves an immovable Opening Night and the politics of a massive extended family of cast, and all their personal dramas, and the thrill of working closely with other people and singing and dancing and playing together.

High marks weren’t difficult to attain. Nor was adult approval. I wasn’t particularly aware of seeking it out, but I was a voracious reader. Adults dish out approval to kids that are Good Readers. Readers also develop a strong command of language, a decent vocabulary and a feel for logic and narrative. That makes it easier to talk to adults. But in most of the books I read, I noticed that kids had friends – real, full-on, confide-in-you, share-your-dreams, adventure-with-you, get-into-trouble-with-you friends. In real life, I found, friends were the people that went to ballet or drama classes with you, that frequently seemed either irritated or irritating, secretive, teasy or just plain difficult to understand. In my fantasy childhood, there would have been a band us who would have dreamed up crazy plans, gotten lost together, explored wild places together, built things, invented things. In my actual childhood, there was simply nowhere that could happen. We were stuck at school, and then we were stuck in the safe, sanguine, insulated suburbs. We were stuck in routine, in uniform and uniformity, in the confines of a spectacularly dull curriculum. So there we were. It was a long, dull and somewhat lonely walk to matric.

Last week, I read an unexpected book: Free to Learn, by Peter Gray. I’d been chatting to a friend about unschooling, and she recommended it. Gray’s perspective on education is wildly refreshing. His critique of American schools struck every chord of my recollections about school, and his portrayal of the alternatives struck every chord of my wishes and desires about what school could only be – if we could let it. How much more children would learn with a sense of freedom and self-direction and openness to possibility. Amazingly, it is backed up by a lot of solid data and research, which I’d never seen before. It’s not the vision of a fringe lunatic. It’s a studied vision, backed up with solid research, not just anecdotes and wishful thinking. Studies have actually proven that observation and grading interferes with the development of skills. Repeated experiments and research have shown that incentives (such as marks and certificates) annihilate creativity. That given the space and time and resources, kids actually learn more and better from each other than they do from teachers. It’s astounding, revolutionary stuff. It left me feeling that everything I thought I knew about education was, basically, an error. Teaching is a misnomer. Learning does not require teaching. It may require some assistance and guidance. But not teaching as we know it. You’ve got kids? Read this book. You’re a teacher? Read this book. You have any interest in education? Read this book.  Just – read this book.

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Crunchy stuff: EC round 2

My husband teases me about being a bit of a crunchy mom. Crunchy as in granola. Natural home birth mom, breastfeeding mom, babywearing mom, co-sleeping mom, attachment parenting mom, cloth nappies mom. I’m a walking stereotype, really. Anyway, right up there with all the crunchy stuff is a little-known practice called EC. I wrote about it back in 2008 when I did it with Kolya. Thought I’d revisit the topic in honour of Molly-Rose, who’s made it a walk in the park.

EC is shorthand for elimination communication, which is a stupidly long name for a very simple thing. I met a British childminder recently, a woman in her 60s, who listened to me talking about it and declared, ‘Oh yes, they showed us how to do that back when I was doing my nanny course. They called it holding out – because you hold the baby over the potty or loo.’

Which is exactly what you do: hold them over the potty or the loo. Once a twice a day. Or when you think they might need to go. It’s easy to figure out: every baby has their own rhythms (typically they’ll need to go when they wake up, either just before or during or after feeding). And each baby has her own signals, too.

People make a bit of a fuss about EC. I don’t really see the fuss. The way I see it, it’s part of a continuum of related needs: hunger, wind, the need to eliminate. Each of these works on a negative feedback system – hunger escalates; as it does, the signals escalate (fidgetiness, grumbling, eventually crying) until the need is satiated. Then the signals subside. Drinking often entails taking in gulps of air, which can result in trapped bubbles causing discomfort (wind). Again, the pain will cause your baby to signal in a variety of ways – from gestures like waving her arms and legs about, to wriggling and squirming, to grunting, grumbling and crying. Toilet needs and gas are both elimination needs – a basic need to respond to an increasing sense of physical discomfort from something that’s in the body, that needs to be expelled. As I discussed in my previous blog post on the topic, I reckon that if more people put their kids on the potty, we’d have less mysterious “colic” and happier small people.

The toughest bit about EC isn’t the effort of doing it. The toughest bit is having to explain it to people that have never heard of it, and learning to bite your lip when people behave like you’re some sort of nutty tribal warrior. Truth is, it’s extremely simple (all you need is a nearby loo, or a potty, or even a designated old plastic container), extremely obvious (as you learn to notice when your kid needs the loo, it becomes second nature to open up her nappy and put her on the potty or loo) and extremely satisfying (to listen to and watch your child in such a way that you can respond to her needs in a respectful way.

 

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A departure

So the last time I wrote anything here was about the birth of our little girl. An arrival, so sweet. So it’s fairly obvious why I haven’t posted again in a while. There have been many a fine Mental Blog Post, but none that actually made it past the 3am feed. Til now. This time, a departure.

It’s a funny thing about a name. Some names accrue the qualities of the people you’ve met with that name. Some names turn sweet or mean or soft or macho, according to who you’ve known with that name. I could give a number of examples. But for this piece, I’ve been thinking about the name Robert.

There are an abundance of Roberts in my life. One of my favourite photographs from our wedding has no fewer than three: my close-family Robs (my dazzling brother and my utterly lovely brother-in-law) and my longstanding friend Rob (who also officiated, wonderfully, our wedding ceremony). There are also the distant Robs: the older brothers of kids I was at school with; and a million years ago when I was a student there one in checked pants from somewhere in England, who declared (to my great alarm) his infatuation after half a bottle of red wine somewhere near the Spanish Steps in Rome. And from all the Roberts I’ve met, the name has accrued a singular quality: that of frankness. I’ve almost never met a Robert that didn’t look you in the eye and speak with sincerity. Some with a more brutal honesty; others with a gentler touch, but for me, the name has become a signifier of something very straight, very direct.

A few years ago, when I started working in publishing, I  became acquainted with another Rob – Robert Hichens, an artist who lived in Muizenberg. Robert had piercing ice-blue eyes and fierce eyebrows and a crazy goatee, and he was hilarious, one of the most shoot-from-the-hip guys you’d meet.

Karen and I would regularly phone Rob up and give him impossibly overloaded briefs for impossibly tight deadlines. He would draw and draw and draw until our books were filled with his crisp bright pictures. Sometimes, when a deadline finished, we’d get together with Rob and his wife Jo for a celebratory supper. Ten years ago, when I got back from the Orange River, we all had dinner together. Rob and Jo were there with their three children – tiny Alistair, still a toddler, and the two girls, 9 and 11, at the sweet, bookish end of childhood, almost on the cusp of becoming teenagers. They looked at my crazy swimming pictures, and we talked seas and rivers. The last time we had dinner together, we talked children – the challenges of toddlers and teenagers.

About a week ago, Karen phoned with this news. Robert Hichens died. He had woken up in the morning complaining of chest pains. Jo drove him to Constantiaberg hospital. 45 minutes later, he was gone. The news sent me reeling. I could not stop thinking of Jo, of the children. Many people I know have faced deaths of loved ones lately – but the recurrent theme has been terminal illness. Death as a gradual tapering, death mingled with the bittersweet pain of conscious goodbyes. Death as relief from pain. Death as release from illness. Here, for the first time, I was confronted with death at its most unexpected and bewildering, death in the middle of life, with no warning, no explanation.

The truth is, I barely knew Robert and his family, and yet I felt I had a strong sense of them. Every time we spoke on the phone, usually work-related conversations, Robert and I would update each other with stories of our children. He told me about his amazing trip to Greece, where he spent several months with his wife and kids and the grandparents; about his dream to move to Greece; about his daughter’s debating achievements; about jamming and singing together with his kids and how it was one of the best times of his life. We commiserated about some of the challenges of freelancing. We shared our disbelief when one of his invoices to our UK publisher was paid in Indian rupees instead of rands. (You can check out the rand to rupee exchange rate to see why this was not something to celebrate.)

Last night, I went to a memorial celebration for Robert’s life. I had no idea what the protocols are for a memorial, but I pulled on my brightest lemon-yellow dress, bundled Molly into the car and drove to Rob’s brother’s house in Tokai where the gathering was taking place. A rambling old house, with extensive lawns in the front, and everywhere you looked, people – clusters of people drinking and chatting on picnic blankets, and under the trees, on the front porch. It was an extraordinary gathering – convivial and warm, sad and yet celebratory. Barefoot and summery, with clusters of teenagers and children and elderly folk, family and not-family and everything in between.

When the formalities began, utterly honest and utterly informal, I loved the way Joanne related curious, painful details of the past few months and days, her anecdotes about their relationship, her profound realisation that death forces us to give up our expectations of what a life is, particularly not how long or short it should be. I loved the way the daughters spoke, arms intertwined, through tears and laughter. I loved the way Louise declared that there are not many teenagers who can honestly say their dad is their best friend. No, there are surely not. I loved the way Jess declared her incredulity at the number of people there and said, ‘Thank you for coming, I won’t tell you what he said about you.’ I loved the way friends and family pieced together a kaleidoscope of memories of a man repeated described as wonderfully grumpy, passionate, brutally honest, talented, and thoroughly devoted to his family. A close friend recalled quotes from “the church of Robert” – gems of lucidity which sparkled through the tears of the children. The most extraordinary moment was Alistair’s karate kata. For what can an 11-year-old boy say in the face of this loss but to bow and kick and howl? Each tiny movement was magnificence, tribute.

Even as a peripheral acquaintance to this family, I felt a sense of privilege at having been present at this tremendously intimate, healing ritual of grief and celebration. And in my little place on the periphery, Rob’s death brought much reflection, and fierce truths driven  in deep. There is no telling how far your ripples travel, where they go, what they do, when you arrive or depart this place. There’s no telling which is the day before you go. There’s no knowing which is the day that will take your beloved and turn him or her into a memory. It’s worth savouring this day, this moment, this kiss. Take care, speak your truth and love well. There is not much else.

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Sunday’s child

Molly-Rose, born 3.10 am on 8 September 2013.

Molly Rose Family Shoot September 2013 - Tiffany Lumley (123 of 147)

Doesn’t seem like only two and half weeks ago that we suddenly said hello to our feisty little girl. She was born peacefully at home, in a birth pool, with the amazing, calm support team of four: midwife and doula, and Molly-Rose’s granny and dad. We’re smitten.

(The lovely photos were taken a few days later.)Molly Rose Family Shoot September 2013 - Tiffany Lumley (138 of 147)

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Diary of a pregnancy – part III

1. The biggest birthday ever

Yesterday it was my birthday (as Paul Simon said in that nice song). I must admit, it nearly slipped my mind til I was checking the slightly addictive pregnancy timeline at http://www.pregnology.com (for the “How many sleeps?” voice in your head) and realised that September comes just after August. So, in some ways, a very low-key little birthday. And in others, the biggest one ever.

See, I’ve officially gone from that point where people can safely assume I’m pregnant (not just a little heavier than normal) to the point where they can safely openly ridicule my resemblance to a manatee/”the Good Ship Lollipop” (verbatim quote from close friend).

Top exclamations so far:

“Are you sure there aren’t twins in there?”

“Oh my god, house incoming!”

“Go whale go!” (granted,that was my 5-year-old trying to get me to give him whale rides on my back in the pool)

“Wow, I didn’t realise til you stood up how enormous your tummy is!”

“Wow, you’ve grown.”

“Jeez, looking at you makes me remember how large and uncomfortable I was with my second pregnancy.”

(to put in perspective: How willing would you be to try out these comments on your friends who are few kilo’s overweight? Just wondering. Let me know if you’re brave enough, and if the friendship survives…)

Hilariously, this one seems more compact than the first pregnancy, to me, but because I was overseas for that one, my friends and family don’t have anything to compare it to. However, am managing to retain my sense of humour about the size commentary. Cos let’s face it, 8 months pregnant is fairly friggin’ large and slow.

2. Have I mentioned how much I love my chiropractor?

From being a complete chiropractic newbie (and fairly suspicious of it as quackery), I have become a chiro evangelist. 20 minutes of readjustment and you feel like you’ve had a four-hour massage and a three-hour nap. And even if you could barely walk when you walked (or hobbled) in, you feel like you could skip out afterwards. If I were a bumper sticker kind of girl, I think my current one might read I ♥ MY CHIRO.

3. Have I mentioned what a moody emotional bitch I’ve been?

You haven’t noticed, you say? That’s very kind. It might be because we haven’t seen each other in several months. I think everyone else is being very diplomatic. Just to let you all know: your patience is appreciated. I’m assuming my personality will return at some point.

4. Interest in cheesecake has returned. Interest in most other food has gone away.

“I’m over eating,” declared another pregnant friend last weekend. “Overeating or over eating?” I asked her. The latter, she said. I know what she means. I know for the baby’s sake I probably should not live on cheese-on-toast and fridge cheesecake for the next month, but it is very tempting. Especially when you’re feeling as slow and slothful as this. As a result, entertaining at our house has largely scaled down to take-aways and bring-something-to-braai. I swear, I’ve even suspended my usual judgments about Woollies chips and dips, and bought pudding. There may come a time when my kitchen adventurousness returns. Um, just not today.

5. It’s never too late to change doctors.

I’m planning a midwife-led birth, which means very little contact with obstetricians. But the backup one I had lined up did a rather astonishing job of not answering questions clearly. After a bit of a quandary around whether to stick with the devil I knew or find someone else, I had the good fortune to be referred to a fabulous doctor who didn’t play the “doctor knows best” card, and actually listened to and engaged with my questions. There’s a lot of relief in feeling like you actually trust your doctor to respect both your choices and your need to have clear information. As opposed to trying to convince yourself that you trust them because you feel you have to.

6. Kolya has asserted the rules.

In a recent chat about The Baby Sister, I asked Kolya: “So, when the baby comes, what do you think is the most important thing to remember?” His reply: “Not to stand on the baby.” I must admit, I’d asked the question without any particular answer in mind, but it struck me as a pretty good rule.

7. There’s actually somebody in there.

Now that it’s a matter of weeks, rather than a matter of months, before the impending new arrival, I’m getting terribly excited to meet her, and find out who she is, and what she’s like. Because the next birthday in the family is the one for someone who’s never had one before. Counting sleeps :-)

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Diary of a pregnancy – part II

June. 27 ish weeks. We have a month to move out of our house. Dave reckons I’m insane to insist on packing this early, but I’m adamant to take a tortoise-like approach to the matter of moving. It’s an exercise in enfuriating patience; I can pack a box of books, but not lift it, and I have to restrain myself from the temptation to totter at the top of stepladders.

We finish our so-called Hypnobirthing class. It feels bizarre to me that there’s such a heavily branded and marketed version of birth activism, of all things. So despite appreciating the information and the techniques, I can’t help bristling a little at the brandedness. I return to the writings of Ina May Gaskin, whose wisdom and vision seems to me far more authentic, inclusive far-reaching than that of the Hypnobirthing programme. Nonetheless, perhaps the important thing is that the acceptance and confidence to give birth naturally and in a non-medicalised environment is becoming available here. The first woman from our class gives birth easily and naturally, at home, and I’m gladdened to know that natural home births are gradually becoming a tiny bit more commonplace in this corner of the world.

The baby is moving around and kicking a lot. It feels like she’s doing somersaults in there some days – the kicking is all over the place. I can watch my belly like a cartoon in the bath.

June. 28ish weeks. On a whim, I decide to go visit a friend in London. Long-distance travel on the brink of heavily pregnant, and in the middle of a house move, is possibly not one of my best ideas yet. I look forward to a bit of London summer. That, too, is a non-starter.
London is colder than Cape Town. I seem to have forgotten that striding the streets of the Big Smoke in the third trimester is going to be somewhat taxing. Nonetheless, it’s a trip and a trip is always an adventure of sorts.

I spend mornings playing with four-year-old Leo and six-month-old Tommy. I’ve never seen anyone as interested in melon. I also can’t believe how small a six-month-old baby is. No idea how teeny a newborn is going to seem, when I’m used to picking up 20kg of 5-year-old in the middle of the night.

I soak up some West End London theatre, and walk miles and miles. I find some teeny weeny little girl clothes, mostly not in pink, and pack them carefully in my otherwise almost empty suitcase. It’s impossible to shop for myself as I’m expanding by the day. Somehow sushi bars and pubs have never been quite as appealing as when I’m seven months pregnant.

July. 30ish weeks. The trip to London has taken its toll. My hips have gone completely out of alignment – apparently there is a pregnancy hormone that rightly relaxes all the ligaments so the pelvis can move and stretch its way open a bit during the birth. The flip side is that everything tips out of alignment all the time. I walk around in stoic agony for a couple of weeks, til I eventually ask my midwife for advice. She sends me off to a heavenly chiropractor. Life gets bearable again.

I go back to TheatreSports class, and just the very mellow warm-up is enough to make me feel like I’m at boot camp. Pregnancy is a taste of your own mortality: every tiny movement is eventually a dance of creaking joints and ligaments. It’s bizarre to be of childbearing age, and feeling so very old and slow.

Late July. 33ish weeks. All three sisters-in-law have now had their babies – two little boys and one little girl, in the space of the last three months. The extended family has exploded. The Brits are getting hysterical over the imminent royal birth coming up; the South Africans are getting conspiracy-theoryish about the near-/almost-death of Mandela.

Dave takes a couple of days off work and we go visit Robben Island. Last time I went on that trip, the ex-prisoner’s tour and anecdotes were fascinating and deeply moving to me. This time, I was more absorbed by the view of the mountain, the glittering water, and the sudden memory of my own long swim from that island nearly ten years ago. The tour seemed superficial and shallow; with Mandela near death in hospital, mired under sinister clouds of political and family feuds, the tour guide’s patter seemed disconnected from anything real about being South African or living in South Africa. More meaningful was spending a day in the sunshine with husband and child, looking out for the different birds, taking a slow ride and a leisurely, sunny lunch. Life, it seems, is slowing right down.

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Far from the tree

Occasionally it happens: you meet someone, or read someone, or – the Internet being what it is – you click on a link and spend 15 minutes watching something, and a world opens up. You suddenly see or know or understand something that had been entirely invisible only minutes earlier. Even more occasionally it happens that this shift in understanding or perspective is coupled with a deeper movement: a shifting in compassion, in recognition, in empathy.

Recently, I clicked on a link to a talk by Andrew Solomon, on http://www.ted.com. About 20 years ago, Solomon was asked by his editors at the New York Times to write an article about Deaf culture. He knew nothing about the deaf, except that they couldn’t hear. Deafness was, he presumed, an awful disability. Tasked with this assignment, he went out into the world of the Deaf, and met people. He encountered poetry, theatre, sign language – an entire culture, complete with its own subcultures and tensions of identity politics – and a community of people who regard deafness primarily as an identity, rather than an illness.

Solomon noticed a resonance between his experience as a gay man, and the experience of many Deaf people he encountered. Many deaf children – like most gay children – are born to parents who do not share this identity, parents who may regard it as an unwanted or even tragic disability, something to be cured or rectified. Unlike ‘vertical’ identities (the identities we share with our parents’ generation – such as our ethnicity, nationality, language, and so on), our ‘horizontal’ identities are aspects of our identity that we share with a peer group. These are identities that arise when the apple does, indeed, fall a bit far from the tree. In his talk, Solomon says:

“These are identities that are alien to your parents and that you have to discover when you get to see them in peers. And those identities, those horizontal identities, people have almost always tried to cure.
And I wanted to look at what the process is through which people who have those identities come to a good relationship with them. And it seemed to me that there were three levels of acceptance that needed to take place.
There’s self-acceptance, there’s family acceptance, and there’s social acceptance. And they don’t always coincide.”

(Andrew Solomon, in “Love, no matter what”, at http://www.ted.com)

Over a period of about ten years, Solomon researched ten different identity groups, interviewing hundreds of families. And he distilled his research into a book, titled Far from the Tree.

Each chapter deals with a specific identity: deaf, dwarfs, Down’s syndrome; autism; schizophrenia; disability; prodigies; children born of rape; crime; transgender. He immerses himself in the family life, joys and tribulations of the families he meets. He recounts their anecdotes with a consistent and compelling mix of generosity and lucidity, academic analysis and compassion.

The ten researched chapters are framed by an introduction, titled ‘Son’, and a final chapter, titled ‘Father’, in which he tells his own personal story – his personal journey towards accepting his own horizontal identity as a gay man, and his journey even further into the domain of parenthood.

This is a phenomenal, mind-opening, soul-opening sort of a book. You may find – like me – that you’re glued to it from beginning to end, for Solomon’s writing is a skilful blend of mesmerising storytelling and compelling analysis. Or it may be the kind of book you can dip into if you have a specific interest in one or other of the identities/conditions he discusses. Some chapters are tougher reading than others – at seven months pregnant, I found the chapters on multiple disability and children of rape particularly difficult. The chapter on crime was equally difficult, but the narratives of Sue Klebold make utterly unforgettable reading.

There are recurrent themes: identity vs illness; judgment and horror vs love and acceptance; the impact of medical interventions on identity; the risks and vulnerabilities that each group faces. But the strongest recurrent theme of this book, and one that resonated deeply for me, was the universal challenge of parenthood: loving a person that is, essentially, different from you, and in many ways unknowable, and yet irrevocably and forever the beneficiary of your love. Solomon says:

“I thought it was surprising how all of these families had all of these children with all of these problems, problems that they mostly would have done anything to avoid, and that they had all found so much meaning in that experience of parenting. And then I thought, all of us who have children love the children we have, with their flaws. If some glorious angel suddenly descended through my living room ceiling and offered to take away the children I have and give me other, better children — more polite, funnier, nicer, smarter — I would cling to the children I have and pray away that atrocious spectacle. And ultimately I feel that in the same way that we test flame-retardant pajamas in an inferno to ensure they won’t catch fire when our child reaches across the stove, so these stories of families negotiating these extreme differences reflect on the universal experience of parenting, which is always that sometimes you look at your child and you think, where did you come from?”

Go look at the talk. Solomon’s delivery is impeccable – gentle, sincere, funny. When I found myself on a long-distance flight earlier this month, I imagined what fun it would be to be seated next to such a person on the plane. As it happened, the seat next to me was free. And I had the next best thing: his book on my Kindle.

 

See Andrew Solomon’s TED talk here. His book is available on Amazon.com (US site) here or on Amazon.co.uk (UK site) here. I got it downloaded directly to my Kindle. Or you can check out more about this astonishing work at his website.

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Another story

Gloria is a Xhosa woman who comes to our house on Wednesdays to do some extra cleaning and ironing. She’s painfully shy, intensely god-fearing and scarily hard-working. Which means she doesn’t say much, she is sometimes fasting when she comes to work, and by the time she leaves everything is very neat and very shiny. Every now and then she needs to borrow some money for a church trip or a Transkei funeral.

A few months after starting work for us, she disappears. She doesn’t return calls, she simply doesn”t turn up for a couple of months. Pam is agitated because Gloria  borrowed some money from her. We are all worried that something has happened to her, but it’s  also annoying to be in the dark. Meanwhile the washing and ironing piles up, and I’m simultaneously frustrated by the gap in domestic work and concerned that replacing Gloria will cause more drama for her than whatever she is going through at an evidently already-difficult time. This is not helped by my inevitable guilty suspicion that if I were just a bit more energetic and multi-faceted and competent, I’d do all my own washing and ironing, and wouldn’t have to face the heavy disparity between my own privileged concerns and those of the near-destitute Gloria.

Eventually Gloria reappears, with a difficult-to-understand story about going away and losing a cellphone. Later this turns into a story about a hospital and an operation. In a successive telling, it morphs yet again into an awful story about a pregnancy she hadn’t known about, and an abortion. Each story is told in the same unemotional broken English, making it impossible to decode any nuance as to which bits are the real story and which aren’t, or how she feels about any of it, or why there has really been no communication for three months.

Now I feel simultaneously irritated about being lied to and heartsore for a woman who has been through a version of hell. And cynically mistrustful. Is each successive story just a tweaking of a fiction designed to elicit the fewest repercussions for Gloria? After all, the more awful the story, the less one is likely to hold her accountable for her disappearance, her non-communication, her absenteeism. The more likely one is to regard her as a helpless victim of misfortune.

I try to tone down the cynicism, I attempt something of a discussion around the importance of communication and honesty, and with some ambivalence, reinstate Gloria in her weekly cleaning routine.

For several months, Wednesdays are an icy affair in our house, as Gloria and Pam ignore each other in the wake of this debacle. Pam is clearly less persuaded by the story than I am. Eventually, they get over themselves and we settle back into Gloria’s weekly appearances.

Today, Gloria has another awful story.

–My son, she says, broke a house. And he stole that home theatre. So now the community says they will sell my house for one thousand five hundred. If I want to keep my house, I must give that one thousand five hundred by Friday.

–What do you mean? Why are they wanting your house? I ask.

–For my son, she says. For stealing that thing.

–But this is not your son’s house. Taking your house is stealing your thing. What about the police? I ask.

–I go to police, she says. Police says if the community is dealing with this matter, then as long as they are not killing, is not for the police.

–What about your son? I ask.

–He take that thing to sell, she says. To shipping, not to sell here. So that man, he gives five hundred for that home theatre. They must go back Friday for the other one thousand. But when they go back he isn’t there.

–OK, I say. So your community is punishing you? What about your son?

–He didn’t sleep by me two nights, she says. I don’t know. I only have to defend my house.

–And your son? What happened to the money from this thing?

She looks confused. I explain again: he stole something, he sold it – what did he do with the money?

–They use the money. They are using the drugs. They buy the drugs.

–What are these drugs, I ask. Tik?

–It’s that white powder, she says. In a small packet.

–So what will happen to your son? What if he just does this again?

–I don’t know, but they want to take my house.

The conversation goes round in circles for a bit. I find myself angry to be asked to take any part in this fucked-up situation. I find myself angry that these fuck-ups end up feeling like a phishing scam.

I reckon: either the story is true or it’s not true. Either way, she has a need for an amount of money, irrespective of the story behind it. Eventually we come to an arrangement where she will do more work in order to earn more money.

At one level, I really don’t want to know the story. Whether the money is for a bus ticket or a funeral or compensation for a theft that her son committed. Or for a new pair of shoes. In fact, I’m hoping the story is a fabrication. Which is almost easy to believe, given the precedent of fabrications. I’m hoping she’s working the extra days for a new lounge suite or lots of winter clothes for her younger, non-drug-dependent children.

Because if the story is true, there are too many what if’s and what about’s. What about the next time the drug addict son decides to do this? What about the theft which has a value far past anything she’s able to pay back on his behalf? What if the vigilante community has bloodier plans for him anyway? What if she spends the next couple of weeks working off a loan that is buying her absolutely nothing, only for the next terrible true story to come up and catch her in its clutches?

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