Sad story – a poem

It’s a sad story
when it’s all about you
all that we say and all that we do
it’s all about you
and the story you tell
to anyone who
will listen, it’s sad
and it’s all about you

It’s a sad sad story
when nothing you do
all that you said and anyone who
cares – still cares – or once cared – for you
means little or less
because nothing hit home
nothing felt like anything
even when you pretended it did
it was a lie or a joke or a burden or worse
something you tell as your so-special curse

did the drugs help?
did the drugs disconnect?
did they mask or produce what you now elect
to tell as that story
that story you tell
shapeshifts by the day
no one knows what to say
since you said go away
and now it’s ‘good day’
as though nothing happened
because perhaps to you
nothing ever did and nothing ever would
though the change – or idea of it –
seemed like changing for good

so you cast off your friends
and their lifetimes of care
your family’s heart
nought for you there
you tipped up the table
and stormed to the door
then stood without leaving
so full of your lack
too stuck to go forward
too stuck to go back

you said stuff it I’m going; nought for me here
heaviest conscience, heaviest fear
stuff it these burdens, cut me some slack
fly me away please, don’t hold me back

so they gave you their blessing
and bit back their hurt
and watched as you wavered
your trousers and shirt
just as pressed as before
still distressed as before
unimpressed as before
you opened your window
but deadlocked your door

I have watched at the sideline
as the damage accrued
as they rinsed off the plates
and packed up the food
I fought your corner, til I could no more
willed you to leave without trashing the door
I said take it and fly it
I said go to your more
I said we would hold it
even when it got sore

I thought I had something
I thought I could see
that a return from a journey might be stronger and free
but there was no real journey
there was nothing to hold
as their hurt resignation
grew solid and cold

as you spat at the doorway
and kicked at the sand
closed back the window
tightened your hand
til it all got too sad
and it all got too late
I couldn’t persuade them
to stand there and wait
now I wince as I watch them
turn cold at your smile
there are no more openings
they have closed, rank and file

it’s a sad sad story
when it’s all about you
there is little to say
and nothing to do
you wished them away
and now they are gone
though you seem not to notice
this is what you have done.

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There are times in your life you reach a crossroads. You’re forced to stop, consider which way you’re going to go, and it’s one or the other. And the consequences will be, well, even if just for that particular path you’re on, significant.

Or so the grand narratives of lives go. In the everyday, prosaic world of Cape Town city living, where public transport is the choice of only those with no alternative, I find myself at crossroads pretty much several times a day. The one at the corner of Rosmead and Kenilworth. The one at the corner of Doncaster and Racecourse. Liesbeeck and Durban. The succession of intersections as you navigate the traffic out of town.

That moment, stopping at the intersection, slowing down as the traffic turns to a trickle, or stopping to wait for the trickle to start up again, always reminds me of William Kentridge’s scary morphing symbolism in his animations. Was it History of the Main Complaint? – the man in the car, the rain pelting down the windscreen wipers going, going going. The hand at the window, the open palm, the rolling-down of the window, the coin in the hand, the rolling-up of the window. The hand at the window, the gun at the window, the hand at the window, the gun at the window. The suppliant offer, the threatening offer, the charitable offer, the forced hand.

The intersections feel to me like a marketplace, where punters are competing with their unique accoutrements of need, to trigger me into believing I can help. I am Woman In Car, potential source of revenue. Man with Blind Friend, slow and halting; Man With Sign (number of dependants, job loss summary, brief blessings); Woman with Stylish Facepaint, selling Big Issue; Man with Bucket and Squeegee; Man with Photocopies (Funny Stuff); Woman With Baby; Man with Inflated Angry Birds and Pigs (this week); Woman with Plastic Bags on Feet. I cast list them, as I watch them cast list me among the other drivers: Woman Putting on Lipstick in 4×4; Bakkie Driver smoking with Appy; Luxury Sedan guy changing the station; Cellphone Rummager (so many of those); Tightlipped Horizon-Gazer; Car Window Roller-Downer Who will Chat But Not Give; Car Window Roller-Downer who will Give But Not Chat. Who will I be today?

I’m always struck by how inconsistent my feelings are towards the cast of the ongoing street spectacle at the intersections. Some days I feel they are there urging me to Change My Life and become the man in India who stopped acquiring and consuming, and gave over his time to washing the feet of the untouchables. Some days I’m morose with resentment over Nkandla and the Guptas and taxes and corruption. Some days I can smile at the figures at the window. Most days I can ignore the urge to calculate how much following distance I need to leave before the next car, just in case there’s an intersection hijacking at my window.

I no longer pass out cash like I used to, or food like I used to. I no longer believe anything I can offer can help in any significant way. I no longer believe that donations aren’t weighted with disproportionate measures on both sides. This cannot assuage your hunger any more than it can assuage my guilt. Me and you – the face behind the window and the face outside the window; the hand on the wheel and the hand outside the door – we are both entirely, systematically lost.

Some days my thoughts are elsewhere, and I cannot engage – in either thought or even eye contact – with the drama of Need and Lack that swirls around the car like weather, so real, so near, so outside the window. On some terrible days I haven’t noticed the outside presence until someone raps on the window, and the unexpected noise and proximity of a looming gesticulating face has startled me into a shriek. The sound of which has alarmed me as much as the vision of it has alarmed the gesticulator at the window. That’s worst, when the children are in the car. Oh, how we don’t want our children to know that really the world outside your window can be startling scary when you least expect it.

Mostly though, they cast of the intersections are unsurprising, unscary. Some of them are there daily and you get to know their faces. There was the white (weirdly for the 90s) guy in Mowbray, who used to sell mangy-looking crunchie biscuits (dude, did anyone buy those? to actually eat? who baked those for you?) and later mangy-looking jewelry, and sometimes he stared vacant-eyed with nothing to sell and a sign about his wife and children and no job. He was there for 10, 20 years or more, just getting a little more wizened with each year. Someone made a documentary about him, after he died, and I was (why?) surprised by how very different his voice and story were to what I’d ever imagined from those little details. Soon after that I noticed that Woman With Baby (Rosmead/Doncaster/Kenilworth intersection) had turned into Woman with Toddler, and she’s sometimes takes a break from the paper cup and just plays with her child, because let’s face it, there will be more cars the next time the lights change, and everyone needs a break from work sometimes.

The crossroads are not the occasionally reached point, the intersection between opposing directions. They are there every day, and tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. And you, like the rest of the cast, will sleep again tonight and wake again tomorrow and return there.

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The quality of the silences. Or: living the dream, living the nightmare, and unable to speak.

Most of my friends I see or speak to very infrequently. I mean, some of them, you might actually realistically say I almost never see or speak to them – once in three or five years, it might be. Some I may connect with once or twice a year. Some I see in the virtual worlds of gmail chat and WhatsApp several times a day, but weeks or months may pass before we find a time to coincide in the same place. The quality of the silences between those meetings differ.

In most cases, I know and trust that we’re off down the rabbit holes of our respective universes of work, family, and whatever peculiar mix of preoccupations we spend our time on. One friend disappears on long silences in one of two scenarios – a budding relationship, or a spiralling depression. I rely on a weirdly accurate sense of intuition to tell me whether she needs me to leave her to it, or call before things get too dark.

Another friend is a constant presence of dialogue. When things are going well, we marvel and mutually congratulate. When things are dire, we commiserate and rant and listen. There’s something about keeping up with the broad strokes as well as the fine minutiae of another person’s life that gives you permission to explore your life in more detail.

This blog has become, for me, an estranged friend, the one you think you ought to catch up with, but somehow the moment never seems right. It used to be a mirror of my thoughts and obsessions, happy moments and musings, pickles and rants. This is the friend you’ve really lost touch with, the one you can’t really talk about unmentionable stuff with because it’s become… well, unmentionable. And sharing your excitement about the good stuff would be … well, out of place, because they don’t have a clue what’s been going on.

Why does this happen, this self-censorship? In friendships, I think it happens from untended hurts, tresspasses unaddressed, unacknowledged, unresolved. Here, in this somewhat public writing space, I feel my growing discomfort about South Africa and living here. I want to write about feeling increasingly, maddeningly marginalised by this country’s obsession with demographics. As a 40-year-old, a mother, white, privileged, married, living in the suburbs…. it feels like there is less and less I am allowed to say. My fears and dramas are what the journalists of this country always refer to (always pejoratively) as “suburban”. Apparently where you live affects the legitimacy of your experience. And yet the fear and outrage and dismay that simmers beneath the surface of life in South Africa is a shared one, I am convinced of it.

I read this piece by Tom Eaton this morning:

Half a day since the state told us that Jacob Zuma is untouchable and that our tax revenue is his – and all is quiet.

No candlelit vigils, no burning government buildings, not even a particularly loud noise on social media.

Tonight South Africans are speaking with one voice, and here’s what we’re telling Jacob Zuma:

“You can take whatever you want. It’s ok. We don’t like it but we’re too tired, too angry, too confused, too enmeshed in the civil service, to fight.

“You can have Nkandla. Maybe that will be enough for you, but it probably won’t be, and when you take more, we won’t burn anything then either. You win. Help yourself.”

No wonder he’s laughing so much these days. I used to think it was nervous laughter. Now I know better. It’s a logical, reasonable response to realizing that he’s won a lottery where the jackpot keeps getting bigger the longer he stays in office. He’s laughing because he’s won. And he’s laughing at us.

He sums up the sheer sense of exhaustion and powerlessness that colours our broader existence in this country. Inevitably it starts at the top, with our faith (or, more accurately, dire lack of it) in our leaders. The assaults on our trust are so continuous that we get what Ranjeni Munusamy  called scandal fatigue:

The ordinary public is fatigued by the litany of scandals, the investigating authorities are politically compromised, the independent bodies are overwhelmed by the volume of investigations, the opposition has very few powers, the guardians are demonised and threatened and the looters have free rein. It is a dangerous territory and is neither normal nor good for the country.

Most sentient people would agree that something is rotten in the Republic of South Africa. As in the case of Hamlet’s Denmark, festering with moral and political corruption, such a situation can only breed chaos and peril.

And from the systematic lawlessness at the top, there is the more everyday horror. To drive across the city is to run the gauntlet of the poster boards screaming out the latest baby rape, the latest woman murdered by her angry husband.

It becomes, increasingly, unspeakable. What shall we talk about, here, my friend? Shall we talk about living in a continuous state of outrage and fear, then suppressing it firmly and continuously, as we do, and soldiering on? At this juncture, on many days, it’s just about all I can do to keep breathing. In-breath, out-breath. Mix the dough, make the bread. Wash the olives – in a few months they’ll be ready to bottle, if I can just remember to wash them every day. And perhaps you and I can meet again, if I can take a deep enough breath to feel it’s ok to say anything at all.


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And another year

It’s been nearly a year since I wrote anything here. I guess a glance at the last couple of posts might give a hint as to why… time is the most precious resource around here; there simply never seems to be enough of it.

Every now and then something has come up, dramatic enough to warrant a thoughtful post, some reflection. But when you haven’t said anything for a while, it adds a layer of pressure to what you choose to say. A death, a political scurry, a personal epiphany… suddenly silence becomes the practice.

Well. I have a lovely loosely affiliated clump of friends I see rarely. They are the Ex Bookclub… we were in a book club together 7 or 8 years ago, that never really got coherent as a book club – we had divergent book tastes, and we’re all too outspoken to share opinions without irritating someone. Half of us fell pregnant at the same time, and turned into non-readers. Some of us buggered off to the other side of the planet in misguided relationship choices for a while. Others had career changes, personal dramas. As a book club we dissolved, and as a group of women with warm ties and mutual interest and shared compassion for each other’s journeys, we endured.

So, roughly once or twice a year we get it together to share a meal and an evening. Last night was the first time in a long time. This morning someone told me about a Zambian tradition, where women get together once a year for a full day to cook, eat and dance together, and share their tales of relationships, and support and advise one another. We didn’t dance, but perhaps next time we will.




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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:


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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