I was scrolling through Facebook earlier when I noticed a post by a friend asking “which book changed your way of thinking and your view of the world” and much to my surprise the very first title that popped into my head was “Harold and the purple crayon” by Crocket Johnson.
Now I have read many life-changing, beautiful, funny and amazing books in my life. I have read a lot of boring ones, too. I have just read a lot of books, period.
The more I thought about it, though, the more I realised that many of the most influential books of my life are childrens’ books.
Roald Dahl taught me that small, seemingly helpless people can be heroes. They can save the day. He taught me to believe in hope and in the amazing and miraculous.
C.S. Lewis taught me that the greatest challenges we will ever face lie not in the world but inside ourselves.
Dr. Seuss taught me that there are different kinds of genius. He made me want to be a writer. He also taught me about humor and whimsy and how delightful they can be.
J.K Rowling taught us all never to underestimate a single mother.
Eric Carle “wowed” me with his images, as did Quintin Blake.
What about Crocket Johnson and Harold, you ask? they taught me to hang onto my wits and my purple crayon.
Some of these stories I heard as a child. Some of them I read as a parent for the first time. Either way, they have delighted me and made an impression on me.
Reading to my children has always been part of our haphazard routine.
The other day I heard a talk on the radio about a study that was conducted (over several years) which revealed the most important factors in what makes children grow into successful adults. They looked at education, financial factors, broken homes, nutrition, all kinds of stuff. What did they find? The one thing that all of the most successful adults had in common, regardless of everything else – is that their parents read to them regularly as children.
All I am going to say is this: Read to your kids.
Choose good, entertaining books, and when they ask you to read them just one more page or chapter, remember that by the time they’re ten they won’t want you to read to them anymore.
…and don’t forget to hang onto your wits and your purple crayon.
I have been writing such a lot recently. Huge quantities of writing, but all of it has been work-related and for other companies.
I have neglected my own work and all of you, my much-valued readers.
Part of the reason for that is due to all the writing for work, but it’s also been because I find myself at a loss for new topics. The more I live and grow and change, the more I find myself returning to the same themes, again and again, only each time, with a little more caution. I think that is something that time does – it makes us cautious.
I was looking at an image of a spiral today, and I realized (again) that while life is cyclic, and we continue to come to the same point, again and again, but every time it is on a new and deeper level of understanding than before.
I also realized that I have stopped writing because I am afraid.
I always used to say “I write when the fear of not writing outweighs the fear of writing”. Recently the fear of writing has been winning.
I suppose, that while I hold out enormous hope for humanity and I do essentially believe in its intrinsic goodness, I have learned that good doesn’t always win.
Sometimes the people we trust most are the ones who hurt us the deepest – not just the lovers and the parents, but also the friends. Sometimes a “break-up” from a friendship, even if it’s gradual and slow dawning, can really fuck you over more than you ever expected. Why? Because you trusted someone. You let them in and when they turned out not to be who you wanted to believe they were, you got hurt. Again. This is how we become afraid to bear our souls, and what is writing if not the bearing of oneself?
I find myself coming back (in cyclic motion) to a post I wrote a very long time ago about trust, and how unfair it is to do it to someone.
I come to that theme again now with a deeper understanding and more caution. BUT, I haven’t given up on humanity yet. I am just taking it on a little more slowly these days, with more time in between to myself, to remember who I am and be okay with that person.
If there is one piece of advice I can dispense to anyone who should chance to read this post, it is this: Make a friend of yourself.
You are the one and only person in this whole entire world who will never leave you. You are the one person to whose opinions, feelings and sensibilities you will always have to answer and endure the repercussions of their neglect.
So, forgive me if I return to themes I have already hashed out, and forgive me if I change my mind, and then change it back again. I am only as human as you are, after all.
Things change. Everything changes. Every single thing.
But that doesn’t mean the things that passed away are no longer important, or beautiful, or true.
Tonight when I was putting my seven-year-old to bed I told him a story. At first, it was a story about how I stopped being afraid of the dark, and then it turned into a story about some of the most valuable and magical nights of my life. I didn’t know, at the time, that they would be the best memories I have, and yet they are.
The story went something like this:
When I was a young person I was afraid of the dark. I say young person, and not a kid because I was scared of the dark well into my teens. Even as an adult, actually. But this story is about when I was a young person and I lived with my Mom and Dad.
We lived in a small village called Bathurst. It’s still a small village now, but back then it was really small. Well, no, actually it’s big – but it’s big in a way that involves fields and cows and thorn trees and not much else.
Being a small country hick, there were no street lights.
My bedroom was at the back of the house, upstairs. The house was built on a slope, so while the front of the house was on the ground level, the back was a double story. My bedroom window overlooked the entire valley. It was the highest point for kilometers. There were no trees to obstruct my view, because the tops of them were below me, down the hill. The nearest house was on the other side of the valley, across about 3 kilometers of fields, as the crow flies, and then it just stretched on until you could see a slip of blue ocean against the sky, 12 kilometers away.
Anyway, being a kid who was terrified of the dark I used to keep my curtains closed and pull the covers up around my ears. I hoped that if I could cover up, and try not to breathe or move I might not be noticed by the vampires, werewolves, or the tokoloshe.
Then one night, for some inexplicable reason, I opened the curtain. It was hot, and I opened my bedroom window and switched off the light.
I remember exactly how the cold night air felt against my face. It filled my lungs and tingled against my skin. It was fresh and cold and full of magic.
And when I lay on my bed and looked out of that great, big, scary window, there was nothing but black sky and an entire universe of stars. I don’t think it’s possible to explain stars like that to someone who has always lived in a town or city. There are just so many of them and the starlight fills you with a feeling like infinity is a pulsing, live thing and you are both microscopic and huge. Both completely coincidental and absolutely perfectly lined up with the entire universe.
After that, I started sleeping with my window and curtains open. I stopped being (quite so) afraid of the dark and started looking forward to seeing the stars.
While telling my boy this story I was reminded of other nights with stars. Nights in Rheenedal, surrounded by just a few, special people. Nights with stories read aloud by the fireside to a special little boy, while all the adults present enjoyed listening to it as much as he did. Nights with meals baked in the wood-burning oven, or the gas oven, because there was never electricity on the farm. Nights with candlelight and fireplaces and a solar battery playing old CD’s. Nights with Ivan’s carrot cake and Lisa’s veggie stew. Nights with the magic mirror of coals spread out in the fire pit, under the stars and conversations with friends that lasted into the early hours. Nights full of frog-song and crickets and night birds, and mosquitoes. Plenty of mosquitoes!
I never really thought about how lucky I was back then. I was always ambitious and I think I have achieved a lot of my goals. The most important goal, though, that I didn’t realise I was busy achieving until now, was having a life.
While I have always tried to be grateful for all the good in my every day, and while I was lucky enough to have had some of those “holy moments” where you lie with your head on your lover’s chest, listening to his heartbeat and memorising the sound in case one day it was gone – I don’t think I ever really realised until telling the pretty version of the story to my own child, just how lucky I have been.
There is so much beauty, in so many unexpected places and so much love from so many unexpected people.
I strongly recommend, that if you’ve taken the time to read this far, you do yourself a favour, and go and tell your own story to someone who’ll listen. Tell your children, or your love, or a friend.
Take out the memories, brush off the dust, whitewash over the bad bits, and tell the beautiful stories from your life. How you overcame your fear of the dark.
I arrived here after having lived in a small town for 16 years. Before that, I grew up in a gravel roaded, tether your horse and pump that windmill village.
So needless to say it’s been pretty exciting, and completely terrifying.
I have discovered that your best friend, when you live in a city like Cape Town, is the GPS on your phone. Unfortunately, it does not help you to find your car in a large mall parking lot.
Note to non-city people: ALWAYS take note of the level and block you park in, and that little ticket thingy you get when you drive in – ya, you can’t leave again if you toss that sucker. Apparently, it’s important or whatever.
I have always thought Cape Town drivers were raging maniacs (they are) but I finally understand why. Noone, not even the seasoned city veterans who have lived here all their lives, has a cooking clue where they are or where they are going.
Without the magic of Google Maps (Or Waze Lady – Laze Wady, as we call her), no-one would get anywhere. I realized that it’s not just I, the newbie with CX number plates, who is unable to navigate my way out of a paper bag (in Cape Town) without assistance.
If you look around you, you will find that at least 75% of people are driving with the help of a navigational aid. My bestie and her colleague even admitted openly to the fact that after a decade of living here, they can’t get anywhere new without using the mighty map of Google.
Of course me being me, I got to thinking about the deeper implications of what it means to be lost in a bustling, throbbing city. What does it mean if you accept that you just don’t know where you are on a map? If you can’t form a mental picture of where you are in relation to home, or where you are going.
Is it a new kind of trust, of letting go – where you simply trust the device? As a bit of a control freak I find it hard to fathom. It makes me sort of claustrophobic if I think about it too hard. But maybe it’s actually good, to simply be where you are and trust in the universe’s ability to get you home.
Or is it actually a new kind of helplessness and does it represent a greater loss of self? Are we all so lost in the great bustle of our daily lives that it no longer even worries us that we’re physically lost, too?
Perhaps it’s both a type of zen and a type of “lostness”. Perhaps it’s two sides to a coin.
Whatever the case may be I suspect the answer is time, and patience.
In time we learn the routes. In time we find ourselves. We find what matters to us. We find our focus, our lighthouses in the dark (or our Google Maps lady telling us to turn right in 300 meters, if you prefer). I think the big thing is to give yourself time, and also to take time to listen to yourself.
I know my country roots are going to miss the stars, the darkness at night, the wet grass underfoot, the smell of rain on hot dry farmlands. But I have a hope and a feeling that city life may be wonderful, too. I am taking the time to find my lighthouses, my routes and my new points of focus, and I am going to be a little bit more patient with myself this time around, because I’m in my thirties now, and life is too short to always be in a hurry.
(PS: If you were wondering about the weather here, chances are, it’s windy, regardless of when you read this)
Only you can choose how you are going to spend the rest of your life.
I want to make everyone happy all the time.
And that’s a bad thing.
Sometimes you must do what’s right for you, and let the chips fall where they may.
With everything that’s happened in the last few months (and years) I have been faced with some hard choices. Being the kind of person who is loyal, and who doesn’t run away from a difficult situation just because it’s difficult, it’s hard for me to give up on something that’s not working anymore.
Especially when doing so means disappointing others.
I’m a trouper, I do what I have to, I don’t give up.
But sometimes, by not giving up on something old, you are sacrificing (or giving up) the possibility of ever having anything new.
Which is why I decided to do something terrifying.
I made a choice that scares the bejezus out of me.
I took a shot, applied for a job in a new city, and got it.
I handed in my notice at the job where I have worked for almost six years, even though I knew how disappointed and upset my bosses would be.
I told my mom that I’m leaving town, even though she has never lived in a different town from me (when I left home she followed me).
Am I terrified of leaving everything I know? Yes
Am I scared that I will fail and that I will end up homeless? I am.
Is this one of the scariest things I have ever done? Absolutely.
So, why am I doing it, you may ask?
It’s simple. I realised that the only thing that scared me more than taking this huge risk and changing my entire life, was the idea of everything staying the same.
I could see my future, old and alone, sharing tins of tuna with my 23 cats (as a vegetarian, this is an even scarier thought).
But, in fact, everything is not the same.
Sometimes the universe throws you some pretty huge hints that you need to change something big in your life. I have discovered that if you don’t embrace change, the universe will thrust it upon you anyway. I decided I want a say in my changes, from now on.
Signs that it’s time for a change
One of the surest signs that it’s time, is that you really want to make a change.
Another good sign is that things are changing anyway (the universe has NOT been subtle with me, but apparently, I take a lot of convincing).
I am not going to get into the signs I have been dealt, but fire, death, and devastation have all been part of it.
Lastly, when it’s the right time to make a change, everything falls into place.
I tried to make things work, pick up the devastated pieces of my life where I was, and with everything I tried, I hit a wall.
The moment I decided to move, things started to flow.
I got the job I wanted, I found a flat, almost every essential item I lost in the fire has been replaced through the kindness and generosity of others. It’s all good. New things, new job, new city, new life.
I have been amazingly blessed by the kindness of others. Honestly, I am so lucky.
Am I scared? Yes.
Is it a spontaneous decision? No, not really.
If I think about it, part of me has been planning it for a while. It’s just that now the time is right.
As for how it will go, I don’t know yet. I’ll let you all know when I’ve been there for a while.
What to do if it’s not the right time to change things
I didn’t get to the point where everything was perfectly lined up by accident.
Yes, some of the things that drove this decision were huge and unplanned disasters. Some were huge and unplanned miracles. Some events were both. But I would not be able to do what I am doing now if I hadn’t been prepared.
I prepared by working incessantly for years to get an education.
I prepared by not just accepting where I was in life, but working towards who I wanted to be.
I prepared by biding my time and getting work experience in a field that interests me, learning as much as I could and working on as many different kinds of projects as I could get hold of.
I knew all along that someday it would come in handy. Or rather, I had faith that it would.
I prepared by believing that things could be better and taking whatever small action I could, each and every day, to make things better.
I wasn’t sure where I would end up, or what choices I would make.
I didn’t know how I was going to fix my life. I just knew that I had to try.
Don’t give up on your life, or your goals.
It doesn’t matter if you have no idea how or when you will get where you want to be. It doesn’t even matter if you are not 100% sure what you want.
Just believe that it can get better and that you have the power to make it better.
I can vouch 100% for the fact that help will always come to those who put the effort in to help themselves.
Most importantly, work hard and be nice to people.
I have no idea what is going to happen next for me and my little family.
Incredibly, it’s been almost 2 months since the house burnt down and we all ran for our lives in what I hope to fuck will be the most terrifying night of my life (I hope there is never one MORE terrifying than that was).
The kids and I are still homeless, in that we have somewhere to stay until November and then we need a new plan. Not sure yet what that will be. My Mum has managed to secure a permanent residence so that is one less thing to worry about – thankfully.
The most striking thing of all about the aftermath of this disaster, is the range of human reactions. Or should I say, the range of humans.
For many, the immediate reaction was to try and help in some way. Knysna witnessed an awesome outpouring (or in pouring) of human kindness. There have been clothes and food and all kinds of necessities flooding in to help the affected.
I personally have been taken shopping by total strangers and friends alike, and been bought things like underwear, a microwave, and deodorant! You can’t believe how many things you have in your house until it’s gone!
Friends have sent boxes of stuff for us from far and wide, money has come in to help us keep going, even couches (and wine!) have arrived from humans I know and humans I don’t know. One kind mother, having no other way she could help, but wanting to do something, has even offered to pack my son a lunch box and send it to school with her son, every day for the rest of the year!
For these people I am so filled with gratitude and emotion it’s hard to find the words for it. I have witnessed the enormity of the human spirit, and seen friends swallow their own pride and bury painful hatchets with each other in order to come together and help us.
Then there is another whole side of humanity.
There are those who jumped at the opportunity to make a profit out of the disasters. From insurance brokers and contractors to the guys who stole my stone bird bath and my ceramic fire place (the only things that were left standing in my home). There were people who unpacked my (misdelivered) boxes and stole things that were sent to me by dear friends.
There was also a middle of the range human that simply didn’t give a crap. The couriers who delivered my things to the wrong place because they couldn’t be bothered to drop them off with me specifically when the disaster had created a perfect excuse to be lax (this happened to me TWICE, the second time a fridge and bed I was sent were redistributed to who-knows-who).
There are other human people who really were just plain indifferent.
I realised two truths, through all of this, and I had one existing theory confirmed.
1. Not all people are good people.
I have always believed that humans are essentially good and that sometimes they go astray and do bad things. This is not actually the case. Some people just plain suck balls.
2. The good people who are good people are fucking gems.
If you find one, protect them, love them, be kind to them, because there are people whose hearts are selfless and pure and they are the shining lights among us. Never underestimate these people. It takes a lot more courage to be kind and gentle than it does to be a dick. They are strong, and they are the kind of people I hope my children will grow up to be.
3. The re-confirmed belief: You can choose which of these to focus on, and that will shape your reality.
After having experienced both the unsung angels and the dregs of humanity (sometimes wearing Prada jeans, sometimes in overalls) I have realised, yet again, that my experience on Earth is defined by which I choose to focus on.
Did I get robbed and screwed over? Yes, a little bit.
But I am also abundantly blessed in ways great and small.
Often it is the littlest acts of kindness that really bring me to tears. The R500 in my account with the reference “get coffee”; the airtime and data sent by a clever friend who knew how many calls I’d be getting; the new hoodies we were given by my doctor – who insisted they were from a “friend”, but which happened to be our exact sizes; the flash drive full of TED talks and music sent by courier from an old friend; the trust set up my best friend; the cash deposits collected by my oldest friend; the duvet cover; the tupperware from the union of Jewish mothers in Oudtshoorn; the wine sent by a very wise friend! Donations from people I have never met and probably never will.
These are my heroes. All of them, all of you.
So no, I don’t know yet where I will be in a few months time. But I do know it will be good. I do know that it will be better than I could have possibly hoped, it will be an exciting new adventure, and as much as I always think that I am alone – I never really will be.
I choose to focus on the beautiful side of humanity.
Thanks guys, for being so awesome.
I look forward to paying it forward some day soon.
(Warning: This is not a happiness post, this is my experience of the Knysna Fires. There will be a follow-up post or two which will be happier)
I woke up to the smell of smoke on June 7th, 2017.
I instinctively felt unsettled. I got up and looked out the window and noticed that the sky was slightly orange tinted. The sun was coming up through the smoke on the horizon. Still, it wasn’t cause for major alarm. So something somewhere was burning.
The Kids were to spend the day at home, because the department of education had been told that there were big storm warnings for Cape Town, so the entire province closed school for the day.
I wasn’t too concerned. Cape Town is 500 KM away and Knysna didn’t even have rain forecast, nevermind storms.
So once the nanny arrived I went to work.
I sent a text to my Mum (who lived next door to me) telling her there was a fire somewhere and she should keep an eye on it, because the smoke was in the wrong direction for rubbish burning.
When I hit the Lagoon road I saw smoke on the other side of town. Two fires. But that one WAS on the right side of town for rubbish burning, no biggy, off to work.
I work at a digital marketing agency, so we spend a lot of time online (okay, ALL our work is online, we live inside our computers). At about 10:00 AM I noticed a post on Social Media that said Knysna had large fires on the hills alongside the town. We all traipsed out of the office and looked about. Lots of smoke in the West.
Still, no real sense of panic. Concern for the wildlife, yes, but I still had no idea of what was to come.
Throughout the day I kept an eye on the news.
At about 3 PM my Mom called to say she was worried, would I please come home. I thought she was being overly concerned but I went and excused myself from the boss and went home to check up on things.
The fire was raging on the western hills, but it was still on the other side of the river. Away from town. Away from my home. Rivers don’t generally burn that well, so it seemed ok.
I didn’t factor in the gale force winds.
Instead I told my nanny I would take her back to catch a taxi in town, so that she could go home and check on her house. By this time we knew that there was more than one fire burning and I didn’t know if her area was okay.
My kids usually like to stay at home if I just pop to town quickly. It’s not far and my daughter is a young teen. But for some reason, I said, “just jump in the car like that, come with me”. (My daughter was in pajamas, my son in white Bermuda shorts).
That was the last time I ever saw my house. I even left two bags of groceries still packed in bags on the kitchen floor.
I distinctly remember the moment I locked the kitchen gate. I was thinking “I wonder where Delilah (my cat) is. Probably hiding under the bed”.
After dropping the nanny I popped into the office to pick up my phone charger. While I was there I got a call from a neighbour:
“I can’t get hold of your mom! We’re evacuating, everything is burning and her phone is off, I don’t know if she got out!”
I try to phone my mom. Nothing.
I didn’t have time to panic, I just reacted.
I grabbed my kids and ran to the car. We drove for home. We had to get to my mom and her 78-year-old husband and make sure they were evacuating!
Half way home I got a call from my office. Luckily I told my daughter to answer it. It was the office finance manager. He has a really calm voice. He’s a really even tempered guy. He says “Your mom is here. She says don’t go home. The garage was already burning when they left”.
By pure dumb luck they had heard a gas bottle explode up the road and decided to get in the car with their cat in a box.
There had been no evacuation by the authorities, no warning bells ringing, it all happened too fast.
I still wanted to go home though, to find my cat.
But half way down the road we had to turn around. There were too many houses burning too close to the road. We could not get through.
I haven’t seen Delilah since, but we are still looking for her. Many cats got out and were found later. We hope she is one of them, just hiding out somewhere.
The gale force wind had taken floating, burning debris across the river, and the fire had raged on.
My biggest immediate concern was to find my mother and make sure she was okay.
When I found her we went, shell-shocked, to my bosses house because he kindly said so, and we were too dumb stuck and incoherent to think of anything other than getting away from the flames.
The wind was pumping and the fire raged. A neighbour of a friend watched their timber house burn to ash in three minutes. There was no time to get anything out. And it was spreading like, well, wild fire.
The fire burned a route from suburb to suburb faster than one could have driven it. We had to evacuate again.
By 11Pm I was among thousands of people standing at Loerie Park. We had our cars. We were parked on a the sports field. We went to find the Rotary Hall pub behind the field where the barman had put all the bottles on the table and told everyone to help themselves. I poured a stiff whiskey (that didn’t touch my head in the circumstances) and felt like I was in Shawn of the Dead, or something similar.
I found myself standing in the doorway, my kids trying to sleep on the floor with blankets near me, talking on the phone to my best friend (in Cape Town) for what I thought would be the very last time.
I have never been more terrified in my life. And yet I had curiously no fear for myself. I was afraid for my children and my ageing parents. I was afraid my kids would never grow up. I was afraid I would fail them and break my promise to keep them safe no matter what.
We stood in the dark watching the fire getting closer and the dramatic flares as gas bottles exploded into the night sky. There were no stars. Just thick, choking smoke and an eerie orange glow.
Then the ambulances arrived. They had up to fourteen patients in each ambulance, slotted in widthways. They carried them in on blankets. The Shawn of the Dead vibe disappeared and things became (unbelievably) even more terrifying. The hall became a makeshift hospital as the real one had been evacuated (part of it burnt). We retreated to our cars.
As the flames ate across the landscape towards us, I got a call from a friend who lives on the island. She said if I could get down the road I should come to her. So my kids and I in my ancient little green golf, and my Mom and her husband in her car, braved the road and headed for the island. None of the adults slept. We lay with blankets on the floor and we watched the windows.
That’s how I saw in my 33rd birthday.
The next morning was the most un-birthday, birthday ever. It was worse than the one where my car was stolen, or the next one where I was really sick. It was a non-birthday. So much so that I have decided it didn’t count, and I get to be 32 for another year.
The fires raged for days. We moved from place to place looking for somewhere safe. I have never been so scared, for so long.
I managed to get my mom and husband in with a friend of hers in a safe area.
Eventually, by the Friday night, I was so tired, I ended up taking an offer to take the kids and go sleep on the lounge floor of someone who was in a safe place. The two kids and I all bundled up together. (Thanks to my good friend, who’s mother-in-law’s lounge we slept in).
That was two weeks ago and still the fires keep flaring up. We are all pretty tired of our vigil. Even now I am watching the small plumes of smoke every day. Right now I am listening to the wind knowing I will have another night dreaming of fire, if and when I finally manage to fall asleep.
It will be a long time before Knysna sleeps a peaceful sleep again.
The greatest tragedy is the heartbreaking loss of life.
I don’t feel that I have the authority to speak about the fire victims. It’s too fresh in our hearts and too personal. Knysna will not ever forget them. I will be haunted by their stories for the rest of my life.