Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas day improves

After a flipping good howl while I was laying the table for lunch for 17, followed by a howl on Graeme's shoulder, I felt much better. Lunch proceeded to be a laugh a minute and a huge success. What a great day! Thank God.
Another bit of good news is that Nellie's fever has broken. Turns out that she DOES have baby measles (which isn't actually measles, I discovered - it's called roseola). The down side of this is that now she has too much energy to sleep. She's only JUST gone to bed (after 1opm, when her 'normal' bedtime is 7pm). The poor baby is covered in a rash now. Sigh! The joys!

Packing for our holiday will have to wait till tomorrow morning. I need SLEEP!

Love to you all, hope you had a FABULOUS day!

What's Christmas all about anyway?

One of the blogs I read asked for advice about toddlers and small kids lying and hiding things away. It's an interesting topic, and one that, thankfully, we've not really had to deal with yet.

A study done with littleys shows that there are 4 stages to the development of lying in a child. First, they have no concept of being able to lie, or how that might benefit them, so they always tell the truth. Then they realise that they don't have to tell the truth, but still can't actually lie, so stay silent in order to avoid trouble. Then they start to lay the blame at someone else's door - but can't yet identify who a logical alternative is, so for example will say that their teddy did it. Finally, they are not only able to lay the blame at someone else's door, but able to choose a viable alternative, someone that might actually have done it.

One woman, Rachel, who commented, said that what she had been telling hers is that stealing, hiding and dishonesty makes our hearts grow as heavy as rocks. When this happens the rocks fall into out tummies and make us awful sick. I LOVE that image. It's exactly what guilt feels like, and guilt does make us ill, so it's being truthful while putting the idea into words a kid can grasp.

I heard a story this evening while at supper with my mother's side of the family about my cousins who stole their mother's belt and buried it, and then gave the belt a proper funeral service - all because they hated getting the occasional hiding from her with it! How cute is that? Kids know what they want, and will find a way to get it.

This blogger's situation was that her child hid her phone away (not so accidentally), and turned it onto silent (accidentally). She commented that maybe her child did this because she spent so much time on the phone. A common toddler response, by the way, to you being on the phone is to misbehave. They can be playing happily by themselves, the phone goes and INSTANTLY they want your undivided attention, and then start to whine/ scream to get it.

Lots of parents advocate developing a signal that the child can give you when she really wants your attention, but stress that then you must listen to it when she uses it, and switch your phone off/ stop doing whatever you are doing. I have no idea whether this actually works with toddlers, but can see the value with older kids.

While our work (at home, or at work, or our ministry, or whatever) is vital, God can raise up others to do it (hard to hear, I know, but ultimately true). Children are precious, and only have one Mommy. It won't be long before they're off and out of the house for good - I know you know all this, but it is so important that we appreciate them while we have them, that I think it bears repeating.

I wish I'd really understood that while Zoe was still alive. Even now, I have to remind myself to stop and smell the flowers with Janel, remind myself that life does not consist of endless doing, but, rather, of endless being. Who (or what) we choose to be with is the vital decision - ourselves? our children? our computers? our TVs? our spouses/ partners? our kitchens? our cleaning equipment?

Ultimately, isn't that what Christmas is about? Jesus choosing to be with us - in the flesh, not at a distance going 'yes, yes, dear, I'm just busy stopping this earthquake in Guatemala [or whatever]; I'll pay attention to you when I've finished'?

This Christmas doesn't feel at all like Christmas to me. I don't know what it's supposed to feel like, or what I'd expected, but this was not it. I never used to like Christmas, in fact, I positively dreaded it. And it seems that nothing much has changed. I guess it's the stress of not being able to have one big happy family. Christmas-time makes me aware of how fragmented my family is. Blended families have unique pressures at times like these, and just because the kids grow up does not mean those pressures decrease.

I was reflecting earlier today that all I really want for Christmas is to have our entire family (all 70 odd of them) in one place at the same time, and for Graeme's family and my family to get along with each other, and to like each other, and for us to have enough time to talk properly to each of them, and for no one person to be stressing about catering or hosting. That, for me, would an incredible Christmas. But of course, that's the stuff of dreams.

They don't get on, they don't like each other (at least, that's how it appears to me!), and it feels like we're being torn in different directions with each family wanting their time with Janel (and us). All have said to us that they understand and that we should choose just one family each year, but then all of them demonstrate just how much they would miss us if they didn't see us. Kind of puts us between a rock and a hard place. I WANT to be with my parents. That already tears us in two. Then there's Graeme's family. Rrriiiippp. Then, it's Graeme's birthday (on Christmas Eve) so he wants to see his family (and vice versa) for that. Rrrrriiiipp. Please don't misunderstand, I love our family dearly, and seeing them is never a burden. I just find the stress of managing their expectations against my own desires very difficult.

So that brings me back to the question - what is Christmas actually all about? It's not about materialism, although buying and opening presents is great fun. (Can you tell that presents are one of my primary love languages?) It's not about doing stuff, although traditions and rituals bring a sense of security and familiarity. It's not about being with your family (ironically, we didn't see family for several Christmases and it felt more Christmassy than when we did!), although spending time with them is precious and special. It's not about going to church - at least, it never has been for me. I seldom go to church over Christmas because I hate carols. (Too much enforced carols practice at school!) It's not about the snow or lack thereof (personally, I think I prefer snow.)

That brings it down to one thing - the real deal. Jesus. It's about him, and him choosing to become a human being. And of course, he's the one person that I'm most struggling to talk to at the moment. Where does that leave me? I'm not sure.

No money (ok, not really true if you take in account a global perspective on wealth), no friends (not really true either if you have that global perspective, although so few of them have bothered to send us a card it sure feels that way - out of sight, out of mind I guess), no Zoe. And just in case I was thinking of having a good festive season despite all of that stuff, I got struck down with flu for a few days, and just as I'm recovering, Graeme and Nellie are both ill. (We suspect Nellie has measles.)

The only thing I am sure of this Christmas is that this is probably the suckiest one ever.

Edited to add:
I'm sorry I sound so miserable. It's just that several people have, in the space of 2 days, talked about Zoe openly for the first time, and it's been hard keeping my tears in check. I felt I had to, however, because this is supposed to be the season of joy, and I don't want to rain on anyone's parade. And it's not all doom and gloom. We had a lovely tea this morning for Graeme with friends, and we had a lovely meal with my folks this evening, and I'm sure that our meal with Graeme's family tomorrow will be lovely too.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Worth reading

I've been reading a really interesting book. Quite depressing in some ways, but definitely a good read. It's called 'The Shackled Continent' by Robert Guest. He's a writer for the Economist who has been stationed in sub-Saharan Africa for cumulatively a long time. He's worked in most of the sub-Saharan countries. The question he poses is why Africa has become poorer and more destabilised since independence, rather than less? Very interesting question, especially at the current time when the ANC has just had their election for president.

Guest is at pains to point out that he knows that there is much beauty in Africa, and bucketloads of potential. However, given the nature of the book, there is not much that is 'happy' in this book. It is, at times, a very emotional, difficult read, but I think his insights are eloquent and spot-on. This is something I have often wondered about, and Guest makes some very insightful comments - maybe I'm just not much of a political thinker, but I've learnt a heck of a lot about my own continent from him.

Reading this book, I have a fresh understanding of how God's heart must break when he looks at sub-Saharan Africa. I shudder at the hatred and violence we perpetuate, or that our leaders stir up in us. I struggle to understand how it is that we allow ourselves to think and behave the way we do, yet I know that when I examine my own thinking, the roots of the same evils I denounce are sitting in my own heart.

I haven't finished it yet, so I hope that the ending gives some hint about how to change the circumstances. The only criticism I have had so far is that the information he gives does rather leave one thinking there is no hope for Africa, and that one really would be better off emigrating. (Actually, SA politics at the moment leaves me feeling the same way.) I know that's not his intention; as he said, there is a lot going for Africa, and there is a lot of good in it - but his book deliberately does not deal with that.

Definitely worth reading, but not what I would call bed-time reading.

Christmas joys

The first "joy" is that I'm sick. Yup. Good old flu. I had a bug last week, for less than 24hrs, but it was obviously still in my system. (The other option is that whatever Nellie had over the weekend I've caught.)

Yesterday, I was driving around doing business stuff in 30 degree heat, and got a bit dehydrated, and then WHAM! by the time I got home had a sore throat, swollen glands, etc, etc. I've slept most of today away (which is not easy in temperatures above 30 degrees), but am still feeling fragile.

However, a real joy has been decorating the Christmas tree. It's been fun having a real tree again, even a pathetic pine. This morning, while I was lying on the couch watching telly with G and J, she walked up to the tree, turned to me and said, "It's Christmas, Mommy." Ahh! I know we've done a rotten job of teaching what that really means, but then, we're doing a rotten job of being good Christian parents at the moment. Maybe next year...
Another 'joy' has been watching Nellie develop independence in her swimming (photos on her blog). Graeme's mom found an old swimming ring she had, and Nellie loves it! We tried the arm bands route, but that didn't go down very well, so this is the perfect alternative. Now she can jump in by herself and swim by herself (under our supervision, of course), and she just loves it. I love seeing her so happy and relaxed and confident. It brings such joy to my heart!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Just when you think it's over...

...it comes back and bites you in the butt. At least, that's the way it feels.

As you may have noticed, my recent posts have been about all sorts of 'other' things - nothing too personal. The first reason behind that is that I'm struggling to share how I feel, which is a pretty weird feeling for me. I guess that it stems from having been so busy recently and not having the time to think through how I feel. The second reason is that even when I've had time to figure out how I feel, I simply haven't had the time to sit down and write about it. (Plus I figured that maybe you'd all like a break from what must, at times, feel like the incessantly depressing posts I've been writing!)

Over the past few weeks, I've suddenly become (figuratively) surrounded by people having babies or announcing they're pregnant. I can honestly say this never used to be a problem for me. I know that for many women who lose a baby late term or through neo-natal death (or for women struggling to conceive) being around others with newborns or who are pregnant is like sticking a red-hot poker in your eye. I never had that. Maybe that's unique, but it really didn't bother me. I was able to compartmentalise what I was feeling about Zoe from the joy I felt for others in their gift of new life. I could hold babies, talk about babies, look at baby pictures, "gossip" about babies - none of it affected me.

However, that is no longer the case. In retrospect I've felt myself changing in this regard for several months now, with each new birth announcement feeling more and more like a dagger to the heart, but it all came to a head when a member of my family emailed to say she was pregnant. (I'm not allowed to name names because she doesn't want the rest of the family to know, which I understand, but it's a close family member.) Reading her email, I felt like I'd been hit in the stomach. That has never happened to me before, and I don't like the way I felt or the things I immediately thought.

Of course I'm thrilled for her, but I don't feel thrilled - I feel gutted. I don't wish any harm on her or her baby, but I wish she wasn't pregnant. I want to dance for joy and celebrate with her, but I also want to punch her. And feeling that way, wishing that, makes me feel as guilty as hell. I just keep thinking that it's not even that she's pregnant that I have the issue with. It's that she's pregnant and I'm not.

I have friends who have either been trying (unsuccessfully, even with IVF), or who are physically incapable of having kids (e.g. already had a hysterectomy), or who don't have a partner so won't have kids (unless they go to a sperm bank). I have one child. I should be grateful. I should be satisfied. I should be happy. But I'm not.

It's so easy to stand alongside someone who really wants a child (as I confess I have, on occasion, done) and soliloquise about stuff - that God will provide, that you're better off without kids, that you must just have faith and it will eventually happen - or even to say 'that sucks'; but BEING there is a completely different kettle of fish. Not being pregnant is killing me.

As I said to my grief counsellor this week: I expected this reaction back in March when Zoe died. Then I expected to struggle with wanting a baby, because that's what was supposed to happen. You get pregnant, you give birth, you get a baby. Psychologically and physically, I was prepared for having a baby. So not having one - well, I anticipated having issues with others who did have one. But I never did.

And I've been feeling a hang of a lot better recently. While my grief has been present, it's been much more of a background thing. I thought I was starting to reach the point where I could live around this hole in my life, where I could really start to put my life back together - start going back to church, start getting involved in ministry again.

I did not expect that, 9 months on, this would hit me now. I wasn't prepared for that. And I don't know how to handle this. I know that the first Christmas without your loved one is tough, so I'm sure that has something to do with it, and I'm sure that I will get through this. I just don't know what to do with my feelings right now. And when I get like that, I bottle, which is the very thing I should NOT be doing.

Take today - I had a MASSIVE temper tantrum at Janel today because she wouldn't eat her food. Mostly it was because she was simply being defiant (how I HATE these terrible two's of pushing boundaries and establishing her sense of identity) - and that winds me up like nothing on earth. But I know I also over-reacted because my emotional stress is high. Because I'm not coping with these feelings, they boil over into things they shouldn't. And I hate that. I made her cry this afternoon, and not just because she was being naughty, but because I was cross about not being pregnant - and that's really not fair on her. (I did apologise to her afterwards, and she did sulk for a while - just to show me how much I had hurt her - but we made up and now we're best friends again. Thank God little ones forgive and forget so quickly!)

I know I've said it before, but I really hate going through this grieving stuff. It's hard work. It sucks the life out of you. And just when you think it's over... !

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Who am I? Casting Crowns

In the midst of these turbulent times, I often find myself crying out to God, asking him to hold on to me, because I don't know how to hold on to him, and I don't want to be lost.

Here's a video a friend sent me the link for. The words are pretty awesome, but I just love the creative way they are illustrated by this church's drama team.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Pale skin drawings

This afternoon, my dearest daughter told me off. She'd been sitting on my lap, and looked down at my arms. 'No Mommy, no drawing!" she told me, wagging her finger at me. I looked down, and realised that she thought my veins were pen marks.
As I tried to explain that they weren't drawings, but my veins, she got more and more cross with me. 'NO MOMMY! NO VEIN! DRAWING!" Yes, darling, no vein. Drawing. You're right.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Musings about money

Why is money - having it, earning it, spending it - such a big deal?

I guess that not having money, but being used to having a certain standard of living, has created a certain amount of stress in my life. So I've found myself pondering this question a lot recently, no doubt helped along by the fact that some of our friends seem to be able to buy things we will never be able to afford, and that I can't quite figure out how they afford them either.

If we truly believed that God would provide for all our needs, we would not need to worry about salaries or income or sensible expenditure. Yet we worry, and we buy private health care and car insurance and life insurance.

If we truly believed that WHO and WHAT we are is more important than how we look, or what we wear, or what status symbols we have, we wouldn't worry about those things. Yet, we worry, and so we dress a certain way, try to keep up with the Jones' or buy the latest gadget (I personally want a Wii, iPod, flat screen monitor, wide screen TV, DVD recorder, decent hi-fi/ home entertainment centre, etc, etc, etc), or feel a compulsive urge to hoard our STUFF.

Obviously, we don't believe these things. We tell ourselves we do. We talk the talk, but we don't walk the walk. I don't want to buy into the commercialism of Christmas, but should anyone suggest that we stop giving Christmas presents in order to focus on the real reason for Christmas, I might just be forced to dunk that individual's head in a toilet, or wash their mouth out with soap. I WANT PRESENTS. I don't care that we can't afford Christmas this year. I'll happily max out my credit card. I WANT PRESENTS. Plus, I like buying presents for the people I love - trying to find something that will really make them smile, make them feel special, make them feel treasured (which is usually how I feel when I get a present, the exception being when I can see it's just a present for the sake of a present and that very little thought has gone into the gift - unless the gift is money, then that rule no longer applies!!)

I want the nice house with the nice car and a maid (even if it's only once a week)and a gardener and all the trappings of middle class living. I can't afford any of this, but it doesn't stop me wanting it, or envying those who have it.

Indeed, the love of money is the root of all evil. If I spent half the amount of time I've spent thinking about money (how to earn more in particular) praying instead, I think my life would be a hell of a lot better.

Just this morning, as I drove to work, I was thinking about how much I bemoan the lack of money in my life. Granted, most of that is done to myself in my head, but it still happens. On my route to work though, there is a particular robot (traffic light, for the non-Saffas) at which there is a man who collects the rubbish from your car and disposes of it for you. While this is a free service, he obviously hopes that you will give him a donation, plus he also scrounges anything recyclable and gets money for that. He dresses relatively well - nothing shabby or torn - and he always greets you with a smile. He doesn't have that hang-dog expression that so many beggars have. He has an aura of purpose, and pride in himself.

I doubt he earns much from doing this. Yet, rain or shine, he is there every morning. He appears grateful to have something purposeful to do, something that actually provides a service for people (as opposed to just begging). While I can only imagine how boring and soul-destroying it must be for him to walk the streets like this every morning, he always has a smile on his face. If you have nothing for him, he is gracious, wishes you well and walks on - no hard feelings or resentment play across his face.

By contrast, I am seldom gracious and giving in difficult circumstances. I am sure I earn a lot more than he does. I doubt he has private medical care. I doubt that he eats as well as we do. I wonder how many he supports on the little he makes every day. I have a roof over my head (courtesy of my mother), clothes on my back, food on the table, clean water, electricity that runs (although occasionally doesn't because of load shedding), private health care, a car, my daughter's nursery care is paid, my TV licence is paid, and I honestly want for nothing that is essential. That's a hell of a lot more than most South Africans. Plus, I have my health, an incredible husband, a beautiful daughter who is a delight to us and all who meet her, a family that loves me, and friends across the world.

So why is it that I am not satisfied with what I have?

What is it inside me that constantly hungers for MORE - more money, more stuff, more food, more acclaim?

There is an old hymn... "Riches I need not, nor man's empty praise".... it's a line from 'Great is Thy faithfulness'. Every time I sing that I know I'm lying. Something within me cries out for riches and man's praise. God's praise, God's love is not enough for me.

Which tells you something about the state of my heart. And I can't blame this on Zoe's death. I have always struggled with this issue, it's just that at the moment that struggle is highlighted for me because of the tremendous disparity between the haves (of which I am actually a member) and the have-nots in SA.

Did you know that the basic wage in SA for urban areas has just been RAISED to R5.98 per hour? That's £0.43 per hour. In rural areas it's even less. How anyone manages to survive on that pittance is completely beyond me.

From another perspective, reasonably paid domestic workers get around R30 (£2.10) per hour, employers' UIF contributions (which is like NI in the UK, but a lot more basic), one to two meals a day, transport costs, 3 weeks of leave a year, and if they have a considerate employer they will also get some paid sick leave time.

Theirs is unskilled labour, mine is skilled. I clear about R45 (£3.20) per hour (after tax), with my perks being a small amount of paid sick leave, and 12 weeks of holiday. I don't get meals, I don't get a pension and I don't get a travel allowance. I also have deductions made for compulsory professional registration, as well as compulsory union fees*. Teachers are badly paid in this country, there is no doubt about that!

(*Fees are deducted irrespective of being a union member because all teachers benefit from the work of unions, even non-members. Union members' fees go to their unions, while non-members' fees go to a central fund that is then split between the various unions in proportion to their representation in the province - which I think is a really good system).

So I've rambled a lot. But this brings me back to the question - why is money such a huge issue? I guess that, on the one hand, it's about a lack of trust that God will keep His promises to us. On the other, I have a need to provide for my family - to see them cared for - and I want to give them the very best because I love them. But ultimately, I guess it's just greed, plain and simple. I want more. I want to be better than the Jones', not just equal to them. And that, I guess, demonstrates a fatally flawed understanding of the derivation of my self-worth and what brings meaning to life.

Next question - how do I fix the problem? (in one simple easy-to-follow DIY kit, please).


Last days... there is always something nostalgic about last days, even when one is pleased to be moving on.

Today was my last official work day at my current school, but it's been a slow wind-down as I had little to do. However, I've already started doing work for the new school. I have several units of work to prepare, and my lab is in DIRE need of a clear out. I doubt my predecessor, nor hers, has done a proper spring clean, so we're talking about more than a decade's worth of accumulated junk... joy. Not. Sigh!

I had my first proper exit interview today. Previous schools have done something on a more informal basis, which I doubt had any effect. I hope today's interview has an impact. By the end of the interview, I was surprised by how much I've picked up about the running of the school in just 6 months - things that, it would appear, the senior management are not aware of; things that seriously need to change. (That is not to imply that the school is poorly run, or that I am glad to see the back of it - merely that no institution is perfect and there are always things that can be improved upon.)

I am sad to leave. Apart from a handful of horrid boys in my register class, I really liked the boys, and I really loved the staff. I made some good friends in my short time there, and I will miss them next year - one in particular. Since I was a young girl I always wished for a sister. I love my brothers dearly, but I always wanted a sister. I think I may have found her in the person of Paola - the most dear, wonderful, amazing, inspiring woman. I will miss her tremendously.

But in the midst of all this work related stuff, life has been mad. My birthday passed in a quiet fashion with a handful of friends popping over for drinks (which was actually quite raucous at one point). Nellie's birthday, however, spanned several events. Firstly there was the family tea with Graeme's family (which was also a celebration of my birthday), then the birthday tea at nursery with her classmates, then there was the dinner with the grandparents, and finally the party with the cousins and extended family. Sjoe! Marathon. She's still singing happy birthday to herself, so I think she's got the idea that she has a birthday month, not just a birthday week, or birthday! Hmm... shall have to work on this concept for my birthday....

We've also had major stress about her eating habits at home (or lack thereof), only to realise that all toddlers go through something like this, and that since she's grown 2.5cm in 3 months, we're doing something right. So - deep breath - I think we can relax a bit on this issue and stop beating ourselves up about it.

And so one chapter closes and another begins. The Christmas Mania. God knows how we're going to manage this every year. The birthday madness followed immediately by the Christmas madness. I think my brother has the right idea - buy a farm and disappear to it for the entire holidays. This year was going to be more stressful, I thought, but it's actually working out ok (so far!), which is saying something given that there are 3 families to accommodate (my folks are both remarried), plus it's Graeme's birthday on Christmas Eve, plus both our mothers have their birthdays around New Year (one on the 30th, one on the 1st), plus the various in-laws don't seem to get on with each other very well, plus it's our first Christmas at home in YEARS, with the first grandchild being in attendance. So - only mildly stressful.

But surprise, surprise - I actually think it's all going to work out ok. Graeme's doing a birthday tea for his family on the 23rd, his family are coming to us on Christmas day, one set of my parents aren't doing Christmas this year - they're joining my brother on the farm - so we'll see the other lot on Christmas Eve (and celebrate G's birthday with them then). Sjoe! That was easily handled, I thought. If only everything in life was that simple.

And things for next year are already looking more complicated. It seems that news of my business is already spreading - I'm not even fully into production yet, and I'm already getting queries about stocking my stuff in baby boutiques in other provinces!!! I'm thrilled, but it has rather upped the ante. So, I've taken the plunge and I've booked a stand at the Baba Indaba baby show in Cape Town in July 2008. It's costing me an arm and a leg, but I think the exposure will be good. Plus, I think having a deadline to work towards will help me a lot. (But it does mean that I will not be getting 6 weeks of holiday this summer, or 3 weeks over Easter next year!)