‘You’re a writer, you need a furrowed brow.’

A friend said this to me after I told her about the beauty therapist who suggested I soften my frown lines with botox. I told the therapist (all 23 years of her) that if I wasn’t so anxious about injecting something (what, exactly?) between my eyes — perhaps.

As an interim arrangement, to stop the furrows getting deeper, she suggested I start using my eyes to express myself, not my whole face.

‘If you want to smile, smile with your eyes.’

She showed me how, and she was really good at it.

(By corollary, I should frown with my eyes, not my forehead).

We revere age in most things except our faces. In nature, we celebrate rebirth and rejuvenation, but we bow before that which is timeworn. Think of the wonder of standing before an ancient tree. It’s roots may be mangled from burrowing deep, it’s crown misshapen from searching for the light. But we’re entranced by it’s beauty and feel grounded and humbled in it’s presence. We climb mountains that have stood for millennia so we can feel connected to the sacred and the divine. We’re awed by the vast and unknowable ocean from which we came.

In our homes we love storied, vintage stuff. Lived-in sofas we can sink deep into. The curiosities that breathe life into our spaces are not from cookie cutter catalogues; they’re heirlooms with chinks and kinks that are layered with history. Shiny, intact ceramics are less intriguing than pieces that are wonky and chipped.

Kintsugi is an ancient Japanese art that uses gold to repair broken ceramics. The gold, it’s believed, both strengthens the object and makes it more beautiful. The scars are enhanced, not hidden — it’s a celebration of the beauty inherent in brokenness and imperfection. As Rumi wrote (and Leonard Cohen sang), the crack is where the light gets in. Every crack tells a story.

Our faces tell a story too, except, as women, we try to erase most of the chapters.

My pigmentation tells a story about mixed genes, of East and West, and hours spent on the beach. My frown lines, a story of squinting into the sun on my travels, and the deep thoughts I have about life. Like the blotches on my skin, there have been blotches in my life. Moments I’m not particularly proud of, but that have become woven into the fabric of my story, inseparable from the things I love and am grateful for.

They say youth is wasted on the young. Perhaps it’s one of nature’s clever designs. We don’t get to be collageny and firm and ripe, as well as wise and experienced. Maybe the world just wouldn’t cope with such potency. So we have to let go of one thing while being bestowed with another. The ebb and flow.

Our bodies become more brittle but our minds bend to accommodate more complexity. Our joints less limber, but our views more flexible — we surrender to the ambiguities of life, soften our stance. Our brows get more furrowed, the lines deepen. But so does our experience, and our wisdom.

Yet we still we fight the ravages (gifts) of time. When I got my first grey hairs I plucked them out furiously, even though a friend warned that for each hair I pulled, eight would come to their funeral (I was willing to risk it).

And without wanting to go too deep down the rabbit hole of gender wars, there’s a double standard when it comes to ageing, one which I totally buy into. My husband has gone completely grey since I met him. He wouldn’t think of dyeing his hair (why would he, he’s my silver fox), nor would he smooth out his laugh lines with botox (it’s a lived-in look I love). I prefer him wild and woolly to smooth and groomed. Men, it seems, do get to be like a piece of pottery — more interesting and textured as they age.

My sister shaved her head recently and said it’s something every woman should do at least once as most of us hide behind our hair.

Much as I’d love to face the world bald, naked and bare faced, it is nice to have a little buffer between us and all that scrutiny. A burst of colour and some lippy to lift the spirits on an otherwise dull day. A shimmery frock to give us some sparkle when we’re not feeling so sparkly. A heel to give us a literal lift when we’re feeling ever so slightly downtrodden. It’s fun and frivolous and our unique style is just one of the ways we express ourselves in the world.

But back to the therapist and her botox suggestion. How slippery is the slope? I feel like I’m perched atop, peering over the edge, and I worry that if I make a move I’ll go careening down.

And without even meaning to, maybe the beauty therapist was just echoing what Roald Dahl said about how you can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts they will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.

I’ll keep working on those good thoughts. Maybe they’ll buoy me once the grey starts coming unabated and the unrelenting writerly thoughts deepen my frown. Maybe not. I’ll check back in and let you know.

Making friends with my unquiet mind

We don’t talk much about anxiety, or depression, or mental health in general. And yet, in my privileged little pocket of suburbia, it seems to be endemic, whether it’s an edgy feeling lurking just below the surface (can’t survive without the 5pm glass of wine), or something more debilitating.

I’ve been dealing with anxiety for the better part of a year now. In retrospect, it had long been there, but had skirted the periphery lightly enough that I was able to smooth it over and ignore it. Until out of the blue I developed a fear of flying and confined spaces and just like that anxiety became something I had to learn to cope with.

Talking about it can be a bit of a downer, and is part of the reason I’ve held off on sharing my story. It’s way more fun to write about something light and frivolous than to fess up to the fact that sometimes I find life overwhelming. I’d far rather pretend to be one of the copers who effortlessly coast through, but truth is, I do find life overwhelming. Sometimes it feels loud and fast-paced and demanding and I want to run for cover.

I suspect another reason we don’t talk much about it is because we live in a country where so many live in abject poverty. If your life ticks all the boxes that society deems necessary for a happy and comfortable existence, your anxiety can start to feel like a champagne problem (which some might argue, it is). But adding guilt into the mix will do little to soothe your anxious soul.

Hopefully without sounding too preachy, here’s some of what has helped me:

Staying in the room
Perhaps the biggest lesson is that I can’t outrun my anxiety, I can only slow down enough to hear what it’s trying to tell me. Because like anything that’s uncomfortable and untimely and a giant big pain in the ass, it’s a chance to grow.

When we’re anxious or (*insert any uncomfortable emotion*), our instinct is to try push the feeling away or smooth it over, usually by reaching for the nearest distraction. But I’ve been experimenting with something that feels totally counter-intuitive—which is to surrender to any unpleasant feelings that crop up. To take them by the hand and welcome them as I would an old friend.

Enter mindfulness and meditation (it’s often said that too much future thinking causes anxiety, and too much thinking about the past causes depression, and by implication the only place we can find any real peace is in the present moment). 

It’s easy to dismiss mindfulness as pop culture woo woo, as it’s quite a watery concept that can be tricky to get a handle on. But it really is a wonderful balm for an overworked, exhausted mind. If you think of your anxiety as a little messenger trying to get your attention, try giving it that—your full attention. Experiment a little by stopping what you’re doing and engaging with whatever discomfort arises.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes beautifully about how to do this. She talks about nailing yourself to the spot by leaning in to rather than backing away from any emotion that surfaces. It takes work (and courage) because you have to override that whole flight or fright feeling. Staying with it is hard and confronting. Like most mindfulness practitioners, Pema encourages us to do it as gently as possible, and to try not get caught up in any story about the emotions we’re experiencing.

Here’s an effective little trick she suggests: every time you catch yourself stuck inside your own head (you know that endless chatter in your mind?) just say to yourself ‘Thinking’. It’s a very simple way of bringing you back from wherever you’ve drifted off to. Don’t beat yourself up when it happens, and do it over and over again, a million times a day if you need to. It’s through watching your mind like this (and becoming the observer) that you start to cultivate mindfulness.

​Other excellent thought leaders in mindfulness are Jon Kabat-Zinn and his wonderfully titled book ‘Wherever You Go, There you are’. Eckhart Tolle’s ‘Power of Now’ is another important book, and any of his talks will give you great insights into the transformative power of the present moment.

The point of meditation—I think— is to get to know ourselves, and then to learn to love and accept what we find (our nice shiny bits, and our shitty bits too). Because ultimately all love begins with self-love (you know how they say we can only love another person as much as we love ourselves).

Self-love sounds so deceptively simple, but we can be unkind to ourselves in remarkably subtle ways. To use just one example—the plight of the modern woman. Women these days can be visible and make our voices heard, we have choices like never before and we can be fabulous and fierce. If we step into our power, does it come at a cost? And what if we don’t want it all? What if we want to live a simple life far from the maddening crowd. Is that enough? Will we forever disappear into obscurity?

It sounds like existential angst of the privileged, but we really are bombarded by so many messages of what we could be doing and should be doing, it’s easy to wind up feeling that we’re not enough. Which is a one-way ticket to anxiety.

Two pioneers in the field of self-compassion are Tara Brach and Kristin Neff. It’s worth checking them out if you feel you can be a little kinder to yourself. Tara Brach has wonderful guided meditations on self-love, and as a psychologist, has amazing insights into the human condition and how our minds work.

Yoga and Breathing
Anxiety is something that starts in our heads and travels down into our bodies — yoga is a wonderful way to interrupt that. Think of it as pent up energy that needs space, to open up and clear. The twists and the openings in yoga postures help dispel any emotional overload in the body, in much the same way that surfing or skiing or any physical endeavour that’s completely immersive does.

Breath work is an important part of yoga, and there are many breathing techniques you can experiment with. Here are three of my favourite:

  • Ujjayi breath—breathe in through your nose for a count of 3, exhale slowly and deeply through your nose for a count of 4 using the ujjayi or oceanic breath—that deep, throaty sound you make in the back of your throat as you exhale.
  • Box breathing—4 breaths in / hold for 4 / 4 breaths out / hold for 4
  • The 4-7-8 breathing exercise. Inhale though your nose for a count of 4, hold your breath for a count of 7, exhale through your mouth for a count of 8. This is great when you can’t fall asleep, or you wake in the middle of the night and your mind starts jabbering away.

The only way out is through​​
When I’m caught in the grip of an anxious spell (closed spaces and aeroplanes do this to me)​, I remind myself that I can’t hyperventilate and breathe deeply at the same time—it’s a physical impossibility. ​I​ remind myself that​ I ​might ​be uncomfortable​​ for a few minutes, it might even be agonising. For a few seconds I may even want to crawl out my own skin,​ but whatever arises, it will most definitely pass.

Emotions seldom stick around for more than a few minutes, if we just let them be. Somehow shining a light on them seems to dilute the intensity of the feeling and make it less compelling.

And if all else fails and I can’t remember my breathing or my mantras, these two words always come to mind: ​ ‘Don’t resist’​. The minute I say those words I can feel my body start to soften.​

‘The wound is the place where the light enters you’ —Rumi

​‘Stay brave, awkward, and kind’
I love this little phrase of Brene Brown, a researcher and storyteller known for her work on shame and resilience, vulnerability and courage. Brene is like a great gulp of fresh air in our endlessly striving world. If you’re struggling with issues of enough-ness (being enough, doing enough), get your hands on anything written or said by her, particularly her books The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. It might just inspire you to ditch ‘perfect’​ and show the world your imperfect, messy, awkward self. 

I really loved her article ‘The Midlife Unravelling’. I had this idea that by the time I got to my forties I’d be pretty sussed— living life on my own terms, in whatever damn way I please. It’s not entirely panned out that way and that’s okay, because we can’t all be fabulous and fierce, but we can all be ourselves. It’s the only thing we can really be.

It can be quite a process to excavate who that person is. As Brene Brown puts it, we spend the first half of our lives building up our armour to protect ourselves, and the second half tearing it down to reveal our true selves. Removing our armour requires us to be vulnerable, which requires us to be brave, but it’s a journey so many of us feel compelled to take; we want to dig and unearth who we are underneath all that social conditioning.

Sometimes we get distracted, and we think we’ll get back round to it later, but then the universe steps in and sends us little reminders, which can come in the form of anxiety, or depression or any host of illness and dis-ease. It’s seldom pleasant, but if we’re committed to living as authentically as we can, and opening our hearts as much as we can, it’s often the reminder we need that life is precious, and the time is now.

‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken’ —Oscar Wilde

Do you have any tips or tricks that help you find a semblance of calm in this crazy beautiful world we live in?

I Am Man, Me Like Fire

I Am Man, Me Like Fire

Three moms and their six lads retreated to the mountains outside Cape Town for some fresh air and rock pooling. They missed the Dads terribly. But no matter, it was an illuminating two days as a thing or two was learnt about the Dads, and about fires, and about men and fires.

The Moms fared really well on night one. Nats, the Mom with a plan, had the good sense to bring along firelighters and before long, the flames had settled into beautiful simmering coals, cooking the burgers to perfection (not underdone, not overdone).

Night two was pizza night. Buoyed by the success of the burgers, they pooh-poohed the regular oven and decided to give the outdoor pizza oven a bash. Nothing like the smoky taste of wood-fired pizza. Having earned her stripes on burger night, Nats was put in charge of the fire.

The team got to work. The lads collected kindling, Nats created a wood pile in the oven. The other Moms, Rosie and Zan, got to grating the cheese, slicing the avo, chopping the ham, getting the plates ready, sorting the drinks, checking on the kids.

Nats stayed put in front of the fire. She poked and prodded, adjusted the pile, cranked up the heat, distributed the heat. It was just about time to slide the pizzas in when it dawned on Nats, who’s a doer and loves to get stuck in, that she hadn’t done much to help the other Moms. It was, she said, as if wielding the tongs and lauding over the fire gave her permission to do jack shit.

And they got to wondering. Why is it that men never leave the fire, ever? Staring into the flames is mesmeric for sure. Our relationship with fire is deeply primal; we relied on it for cooking, warmth, protection, survival. It draws us in.

The fire was also where the tribe gathered to tell tales and catch up on the day’s gossip. We closed in and the circle grew tight and somewhat impenetrable as we went deep into hanna hanna mode.

Manning the fire is important work, we totally get that. We can do without the salad and the frills and the beautifully laid table but without the fire there would be no main event.

But it is okay to leave the fire, just for a few minutes, now and then, to toss a salad or pull your warring kids apart. We’ll totally have your back. We’ll swan in and spend a few hypnotic minutes wrapped in the warm glow of the coals, keeping an eye on the flames. We’ll even hold your beer.

It’s a gender bending world yet somehow when we cook our food on an open flame we revert to archaic roles where Man Make Fire and Woman Do Everything Else.

But, guys, the jig is up. You weren’t around so we snuck into your hallowed domain. We sussed it out and we’re calling bullshit on the free pass that is braai duty.

Let’s switch it up. What’s it gonna take to hand over the tongs?

Mighty Middle Kingdom

Mighty Middle Kingdom

I’ve written about the severe culture shock I experienced when I packed up my life and moved to Beijing with my husband. I hated it at first, probably because I knew so little about it; I arrived with very little knowledge and a truck load of misconceptions. Here’s some of what I learnt after three years of muddling through:

  • Culturally, China is very heterogenous. Though the majority of people, about 90%, are Han Chinese, there are about 56 different ethnicities.  A friend gave me the most beautiful book called ‘China: Portrait of a People’ by photojournalist Tom Carter, and I never tire of paging through it, enraptured by the faces.  From the Islamic Uighurs to the matriarchal Miao to the Yi and (depending on where you stand politically), the Tibetans and Taiwanese, the diversity is truly astounding.  People always talk about ‘the Chinese’ as if they’re a homogenous mass, and when I’d try imagine China before living there, I’d picture a sea of indistinguishable faces.  Such a huge misconception. What’s interesting is that my Chinese colleagues would tell me that – to them – all westerners looked the same. I guess cultural reductionism works both ways.
  • The food is mind-blowingly delicious and completely diverse – it’s certainly not all chow mein and chop suey. Different parts of the country have very different cuisines. During our time there my husband would attend elaborate Chinese banquets where he sampled delicacies like sea cucumber, jellyfish, camel’s hump, camel’s paw and live lobster shashimi.  He always said the food he liked most was the ‘peasant food’ – the wholesome simple food that ordinary Chinese people ate. The fancier the banquet and the more the hosts tried to impress, the more unpalatable the food – and I totally agree.  I still salivate thinking of hotpot in the winter, spicy sichuan fish with its tongue-numbing pepper, Xinjiang kebabs, dofu, refried beans.
  • It’s not all zen and yin and yang. I was bumped and pushed and shoved and queue jumped. I was surprised that ancient Chinese practices like feng shui and traditional Chinese medicine didn’t seem very prevalent, not on the surface anyway. I learnt this is a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao was hell-bent on eradicating all traces of traditional Chinese beliefs — he regarded them as backward and a threat to progress.  If you look hard enough, you can find corners of peace and tranquility and the quaint China you imagine, but on the face of it it’s noisy and in your face and dog-eat-dog.  In competing with a billion other people in the race to modernise, I get why it’s like this; still –  I always took it as a personal affront when someone pushed in front of me or into me.
  • The incredible ethnic diversity has resulted in different dialects – linguists say somewhere between 7 and 14. Most expats tackling Chinese are not brave enough to learn Chinese characters, and opt for pinyin instead.  Pinyin is the romanisation of Chinese characters, using punctuation to denote the tones. And tones are very important. The example always given to beginners is that of ma – which, depending on which tone you use (first tone maaa or fourth tone mah), can mean either ‘mother’ or ‘horse’ (a faux pas waiting to happen basically).
  • The government may have loosed its grip somewhat, but when we lived there censorship was alive and well. Our first experience of it was while watching BBC – a segment on China had just begun when the TV screen went blank. Social media sites are blocked and unblocked randomly and don’t even try and google Tiananmen Square or Tibet. I once managed to find a copy of National Geographic from a tucked away kiosk in a mall that stocked foreign language magazines (English magazines were always a treat!). It was the run up to the Olympics so China was getting lots of coverage. Inside was an article on China and every reference to Tiananmen had been manually crossed out with a black marker pen. The diligence of the censorship police seemed to know no bounds. The few times I did try engage my colleagues on the leadership of the country I was met with blank stares and stony silences.
  • The geographical diversity is huge. China has mountains, rivers, lakes, plateaus, karsts, snow and sunshine. It’s like a dozen countries in one, though with just one time zone! The winters in the north are subarctic and the summers in the south are tropical. A vivid Beijing memory is of streets jam-packed with bodies wearing full-length padded jackets, not unlike duvets. With temperatures of -10 not uncommon, warmth definitely trumps fashion. A trip to see the famous Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin (a town in the very north of China, close to Russia) was a highlight, admiring the giant ice sculptures, in below thirty temperatures, with frozen nostril hairs and layer upon layer of thermal wear.
  • The Great Wall, I was surprised to learn, is not one long wall but rather a series of connecting walls built over centuries and – contrary to local belief – I don’t think you can see if from outer space.  It’s a truly spectacular sight though and if you’re ever in that part of the world, try and do a weekend trip with William Lindesay.  He’s a Great Wall researcher whose claim to fame is being the first foreigner to walk the entire length of the wall.  His knowledge is incredible and he’ll take you to some remote sections of the wall miles away from the crowds.

There it is, my version of China for Dummies. Years ago, I remember reading in the Lonely Planet that India is a complete assault on the senses and I found that to be true. I also found the same to be true of China. It’s hard to be indifferent about it – you love it, then hate it, then both at the same time. It’s just completely impossible to ignore.

(*This post was written years ago. Even though we’re now happily ensconced in the suburbs of Cape Town, putting down some roots, sometimes, in and amongst all the domesticity, I still get an itch, to pack it all up, move somewhere new and be presented with that wonderfully exciting clean slate. For now, the closest I’ll get to that are flashbacks to our expat days).

Let them drink champagne

Let them drink champagne

Cape Town has basked in a string of ‘Best City’ accolades in recent years, but we’re about to become known for something else — the first major city in the world to run out of water. Day Zero, the day the taps are turned off, has been brought forward to 12 April.

Predictably in times of heightened stress and anxiety, there’s been much finger pointing as we scramble to apportion blame. Rumours are swirling that the City was forewarned about this likelihood years ago and failed to act. There’s anger over the City’s unwillingness (inability?) to tap into other water sources (desalination and aquifers) and squabbling over what the different statistics mean (is it the worst drought in 100 years?).

At first it felt like we might be plunged into something resembling a dystopian novel, but with Day Zero looming, we’re getting proactive. Stinky loos, parched lawns and empty pools aside, Capetonians are devising novel ways to stick to the allocated 50 litres a day. Those with the resources are rigging up boreholes and going off grid (though there’s much uncertainty about the legality of this), enhancing their grey water systems, buying machines that make water out of air, and stockpiling boxes of 5l water bottles. There’s been this been-there-done-that post giving us some much needed perspective (it’s okay, we’ll survive, we’ll come out stronger).

Because of course we’re not the first city to be severely water stressed. California has been in a ‘mega-drought’ for years and Australia had its own ‘Millenial Drought’ in the early 2000’s. Droughts are becoming so frequent it’s predicted the next World War will be fought over water.

What sets us apart, as always, are the disparities. It’s a bleak prospect, queuing for water, wearing dirty clothes, being unwashed. But there’s this thing that happens in South Africa, which is that most of the time we’re ostriches, but in times of crisis we’re reminded how the majority of the population live.  When the rug is pulled out from under us, and our creature comforts are threatened, we remember just how fortunate we are. An estate dweller in my nice car, plotting how we’ll leave the city if things go belly up, I’m as guilty of sealing myself off from the realities of life in South Africa as the next person.

Let’s hope this becomes reminiscent of load shedding, where we retrofitted our homes, but then just as quickly Eskom turned the lights back on. Perhaps the soothsayers are right, and we will see flooding in March. We may just scrape through and avoid Day Zero, but our attitudes to water will have been irrevocably changed.  And absolute worst case for most of us reading this — rather than it being some vague notion out there, we will actually have to live the knowledge of what it’s like to be without water, and perhaps there are blessings in that.