If I Ruled The World

There’s a particular kind of comfort that I find in places that house books. When I was a child growing up in Port Elizabeth, I looked forward with eager anticipation to trips with my mum to the library. The architecture, the reverence of books and hushed voices made me feel like I had entered a place of worship. And since we were an agnostic family, the library was, in a way, my substitute church.

Later, as a student at the University of Natal, whenever I felt lonely or confused, I would escape to the English Lit section of the library, which in those days was somewhere near the top of Memorial Tower Building (a lot more romantic than the present modern library). It was a small room with spectacular views over Durban and, surrounded by dusty old books, I always felt safe and reassured.

And later still, there was Adam’s Bookstore in Musgrave Centre. It became a ritual of mine to stop in there for a cappuccino and a browse through the bookshelves after the weekly grocery shop. This provided a much-needed respite from tedious housewifely chores.

So, it’s no surprise really that now I find myself as a volunteer librarian, hopefully exposing other children to the wonderful possibilities of a library. Every Thursday, Robyn (another volunteer) and I open the library at the Curry’s Post Primary School and provide a happy and stimulating environment for children to experience the pleasure of reading. Grade 4 – 7 learners (ages 9 to 12) come during break to exchange their books as well as to sit and read or play with puzzles. At first it was bedlam, with the children just grabbing whatever book they could lay their hands on. Now it’s so heart-warming to see them taking their time and poring over the books before finally choosing the one to take home. I just wish we had more for them to choose from, but we’ll get there. This year the Stretch Foundation very generously donated R5,000’s worth of books supplied by Biblionef as well as a lovely selection of Book Dash books. Local people have also made kind donations of second-hand books.

After break we have a half hour story time with the younger children (6 to 8 years old). Often, we sing songs, play games and do creative activities as well. Then it’s the turn of the grade 4 & 5 learners to have story-time with me while Robyn takes the older children for a more structured reading lesson.

Image result for michael morpurgo let there be half an hour of storytime

School finishes at 2 o’clock but there’s a group of about 20 children who wait for their taxi to come at 4 pm. So Robyn and I now keep the library open for them and have landed up starting an informal aftercare programme. By the end of the day we are both knackered, seriously in need of a drink (or two) but hugely fulfilled.

Neil Gaiman...on point, as always. "The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.  And that means finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them."

Recently I found a carpenter to make me my own mini – library; it turned out rather well I think.




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Roll with the Punches

It’s been a while. I’ve been rather distracted by my mother’s condition, which has deteriorated quite a bit since my last post. We are now dealing with the start of dementia which unfortunately, as well as loss of memory and confusion includes paranoia concerning her caregiver, whom she is convinced is stealing from her. Oh dear, it’s not been easy but Peter has been a rock and together we seem to be coping. I just have to keep reminding myself that this too shall pass.

Since the beginning of February there’s been a noticeable shift in the early morning and evening temperatures. On cue, come the end of January in the Midlands, summer starts to fade away. It always leaves us feeling a bit short changed. “Bloody hell, did I blink and miss it?” one might ask. December is damp and overcast, January is everything summer should be, and February is summer saying goodbye. One month basically is all we get; that’s it folks, we don’t want to spoil you with too much of a good thing.

Oh, and have we had some summer storms! It seems that hail is the new rain and early this year we had not only hail but a tornado, I kid you not. In spring last year, I planted about 100 squash and pumpkin seedlings and seeds in the field. Not one has survived – first of all a late frost (on the 11th October) killed off most of the seedlings, so I planted more. Then a late, late frost (on the 17th November) killed off all but one gem squash plant, valiantly climbing up the frame I had optimistically built for the squashes. On the 27th January the tornado / hailstorm took that plant out. And now, all I have left are my tattered dreams of vegetable self-sufficiency.

The potato crop this year has also been disappointing. The plants were doing really well until the late, late frost in November caused the tops to die off, stunting the growth of the tubers. The potatoes are delicious but very small.

All is not lost though, I still have the allotment under hail guard which stood up surprisingly well to the tornado which drove the hail stones through the garden like a shredder. I put this down to the established wind breaks protecting the perimeter of the veg garden.

One thing living here has taught me is to roll with the punches that nature throws at one. When I was a newbie I would rant and rail against all the misfortunes that befell my gardening endeavours. Now, I didn’t even shed a tear for the lost gem. Instead I have started planning my next offensive against the unbeatable foe. I’m planning a more concerted wind break planting regime and come spring this year I shall leave the frost cloth on until Christmas! The hail is a worry for the veggies out in the field and I’m undecided as to how to deal with that problem.

I’ve also taken delivery of my Livingseeds garlic bulbs (I shared a variety pack with a friend) and am tucking them into bed, with a thick cover of homemade compost and mulch, in the allotment for the winter.

I always think of Charles Dudley Warner whenever nature has pulled no punches. In My Summer in a Garden (written in 1870) he writes:

The principal value of a [vegetable] garden is not understood. It is not to give the possessor vegetables and fruit (that can be better and cheaper done by the market-gardeners), but to teach him patience and philosophy, and the higher virtues, – hope deferred, and expectations blighted, leading directly to resignation, and sometimes to alienation.

Yes, well I’ve certainly learnt patience, none of that instant gratification nonsense to be found here – one always lives in hope of getting it right next time.

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Growin’ in the Wind (summer)

The garden seems to have come together rather beautifully this summer, with very little help from me. Flowers shimmer against shades of green and birds flit from branch to branch. It rained last night and in this morning’s early light, the garden sparkled.

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It’s been a difficult past few months, which is why I haven’t been posting that many blogs. I can’t seem to get my act together to sit down and write and yet all I think about is writing! Sometime in November, my mother, who lives with us and has just turned 94, suddenly became rather challenging. After always being quite undemanding and pleasant to be around, she became querulous, petulant and, dare I say it, bloody annoying. This change happened literally overnight, as if she woke up one morning and said to herself, “I can’t do this anymore.”

It caught us totally unawares. Basically, she took to her bed and turned her face to the wall. We called the doctor who said that there was nothing physically wrong with her and gave her a vitamin b12 jab, which usually perks her up – it didn’t. My brother visited her and suggested an anti-depressant, which she refused to take. Since this happened she has lost interest in everyone and everything and derives no pleasure from anything – she hasn’t set foot in her once-beloved garden, she no longer watches tv or listens to audio books or does sudokus. She has simply stopped living whilst still being alive.

Thandi, our domestic worker, had already started helping Edna with bathing and household chores a while ago but it became clear that my mom now needed more care. In a serendipitous way, we had previously been talking to Thandi about putting up another wooden cabin on the farm for her as the place she was renting was really not fit for human habitation. When my mom took to her bed, Thandi agreed to move in with her and provide her with the necessary care. We’ll still go ahead with the cabin but Thandi seems quite comfortable being Edna’s roomie, for the time being.

Even with Thandi’s incredible support, I have found this all hugely emotionally draining and exhausting. So, when Thandi was away over Christmas and New Year and I had to take over, I was a wreck. Thandi hadn’t planned to take leave over New Year but tragically her brother, who worked as a security guard in Pietermaritzburg, was shot and killed during a robbery and she returned to her home in Wartburg for the funeral. Her grieving family were further distressed by the fact that the mortuary would not release the body for burial until later the following week. He died on the 29th of December and they only got the body on the 4th of January because mortuary staff were on holiday!

The only bright light during this past festive season was Alex’s visit home for Christmas and even that was over-shadowed by the sense of gloom emanating from the Wee House.

Alex and Peter on Christmas Day 2017

Without Peter’s help I think I would’ve given up the ghost myself. In a sense, I’ve gone through, in rapid succession, all the stages of grief. At first, I denied that there was anything wrong with my mom, that she would snap out of it and return to her former self. Then I got angry with her because I believed she had given up. I tried bargaining with her, especially around food and getting up and about. The whole situation eventually wore me down and I got quite depressed. But now I’ve accepted it – I accept that there is no going back, what’s done is done and I accept that I may have made mistakes in how I’ve handled things but that is with hindsight, which Kiera tells me is always 20/20.

So here I am writing my blog and feeling like I can take something positive out of this sad state of affairs – perhaps some life lessons that I’ve learnt from my mother. It amuses me that Edna always used to say, quite disparagingly, that her mother-in-law “took to her bed and died of melancholia.” The irony may have escaped her but not me – it has made me all the more determined not to follow suit in a family tradition.

Life Lesson no.1

Firstly, the most obvious: KEEP ACTIVE, not just physically but mentally as well. Keep moving, keep doing stuff – even if it’s small stuff. Get out and about.

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

Martin Luther King Jr

Life Lesson no.2

Be sociable, even if you find it difficult. We all need and benefit from company. Play a game, entertain, phone a friend, keep in touch. If you are an introvert like me, read Susan Cain’s book Quiet, it transformed my life.

Life Lesson no.3

Show gratitude – just a small thank you will suffice. Carers are people too!

Life Lesson no.4

Make a contribution to the world. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture but do something that makes you feel like you have made a difference.

Life Lesson no.5

Listen to what your nearest and dearest tell you – we don’t always have all the answers and sometimes advice is hard to take, especially if it is coming from your children.

Life Lesson no. 6

Don’t expect others to read your mind. Speak out about your feelings and your needs.

Okay, so I never said that my life lessons were going to be earth shattering – they are a work in progress.

I would prefer to live forever in perfect health, but if I must at some time leave this life, I would like to do so ensconced on a chaise lounge, perfumed, wearing a velvet robe and pearl earrings, with a flute of champagne beside me and having just discovered the answer to the last problem in a British cryptic crossword.

Olivia de Havilland

94 years old


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If I Ruled The World

If I ruled the world:

My world would be a beautiful place
Where we would weave such wonderful dreams

And what better way to experience wonderful dreams than by reading a book?

When a sentence in a book resonates within, it is the voice of your authentic self. Listen to what she is trying to tell you. Whoever said that you can’t take it with you obviously never read a good book. For everything you’ve ever read, loved and remembered is now part of your consciousness.

Sarah Ban Breathnach

A couple of weeks ago I read the following Daily Maverick article:

The results of an international study of child literacy are in – and they spell bad news for South Africa. Of the 50 countries surveyed for reading ability among school kids, South Africa came stone last. More alarmingly, however, the study also found that eight out of 10 South African Grade 4s cannot read for meaning. The Department of Basic Education is putting a brave spin on the results, but education experts say that it’s clear South Africa’s reading crisis is deeper than previously imagined.

The report found that results were worse in schools without libraries (my highlights – well, it bloody stands to reason doesn’t it?)

[Education researcher Dr Nic] Spaull says that these results have to be a wake-up call for both government and South African society. He suggests that the situation is so dire that it requires a “master plan”, involving collaboration between the private and public sector, which has to be personally championed by somebody at the very top of government.

“From a schooling perspective, if you don’t learn to read in the first three years, you’re doomed, because reading is a fundamental skill that all the other skills build on,” Spaull told Daily Maverick.”

What the article didn’t touch on was the minefield of Education policy re: teaching in the mother tongue and teacher training. In most rural areas, learners are taught in their mother tongue for the first 4 years of schooling, thereafter the teachers, who speak English as a second language, have to shift to English as the medium of instruction. Obviously, the level of teaching competency is questionable – there is specialised training for the teaching of English as a second language which (and I’m going out on a limb here) teachers don’t seem to have been given. As a result, the English that kids learn is fairly dodgy. So, parents whose home language is not English often go to great expense and effort to send their children to “former Model C ” schools where the medium of instruction is English from the get go. How these kids cope I do not know, it must be terrifying for those first few years. However, I do believe in the long run they are getting the better bet.

Andrew Foley writes:

If, after all is said and done, parents continue to insist, as the majority currently does, that their children be educated in English rather than their mother tongue, then the onus rests on the State to ensure that this is provided as effectively as possible for everyone who wants it. And if this does indeed continue to be the will of the majority, then the State must take far more active and extensive steps to improve the teaching and learning of English in South African schools than has hitherto been the case. No language in education policy which is forced on the majority against its will can ever succeed, and will serve only to perpetuate the unequal and inefficient conditions which currently exist in South African education.

Because  I was a pre-primary school teacher in a previous life, when I first started volunteering at the Curry’s Post Primary School I thought it would be a good idea to offer my services as an assistant to the Grade R teacher. Grade R was a mixed age class so Thandi and I would spend one morning a week with the 4-year olds to enable the Grade R teacher to give her full attention to teaching the 5-year olds. We used to have a lot of fun and I really enjoyed spending time with the littlies. However, at the beginning of 2017, when only 6 children were registered for Grade R I decided to put my time and effort elsewhere. And I turned my attention to the library.

A classroom had already been designated as a library and shelves had been put up. Piles of second-hand books had been donated and were stacked in boxes in the classroom. So Thandi and I got to work arranging the furniture, decorating the room, emptying the boxes and sorting out the crap from the good stuff (it’s amazing what rubbish people donate – I never want to see another set of bloody encyclopaedias dating back to 19voetsek). The non-fiction books were catalogued, shelves labelled and finally the books went on display.

Thandi and I opened the library every Thursday. Older children were encouraged to take books home and we had half an hour story time with the younger children. Towards the end of the year I was joined by another volunteer, Robyn, who has trained as an English second-language teacher. She started a reading project with the Grade 6 & 7 kids, while I read to and sang songs and played games with the younger children. Above all, we wanted library “lessons” to be fun and I think we succeeded.

One of my fondest childhood memories of my father is when he would come from work, pour himself a whiskey on ice and settle into his big, comfortable armchair. I would run to get my book (The Wind in the Willows or A Child’s Garden of Verses or perhaps a library book) and perch on the arm of his chair and listen to the words as they tumbled out of his mouth, for me and me alone. As an adult I’ve learned that there is something so magical that happens when reading to (or with, as Robyn does) children. You lose yourself in the story; for that half hour you enter another world, the world of dreams. I hope my father enjoyed that as much as I did.

“The fire of literacy is created by the emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it’s the relationship winding between all three, bringing them together in easy harmony.”

Mem Fox: Reading Magic – why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever

I arrived at school one library day and bumped into a little girl coming out of one of the classrooms. “Oh no!” she said looking most put out when she saw me. “Aren’t you happy to see me?” I asked, a bit hurt if truth be told. “I’ve left my library book at home”, she moaned. I explained that it wasn’t a problem, she could return it the following week. But no, she was upset because she was eager to exchange it for a new book to read. Now that makes it all worthwhile.

Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean/ they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life – wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean.”

Anne Lamott

Top left: sometimes the djembe drums provide great sound effects during story time; Bottom left: a corner of the library for internet research; Right: Peter and I meeting one of our lovely, generous donors from the N3 Toll Concession

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Growin’ in the Wind

Spring 2017

Several years ago we fenced off a section of open land (to keep buck and porcupine out) and created an orchard, as well as a patch to grow berries, potatoes, mealies and squash, which take up too much space in the veg garden. About 30 fruit and nut trees were planted in concentric circles at the top (eastern) end of the orchard, leaving room for berries and vegetables at the bottom (western) end. Once the trees and berries were planted, they were pretty much left to get on with it. This strategy didn’t work however and the orchard has never been a great success.

This year, I’ve focussed more attention on the orchard and my efforts are beginning to pay off. Thanks to the online permaculture course that I did, the first thing I did was plant a food hedge (fedge!) to stop the prevailing winds from barrelling through a gap in the existing windbreak. I transplanted indigenous trees and shrubs that had self-sown in my garden (mostly leucosidea sericea/ouhout, heteromorpha arborescens/parsley tree and buddleja salviifolia/sagewood) and interplanted them with quince, pomegranate and elderberry trees.

Then we transplanted about 200 strawberry plants into raised beds, which has made cultivating and harvesting them a lot easier. I also decided to espalier all the trees. This was not an easy task because of them being planted in circles but with Kho’s help (and YouTube) I managed to get the necessary support structure in. Fortunately, our local garden centre was selling off fruit trees at half price and I was able to add quite a few more trees to fill in the gaps.

At the same time as I was redoing the orchard, I got to know a young guy (Daniel, the plant whisperer) who came and fertilised all the trees with rock dust. I had never heard of rock dust and when I googled it I found mixed opinions about its efficacy. However, as far as I’m concerned it did the trick. Some of the trees that I thought were dead have sprung back to life with such vigour and, in the space of a couple of months, even have fruit on them. It is such a pleasure taking the dogs for their evening walk and detouring through the orchard, inspecting (and talking to) all the trees. It’s a bit like doing a walking meditation.

apple tree I thought was dead


fruit fly with its beady eye on the nectarines









However, the tranquility has been somewhat marred by a malicious little murderer lurking in the trees. Our orchard has become a killing field thanks to a jacky hangman (aka fiscal shrike) who has been using a lemon tree with particularly vicious thorns as his pantry. For some years now I’ve noticed corpses of small critters pinned on spikes in the lemon tree but a couple of weeks ago, I made the most gruesome find of all – an impaled baby weaver. When I went back the next day with my camera, all that was left was the head, pierced through the eye socket.

This week, I found a tail (all that remained of a small rodent) and an unfortunate locust, impaled while still alive.


Read more about the macabre habits of the butcher bird here.

Still in the orchard, our potato crop is looking good. We have decided not to plant mealies again because it seems to attract monkeys and we really don’t want to encourage them.

potato patch

borage – grown as a companion to strawberries









The veg garden, or allotment as we call it, has kept us supplied with salad greens, asparagus, artichokes, broad beans, sugar snap peas, celery, parsley and coriander. My courtyard potted herbs are doing well, with plenty of mint, lemongrass, lemon verbena, chives and thyme.

the allotment

And even the rest of the garden is looking good considering how neglected it’s been. Mind you I did get some help from Daniel with pruning and fertilising.

pomegranate flower






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Writing gives me great pleasure and the spinoffs are quite good too – there’s a sense of accomplishment when a blog is posted, a sense of satisfaction when someone “out there” likes what you’ve written and a sense of lightness that comes from simply getting stuff off your chest. But I have to be in the right frame of mind to write and I haven’t been, ever since returning home from my trip to America. Even my morning pages have suffered. For many years the first thing I do, as soon as possible after waking, is sharpen a pencil and attempt three A4 pages of stream of consciousness writing. Lately however I’ve taken to staring out of the window instead.

I always struggle to settle back into a routine whenever I’ve been gallivanting on the other side of the world. Returning home after being away for 6 weeks necessitates quite a few mental and physical adjustments on my part. Firstly, there is the jetlag to contend with. “West is best, East is a beast” is certainly true when referring to travelling through a number of time zones. It took a while to stop feeling incessantly hungry and tired and to get my circadian rhythm back in sync. Secondly, there’s the weather to acclimatise to – we left D.C. on a balmy summer’s day and arrived back to a bleak, wintry Midlands. And for the remainder of winter, the cold seemed to seep into my bones and get the better of me. However, the most difficult challenge really was getting my head around the fact that I was no longer on holiday.

Now, some might say that I’m permanently on holiday and although living in the country may appear to be a rather idyllic way of life, it does come with its responsibilities.  While I was away I never gave them a second thought, which was extremely liberating yet, as soon as I set foot on South African soil again, the to-do list started looping through my mind and I had a strong urge to turn around and head stateside again.

To add to my woes, not long after returning home, I picked up an extremely tenacious flu bug that not only took a month and a half to shake off but managed to sap what little energy I had left. With all of this going on, I kind of went into hibernation (feeling sorry for myself) and let the world slip by.

Whilst staring out the window, I had plenty of time to mull over the implications of turning 60 and, I must admit, it did add to my general malaise. I have lived what I consider to be an interesting life. I have few regrets and I truly believe that I’ve made a contribution and paid my dues to my family and society – I’ve worked hard, sacrificed my own interests for those of others and placed a high value on nurturing others (as a teacher, an NGO worker and parent). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as a Mother Teresa, in fact as much as I’ve worked hard, I’ve played hard too.

However, this concept of paying one’s dues, of making a contribution, of finding meaning through work has been a bit of a problem for me ever since my youngest left home and I experienced the empty nest syndrome big time. I moved to the country to get over it, to find meaning and purpose again; trying, I suppose, in a way to reinvent myself after full-time motherhood. Well I thought I had succeeded until I hit this recent wobbly and the existential doubts started creeping in again, with questions like who am I, what the hell am I doing and why. Brought on no doubt by spending such a wonderful time with my family in America and returning home to pick up where I left off.

I’m forever trying to impose some sort of structure and meaning to my daily life, drawing up timetables that I never stick to or lists of things to do that I ignore. Finally, I was able to see (through the window) that I am constantly trying to convince myself that I have work to do, that I’m so busy doing important stuff that I just can’t keep up with it all when in reality I am redundant and have been ever since Alex left home; in reality I do charity work, have hobbies, garden, play bridge, cook and clean. Like Tom Wilkinson’s character in The Full Monty who hides the fact that he’s unemployed from his wife by pretending to go to work every day, I’ve been putting on a show for myself. The question is why? Because of that nasty little Protestant work ethic so engrained in my ego.

This need of mine to be useful hit home the other day when my mother complained about the lunch that I had prepared for her. This happens fairly frequently and usually I shrug it off but for some reason, on this particular day, it irked me. I, in turn, complained to Peter about her saying, in effect, that since she made no contribution to anything she had no right to complain. Afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about that need to make a contribution. Do we not matter when we stop making a contribution? Is that what I fear about not working, that I am no longer relevant?

What helped me out of all of this self-pity was twofold. I read an essay from Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance on “the devil within”, that pesky little ego of ours and I realised that my ego was at the core of this need to feel important, to be productive, to make a contribution. At the same time, my ego was sabotaging all my efforts to achieve this. As my lovely yoga teacher used to say whenever someone inadvertently farted during the class, “If it ain’t paying rent, it’s gotta go”. So out with the ego and its constant criticism. I’m focusing on quality of life; if it adds value all well and good, if it doesn’t then it’s got to go. I’m looking at a different way of measuring success.

Success is important only to the extent that it puts one in a position to do more things one likes to do

Sarah Caldwell

And secondly, it dawned on me that we’re already in the 10th month and I have a garden to tend. Can you believe it – it’s not that long before 2017 calls it quits and we in the southern hemisphere are full tilt into summer? In the meantime, spring has sprung and I’ve started to get my gardening and writing mojo back.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom during the months of August and September, there were little rays of sunshine. The highlight being the wedding of Peter’s nephew, Will, and his lovely bride, Laura. I’m not a huge fan of weddings per se but this was family so I dragged myself off my sick bed and out of my warm bedroom cocoon and we headed down to Oribi Gorge on the KZN south coast. And what a lovely wedding it was. Firstly, Will and Laura are the real deal – they’re genuine, unpretentious and gorgeous people. And secondly, I have always enjoyed the company of Peter’s family; they’re a very warm and welcoming lot and have shown me how supportive families can be. Not only did all Peter’s siblings attend the wedding but all four of the groom’s siblings were there as well, 3 of them and their spouses having travelled all the way from Australia.

Peter with his brothers and sisters

Kiera and Alex, these are your lovely cousins – Bernice, Yvonne, Mary-Anne and David

Will and Laura

We also took a trip on a steam train with friends to see the aloes in the Creighton Valley – that was fun.

And a lot of progress has been made at the school but I’ll write about that in another post (If I ruled the World).

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