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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7 Responses to Home

  1. Debbie Derman says:

    Oh Cath, just being is inordinately hard work!

  2. ashley says:

    Hey Cathy, a lovely post – hope gardening brings you some contentment 🙂 Sorry you have had a tough 6 weeks. Choosing the simpler life and what you really want & need is the way to go. Hugs

    • Cathy says:

      Hi Ash, look forward to seeing you when you get back from your travels. I feel a lot better since writing this post – it helps to clear the mind. I just wish the weather would warm up – I am heartily sick and tired of the cold!

  3. Chris Ammann says:

    Cathy, as an atheist I see no purpose in life, no gods to fawn over and worship. Which of course is a problem. It’s much easier if you can do a bit of bowing and scraping and know you’re going to paradise after you get this pesky little life out of the way. For a long time I relied on the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” to guide me but I recently had an epiphany when reading a friend of a friend on Facebook saying he adheres more to “do unto others as others would have you do unto them” which is subtly different.

    Yesterday we popped round to a friend and I gave her a conker spider (as I posted on FB) in a cardboard box with air holes and “this way up” written on the sides. His name is Gerald. It was Diana who had given the conkers to Pam in the first place to keep the spiders at bay and this was my good-natured dig at the dodgy science. Well she shrieked with laughter and said it had made her day, not having had a very good one so far. We then went to visit an elderly one-legged friend, Kate, who is now bed-ridden, blind and largely deaf. I teased her a bit, she flirted with me and I told her two rather risqué jokes, really loud because of her deafness so the whole floor must have heard them too.

    We then went to have tea with a friend, Chris, who on hearing of some family problem I’d been having gave me some great ideas about dealing with it and when he could see just how much I’d appreciate his advice, his face sit up with barely-disguised joy. Both Pam and I spotted this.

    This isn’t meant to make me out as Father Theresa either (you know what I mean). I tend to be more self-centred than Pam who has a healthy strain of the caring gene so these things are often at her initiation. But at the end of the day (literally), Diana was smiling, Pam and I were laughing, Kate was giggling, Chris was smiling. We had all given something to each other and all got something in return. (This is starting to sound a lot more saccharine than it was meant to and the pearls of wisdom that struck me at two in the morning have long since evaporated.)

    You sound as if you are contributing to your local society and have two great kids. Perhaps you just need to manage your expectations better (the damn Protestant work ethic has a lot to answer for). I was talking to a friend of mine about this the other day and I suggested there was no purpose to anything – just minimise your own pain through life while maximising the pleasure you bring to others.

    And sometimes it’s just fine to sit and watch the clouds as they scud over the Drakensberg foothills, listen to the sound of the wind in the trees and feel the breeze on your skin. In fact you should do that every day: nothing but ‘be’ in your little patch of paradise.

    • Cathy says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Chris. I, like you, am an atheist and feel the pressure to make this time on earth count as once it’s over that’s it. I like your “do unto others as others would have you do unto them” approach – all too often we put ourselves at the centre and we need to look at life more from the perspective of others.

      I really take your point about the reciprocity of giving. After a morning at school with the kids or when I have been successful fundraising, I feel so elated. It’s just that there’s always this bloody niggle in the back of my mind (my inner lizard) that I could, and should, be doing better. And I have this disconcerting feeling that somehow I’m in the wrong place – I can’t explain it because I love where I am, it’s just that I do expect so much more of myself and others.

      I must say that I’m ambivalent about the issue of purpose. But I’m going to make a concerted effort to try and enjoy guilt-free “being”. Thanks again for the comment, you’ve given me food for thought.

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