Who died at my wedding?

Am I the only person who is more than just a little perturbed by how weird most wedding speeches are? I’ve attended wedding after wedding where speeches consist of a strange but predictable formula; a list of previous accomplishments (academic, climbing the corporate ladder, being great at taking selfies or whatever the kids are doing these days) and of course an embarrassing story thrown in for some wholesome humour at the bride/groom’s expense. At one wedding I sat there, trying not to pick at the shiny poky things on my sari, and wondered “Why does this speech sound like a eulogy?”. Could it be that the bride’s friends and family were actually paying tribute to a part of the bride that was now dead? Was this newly married woman shedding her old “singledom” skin to expose the new marital one? No in fact, a more accurate question would be something along the line of “Does a caterpillar die when it turns into a butterfly?” Now, it’s not entirely gender based, but it got me thinking. It got me thinking about who I was before I got married and it got me wondering who people see me as now. Sadly, I know that in the eyes of many I had gone from being someone’s daughter to being someone’s wife.

Backtrack to a couple of months ago to when I had been asked to introduce myself in a work setting. Naturally I state my name and talk about the project I’m working on before making a characteristically unfunny self-depreciating joke and taking my seat again. Nothing out of the blue there, just Denira being an idiot. Anyway, as I sit someone mentions that I haven’t provided nearly enough information and I quickly think of some of salient points about the project I’m current working on. I’m busy preparing my “serious work voice” when the question “So are you married and do you have kids?” is directed towards me. Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to know someone socially, it’s great when you feel that the people you work with see you as more than just a worker bee and actually understand that you’re human. So why did this question throw me? I guess more than anything, I never grew up dreaming that one day I’d have the title “Wife”. Sure, I thought I’d be married (to MacGuyver of course- a girl never forgets her first love) but I never assumed that this title would be the one that would overwrite every other one. Every other one that I had fought for, that I had worked hard for, that I had earned. My “wifedome” was not something I had earned, my husband’s love for sure, but I didn’t feel like I had earned the weight of the all-powerful slate cleaning title of “Wife”. I was stupid enough to assume that whether I was a wife or mother would have no bearing on other’s perception of me. But I guess as a woman in my thirties, there are certain moulds that I must fit into. And this is what gets me, it’s not like I don’t like being someone’s wife (the fact that that someone is the best human on earth is a strong plus), but that’s not all I am for goodness sake! I surely don’t go up to men I’ve just met and ask about their marital status’s or about how many offspring they’ve spawned. And it’s not because I don’t care or because I’m not curious, it’s just a far more acceptable opening line for a man than it is for a woman. And of course, an unmarried, childless woman over thirty has a far greater societal price to pay than a man does.

So, I can rant and rave and stop wearing my ring (although it’s so shinny!), I can create a few more enemies and blatantly tell people that it’s none of their business but I have a more sinister plan. I chose instead to talk to every young woman I know about “becoming a wife”, to tell them that I’m surprised that we still need to have these conversations. To tell them that they don’t need to change who they are once they’re married, to tell them not to buy into the antiquated thinking that becoming a wife is the pinnacle of a young woman’s life. To beg them to have better speeches written about them at their weddings, speeches that talk of all the great things they’re still to do, speeches that talk about how their husbands will be there supporting them in their path to glory. I plan to talk to every young man I know and urge them not to make the mistakes their fathers did. To tell them that we are all born to be more than our parents were, that we can only do that by breaking the shackles of bias and perceptions. It frustrates me that this should even be a conversation topic, that here I am in the year 2017, writing about the fact that women should be defined by more than their marital status or motherhood.

5 reasons why I’d never get a Kindle

Okay, before you tell me all the reasons why I’m nuts and how I can easily have access to a plethora of books at my finger tips and how it’s antiquated to carry around books, let me forewarn you that my mother did say I was special. I am that “special” kind of special who stresses about making the correct book selection before a holiday, who returns to old books like bad habits, knowing it will destroy me to pick it up but unable to do anything differently. I am that “special” kind of special who is a book lover and an old school one at that. And it is probably equal parts old school-ness and stubbornness that has lead me to the firm conclusion that I will never own a Kindle. Here’s why

1. Jean Louise, Atticus and Boo Radley

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I feel like I need a disclaimer here, just seeing this book makes me feel like I want to pick it and hug it, that’s how strong my love for it is. So it is incredibly unlikely that anything that follows resembles an unbiased opinion.

When I was in high school, nothing frustrated me quite as much as having to read the “set book” for the year. We would always read some classic that bored me beyond belief and I would then have to spit out details and thoughts on books that I had absolutely no interest in. In the year of my 16th birthday, that changed. In that year, the book that I was required to read became not only my favourite book, but a book that I have returned to read almost every year since. If you didn’t get it from the title or the picture here (shame on you), that book is To Kill A Mocking Bird. And this is about to sound creepy but it was my sister’s then boyfriend who ignited this love affair within me.

Apart from the boyfriend being dramatically tall and unusually pale, I’ll always remember him for the book he lent me. Hearing me bemoan my fate at having being assigned to read To Kill A Mocking Bird, the said boyfriend grew unusually animated and seemed genuinely interested in having a conversation. He insisted that I read his copy of the book, even though I would get a brand-new copy from school. He said something about the joy of having read a book that someone else had previously loved and his enthusiasm was warm and contagious. On my bookshelf, with the spine weathered through multiple reads, sits a copy identical to the book that he lent me all those years ago. Having the replica means something to me, feeling the creases and wear of the book feels like touching the face of someone I love. Each marking a memory, a reminder and a promise. Reading this book on a Kindle would be an unwelcome distance, my love affair necessitates proximity and life is too short to be separated from the things that you love.

2. My books are an insight into who I am

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My favourite part of my entire house is my bookshelf. Of course I have way too many books to fit in the impossibly small space so I routinely change the books that I see everyday. Some are firm favourites, stalwarts if you may, and some are more flavour of the month types. It is often a dangerous thing to ask a question about any book that you may encounter on my bookshelf as this may prompt an unsolicited three hour account on my views on that book and seven other books that have some mild association with it. The books I’ve read (and the books I haven’t) have shaped me and my thoughts and the idea of hiding them away somewhere deeply upsets me. I also love other people’s bookshelves, if you have a bookshelf or an an animal in your house, it’s almost always a guarantee that that’s where I’ll gravitate to. If you have both an animal and a bookshelf, then good luck getting rid of me (EVER).

3. I’m stupidly sentimental

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Just in case you haven’t quite figured this out yet, I am stupidly sentimental. Yes, stupidly. I won this book when I was 6 as a “book prize” at the end of a school year and 27 years later, I’m still hanging on to it.  There’s terribly embarrassing answers to some of the questions scribbled in childish script, some of the characters were also given makeovers with the use of a red pen and impossibly crooked lines and this is not exactly my favourite book in the world. But somehow, the nostalgia of being able to walk to my bookshelf and pull this out and laugh at myself is inexplicably joyful. Also I’m pretty sure this isn’t available on Kindle.

 

4. I have a post-it habit

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Okay, this is a bit of an ugly addiction and I’ve finally decided to come clean. I do have a Post-it problem, especially when to it comes to non fiction books. And If I’m re-reading something I’ve often been known to re-post-it as well. Trust me, I’m not proud of it, I’ve tried to fight it and all I’ve ended up doing is hating myself for not having a Post-it on hand. I know I can bookmark electronic files, but face it this way I get to look like I actually took the book seriously (Professor Cox would be impressed!).

 

 

 

5. A kindle won’t remind me of the times when a book has found me

btyI remember walking though Stone Town and having an overwhelming desire to buy a book, not just any book but a book that would always remind me of the hot, sticky summer holiday we had in Zanzibar. Of course, I ended up getting a Swahili/English/Italian phrase book and all it seems to remind of are European men in ridiculously small speedos so my story isn’t half as romantic as I would want it to be. But then there’s The Alchemist, the first book I bought after being enthralled by the Northern Lights, as if the Green Lady herself had compelled me to find my purpose. It sounds silly, but I am well schooled in the art of silly.

Me and my menses

When I was a little girl, I overheard my mother talking to my older sister about “getting her period” and in my usual fashion I managed to concoct a story far more interesting than the version my sister was hearing, probably for the first time. In my version, when I became a “big girl”, a notification would arrive via mail (yes snail mail not email) to tell me that I officially now had my period. This would be a grand affair, people would be told, my family would hold a banquet in my honour! Of course, at that stage of my life nothing was more exciting than getting a letter in the mail, so you can imagine that as long as my fantasy rang true, this was an event I was looking forward to with unparalleled impatience. I am not sure how long after that the veil of childish imagination was lifted, but I am sure of one thing, reality sucked. If you’ve gotten this far, then let me allay your fears. This is not a tale about my first period (while that is an entertaining story, I have no interest in it at the moment). What I do want to write about is menstruation and how we’re raising young women to feel dirty and though this is something to be ashamed of. So, if me merely using the words “period” or “menstruation” has not yet deterred you, please read on…

A guy friend once rummaged through my handbag and upon finding a tampon, neatly contained in it’s signature blue wrapper, promptly flung the bag and the offending item on the floor and backed away as if it would attack him. Now every girl whose has gone through puberty will admit that when that time of the month rolls around, it’s never fun and sometimes it can be downright scary, but being afraid of sanitary items befuddles me. I wonder if my male friend assumed that the bleeding from my uterus was contagious (if I hadn’t lost you earlier, “bleeding from my uterus” out to do it). Did he think that he’d miraculously grow a uterus and then once a month or thereabouts (everyone is different), he’d shed his uterine lining? Or was it that he was raised to think that menstruation was dirty, that even talking of it was “gross” and in fact downright offensive? Imagine how offensive it is to be confronted with the reality that I, like many women, actually bleed and (gasp) that I carry around tampons! Women can talk among themselves, always discretely stowing any items that may offend, always sympathetic and understanding when a friend talks of mood swings or cramps. But dare mention anything outside of your circle of girlfriends and watch people squirm and shy away. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about bring up your cycle to random strangers, or popping an update about your flow into dinner conversation but I think it’s all time we grew up a little and stopped encouraging the myth that menstruation is dirty, that the word is taboo, that the female species should be embarrassed by something that is natural.

Personally, I’m sick of young women coming into puberty being forced to think of themselves as unclean or gross. Honestly, if we were given the choice at a certain age, most women would say yes to the multiple orgasms and no to their monthly visitor (see how neatly I’ve incorrectly summed up what it means to be a woman?). But here’s reality, reality means we bleed. Reality means that we’ve come a long way from a rag in the feminine hygiene department. Reality means that there are young women all over the world with little or no access to sanitary towels because the cost is prohibitive. Reality is that some girls in this wonderful country we call South Africa are forced to miss school because of their period. Reality is that we teach young women to abstain from religious ceremonies, from entering religious sites because they are “not clean” during menstruation. Am I the only one who takes offense that a God that created me, shuns me because my body is doing something that that said God intended for it to do? I clearly don’t see the same thing applied to men once a month (and please men have cycles too, they may not bleed but no one’s convincing me that they don’t have all the other symptoms at least once a month, every month!). So, my point is this (don’t be so surprised that I have a point), menstruation is a normal, natural thing. It is neither filthy nor embarrassing, we were built this way and it’s time we stopped being stupid about it. The world is tough enough as it is without us having to stress about something that is a natural part of life.

For my oldest friend

IMG-20170320-WA0001My best friend growing up was a total nutcase, well truth be told, she still is a nutcase. We met in the year we turned six, and today some twenty-seven years later, she turns 33. It’s odd to believe that a lifetime has passed since we first met, that we have somehow grown up along the way. I think back to the things we had in common, to the things that cemented our friendship at the tender age of five and half and can’t help but smile. For starters, both our mothers taught at the same school (and both were disciplinarians), we both had the same initial and surname (surely that meant we were sisters) and most importantly, we were both convinced that there was buried treasure hidden in her back yard.

A lot has changed in the last twenty-seven years, we’ve both seen heartache and loss. Our friendship has seen it’s share of strain and ugliness, but the one thing that has not changed (apart from the fact that I am still convinced of the treasure in her backyard), is the bond we share. It is a bond that we will always share. I had always been convinced that since I was a good three weeks older than her, that I was automatically her protector. I would fight with anyone who made her upset (and since she is a bit of cry baby, you can imagine I had my work cut out for me), I was, by default, her older sister. Of course, she did her fair share of protecting me as well. As a child, I was very literal, so when my mother told me that I could not come home unless I finished all the lunch that was packed for me, you best believe that I knew that my options were clearly defined. Either I find another place to live (I had checked around and none of my other friends were receptive to my plea for refugee status) or I somehow manage to eat all of my lunch. On a side note that is critical to the story, it is important to bear in mind that my mother thought it best to feed me like teenage rugby player, on most days I was sent to school with a lunchbox that could easily feed four. So, my best friend, always the sensitive one between the two of us, decided to help me out. We would sit under the shade of a tree after school and talk of the important things like what we would wear to the Brownies costume party while she bravely munched on my sandwiches, saving me from a fate no five-year-old wants to face.

Perhaps in the telling of this story, you would have come to realise more about my friend than the fact that I shared my lunch with her. Perhaps you will see that she loves easily, that she cares deeply, that really, with a friend like her by your side, even the scary things seem manageable. There are so many things that I will always admire about her- her ability to love, her strength, her sense of humour, how she has the ability to tell a cashier her entire life story. I know that she will always be my sister, this bond was forged too strong, no matter what comes our way. She will always be the one I hug too tightly, the one I laugh too loudly with. She will always be the one that understands me and the one that stood by me when I needed a friend. And today, on this day, I want to celebrate her birth, I want to celebrate having her and her special brand of nonsense in my life. I want to celebrate the joy, the happiness, the sadness that we’ve shared because this is just the beginning. I love you my friend, I love you for all that you are and for all that you aren’t.

Lean in…for a conversation

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Okay, so I’m pre-empting a book club conversation here (I think half the fun of book club is telling people you belong to one), but as usual my mind is running a mile a minute and I need a moment with my musings. When the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg was suggested as our book of the month, apart from hearing a Destiny’s Child song play in my mind (something about paying my telephone bills), I was sceptical. I mean, did I really need to read another book telling me to break the glass ceiling? I stared at Sheryl’s smiling face on the front cover and told myself that I didn’t really want to hear about this privileged, white woman’s view about gender bias. And this, apart from the wine, is one of the greatest things about book club; getting to read outside of my comfort zone. Honestly, now that the book is done and dusted, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with everything that Sheryl Sandberg’s writes about, but I’m certain glad that I read it. I am certainly glad about the conversations the book has provoked, both with myself and with others, because although I don’t have the answers, I know that these are conversations we need to have.

I can remember telling a story about how I, a young, non-white female, was treated when I first started working in a predominantly white, male dominated environment. Amongst other things, the expectations placed on me where due to my race and my gender; I was the girl who would probably take minutes and make coffee. Forget my achievements or qualifications, these men knew what they were doing, so I best listen closely and remember my manners. My first disagreement with an older male colleague was met with such vehemence that I was literally stunned into silence. I was too aggressive, too pushy, how dare I follow up when someone hadn’t given me something they promised? Part of this, no doubt, is because of my personality, not my gender. I can be harsh and driven at times and there is no mistaking that. But more and more it is becoming evident to me that when men behave in the way that I do it is considered the norm, no one gets angry with the man being assertive because that is what men are supposed to do. When a woman does it, she’s a bitch and she’s bossy. When a man does it, he is applauded for taking the initiative and being direct. No, it is not always as I have stated, I know. But we cannot dispute that there is a truth in this that should not be ignored. It also surprises me how sometimes gender even changes the meaning of words. I think back to many years ago when my boss called me “ambitious”, I knew what the word meant but his tone and the hardness in his eyes made me feel that I should look up the word once more. I did a quick Google search now and the description “having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed” hardly seemed like the insult I heard in my boss’s voice those years ago.

I am not writing this to tell a sad story about gender bias and how I rose above it, I am writing of my own bias as much as of the men I have remembered here. Because if I am being honest, the preconceptions of gender does colour my view. Men should be men, right? Big, strong, assertive. And women should be nurturing and caring, right? Oscar Wilde wrote “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his“ and when I read that, such a large part of it resonated with me. What a tragedy it would be indeed if no man became his mother and no woman became her father. We’ve all heard those comments that slip so freely from our mouths when a man is vindictive, jealous and spiteful “He’s behaving like a woman”, or when a woman is outspoken, assertive and direct “She’s trying to behave like a man”. We judge people based on preconceived notions of what a man should be and what a woman shouldn’t be. I know I do. Realising and admitting that bias is huge for me, because if we ever are to talk about equal access to opportunity, we have to be honest with ourselves first. And sometimes that honesty is not very pretty. I guess it’s great that I’m more aware now, but what on God’s green earth does that mean? What does it fix? Maybe it means that in my awareness and through my reflection, I can rewrite the scripts that I rely on, I can rewrite my thinking. Maybe it means that I can now have more intelligent discussions with either gender, maybe it means that I can also create awareness? Maybe it means that even though it is not a big step, it is still a step forward.

Tomorrow is all we have

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Lutchmee Varma is 86. In short, she is a crazy woman, but crazy in the way all the best people are. She has known hardship and joy, and has seen a life that nothing I ever write would adequately describe. She fills my heart with her laughter and I wish I had the power to make all her days happy ones. She is my grandmother, the matriarch of our family and hands down one of my favourite people in the world. As I write this she is in hospital awaiting the surgery that will remove her inflamed gall bladder tomorrow.

I’m not sure why I am writing this, perhaps I am seeking a release in the only way I know how. I am terrified, beyond terrified actually. Almost paralysed with fear. We all know the risks associated with surgery at an advanced age, there are no guarantees. I want so badly to remain positive, to think only of a tomorrow when I will hear her voice, hear a silly joke and make plans with her for the future. The alternative is too much to think of. I called her today, she was in such good spirits, telling me that she’ll call me after the operation to tell me she’s okay. She joked in her typical fashion that she was getting dressed up so she could find a nice doctor. It’s been explained to me that the procedure is fairly routine but I cannot keep the emotion out of my voice I cannot stop the tremble in my hands. I can’t shake the thought that no amount of time would ever feel like enough with her. That I haven’t yet listened to all of her stories. That I have not hugged her enough or thanked her enough for everything she’s ever done for me.

I’m not particularly religious but I find myself conversing with what I hope to be a higher power, bargaining, desperately pleading for more time. It is selfish I know, but I have spent my whole life thinking my granny was invincible. She has been ridiculously strong and healthy and I find it hard to remember that she has aged, as we all do. To me she is the fiercely independent woman who raised her children the best she knew how. She is the woman who ran away to marry the man she loved, the woman who loves to dance, the woman who looked after herself for most of her life. She is the one who makes me special treats that no one else can, who sits and talks to me about her life, who laughs at my silly jokes and who tries to cure any aliment she may think I have. She is my granny and my life is made better by having her in it. Quite simply there will never be anyone else like her and I am not ready to give her up just yet. Varma women are made strong and stubborn and I am counting on that resilience tomorrow, on that stubbornness to pull her through. She is not yet done, her story not yet finished.

Confessions of a diving virgin

“You’ll never forget your first breath under water”, that’s what an American voice in a SCUBA video tells me. The video is great, complete with happy faces, women with miraculously neatly plaited hair and a gentle tranquil soundtrack, I’m sold. Obviously my first experience with SCUBA diving was going to be a walk in the park-bad choice of words, maybe a walk in the ocean, okay even worse choice of words. But you get my point, this was going to be great!

Fast forward to my first pool session, our dive instructor tells us to get into the pool swim a couple of laps and then tread water for 10 minutes. I show off, I’m not a bad swimmer and I’m natural in the water. Confidence unnecessarily and uselessly boosted, I gear up (there is no grace in getting into a wetsuit, I finally understand how sausages must feel) and ready myself for the first lesson. I would call what happened next a slap in the face but it really was an assault on the lungs as my “first breath under water” was one laden with water. I panic and pop my head out of the water, what the hell was I thinking? Humans are not meant to breathe under water! Maybe my breathing apparatus isn’t working? Maybe I’m not getting enough air, I do have Asthma, is this a sign of imminent doom? I look to the rest of the group, their heads just below the surface and panic even further when I realise that I’m the only idiot above the surface. Five seconds into diving and I’ve already convinced myself that I’m going to die and I haven’t even left the shallow end of the pool yet! The instructor appears, mildly irate at having to deal with his problem student and tell me to bite onto the mouth piece, that way I’ll stop sucking in water. I do as he says, biting so hard that my jaw hurts. I’m terrified but too stubborn to admit defeat and I agree to give it another go although everything in my body seems to fight the very concept of breathing under water.

The pool session is long, the group of us emerge wrinkled and tired but most importantly alive and with a great sense of pride. I can’t say that I enjoyed the session, what with being so afraid of dying all the time but I agree to do some skills dives the next day. I am proud of my stubbornness and at my success at saying alive and I am convinced that I have the basic knowledge to successfully complete the dives the following day. If you think I’m setting this up for one of those “oh boy was I wrong” moments, you’re quite right as the next day diving at Miracle Waters, I seemed to spontaneously forget all of my instruction the moment I head dipped below the surface. My mask was foggy, I kept forgetting to breathe, choosing instead to hold my breath defying the first rule of SCUBA diving and I almost fell off the diving platform. Couple my lack of composure with the fact that we were diving with two children a third of my age who seemed to have no issues at all and I felt like a complete idiot. I want to say that I survived not only that dive but two successive dives thereafter and that I displayed the correct skills but I’m pretty sure that survival during a dive is not really the reason one dives.

So here I am a few days post losing my diving virginity with a case of “severe bilateral otitis media” and I’m really not sure how I feel about diving. As for the pain in my ear and in face, I’m pretty sure I hate that but I’m not convinced that I’m a diver. I have one last dive to qualify for my open water certificate and perhaps the beautiful upside is that I can qualify in the Red Sea during our upcoming trip to Egypt. But I constantly wonder if, like how I deal with emotions, I am only meant to skim the surface and not really probe into great depths. Perhaps time will tell.