Lean in…for a conversation

 

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.

Dear husband

Dear husband, there are times when I think that I’m capable of killing you but then my senses kick in and I realise that I don’t have a pretty black dress to wear to your funeral and I stop short. Of course, only I would start a love letter overflowing with murder and violence but perhaps it should be testament to the kind of wonderful human being you are for loving me and my madness. It should also be a testament to your madness that we are still together almost 15 years later, so perhaps your madness is of a higher order than mine but hey, this isn’t a competition. Just for the record if it was a competition, I would win but probably only because you let me. After all this time, you’re still the man who drives me insane, the nutcase who hates reading and the grouch who fills my heart with a single sleepy smile in the morning.

Many years ago, when the first spring rains brought new life to what winter had laid to rest, you placed your head on my lap and we laughed in field of green. Obvious to all except us, there was a tangible chemistry that mingled with the smell of rain and freshly cut grass, it was a chemistry we would soon discover after our first Vodka soaked kiss. I’m not quite sure why you needed the Vodka for courage, but I will never forget the slight movement of my hair as you brushed it away from my shoulder or the feel of your lips on my skin. Drunk on more than the Vodka, I knew that whatever happened from that day on, I would never regret a single moment of it.

Now we find ourselves, so many years later, married with two barbaric dogs who have a penchant for dispensing farts that rival nuclear bombs before they leave the room. I have fought with you, I have fought with myself; I have hated you and I loved you more than I ever realised I was capable of. I have felt your sorrow and you have held me through mine. No one on earth has understood me and misunderstood me as much as you do, I’m just glad we agree on the big things like what cheese is the tastiest and which setting works best for our dishwasher. I have fought with you in public, we’ve gone to bed angry and we’ve both hurt each through angry words, regretted the moment they were formed. It’s a good thing you barely pay attention to what I say, else you may not be so forgiving to my defensive sarcastic barbs. We’ve punctuated our sentences with kisses, we’ve annoyed everyone around us by being stupidly happy and I’ve fallen in love with you more times than I can remember. I know you as if you are a part of me, perhaps the best part and there is no one in this world that I’d rather be with (even if a shirtless Mark Walberg asked nicely).

I love you dear husband, more than ice cream and more than our dogs (but please don’t tell the older one, he’s sensitive). It sounds selfish but I love who I am with you, in loving you, I’ve learnt to love myself and bloody hell I’m awesome (there is no place for modesty in a love letter). I don’t know how the future will take shape but I know that with you, my future is going to be an adventure and that there is nothing we can’t do. Okay, I think I’ve been mushy enough for a lifetime now, please don’t quote anything I’ve written in our next fight, there is a chance it will be met with violence.

 

Why I’m scared of success and fish moths

Okay first thing first, fish moths have to be one of the most disgusting creatures in existence and to make matters worse they’re always showing up unannounced which to be honest, is just pain down rude. I found one staring at me in a rather creepy fashion while I brushed my teeth this morning (well I don’t know where it’s eyes are but I distinctly felt as though I was being watched). I flashed it my toothpaste covered teeth hoping that the sight of my pale blue frothy grin would scare it away but it was oblivious to my efforts. That creature had nerves of steel, I mean I often scare myself when I catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror after I’ve just woken up (picture a love child between Freddy Krueger and the girl from The Ring – I’d be her ugly sister). But this blog post isn’t really about fish moths or how disastrous I look as the soft light of day breaks, it is, no doubt, just my way of not so cleverly avoiding the real thing I want to write about.

It amazes me how many blog posts I start and never finish, how many bright ideas I have that never turn out to be anything and worse so, how scared I am sometimes just to try. It is as if I do not deem myself worthy of the very thing that I want, so I start to convince myself that whatever I desire is not really a possibility, that my hopes and dreams belong to someone else. I can almost imagine her, this woman who owns my dreams. Maybe she started working on her dreams earlier, maybe she had more than I did growing up, maybe she had more supportive friends, maybe her hair did look like the shampoo commercials. The more real she becomes the less I believe in my own story. I pull at this thought piece by piece until all that is left of me is something insignificant, ordinary, mundane. Stories that began in my mind start to unwrite themselves, achievements are tainted with the thought of blind luck. I become my worst enemy endlessly criticising myself until I am left with nothing but self-loathing. Time and time again, I wonder why it is that I do this to myself. Why it is that the things that I want the most are the things that paralyse me with fear? I want to say that I am scared of failure but somehow that does not ring true.  I know failure and I know that failure is a necessary, but temporary part of life. I have never faced anything that I thought I would flat out fail at (of course this was before I failed engineering in glorious technicolour – I always say if you’re going to do something, do it well). No, I am not scared of failure. I am scared of something more threatening, I am scared of success. I am scared of doing something well and then never being able to replicate it, I am scared that people will come to expect something of me that I cannot deliver. Someone once told me “If someone pays you a compliment, it is not your job to prove them wrong. All you have to do is say ‘Thank you’.”

How silly to be caught up in this tidal wave of emotions because I am scared to actually succeed. How silly to think that I am unworthy of the success that I have or could have. How silly indeed. I think of the silly puppy who lies snoring contently beside me as I type, I think of how his mixture of stupidity and bravery landed him in a dark, deep pond and of how he did not know that he could not swim. He was not scared that he may become the doggy swimming champion of the world, no, he saw an opportunity and decided to run head first into it. Of course, he needed to be rescued, and as I clutched his wet body to my chest, he licked my face as if to let me know this would not be the last time he would make my heart stop. He is a silly dog but perhaps he has a lesson to teach me. Perhaps his silliness is one that I should adopt, maybe I should get over my inexplicable inertia and learn to dive headfirst into opportunities? Succeed or fail, maybe someone will be there to pull me out of the deep dark pond, maybe it will be a wiser, stronger version myself.  Maybe I will look myself in the eye and know that it would not be last time I tried to succeed. Perhaps, at least for today, I should go find that dark pond, chase my dreams, start writing my great book, and of course,try to rid my bathroom of those god-awful fish moths.

I am a child of God

I am about to fail a maths test; arriving late to the lecture venue, the only available seat I find is next to a pale, skinny, unfamiliar young man. His blond hair falls flat against his forehead and before I take my seat he greets me as he would an old friend. Warmed by his greeting, I begin my pre-test ritual of unpacking my pencil case and counting the ten sweets I need to get through any test or exam (ten – no more no less) when he catches me off guard by asking me about me religious orientation.

I am distracted and absorbed in the sweet counting activity as well as entertaining the idea that I should have prepared better for the test when I offer him my off hand response “I am a child of God”.  When I finally look up at him after having affirmed that all ten sweets were present and accounted for, the warmth of his smile is replaced with such anger in his eyes that for a moment I am scared of him. He spits at me “How can you call yourself a child of God when you wear that red string across your wrist?”. He’s referring to the faded and rather tatty red string that hangs loosely around my right wrist, the very same one that my grandmother had kept aside for me when she had done her Lutchmee prayer and took special care to tie around my wrist when she next saw me. Now I am far from religious, I wear the red string out of respect to my grandmother more than anything else but I was raised to believe that every religion teaches the same basic principles; to be good and to do good. To the young man beside me, wearing the string and calling myself a child of God was too harsh of a contradiction for his small mind to let go off. He needed to state his piece, to remind me that God had no place for someone with my beliefs and there I sat, dumbfounded, expecting to receive an education but getting schooled in something far greater. Perhaps maths wasn’t going to be the biggest challenge I’d face that day.

Fast forward a few years, I’m delicately stuffing pizza into my mouth when I am warned (for my own benefit of course) that I will most certainly burn in hell. In fact, it is not just me but my entire family will also join me in purgatory. Having a long and torrid affair with pizza it took quite a bit to quell my appetite, but dragging my family into this discussion most certainly achieved that. Don’t get me wrong, I respect those who have faith in their religion and most of those nearest and dearest to me are of a different religious background and this post is not about Hinduism versus Christianity or any other religion. What I take issue with is the level of small-minded, unimaginative crap that makes anyone believe that they’ve got the right to tell me how to live my life. If you really wanted to sell me your fanatical religious ideologies wouldn’t you be better served by showing me what a wonderful person you are, how caring and giving you are and how your religion teaches you to honour human dignity? Instead I am faced with the story about how it doesn’t matter how good I am, if I cannot name myself as you are named, purgatory is inevitable. Maybe I don’t get religion. Maybe I can’t subscribe to the belief that naming myself something automatically makes me “good” or “bad”. Is it not my thoughts and actions and what I endeavour to do that defines whether I am “good” or “bad”.  Does the God that you serve simply not see me, not know me? Did the God that you serve not create me? In a world where we should be celebrating our diversity we use it to divide, hurt and condemn. Is that not the real sin here? Is that not the real danger we face? Is that the plan that God had for us?

Lessons from the ninja lizard man

The guy sitting next to me is odd and not just odd, but scarily odd. I secretly wonder if he is a lizard; he has such a reptilian coolness about him. Clad in his well-pressed grey suit, his pale face devoid of any emotion, there is an uncanny stillness about him. Oh, perhaps he is a ninja lizard and he has been especially trained to never show emotion; always be one step ahead (yes, I like this version very much). I smile at my creation of the ninja lizard man and as he spies my expression, he seems deeply concerned (but perhaps me grinning like a fool trying to hold back laughter is a cause for concern). Before I can consider if I am being too harsh on ninja lizard man (or what kind of food a ninja lizard eats), we are both summoned. As we are greeted warmly, I wonder what kind of an odd pair we make, ninja lizard man stoic and calm, and me, looking on the verge of lunacy with a stupid grin on my face. I also wonder as we walk towards our interview rooms, which one of us is more “employable” (if I was recruiting, ninja lizard man would have fascinated me beyond measure, I would have employed him just for the opportunity to study him).

Much later that day, my nephew hands me his newest creation, a dinosaur; a carefully constructed, fragile looking thing held together with white tape. Before I can contemplate how impossibly cute my nephew’s semi toothless smile is, I am reminded of ninja lizard man. The memory of him suddenly makes me uncomfortable, my collar too high, the fabric scratching at my throat, my shoes too restrictive, suffocating my feet. The dull ache from pulling my hair too tight threatens to spread and sharpen around my temples. I have an inescapable need to be outdoors, to take off my shoes and feel the ground beneath my feet. I look at the random pieces of taped cardboard in my hands and wonder when it stopped being a dinosaur.

Let’s see, I could blame my family and my past (the easiest and most convenient cop out). Growing up in Durban, surround by a predominantly Indian community, a decision to study law, medicine or engineering (you know, to make sure I could get a “good job now that the blacks are getting all the jobs”) was hardly unconventional. So, I pulled out the cookie cutter and thought I would craft myself a career in the field of engineering; any other dreams, like my toys from childhood, were packed away to be given to someone else, I had lost use for them. That being said, I cannot claim that I was pushed into my choice, in all honestly, having completed high school, I had no idea what the right choice was. The window through which I saw the world was impossibly small and my sight of the opportunities available to me, even smaller. I knew that I had to get a job, be self-sufficient but I had no idea what my purpose was, I knew what to do, I just didn’t know why. Months became years and soon it was easy to believe that doing something well is the same as wanting to do it. Before you know it, you’re waiting to be interviewed alongside ninja lizard man.

Maybe it’s normal, to come to this point in your life, to take stock and feel like you have somehow failed a test you didn’t know you were taking. I didn’t want to be compared to ninja lizard man; I knew I would be found lacking. More dangerously, I didn’t want to be compared to ninja lizard man for fear that we were indistinguishable. I knew that if I needed to I could throw on his scales and that I could wear them well. I knew that day after day the scales would become more comfortable, beautiful even. There is no fear in this play acting, but maybe what scared me was that one day the pretending would stop; one day I would know how to be him more than I knew how to be me.

#prayforus

Death. I have trouble writing about this, I have trouble speaking or dealing with this. I do not want to accept the fact that all life is fragile and finite, I need to believe that we will all be around forever. But it’s never that simple; people die. Young, old, rich or poor, there is no difference; in the end none of us escapes. Death comes to us all. In the tree of life, some of us shall be taken ripe; having lived a full life we shall meet our end gracefully and peacefully. Some of us shall be plucked too early, too violently, too brutally; our dreams lost, our hopes unfulfilled.

My first adult experience with loss left me hollow and strained. I felt as though there was a tangible empty rasping sound to my words and in my thoughts. Normalcy mocked me; night ridiculed me with how easily it succumbed to day, I needed the darkness a little longer. The emptiness in me was hungry, always seeking to consume but never satisfied. It was hungry for the taste of your pain, only sated when it recognised itself in you. It needed the salt of your tears, the restriction in your throat, it needed to create a void in you and fill it with emptiness. But life simply continued, and at some point so did I.

After the horrific attacks in Paris last Friday, the posts and colours of the French flag on social media made me feel like the world was mourning with Paris, that the barbaric acts would not go unnoticed and that life is precious. What confused me were the attacks of a different sort that began on social media. Any life taken too soon, be it in Africa, Europe or anywhere else in the world, is a tragedy and I do not see the outpouring of grief and support as an acknowledgement otherwise. Yes, we should be more aware of what is happening not only in the rest of the world but also in our backyard. Yes, we should mourn the lives lost, lives tragically cut short. But let’s not condemn each other for the support we chose to give and who we chose to give it to. If you seek to educate and enlighten, then great, we need more of that but please do not use your knowledge to put others down. The real tragedy is in the lives lost, not in how we have or have not decided to show our support.

If prayer came naturally for me, I would say that I pray for us. I pray for those who lost their lives and for those left behind. I pray for Michael Komape, a five year old South African boy who lost his life in a pit toilet in his school, in the same way that I pray for those who lost their lives in Paris, Japan, Beirut, Mexico. I pray for the children of tomorrow, I pray that their future will be brighter than ours and I pray that they are not fated to repeat the mistakes that we made.