The Story Rumble at Home (Gems from Rising Strong by Brene Brown)

WangThai (Sandton, Johannesburg, May 2016)

WangThai (Sandton, Johannesburg, May 2016)

I’ve been reading Brene’s Brown’s stunning new book “Rising Strong” over the last few weeks (blog post/audio story/video/interpretative dance/all of the above about my thoughts coming soon) but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of her thoughts about talking through our emotions at home, with those closest to us. Reading this book has been transformative for me because it’s helped me find language and ways to sort through my feelings when I’m upset and about to either shut down or have a fight with my husband, and I’m really looking forward to sharing some of our learnings soon. Before that though, I wanted to share some of her concluding thoughts about rumbling with emotions and stories at home. We’ve been reading this book this book from the library (we’ve already signed the book out twice) but we’ve taken a lot of notes along the way to help keep our learnings alive. Have you read this book? What are your key takeaways? We’d love to hear from you.

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A Prayer of Thanks (Thoughts on “Did you Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg)

Roadtripping - View from a filling station (South Africa, 2015)

Roadtripping – View from a filling station (South Africa, 2015)

“Pru asked if she was okay, and June answered with a question that seemed to Pru more of a comment on June’s struggle’s with Lolly: Did you ever have a family? Pru said she sounded completely wiped out, at wit’s end. She asked June if she wanted to  walk back with her to the house, but she politely declined, saying she needed to be alone a while longer.
Pru told us that night that she’d never felt so grateful. That her answer to June’s question had been yes,  but not as a commiseration, or an explanation of fatigue, as it seemed to be for June, but both as an acknowledgment of great fortune and a prayer of thanks. With Mike on the line from Tacoma, and Mimi and I huddled over her iPhone on speaker in the kitchen Pru whispered to us, Thank you. (Did you Ever Have a Family, Bill Clegg)

I am not a brave reader. It is rare for me to read books that are sad, that have devastating plots, that leave me imprinted with the sorrow of other people. It is rare for me to read books that make my hands clench and muscles tense because I can’t handle my anxiety over what the characters are going through. Over the past few days however, I read and completed “Did you ever have a family?” by Bill Clegg and I absolutely loved it. The book is Clegg’s first novel and was longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. It is unlike anything I’ve ever read before, and I’m so glad I stumbled upon it.

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On Reading “One Plus One” by Jojo Moyes

Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town (May 2015)

Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town (May 2015)

Sometimes you just want the comfort of a good story. You might be at the beach when you need such a book, or on holiday in general, or perhaps sick in bed with the flu, but certain occasions demand cosy books. I’m away from Joburg at present, and yesterday I started and finished Jojo Moyes book “One plus One”. It’s a wonderful read about a 27-year old woman named Jess who is the mother of two kids: ten year old Tanzie (Constanza) and teenager Nicky, the son of her husband and his ex. Jess’s husband left two years ago, and in that time she has been struggling to keep her family together by working at a local bar and as a cleaner.

The plot of the novel revolves around Jess’s family struggle to make more of themselves. Jess’s daughter’s Tanzie is a math prodigy, and her local math teacher thinks she could attend an excellent private school in the area called St Anne’s. There is no way that they could afford such fees, but because of Tanzie’s abilities the school is willing to offer a 90% scholarship, the most generous scholarship they have ever offered. The 10% outstanding is still a formidable barrier however, so when Tanzie’s math teacher lets Jess know about a Math Olympiad in Scotland with a five thousand dollar first prize, she decides to drive her family to Scotland for the competition. The problem is that Jess has no insurance, the car (her husband’s) that she wants to drive is rusting, and she has little driving experience.

Help arrives however in the form of a man named Ed Nicholls, a man who is one of Jess’s cleaning clients and who is being investigated for accidentally getting involved in insider trading. He is at risk of losing everything he has, and their lives intersect one day when Jess helps him get home from the bar which she works. He doesn’t remember her getting him home, but he does remember Jess telling him that she is upset with him for offending her/treating her badly one afternoon when she was cleaning his house. Her words stay with him, and when he sees her at the side of the road with the car her children and a policeman, without quite knowing why, he decides to stop and offer them a lift to Scotland. The book revolves around their journey there, and they both learn and grow from one another through their travels and experiences together. Here are a few things that I enjoyed/took away from the book.

1)No Time for Judgement

This story is told from the perspective of different characters, and each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person, sometimes the kids, and sometimes Ed or Jess. I like this narrative technique and enjoyed how the same event was related by two of three different characters who were experiencing, reacting to, and/or observing the same event. Through the way this story is told, as a reader you are reminded that there is no one version of events, and no one correct version of personal histories. In this story there are also no good or bad characters, only flawed characters in shades of grey. Which is not to say that there is no morality, the characters in this book have principles and values, but the book does highlight the point that you don’t know how you would respond to a situation until you are faced with the same pressures and events as someone else.

2) We Need to be in Diverse Company

This book also addresses issues of class. Jess is struggling to survive, and she understands money in a very different way from Ed. Their definitions of being rich and wealthy are different. The costs that matter to them are different. For instance, there is a scene in the book when Ed describes a cashless transaction system his company has developed that banks and retailers love and that charges consumers with a minor cost to each transaction that is “basically nothing”. Jess in return describes what such transaction costs would translate to in her daily life over the course of the year. This book is a reminder that we learn when we are in gatherings and communities with a diversity of experiences.

3) The past matters

Because she knew that something happened to you when your mother didn’t hold you close, or tell your all the time that you were the best thing ever, or even notice when you were home: a little part of you sealed over. You didn’t need her. You didn’t need anyone. And without even knowing you were doing it, you waited. You waited for anyone who got close to you to see something they didn’t like in you, something they hadn’t seen initially, and to grow cold and disappear too, like too much sea mist. Because there had to be something wrong, didn’t there, if even your own mother didn’t really love you?” (One Plus One, p. 255)

“It was true that Nicky didn’t talk much. It wasn’t that he didn’t have things to say. It was just that there was nobody he really wanted to say it to. Ever since he had gone to live with Dad and Jess, when he was eight, people had been trying to get him to talk about his “feelings” like there were a a big rucksack he could just drag around with him and open up for everyone to examine its contents. But half the time he didn’t know what he thought. He didn’t have opinions about politics or the economy or what happened to him. ” (One Plus One, p.332)
This book is about a family trying to get ahead and make more of themselves. It is about their attempt to help Tanzie be herself and study math in the way that she wants. But at the same time, it shows how the past shapes how you are at present. Nicky’s mother left him, and among other things, that experience has shaped the way he communicates with others, how he lets people in, and how he is open in personal relationships. Jess does not want to seem like someone who is taking advantage of help, and so she protests everything that Ed does, attempts to sleep in the car over the course of the trip, makes sandwiches throughout using ingredients on special, and finds it hard (though such a relief) to accept help. This book shows how the past impacts us, but it does not suggest that the past allows for no alternate ways of being in the future. Instead, this book is an exploration of how our encounters and experiences with others allow us to grow and develop and become more than we could if we were apart.

4) Interdependence and Community 

This book highlights how exhausting it is being alone and trying to manage all facets of your life, your finances, your work, your family, your health, everything is on you when you are the solo head of your household. Reading Jess’s story reminded me of my work with the United Way in the Lower Mainland and in Toronto, and exercises we did to highlight the experience of being in precarious work and having a low income. In the exercises we did, we could see that the expenses we had greater than our needs, and how in such circumstances, every day and week, decisions are made and tradeoffs are made about how to spend/not spend one’s salary. In this book, Jess is in debt, and she pays the electricity bill with the rent money, the rent money with something else, and leaves certain bills unpaid. There is no room for all the needs, and certainly no room for luxuries. And when unexpected events occur and unexpected expenses are the result, there are no savings in this story to draw upon.

This book is a fiction work but the experiences of Jess are real. This book was a reminder that we need to support others in our community whether it is through advice or time or acts of service (and I would add, through supporting social agencies). When I was in Canada, supporting the United Way was a way to support an incredible network of social agencies, but I’m still learning about the social landscape here in South Africa.  It’s not enough to say that “poor people must work hard and get ahead” this book illustrates that poverty requires intense hard work to stay barely afloat, and that without help, family transformation is near impossible. Not having the resource of a car, not being able to take time off to do something needed, not being able to take further courses, all of these are structural barriers to getting out of poverty, and require community support to overcome.

On Learning Through Stories and Reading “Us” by David Nicholls

V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Thinking about the distance to Canada, V & A Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa

Seriously Planning has always been a reflection of my life and experiences. Over the past few years the blog has helped me think through questions of identity, faith, urbanism and personal growth as I’ve lived in both Toronto and Vancouver for graduate school, work opportunities, and to be closer to my family. Recently I’ve been thinking about/have been curious about how the blog will change over the next year, because in late April 2015 I got married (and moved) to Joburg, the city of my best friend. We’re both Canadian, but my husband is South African as well, and our beautiful, multi-day wedding with family, friends, prayer, laughter, food and gratitude are days and moments of memories that I will hold in my heart for a long time to come.

As we’ve joined our lives together in the weeks and days since the wedding, I’ve been reading a book that I picked up in London on my way to Joburg called “Us” by David Nicholls. It’s a wonderful, touching, tender, moving book, with complex characters, humour, suspense and just so much heart, and it’s been the perfect backdrop to the beginning of our shared path. We’ve both been thinking a lot about what it means to partner, to move across the world to another country, city, culture and community, to transition and to blend our individual histories, backgrounds and experiences together to God willing, make a culture of our own, and reading this book has been a wonderful way for me to process my own thoughts. Continue reading

The Last Gift By Abdul Razak Gurnah

London, 2010.

One of the joys of reading is finding a piece of yourself in the pages of a book and feeling like the world is a bit smaller because someone has understood and put into words the way you feel.  Recently I read Abdul Razak Gurnah’s book “The Last Gift” and it was a read that was packed with such moments.

The book is about a couple named Abbas and Maryam who have been married for  thirty years and their two children Jamal and Anna. Jamal is doing his PhD in migration, Maryam is frustrated and uncertain about her long term relationship and the four of them are a family who know little about each other’s lives. When Abbas suffers from a diabetic crisis and a stroke at the beginning of the book however, the stories and secrets of their family begin to emerge.

More than simply an interesting novel, it is a fascinating and thoughtful read that addresses themes of identity, immigration, belonging, family, relationships, duty and love. Though we may not have deep secrets we’ve all had that feeling of realising that there is much we don’t know about those we love, and in its juxtaposition of a family oblivious to the thoughts and history of one another, and observations about what it means to belong and to feel foreign in a place more generally, this book makes you think deeply about how you define the word home, and the cruelty and harshness we often show to those we care about the most.

In addition to asking its reader to think about what it means to be a family, it asks the reader to think about the privilege in our own lives. It points out the conversations we may enter not considering the assumptions we are making about the lives of others or the privilege involved when we expect others to answer our very personal questions.

Below, some of my favourite, most memorable passages from the book.

On Learning

There was a library, with hundreds of books that he could take home to read if he wished. It was like all his schooling, until then had taken place in a small room, a small empty shut away room. Then someone had opened the door and he found out that the room was a tiny little cell in a huge building. (p.128)

On Knowledge and Adulthood..

He felt that he was at an important moment in his life although he was not sure of the source of this feeling. Perhaps it was a sense of impeding decisions, that for the first time in his life he would be able to choose what he would do with himself. He considered this and decided that he did not think it was that. Perhaps it was to do with approaching the end of his PhD, a sense of completing a job and it was this which made him feel grown up, an adult, an agent in the world. He did feel that sense but that was a plodder’s delight, satisfaction at (nearly) getting a job done, not any expectation of having arived at transforming knowledge. (p.85)

On epistemologies..

It was what he studied, migration trends and policies in the European Union. He could describe the patterns and provide the historical context, locate this wave from the Maghreb and its destination and that one from Zimbabwe and how it dispersed. He could construct tables and draw graphs, yet he knew that each one of those dots on his chart had a story that the graphs could not illustrate. He knew that from his Ba, and he knew that from the faces that he saw in the streets, and from the silent spaces in the reports he read. He knew that it was a clutter of ambition and fear and desperation and incomprehension that brought people so far and enabled them to put up with so much. (p.86)

On Stereotypes and Privilege

“They were all looking at her, waiting for her to speak, to tell them what her real nation was. She wished she could get up and leave, and walk quickly to the train station and travel to wherever her real nation was. She wished she had more panache, and knew how to charm people she did not like.” (p.116)

On War and Citizenship..

“They took no notice of those who marched, or of others who didn’t march but raised their objections in other ways, and went right ahead with their war. It made Jamal wonder what it meant to be a citizen: how millions of them listened to what they were told, and thought about it and were not persuaded, how so many people, all over the world, spoke their reluctance and outrage and disagreement, and yet how all of this made no difference. ” (p.126)

Celebrating Four Years as an Aunt

Being an aunt is something that is very close to my heart, and though we’re in different provinces at present, I’m celebrating the birthday of my nephew today. Sharing stories over pancake and berries breakfasts, whispering at 4 am during weekend sleepovers, drawing pictures and reading books together, and just generally witnessing a child develop from an infant into someone with speech, opinions, and a definite personality is a fascinating and blessed process. (At the end of this post is a list I wrote for when my nephew turned one of the lessons I’ve learnt during his first year. The lessons are still true, so I’ve reposted them here)

He isn’t alone on the fantastic child list though. During my trip to Singapore last month, I kept running into wonderful kids who inspired me with their curiosity and intellect. I passed by a travel store one day with a giant globe at its entrance, and two siblings who were probably 9 and 11 years old were quizzing each other of their knowledge of tiny countries, and trying to map out flight routes. They were struggling to find a few countries, and we struck up a conversation. The next day I was on the MRT and a mum and her son of about ten years of age were talking about Google, what a googol is, and how that relates to what the search engine intended to do at the outset of its creation.

It reminded me of other kids I’ve met from time to time who have qualities that I wished schools and cities cultivated within all young people: voracious reading, tremendous curiosity, and an ability to figure out answers to questions that puzzle them.  Imagine what communities would look like if we planned them (and budgeting priorities) with the learning needs and experiences of the youngest members of cities in mind. Then imagine where you live at present. Though some places are better than others, there is still so so much that we need to do.

Life Lessons From A One Year Old 

1) Disappointments are to be experienced intensely, mourned briefly, and then forgotten. Failure should not hinder one from trying and trying again.

2) People are fascinating. Seek them out. Be unafraid to start conversations. To smile. To wave hello to your neighbours. Make a habit of constantly expressing your delight that you are in the company of others, and the recipient of their attention.

3) Relish solitude. You need time every day to wander, to think, to explore and simply figure things out. To try new things. Protest fiercely when others encroach on this time.

4) Make amends quickly. When you keep others up at night or leave them exhausted during the day, make sure you make up for it with a contrite smile and a heart softening cuddle.  Have a sunshiny disposition that makes it impossible to remain irritated with you.

5) The world is your playground, discover it actively. In every situation, there are things to be explored and learnt, touched and tasted. Have a healthy sense of curiosity about your surroundings. Be a scientist in the world. Experiment, challenge, test, test again, revise your assumptions, store that knowledge away, and repeat this process continuously.

6) Be heard.  If you have an opinion, share it. If you aren’t understood at first, persist until you’ve conveyed your point of view. Learn new languages to speak to ever widening circles of people.

7) Seek support and comfort from those around you. When you fall and stumble, touch base to feel better, and then return to your adventure-seeking, knowledge-desiring, happy state.

8 Embrace your inner artist. Express yourself, and don’t let limitations of ability and skill deter you from enjoying colours and textures and different art forms.

9) Savour tastes and smells and textures.  Enjoy each morsel. Chew slowly. Explore new foods. Try what others are having. Chase after new experiences.

10) Wake up completely thrilled about the day ahead. Stand up, laugh, and become excited and energised about the big adventures that await you. Nap when needed.

11) Touch the world, and be in touch with nature.  Splash in water. Watch birds. Stop and say hello to puppies. Jump on grass. Stare at trees. Be conscious of the fact that the world is awesome, and spend some time every day marveling at its wonders. Don’t let a day go by without some time outdoors.

12) Don’t hold grudges. When someone trips over you, or makes a mistake, have a good cry, but don’t let bad experiences or moments impact your trust of others as a whole.

13) Laugh heartily. Laugh often.

14) Seek new goals constantly. Be hungry to learn and grow and develop. Be persistent. Spend lots of time with others who are more skilled than you-it creates an environment where you are naturally constantly trying to stretch and increase your abilities.

15) Assert your independence. Don’t let others do things for you too often. Push people away who prevent you from learning.

16) When you make a mess, clean it up.

17) Dance when music plays. In fact, make time for movement every day.  After spending any length of time being stationary, or eating large amounts of food, race around, climb things, and revel in your ability to move and reach and run and stand.

And lastly…be confident.  Babies have personalities. They come into the world with their own idiosyncrasies and habits and little quirks, and when you hear mothers talk about their children, they speak about the things that he/she likes and doesn’t like, prefers and doesn’t prefer, and what their habits tend to be. And yet, a year earlier, the little person didn’t exist. Obviously I’m not the first writer to reflect on the miracle of birth, but it is something to keep in mind as we strive for things and get discouraged and get disappointed at times: that perhaps the simple fact we exist, that we come into the world with such a definite sense of self, means that one must chase and seek and find meaning. We are too astonishing to not seize the day, to not make what we can of our lives and experiences, and to not reach out to others and create social change.