Getting Back on the Treadmill – Figuratively Speaking

The last few years haven’t been easy, but my life has recently started settling into a vaguely normal pattern again. For a few years when I first arrived in Australia I felt like I was treading water, trying to stay afloat and hoping that something more permanent would come along.

2018 was a great year of changes for me.

Those of you who have been following my blog for some time will be familiar with this, but for those who haven’t been in the loop, here’s the quick version: the door of the veggie shop where I was doing casual work closed, but the door of the hardware store where I was also a casual opened even wider. Within a few weeks I was on a permanent contract in the hardware store, working part-time for 30 hours a week.

Moving into a cute little cottage, unpacking all my treasured bits and pieces and buying a car followed in quick succession. Soon I was up and running my own life again, but feeling rather exhausted by it all. Towards the end of last year I began to spend time looking back on my life, trying to take stock of where I was and how far I had come in the last four years. A close friend who lives far away told me to slow down and stop trying to do everything at once.

She’s right. The start of a new year is always a good time to look forwards, rather than backwards. The view from here is good. I’m happy and getting my life back on track, slowing down to a sedate pace and managing to do most of the things I set out to do.

There is, however, one area of my life that I’ve been neglecting. I’ve never been a fast food junkie, but I have come to rely too much on convenience foods. It’s easier to open a bag or box and microwave the contents rather than get out the cooking pots and make a mess that I’m too tired to clean up afterwards. Apart from fresh fruit in my breakfast smoothie, all the vegetables I eat have been prepared by someone else in a factory somewhere. Unfortunately this has had an adverse effect on my energy levels – and that’s a mistake that is entirely my own doing.

My excuse up till now is that I’m getting older, but in reality that’s no excuse. I have on my computer a 20-page file I began making more than twenty years ago. It has the very dry title of “Measurement and Weight Statistics” and I originally started it because I was trying to get in shape for my twenty-year high school reunion. I managed that in about four weeks. Over the years since then, every time I’ve fallen off the fitness wagon I’ve started a new page with a new number, listed my weight statistics and measurements, and outlined my fitness and eating programme to get me back in shape. For the next few weeks or months, there have been updates and comparisons with what’s been gained or lost. As the years have gone by, I have clocked up an impressive fourteen fitness or eating successes. Each time it’s been a little harder to get back into shape, of course.

Yesterday I added number fifteen to that file. I measured and weighed, and was surprised at how little my current shape differs from the last time I did this – nine years ago.

I know that my weight fluctuated more in 2015 than ever before. When I was packing to leave South Africa four years ago I dropped about eight kilograms in five months. I was too scared to weigh myself then, and it took another eight months and a road trip through New South Wales with my best friend Jackie to put six or seven of those kilograms back on.

I’ve added another few since then, but now it’s time to get rid of them. I’ve already started growing (and harvesting) my own tomatoes, strawberries and beetroot. It will take more effort to prepare a salad than a sandwich for my work lunches, but I anticipate that it will be well worth it in the end. This time the main objective is not to lose weight, but to gain more energy so that I can manage my time, my job and my writing from a healthier place.

I’ll let you know how it goes…

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My Endless Quest to Recapture the Magic of Christmas

Last week a work colleague and I discussed how we had spent our respective Christmases this year. She has three sons and she said that they had really enjoyed it, which was the main thing.

It got me thinking about how magical Christmas had been when I was a child, and how we try every year to recapture that feeling, whether for our children or for ourselves. We frantically decorate trees and cakes, bake mince pies, play appropriate music, shop till we drop, overspending and pushing our credit cards beyond their normal elasticity. Working in retail, I’ve witnessed at first hand the frenzy of spending in the days leading to Christmas, but no matter how much effort we put into it, Christmas for adults never quite matches up to the magic it held for us as children.

The cynic in me knows now that the original Christian meaning of Christmas has been warped beyond all recognition, but as a child the juxtaposition of the fables and traditions surrounding this yearly event fell happily into place alongside each other. The birth of Jesus Christ, the story of generous Saint Nicholas, the pagan tree and Yuletide log – all of them snuggled up together, were added to by our parents, and are now coated in the rosy afterglow of our own fondly-remembered nostalgia. I’ve written elsewhere about my own family’s Christmas traditions.

Somehow, the long ago story of the Christ child born in a stable sat comfortably with the notion of a man in a red suit arriving on the roof in a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer. This strange man from the North Pole who dropped down our chimney with a sack full of toys was perfectly logical at the time, despite the fact that our chimney wasn’t very wide. It was magic, of course.

Once we realised who was masquerading as Father Christmas, things were still great, because we were children, we still got presents, and Christmas was fun. Even through high school, and during my three years at university when I still lived at home, we all loved the season and had a good time each Christmas.

In my early years of working, I enjoyed my first few Christmases, especially a spectacular one in the northern hemisphere, skiing in the Swiss alps with my boyfriend and his family. A magical Christmas-card Christmas that one was, surrounded by snow and log fires in our cosy wood-lined cabin, joined by various family and friends from around the world.

The following year that same boyfriend and I hosted the big family Christmas at our newly-bought house in Johannesburg. It was enormous fun and I knew that this was the pattern for the rest of my life: we would continue to host big family Christmas meals, enjoying lots of company and laughter, creating magical Christmases for the children we would one day have too…

Not so the next year. My wonderful boyfriend dumped me in August and by December I was barely back on my emotional feet. I think that was when Christmas started to become a little tarnished.

The next year was even worse. My father died in July and my sister got divorced in November. It was a sad, straggly family of survivors who got together on the 25th of December at my mother’s house and tried to pretend that all was merry and bright. It just wasn’t. My mother kept disappearing into the kitchen to “check the chicken” but once there she dissolved into tears, unable to cope with the first Christmas in twenty-eight years without her husband. My sister had reluctantly invited her ex-husband along for the day so that their children could have as normal a Christmas as possible. It was anything but normal and we were all relieved when the 26th dawned and it was finally over.

During the years when I lived in Cape Town, there followed three Christmases of utter loneliness that I still can’t bear to think about. I became a bit of a nomad after that, wandering around South Africa, wherever I could find work – mainly on touring big musicals. Career-wise it was a good move. Christmas-wise it was quite awful.

Things improved vastly when I settled in Durban, able to spend time with my mother and sister again. After my mother died, my sister filled the empty space and we had wonderful Christmases together until she and her second husband and their youngest child left for Australia. The following Christmas I spent with the remaining three of their grown up children, but by the next Christmas two more of them had moved overseas as well.

We still had a good Christmas, my oldest niece and I. For the first time in years we substituted the traditional Christmas pudding with a chocolate fondue instead. We still talk about it to this day. She’s been here on holiday for a few weeks now with her two sons, and we’ve had another big family Christmas in Australia.

So how was my Christmas this year? In the last few years I have come close to actually recapturing the magic of my childhood Christmases. Since I arrived in Australia, my Christmases have been fun-filled and family-filled. This year I moved into a cottage on my own and in December I unpacked my aged, beloved Christmas tree once more, and filled my new home with old memories, new decorations and magical hopes for the future.

I wish all my readers a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2019. May all your wishes magically come true!

Things I Have Discovered About My Mother

Today marks the tenth anniversary of my Mother’s death. Here’s a post I wrote about her back in January 2015, when I started packing to move to Australia. I still miss her…

The Scribbling Scribes

By Susan Roberts

s1I suppose I always took it for granted that I would one day become a mother, but somehow it never happened. This has something to do with the hours that I work, or maybe it’s because I grew up old-fashioned enough to believe that I needed a husband first. Over the years, the right candidate never appeared so I just got on with my life instead.

Not that I’m sorry I didn’t become a mother. My family will tell you that I was never particularly enamoured of kids. When I was grossed out by someone’s wailing brat or a dirty diaper, there was always a well-meaning relative to assure me that “it’ll be different when you have your own one day,” but they couldn’t see that there was a wary part of me that couldn’t imagine going through that with a permanent infant which I couldn’t hand…

View original post 1,236 more words

Summer Adjustments – and Bugs!

The seasons are changing here in Melbourne, and at last I’ve been able to shed the thermals and roll the heaters aside. Some mornings are still nippy, and every few days the temperature drops just to remind me that Spring is, after all, a transition between winter and summer, and we’re not quite there yet.

I’ve discovered a new joy in gardening. I have some herbs and lettuces growing in pots on my veranda, and the first crop of alfalfa sprouts on my kitchen counter is almost ready to add to my next salad. Winter bedding has been squashed into top cupboards and summer clothing pulled from storage tubs and aired. The ceiling fan has been dusted off, windows have been creaked open…

…and new bugs have found all the gaps in the screens to creep through and surprise me!

Some of my windows don’t open – warped wood, or too many coats of paint over the years have seen to that – but enough of them open to provide a cooling breeze. In addition to the view, another advantage of living on the top of a rise is that there is always a breeze.

In South Africa, the cottage I lived in for most of my last fifteen years there was cut into the bank of a hollow – not unlike a Hobbit house, although not as picturesque – and very few breezes ruffled my curtains. This was compounded by Durban’s consistently extreme humidity.

Here, my cottage is one of those old-fashioned Australian weatherboard bungalows built on stilts with slatted storage space underneath. Over the years, my landlord has dumped stuff under there, and even though weeds have grown up and obscured some of it, the wind blows through the slats (which may be one of the reasons why my floors are so cold in winter). Who knows what might be taking shelter in that crawl space for the rest of the year? No doubt time will tell.

My standard arrangement with all creepy crawlies is that they can have the outside, but the inside is my territory, because I pay rent for it and they don’t. However, despite being outside, my veranda (the only solid concrete and brick section of the foundation) is still part of my rented cottage, so snails and slugs will be severely dealt with if they come close to my lettuces. In the warmer weather, I have begun to claim this as my territory, with the acquisition of a few pieces of furniture, pot stands, more chimes and a large citronella candle to keep the bugs at bay.

Bugs must please keep away from my car as well because it’s mine. Three months ago I finally got myself a car and gave my brother-in-law his old car back. He found this one for me online and checked it out before I bought it. I love it so much because it’s small, zippy and not unlike the last car I had in South Africa. The only real difference? Instead of blue, it’s pink!

I love my life here in Australia. I sit on my veranda and dream about the lives of my characters in my (much interrupted) novel. Birds chirp, and bigger birds swoop down to chase my cat Valentine if he gets too close to their trees and nests. And rightly so – he’s in their territory out there.

His sister Galadriel doesn’t seem to want to go outside. She prefers the comforts of her home. Perhaps she knows the difference between her territory and that of others.

The other day my landlord cut the grass right up to the far fence because, he said, his wife doesn’t like snakes. He must’ve seen the look on my face because he grinned and said, “You don’t like them either?”

Too muted by terror, I shook my head. Living out in the country may have its drawbacks after all…

Three Hearts & an Angel

The frenzied activity of the last few months has finally slowed down to a more manageable pace. I’ve settled well into my cottage and now that the weather is warming up I have more energy because I don’t feel so cold all the time. I think my cottage is going to be lovely in summertime.

I’ve started a potted herb garden and bought some outdoor furniture for my veranda. The birds are chirping and making nests in the newly greening trees. If my cat gets too close the larger magpies swoop down to warn him away…

Above my bed I have hung some trinkets on the arms of the light fitting. All of these – in the true Marie Kondo sense – spark joy in me when I see them moving gently in the breeze.

A double heart made by my friends Mark and Tarryn, which they gave to all their wedding guests in South Africa back in 2012. It used to hang from the rafters in my Durban cottage. Mark and Tarryn moved to Australia long before I did, and they received their Australian citizenship this month. Their double heart is not only a reminder of the two of them, but a beacon of hope for that far off day when I too, will become a citizen.

The second heart was made by another friend, Shelley, for everyone in the cast and crew of the KickstArt theatre production of the musical Annie in 2014. This small ceramic heart brings to my heart a reminder of the fortitude of my friend Tina. She designed the most beautiful lighting for this show, after surviving a violent encounter which could easily have ended her life. She was determined to let nothing prevent her from creating beauty in the world, every single day, against all odds.

The third heart is one I purchased here in Australia at one of my favourite shops – Ishka. It is hand carved and comes from Indonesia. For me, it’s a reminder of the many hand-carved wooden objects I had to leave behind in Africa due to Australia’s stringent rules and regulations, and it is also a symbol of hope and love as I move forward with my new life here.

The last object – delicately packed for its journey from South Africa by my friend Penny – is a small glass angel given to me by one of my parents’ oldest friends; the same lady who came to break the news to me of my father’s death back in 1985. She gave me this angel about twelve years ago when she visited my mother and stepfather just before Christmas one year.

I’ve never hung it on a Christmas tree because it’s far too delicate. Instead, and because angels are not just for Christmas, it used to hang all year inside a glass-fronted dresser which I no longer have. Now, it will hang permanently above my bed, moving gently in the light breeze which passes through my bedroom. A reminder that sometimes we need to spread our wings in order to fly more freely than we once did.

The Finishing Touches

In my early working days during the 80s and 90s, every time I moved house, it usually took me four or five months to get around to hanging up my pictures. Because I always rented, my choices were limited to where existing picture hooks had already been hammered in by previous tenants.

Only once, when I bought my own flat in Johannesburg in 1997, did I finally splash out on buying a drill and hanging my pictures exactly where I wanted them. Along with shower rails, curtain rods, pot plant holders and anything else that took my fancy.

When I moved to Durban in 2000, it was to rented accommodation again, but the landlords I was lucky enough to rent from in the next fifteen years were quite happy to let me put up whatever I wanted.

Even so, it always took me a while to decide on the correct look and atmosphere of each room before hanging the pictures. I had to be sure that everything else was in the correct place before executing those finishing touches.

In South Africa, you drill holes into brick walls, shove in plastic plugs and screw in screws strong enough to take the weight. Not so in Australia, where the process is a little more tricky. Here the houses are not built of brick, but of timber framing, covered inside with plasterboard, and outside with any kind of veneer you can imagine. This means the walls are hollow, with wiring and piping running through the gap between inner and outer cladding.

Believe it or not, I’ve now been in my new cottage for four months. Lately, I’ve been planning the placement of my pictures. Of course, I didn’t bring all of them with me; only the most significant and precious. Such as a set of five black and white photos of District Six, taken by Jansje Wissema back in the 1960s. After carrying these in a folder through two moves, I finally framed them myself in Johannesburg, before drilling holes in my own wall with my (then) new drill. Where I go, they go.

Likewise two of my niece’s paintings which I am hoping to frame; a beautiful water colour painted by a writing friend; a framed pencil sketch that I’ve had for twenty-seven years of a cat drawn by my friend Jackie; and a cute cat-shaped blackboard made by my friend Mandy before she left for Ireland in 1997. Other favourites include my four huge framed movie posters.

One of these bears the legend: “If adventure has a name… it must be Indiana Jones” which became symbolic of my own adventure when I was packing up three years ago. Where I go, Indy goes too…

Last week I retrieved all these and more from the roof of my sister’s garage where they have been stored for the past three years. Some calculations and planning had already been done because I had most of the measurements among my immigration paperwork, but the real fun only began when I was able to unwrap them from their protective bubble wrap shrouds and let them live again.

Yesterday I spent the day putting up the larger ones. My cottage here has quite a lot of hooks in the walls, which was lucky for me because it meant I didn’t have to excavate new territory and risk hitting water pipes and live electric wiring. I also have a neat little device called a Stud Sensor, which detects both timber and metal frames, and has a red flashing light and a loud beep whenever it senses electricity.

Unfortunately, that little beep sounded a lot yesterday as I discovered that several walls which I had earmarked for pictures were more “live” than most power stations. Consequently I have had to keep some of my artworks in bubble wrap until I maybe one day move to a bigger place, or until I work out a way of attaching them to just the wall paint and plasterboard. Or doors, or ceilings. Or whatever.

Either way, for the most part I am pleased with the results. My cottage is starting to look more and more like the home I have visualised for so long.

A Reason, a Season, or a Lifetime?

Thirty-three years ago today, I was awakened early in the morning by a persistent knocking on my door in Johannesburg. I had worked later than usual the previous night, and desperately needed that extra hour of sleep, but it was not to be. Whoever was knocking just wouldn’t go away, so I got up and stumbled to the door, bleary-eyed.

There stood an old family friend of my father’s, with her husband, come to tell me that my father had died the night before. My mother had called her so that I wouldn’t be alone when I heard the news. They stayed while I phoned my mother. They made me tea and didn’t leave until they had helped me to make arrangements to fly home.

They’ve been on my mind this weekend, as have quite a few other people.

I spent most of Sunday with a friend who is about to leave Australia to live in New Zealand. She was the first friend I made in Australia. We connected because we were aliens from the same place, albeit via different routes, and we both related to the strangeness of our new situation in a foreign country.

It was great seeing her again on Sunday because we hadn’t seen each other in a while, but I felt sad afterwards and began to ponder the theory that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. Will we ever see each other again? I’m sure we will, but even if it turns out that we were in each other’s lives for a season of only two and a half years, then we will be grateful that we formed our friendship at the time when we both needed it most.

Because I moved around South Africa a lot in my early years of working, I have had many fleeting connections with people. I always found it sad when we drifted apart. So many best friends faded from my life when I faded from their town, or they went overseas. In those days there were no mobile phones so we didn’t keep the same numbers when we moved, and most lost interest in writing letters after a short while.

It took me several years to stop resenting the lost connections, or blaming them. I eventually realised that not all people you meet in your lifetime will be there forever, and that’s not necessarily their fault. Most people come into your life and change it in some way – for better or worse – but either way you learn something from their presence at your side.

Some leave after a few weeks or months, some after a few years. Some you see again; some you don’t. Even our beloved pets don’t live as long as we do, but those seasons they spend with us are remembered fondly for the rest of our lives.

We all make connections, but just because people drift apart doesn’t mean that they’re not important. The short length of time we spend with each other doesn’t diminish the impact of the connection.

The friend who told me to read The Artist’s Way was a musical director I worked with eighteen years ago for the six month season of a particular show. I haven’t seen her since her now grown-up son was a newborn baby, but I do believe that she came into my life when I needed someone to tell me how to change my life’s direction. I’ll always be grateful that she did. And some years later I was in the life of another musician for a long enough season to give him a copy of the same book, because I knew he needed it too.

My father’s friend who came to tell me of his death was once his girlfriend about a decade before he met my mother. It hadn’t been a serious love affair, but they always enjoyed each other’s company and stayed friends all their lives. When I was a child we went to Johannesburg on holiday, and we visited her and her husband in their beautiful old house on the top of the ridge in Kensington, with its glorious view of the eastern suburbs. When they came down to the coast on holiday, they stopped and spent time with us on the way. Birthday cards flew via airmail between all four adults. She kept in touch with my mother after my father’s death, and after the death of her husband some years later. Some friendships really do last a lifetime, no matter the distance.

Today, thanks to email and the Internet, I have reconnected with two friends from primary school. When I was in high school, my friends and I had pen-friends in exotic places around the world. Now my high school friends are my email pen-friends in exotic places too.

Look at the people around you today and ask yourself: Are they there for a reason, a season or a lifetime? And then think about the reason why you might be in each of their lives. What purpose do you fill for them? Are you there for a reason, a season or a lifetime?