On suffering – there is such thing as too close

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This is Kelly. She is a babe.

 “Check in on your control freak friends. We are not ok.”
– Kelly Donaldson (my BFF since ’92), March 18, 2020

I am a leader among those of us who have been down far, far too many internet rabbit holes in recent days. The space between knowing some but not enough is a dark one. The last thing we need is another entry. Here I am anyways.

I have the same stake in this game as the rest of you humans. I have three kids, two ageing parents, family in vulnerable parts of Africa and a 36-week pregnant sister in a city that has been declared a state of emergency.  We are in Christchurch, which has one known case of COVID-19 to date, a good government that takes it seriously and a great public healthcare system. A large, thinly-populated, middle-class, remote island feels like a pretty good place to be in a pandemic.

I am, however, a social scientist. The past two decades of studying and working international affairs has culminated in…. an understanding that humans are trash (see letter to myself on my 40th birthday). In fact, I predicted this. Not necessarily right now and via a Pangolin in Wuhan,  but one of my guiding principles for parenting is: is it better to be a genocidee or a genocider?  I am in a much better place physically than most people right now, but I would bet five good dollars that my ‘what ifs’ are as deep and dark as anybody out there.

My most interesting (I’m kidding, it’s my only interesting) project in my Master’s degree was in a Media and Society class. We had to submit a paper on how media affects society.  The Professor was to select the best paper for journal publication. Mine was on media portrayals of suffering and the subsequent impacts. I compared media coverage of the 2004 Asian tsunami with African humanitarian disasters and how that impacted fundraising. You guys, I nailed that shit. It got a First Class distinction but lost out to ‘The Britney and Madonna Kiss* and how that impacted girl on girl action in subsequent media’ for publication.  The Professor had a clause in his contract forbidding him to have close-door meetings with girl students (seriously).

My research included analysing Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others.  I am paraphrasing a lot here, but one of her key points was that we need to be a very specific distance from suffering to feel true empathy – close enough that we can imagine it is us and far enough that we are safe from it.  Too far or too close don’t do it for us.

The tsunami was the perfect storm (pun intended). We could all picture being on holiday in Thailand…. from the safety of our homes. It helped that the media told us the stories and showed us the faces of all the foreigners missing or dead. That tsunami broke fundraising records.

Meanwhile, the media kept African humanitarian crises at arms length (still does). Black and white photos. No names. Lots of statistics. Often, the caption for an image of a person – in a hospital bed, staring off in the distance, walking long journeys by foot, carrying a rifle in military fatigues – ignores the person altogether and speaks only to the conditions around them. The person is obtuse, dehumanised. An object instead of the subject. Fundraising appeals for African humanitarian crises fall short all.the.time.

This is my first experience in a crisis that is too close for empathy. Most of the people reading this have lived in an era without war or extreme poverty.  All the while seeing regular images and stories of it elsewhere. Their suffering feels inevitable. We became desensitised. We started to believe in our exceptionalism, our right to avoid it.

All of the sudden we are facing the unknown impacts of a global health crisis and – even scarier – the social costs in its wake.  Enter our most primal Darwinian animal instincts to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Parents are supposedly able to lift cars off their children when necessary, yet here we are powerless against an unknown. We are too consumed with fear to feel empathy.

Almost 9,000 people have died to date from this thing. I have heard their ages and locations but none of their names.  I have not seen images of families in mourning or faces of lost ones.

Joseph Stalin said a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

I recently went to see Margaret Atwood live (the Handmaids Tale + 41 other books, a genius mind and student of history). According to her, most of us like to believe that we would fight for what is right in the face of personal risk or loss. Yet history shows that only some of us will. Most of us will just put our heads down in self-preservation.

I love all the inspirational sayings floating around about how we are giving the Earth a break, reseting, unplugging, remembering what is important. It is adorable. And utterly ahistorical. They are obviously not social scientists.

If you have made it this far and take one thing from me make it this – if you are looking for signs that humanity is good – don’t look up, look in.  We do not know what is coming, but we get to choose how we handle ourselves (in between panic, because we are multitaskers and I’m not here to shame anxiety). It is, in the end, all we have.

In case I sound like I am on a high horse, I spent $800 at the grocery store in the last 48 hours. My freezer is full for the first time ever and I am deep, deep in worry about how my family will be impacted. Our health. Our finances. Our visas. Our futures. The world our kids are growing up in. New normals. Herd immunity. Climate change. Recession. Depression. Greed. Corruption. Nationalism. New kinds of War.

And I was prepared for this, in principle. The struggle is real.

With that, I am going to sign out and do something hard. I am going to remind myself – forcefully – that I am far better equipped than most people to deal with all of this. If I can spend $800 on freezer food for my well-fed family, then I can pry my wallet from my clenched fists and give to people and organisations with real and true immediate needs who are at least as deserving as I am.

Spending $800 on groceries is ultimately an attempt to feel in control. Because man, I miss my old friend. Even if she was imaginary, she gave me comfort. I have to believe that even more peace and purpose will come through serving others and make this the order of my days during these crazy times.

*Capitalised on purpose and with an eye roll as if the gay rights movement hadn’t been fighting for decades for more representation.

 

A letter to my son on his first week of school

8349883A-8A47-40FF-AB72-B33553859CD0As soon as I sat down to write this I smiled. Well, first came the wash of guilt for all the letters I meant to write you but never got around to (it’s a Mom thing). Once that passed my eyes twinkled, my whole self-filled with warmth and mouth curved upward. This happens when I think of you.

You are the very best. Every thing about you, big and small, fills me with love. Your big expressive eyes, giant imagination, dogged determination, wild stories and unforced humour.

This week you started your school journey. In New Zealand, this happens as soon as you turn five. Indeed this means that kids start school at random intervals throughout the year. I am still befuddled by this practice and think administering a school with different class sizes each day of the year would be a nightmare. But it all seems to work out somehow.

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Your birthday fell immediately before the mid-year holidays. This gave you the rare fortune of starting school exactly halfway through the year. Monday morning rolled around and you bounced out of bed with excitement. You put on your (too big) uniform and walked proudly into the kitchen. I heard your Dad cheering and laughing from upstairs and he said your face was as proud as punch to be off to big school.

I knew you would adapt to school as you have pretty much everything else you do – seamlessly. But everyone else was making a big fuss about the first day. I tried to get in step, but you were having none of it. You waved me off and said goodbye while the other parents lingered, oohing and aahing.

My independent 5 year old is finally in the classroom next door to his big sister in big school.

2E08578F-071A-4268-8E18-A6EB51F8955BYou have been a marvel to watch since the day you arrived. From the beginning, you challenged me in ways neither of your siblings did. A lot of that had to do with how unprepared I was for how big the leap was between having one kid and two. The rest of it comes from how impossible you have been to predict. Every time I think I have you figured out, you shift the mark.

I look back now at the letter I wrote you on your first birthday and laugh because I had it so wrong. At one I reckoned you had all the makings of your Dad – laid back, patient, quick to smile and laugh, going along at your own pace.

Man was I wrong.

You are your own person; that much was correct. You do things one way – your way. But you are not laid back or unflappable. You are at once our most challenging and most entertaining child.

49a51655-a48d-4bb6-a41e-8e1248549222.jpegWe learned years ago not to push you towards anything but to set boundaries to let you do things at your own direction and pace. Learning to ride a bike took 2 minutes. By the end of the first week you went on a 6 km ride. You bounce out of bed on rugby mornings singing ‘It’s Cobra Time’. Skiing with you is sheer delight – you show little fear and a natural ability. You resisted swimming for years before the switch turned and are now happy to dive to the bottom of the pool and always come up with a beaming smile (it is one of my favourite activities to watch specifically for these moments – I cannot get enough of that smile).

A87A4528-CA83-43CD-B084-C22AABC3E39DYou are wildly entertaining. Like wildly. One of the routine moments I use to remind myself of my blessings is listening to you chatter away in your car seat while I am driving. When we are in the car, we are typically rushing somewhere and I am on my last shred of patience after getting everyone and everything in the car. You often talk or sing pure comedic gold and an encyclopaedia of random facts from door to door. It always takes my edge off and reminds me how blessed I am, we are.

You remind me of that often. You are our resident peacemaker, a genuine empath. You have a keen sense of justice, and are the first to notice when someone else needs something. My warmest moments are when you slide up behind me or next to me quietly to hug or nuzzle my cheek. They always come without explanation, but seem to come at moments I need them. I don’t believe this is an accident.

9e11bf63-994b-49df-889a-ed4a57b2dffe.jpegYou love your family fiercely. I asked you recently what your favourite sport is. You replied ‘rugby, because my whole family comes to watch me’. You look in our direction each and every time you score a try or make a mistake. You declare regularly how lucky you are to have your family and tell me ‘you are the best Mom ever’. When you have a down moment and say the opposite (it happens too), I never have to scold you or tell you that your words hurt. You figure it out on your own and issue your own apology. Usually you tell me you were ‘just telling jokes’ or ‘just tricking you when I said that’.

Losing a temper or saying things you are not proud of in the heat of a moment are forgivable. I do it all the time. We all make mistakes. I love that you understand and internalise the weight of your behaviour or words and try to protect people from that pain, even after the fact; especially after the fact. Please keep this self- awareness and desire to protect people. We give negativity far better than we receive it.

CB880E5E-7BEE-48EA-998C-6210030909B7For reasons I am not sure of, I worry less about you than your siblings. I haven’t assessed your skills for your age or pushed you towards reading or writing. I rarely check in on how you are doing socially or developmentally. Things just seem so smooth for you. You make friends and adapt to new circumstances or challenges so effortlessly. It is a universal irony that the people who seek the least approval seem to gain it the most easily.

I should be careful about casting this weight onto you. Being the peacemaker comes with the magic of being able to see inside others and give them what they need. You are my sensitive-hearted child. This also means you hurt deeply. You do not need to be ok all the time. You are allowed to struggle and doubt and be selfish or scared or lost.

F590110D-C821-4947-9B56-04A982FA6E27I learned last year that suicide is four times higher in males than females. This stunned me – I would have guessed the opposite even. It also made me realise the pressure we put on boys and men to be ok and the lack of helpful avenues you have when you are not.

I promise to be a safe space for you if and when you need one. We love you deeply and unconditionally.

We are so proud of every single thing you are and would not change one thing about you. Learning and loving you remains the greatest journey of my life. Thank you for being you my intoxicating little dude. Happy 6th year. I hope it is as enchanted as the last. You are so very loved.

A letter to Myself on my 40th Birthday

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I can actually be fun sometimes.  You may need reminding as you read.

I turned 40 last month.

In the days leading up to my birthday, my friend said “how exciting? You must feel great!” I need to point out that she is actually my friend’s younger sister and in her mid-20s. It makes a difference. She’s still attractive and energetic and optimistic and shit.

I asked her what is exciting about being chubby and middle-aged? “Your life is all the things you want it to be at 40. You’re married with kids, you have a job, a house, family, friends”.

I replied that this is all true but I am in fact in my darkest place ever about humanity. I then proceeded down the ‘we are handing our kids a fiery ball of hellfire and damnation’ route. She agreed with everything I said, with a super cute smile and no grey hairs.

In November I went under general anaesthesia for the very first time. Apparently most people wake up sentimental. I woke up ranting about humanity and telling everyone in the room how we are the worst and treat each other like crap. The anaesthetist eventually said ‘we all treat each other very well in surgical theatre’ to which I replied, ‘I bet the cleaner would disagree’.

Something in me broke in my 40th year.

I was hip to humanity long before 40. I just generally subscribed to the ‘arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ school of thought. In fact, it never really occurred to me to measure progress; I just knew a million mountains needed moving and focused on putting in the work. The best people I know and the qualities I most aspire to are in the trenches, I just do my best to follow their footsteps.

This year, decades of learning came together with an ugly click.  A metaphorical blindfold came off and revealed that, you can fight it all you want but humans are a trash species.

The devastating truth is that the closer you get to see how decisions are made, the darker it gets. If you disagree with me, it is not because you are more enlightened it is because you just do not know any better. Sorry. No volume of inspirational examples of love or resilience dents the damage we do.

One of my projects this year involved interviewing African women migrants in South Africa. When I started, the head of a refugee organisation told me I might need counselling of my own. I shrugged it off. I have close to 20 years of experience in ‘the field’. I started community work with gang-affected youth in Los Angeles, wrote my Honours thesis on Bantu education in rural schools, earned my professional stripes in the townships during the height of the HIV pandemic, wrote my Master’s thesis in a flood-ravaged parts of Haiti, recorded thousands of refugee testimonials from persecuted Afghans, and studied Boko Haram. I could do this.

One of my interviewees was a Congolese woman who has been raped more than 100 times. She was married at a young age to a husband who worked as a government spy in opposition territory. The community figured it out when he disappeared suddenly. Then the soldiers arrived too when he fled the service. Sexual violence is high in areas of the DRC where they do not have heavy artillery. They know that if you break a woman, you break the whole community.

Another woman essentially walked from Uganda to South Africa after ‘they’ attacked her family home, threw her baby in a burning building and locked the door.

(In the event you are thinking that this is particularly uncouth, just remember the ‘West’ invented contact-free war. More women and children have died from airstrikes and drones in countries we go to war in but cannot find on a map, than from any enemy factions in any country.)

Many of them looked at me with hope that telling their stories to would lead to change in a country that treats them with disdain. The rape victim had her refugee claim dismissed as ‘unfounded’. She had to look the word up in the dictionary. She said it was like being violated all over again.

I lost count of the times I left in tears, pounded my fists on the steering wheel and screamed with impotent rage.

For much of this year I have walked around telling people that we are animals, only sicker. Healthy animals do not thrash their own habitats, hurt and rape children and destroy their own. This has resulted in some very interesting lessons on animal behaviour.   FYI goats ruin everything they see including their own homes, captive tortoises have hierarchical gay sex/rape structures just like human prisons, bottlenose dolphins gang rape females from different pods and as rats multiply they become self-destructive to a point where they eventually annihilate themselves.

We are animals. But we have unchallenged access to power, the most dangerous force of all. This has always been true, but population and technology explosions have industrialised everything, including pain and destruction. Billions of people are suffering. They are kept out of sight and out of mind while people make money and gain power from our ignorance.  Make no mistake, everyone believes in climate change; they are just relying on being able to protect themselves from the effects.

In Vukile’s Ninjutsu class they play a game called Mad Dog. One person starts on all fours and tries to tag the others while they run on two feet. Once someone is tagged, they join Mad Dog #1.…. until everyone is a Mad Dog. The goal seems to be to teach strategy. If Mad Dog#1 tries to get everyone, he or she often just sits in the middle swatting at the air while everyone runs around him or her. The best strategy is to focus on one person and work them into a corner. Once you have co -Mad Dogs, the game gets exponentially faster.

I am Mad Dog. Perhaps even the Maddest Dog.

At one point this year I had to restrain myself from telling a parent that pirating is actually a very serious issue and not an appropriate theme for a 4-year-old birthday party.

I am overwhelmed with sadness by the sheer volume of suffering among people.   I am sure it will just get worse.  I am terrified of how we are destroying our planet. I am paralysed by how little we can do to stop it. I am gripped with fear for my kids and the world we are handing them. I feel helpless to protect them from this fuckery or even from participating in it. I am tired. I have a permanent headache from grinding my teeth. I wake up nightly with anxiety.  I look and feel like crap too.

This is the real me at 40. I am all of the other things too, in case you are about to send help. I did not break at 40, something in me broke at  40. There is an important distinction.

When having this conversation in person, my dear friend Tuesday, who is smarter and better than me in every way despite seeing even more darkness, looked at me with a hint of desperation and said ‘you need to keep fighting’.

Of course I will keep fighting. Giving up is not on the table, will never be on the table.

But I cannot do a good job if I am being Mad Dog. I need that counselling after all. I need to come to terms with the fact that arc of progress may actually be a downward spiral.

I do not know what any of this looks like.  I am here because writing is one of the best ways for me to find any of the above and I resolved to do more when I turned 40.  It took me close to a month to write this because I pretty much hate everything I write these days. I still hate it, but know I need to write my way out of that funk.

So here I am dusting off the ol’ blog. The one about other people that is apparently now about me. I do not know how much of it will be public, but I do believe that saying things out loud helps make them real so I suspect I will be over-sharing.

For now, Mad Dog Out.

PS If you have read this far, please do NOT come at me with words of encouragement about me or my ability to impact.  I appreciate thoughts of this nature, but fundamentally they do a ton for my own reputation but nothing for the people who are suffering.

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A letter to my middle son on his third week of his second year of pre-school

IMG_2528At some point last year one of my dear friends scolded me for my gush gap. I gush about Khaya. I gush about Alakhe. But I don’t gush about Vukile.

“I don’t?!” I asked.
“No!” she replied, exasperated, “and he’s my favourite!”

She is also a middle child. You are also pretty much everybody’s favourite.

You might doubt it sometimes. I mean, I am writing you your ‘annual’ letter on the 224th day of your 3rd year and (notably) two days before your brother’s first birthday.

Khaya is my first-born and she’s a girl; I am sensitive to the narratives aimed at her and to the importance of building her up. Alakhe is an adorable squishy baby, and my last born, and I just kinda want to drink up every single second of him. You, everything about you screams ‘I don’t need gushing’. Well, you are usually screaming something, that’s for sure.

Make no mistake about it, you are worthy of plenty of gushing. You are hilarious, brave, clever, creative, resilient, determined and bursting with love. You fill each of our days with fun and imagination and you are utterly delicious.

IMG_8787This morning I told you to put your shoes on; when I returned one minute later you were trying to stand (shoeless) on a wobbly wooden stool you had stacked on your bed. This afternoon you challenged your sister and I to a race to the picnic blanket from the playground only to take off and run a wide arc in the complete opposite direction, without an ounce of concern on your face. I still wonder where you would be now had I not given chase.   This evening you told me “God put a coin in my underpants” and asked me to help you retrieve it.

These are your truest Vukile moments. They happen all the time.  I often stop myself mid-day to silently repeat something you say or do as a means of searing it into my memory forever. I cannot get enough of you. It just feels so much more natural to do all of this with humour than it does with adulation.

You are also difficult.

Often, you are difficult for sport; you seem to like the challenge. I have spent much of the last year trying to figure out how to effectively parent you. Most often I am left guessing what goes through your mind or how to get your attention. You walk to the beat of your own drum, are unconcerned with approval and can be completely unresponsive to the soundest of parenting techniques. You are constantly challenging and changing the limits.

IMG_3678This Christmas we went to Canada to spend time with family and to give you your first white Christmas. Specifically, I wanted to teach you guys to ski. I had been waiting for this my entire life. The first few sessions went predictably – Khaya did exactly as told and picked it up immediately while you looked right through me and your G-Ma as if we were transparent. You caught on to the sport quite quickly but were not interested in listening. You wanted to go up the chair lift, you wanted go all by yourself, you wanted a snack, you needed to pee.

On Day 3 of Perseverance, your Dad and sister – both also beginners – were now doing well enough to go up the ‘big’ magic carpet together, just the two of them. You lost your dang mind. The whole ski hill heard about it. I had Alakhe in my arms and your Dad was not a strong enough skier yet to handle you and Khaya alone. To quiet you down and rescue the rest of the day for all of us, we all went together to the ‘little’ magic carpet. There, you pronounced, “I am going by myself”. And so you did; roughly twenty times, with a smile.

A few days later we went to Fernie with our good friends. You hit the magic carpet with Hank and Khaya – both older and more advanced. While they weaved their way through the turns on the course, you tagged along behind them bombing straight down. Eventually, they grew bored of the magic carpet and moved up to the ‘big’ lift. I had to tackle you to prevent you from following them – you could not go alone up the big hill without knowing how to turn properly. You tantrumed. Thinking it would be a whole day project; I promised you could join them once you had completed the entire course on the magic carpet. There was no evidence that you had even registered what the course was, nonetheless how to turn 6 times in order to finish it.

“Fine”

Just like that, you finished the whole course and we ran out of excuses not to let you go with the other kids.

I learned everything I need to know about you in these moments.

IMG_2623You are a pack animal. Nothing we could say or do could ever motivate you the way staying with your friends or family could. Realising this has turned a light on in my brain.

When we discipline or scold you, you look right through us. When we congratulate or celebrate you, you seem un-phased. When I leave you to go for a run, you are genuinely betrayed. When I take your sister to the grocery store without you, you are inconsolable. You come to all of Khaya’s lessons just to watch. You sneak your way into our bedroom every single night; I have woken up many times to you in the bottom corner of the bed cuddling my foot. Parenting a pre-schooler seemingly uninterested in pleasing people while simultaneously reacting to a time out with the utmost sense of injustice has been confusing. Looking back, I see that those were the times you felt ignored or left out. That hurts extra when you believe so hard in your pack.

IMG_9116The biggest reason I fail to gush about you is quite simply because you are so very much my son.   At one point we thought you favoured your father. We were wrong. You are cut straight from your mother’s cloth.

I was a difficult middle child. I got kicked out of kindergarten and had my Grade 1 desk moved into the hallway. I was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Yet I was blessed by a host of patient teachers and friends who saw the potential within, gritted their teeth and gave me space and tools to grow in to myself.

If I fail to avow you, it is because I am so very certain of all that are and all that you will do. I am equally sure that you will find the determination you need to thrive from within. So much so that I forget you need to hear it.

You are difficult and you are wonderful. These two things are not mutually exclusive. You are truly magnificent. Everything about you is pure fire and you make everyday fuller. You are a bright and engaging little boy. You hold no punches. You love without inhibitions. You are loyal. You laugh with your whole body and it is the very best sound in the world. When you curl up in my arms and cup your hands around my face, there is no place in the whole world I would rather be. You fill my life with laughter and my heart with love. Watching you grow up is the best adventure of my life. I cannot wait to see what unfolds or who you become. I have no clue what it will look like, but know I am beyond blessed to have front row seats.

IMG_3622I will try to do better at affirming you for all that you are and resisting the impulse to only capture your humour. I know very well what it is like to appear steely on the outside while feeling vulnerable on the inside. I also know what it is like to be born behind somebody who is good at everything they do. I will remind you as often as necessary that you do not need to be the best at everything, you will find your freedom and your self by being the very best you. You are more than enough.

 

Most importantly, I will always be your pack. I will always fight for you. With all that I am and all that I have.  You are so very loved.

A letter to my daughter on her first day of school

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First day of ‘big school’

Every year since you were born, I have written you a letter on your birthday. Well, this has been that kind of a year, so here I am on your very first day of kindergarten instead. It is an even bigger day, right? 😉 Be sure of one thing, my love, any delays or unheralded occasions are purely a reflection of me, not you.

One of my most gut wrenching moments as a parent so far came on one of your school drop offs. We put you in a new Montessori school at age 3. It took you awhile to settle in and find your confidence. On one of the early days, you approached two of your classmates in the playground hoping to play, only to be mean-girled. One girl – the ring leader – whispered to the other to relay the message onward that you were not welcome. They scampered off while you stood there alone at the fence in your little striped dress. My heart shattered into a million pieces in the parking lot. That morning hurt me far worse than you. I still feel it. Every bit of me wanted to protect you from the loneliness and vulnerability of that moment. I almost punched a 5 year old and still hold a grudge. You don’t even remember it. You grew to become one of the most confident and gregarious kids in the school and ended up befriending both of them.

On your first day of kindergarten, you woke up at 4 am asking if it was morning yet. Again at 5am. When I finally relented at 6 am, you bounced out of bed and through your morning routine, singing one of your made up songs about how much you love being off to ‘big school’. I bit my lip as we walked to your new pristine all-girls campus while you chatted away with excitement. On arrival, two friends ran up enthusiastically and swallowed up many of my concerns. You found your name on your cubby and we packed away your stationary and snack. I reminded you that some of the girls were feeling shy and to be sure to reach out to anybody who might be feeling a little bit nervous. “I will” you replied, “Bye Mom, I love you Mom”. And off you went.

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Your 5th birthday party!

Just like that. My little girl is a big girl.  I am predictably reduced to a bumbling pile of the exaggerated brand of emotions you ushered into my life when you were born.  Parenting, as it turns out is largely an exercise of trying to balance the wistfulness of what has passed with anticipation for what is to come; while trying to keep you safe and fed in the interim. It is honestly surreal. I will always remember the day you were born in exacting detail as if it was yesterday.  I will also spend much of my time dreaming and worrying about what it is to come. It takes true intention to live in the present and enjoy you exactly where you are. Luckily for me, you give me that gift almost daily.

You are the loveliest. In almost every way possible, you are already a better person than I am. Seriously. You are good at almost everything you do. Your report cards are glowing. Your teachers love you.  You are smart, capable, curious and teachable. You love learning and find genuine gratification in the process. You have a strong sense of justice and are a stickler for the rules. You are trustworthy. You are kind.

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I finally got you on skis. You predictably took to it right away.

You have exceeded my expectations so many times that I have had to re-calculate them. When we travel across the world on multiple flights, we have come to just expect you to behave like an adult and help with your brothers. If another kid can do something, we assume you can too. When you fall down on skis, we leave you to get right back up. When your friend scrapes their knees, we anticipate you will help them up.

As always, I live in fear of all the risks you face in the world. At every level – tragedy, the messages circulating trying to chip away at your worth as an African girl, growing up too fast, turning into a teenager and hating me. This was the year of #metoo. The depths of transnational misogynist culture have been unveiled at unprecedented levels. I have personally followed two high profile cases involving sports coaches and doctors who manipulated and abused young girl athletes; playing on their dreams and using their greatest strengths against them. It is utterly terrifying and tempts me to lock you in a vault. In the same breath, I have watched these same girls – now women – dig deep and find the strength to bring their abusers to account. My own friends and peers recently closed a series of twenty-year-old traumas with a resounding 37 guilty verdicts against a former coach and predator. Thanks to them, for the first time in Canada, there is now a 12-year prison sentence as a legal precedent for coaches who abuse athletes. All this in hopes that girls like you never have to experience the same.

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Graduating from pre-school. You were a giraffe in the school play

I also grew up underneath someone who was perfect. Your Uncle Strachan, who you know all about, was impossibly good at everything he did and loved by everyone. I see so much of him in you. He was amazing by all standards, but I saw first hand the costs that came with it. I know well that perfectionists are their own harshest critics. Your grandparents had to speak to Strachan in high school to stop him from waking up at 4:00 am to study. At age 5, I have backed off from disciplining you because you are already self-punishing. When you make mistakes or break rules, more often than not we need to comfort you instead of correct you.

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A ski hill with a moving chairlift, skiing girls and all!

Just yesterday, you completed a lego set that you got from your grandparents for Christmas. It is for 8 – 12 year olds but you put it together, by yourself, one piece at a time. It is impressive and I love watching you work. But the final product does not tell about the two times you could not figure it out and got so frustrated that we needed to put it away. When we packed the lego up for our trip home from Canada, I figured we would re-visit it once you were a bit older. But low and behold, you pulled it out of the box to give it another go. As you did, you discovered a series of pieces you had previously missed and shrieked with delight ‘THIS is why I couldn’t make it fit in Canada’ and carried on your merry way with a smile. I love, love, love that you tried again. And that you cheered for yourself with an “I did it”  with the identical beaming enthusiasm and pride as you did moments later when your baby brother stood all by himself.

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You wanted a baby sister so badly, but welcomes your baby brother with love

We are so very proud of you Khaya, My faith in the girl you are becoming grows faster than your never-ending legs and big ol’ feet. The more I watch you, the more I trust that you will handle your own self and whatever life throws at you better than I ever could. This growing up thing is now in your hands too, and that is such good news because you really are terrific.

I am utterly unprepared to be deferring to your judgment and abilities when it feels like you are still my baby; yet here we are. We will always, always be here to love and support you as best we can. Being privy to your life is one of the greatest joys and privileges of my life; but your journey and relationship with your own self will be the greatest in yours. I hope you continue on your path with the same zest for learning you have now and that you continue to challenge yourself with fervour and honesty.

Thank you for being you my Khaya. I am so proud to be your Mama. You are my greatest work and I look forward to walking with you in this chapter. Be brave. Be strong. Be kind. You are so very loved.

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35-170705-Hartley-Hawaii-ColourI did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch
I told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Hallelujah

Today is my big brother’s birthday. His 41st.

It has been awhile since I have been able to write about Strachan.

Last year I spent his birthday driving around the neighbourhood we grew up in and visiting his grave. I was 5 months pregnant and on a 10 day solo sojourn back home where I attended my 20 year high school reunion, spent quality time with old friends, said good bye to my parents’ home of 14 years and then ran among hundreds of friends in the 10th annual charity run in Strachan’s honour that raised $35,000 for some really amazing teens. I cried a lot. Maybe the most ever. I believe that we need to feel feelings wholly. Numbness becomes hollowness. Deep sorrow reflects deep love like a mirror and paves the path to healing. I let in all the feelings and cried so hard and so much that I eventually laughed at myself.

But I did not have the words to articulate anything meaningfully.

On July 5, the 10 -year anniversary of Strachan’s passing, we spent the day playing games on the beach in Maui with most of our extended family. Blythe had arranged for us all to be together in paradise for her wedding the next day. At sunset, we dressed in white and went down to the beach where we attempted to light and release lanterns. None of them worked in the end, so we waved them in the air instead.  Again, I cried with the now-familiar sadness that aches throughout yet feels surreal all at once.

Still, I had not consolidated my thoughts enough to say them out loud.

I still do not have anything remarkable to say. Linking Strachan to something messy and unfinished is practically blasphemy. Most of all, though, any honest reflection on Strachan ten years on has to reflect on the damage his death has caused. That is really hard.

When the doctor sat on his bed and told him they were out of options, Strachan was as stoic as you would expect. He had fear in his eyes but declared, “I may not have had a long life, but I kicked its ass”. When I collapsed onto his chest in a pile of tears, he hugged me and told me he loved me. It was not until we got my Dad on the phone to tell him the news that he broke down. Pushing the phone away he said, “I can handle dying. But I cannot handle seeing my Dad like that”.

At first, the shared loss was so tragic that it unified us. Our family grew in size and in strength. For many of us, you were our first and our biggest loss. It became a calling to do and be better. Not just through the Foundation, which has been an amazing tool to perpetuate your legacy and bring people together for good (for me more than anyone), but well beyond. In some ways the years that followed were some of our best. Upholding your legacy and soothing one another’s’ losses acted as glue that brought and bound people together.

That becomes harder with time. Not because we love you or miss you any less; nor because the need to do and be better has lessened. We don’t and it hasn’t. But the truth about loss is that it also tears us down. The ways in which we are better are in fact not commensurate with the ways in which we are worse. Tragedy is in fact tragic. It breaks us and steals pieces that cannot be replaced.

That is hard to admit under any circumstances but impossible to admit to you. Your best was always the best. Really. We lost you soon after you graduated from one of the top medical schools in the world. You literally spent your whole life among the cream of the crop. Not only were you the best, so was everyone around you. You had not yet been tossed into the throws of mediocrity inherent in the ‘real world’. You did not know laziness or deceit. When something bad happened, you hurt with the purity of a child. You had the privilege, talent and drive to be uncompromising and never deal with average. You threw a book through a window when you got a B in one high school class.

I wonder all the time what 41 year old Strachan would be like. In every sense – what you would look like, how many kids you would have, how our family would be if you were still here. I also wonder how life would have weathered and wizened you.

You would know now what you did not know then – that life is complex. That people can break in ways that cannot be repaired. That sometimes the best someone can do is put one fractured foot in front of the other and limp forward. That we often make the second or even the fifth best choice, because our personal best is not automatically equal to the very best. I believe that you would have compassion and would know by now that compromise, forgiveness and asking for help are not weaknesses, but the highest forms of strength.

I struggle to accept all of this myself. Nowadays, I find I mourn you alongside my own youthful idealism. You are intertwined in the fissures of my heart. I miss you both so much it hurts, often more than I am able to bear.

This is not to paint a bleak picture, not at all. We have so very much to celebrate, and we do. Still, it hurts to admit to you that losing you has in fact done what you feared – taken its rightful toll on the hearts of those who love you the most.

Happy Birthday Strachan Hartley. We miss you. In old ways and in new.  But our love for you remains the same. Perfect. Still. Always.


A Love Letter to My Daughter on her 4th Birthday

IMG_2550 My Khaya,

Today I write you my annual letter. I wish I would write you more often, but four years in and my mind remains a pile of porridge. I have also found myself particularly unsettled over the past year and have lost confidence in my voice and how to best use it.

This is a dark beginning to a birthday letter.

Make no mistake about it. Year 4 brought a landslide of love and miracles. You remain an image of God’s perfection and make us so impossibly happy. You are an infectious and determined little girl. Smart, engaging and brave. You moved countries and two schools in the past year seamlessly. We thought you were exclusively my daughter, but you have surprised us with a sensitive, thoughtful side. Watching you grow up sets my heart alight each and every day. You are loved by many and blessed beyond measure to have a worldwide community of caring hands shepherding you through life.

This year also introduced some hard truths. Predictable ones that we saw coming, but still cut deep when they landed.

At age 3, you were denied entry to swim lessons based on our last name and were cursed out by an old, mentally unstable man who does not want to live next door to black people. At age 3, you also became aware that people come in different colours.

It came a couple of months ago while watching  Greys Anatomy.

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 Our 1st ever convo about race involved a hot, black, female doctor and gave me new appreciation for the slow inclusion of diversity in mainstream culture.

“That’s a brown Auntie.”

“Yes, she is. She is a beautiful smart brown auntie like many others.”

“You’re not brown, I’m brown. What are you?”

“I’m white.”

“No you’re not, you’re grey.”

It has become a running dialogue ever since: an ad hoc commentary on ‘brown’ and ‘grey’ people (including the recent astute observation that “the grey people live in Canada and the brown people in South Africa”).   We have made a concerted effort to let you steer the conversation and to merely affirm that yes, people come in different hues and they are all great. So far it appears to be merely observational, but I fear the day it becomes more.

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Link to NY Times article. Non-white South Africans make up 92% of the population and the stats are even worse

I know nothing about what it means to grow up brown. I suspect these incidents and observations have marked the beginning of a life long journey. One that will be hard at times.

To be clear, this message is not about personal feelings. We are a family that loves each other plainly and purely. We encourage you to see, love and treat all people the same. But to teach you that this is a universal truth or that racism is limited individual perceptions would be wilful ignorance and, ultimately, fail to prepare you for life.

The world is entrenched in systemic racism (seems an appropriate opener for a 4 year old). It is complicated and we will spend a lifetime building you up for it. But to put it plainly, a significant burden rests on ‘brown’ people.

The clearest way I can think to show this is to compare my own and your father’s journey to meeting each other as ‘equals’:

I come from an amazing family, whose integrity I consider stand apart. We have French and English settler histories in Canada and come from a long lineage of (until recent generations, all male) professionals. We are CAs, engineers, doctors, architects, teachers and more. Your grandparents chose to make me independent at 18; partly to ensure we learned important survival skills and partly because the financial pressure of four teenagers was their upper limit. We were encouraged to follow our dreams and pave our own paths. Four children made our own way through nine University degrees. I have had jobs since I was 16 and a paper route before then. We have worked hard.  We were provided with quality education starting from pre-school. I was exposed to music, language and sports. I was supported – financially and emotionally – through high performance sport that, in turn, paid for both of my degrees and instilled an international worldview.  It was utterly unequivocal – even if unspoken – that we would go to University. We were never asked to factor family responsibility into our decisions. I endured temporary bullying for being able to squat more than the boys, but generally fit in and was accepted by my peers. My passport is accepted universally. I drank underage, shoplifted and got caught by police breaking into the school and putting a car on the roof, yet never saw the inside of a police station. My education, experience and intelligence are rarely questioned. I have travelled to 57 countries and only ever been treated with curiosity. My parents helped me open a bank account at age 11 and when it came time to buying a house (with our own money) I had a litany of advice from friends and family who had already done it. I live in a foreign country where we speak my language, practice my social and professional norms and take advantage of my privileges.

Your father is the first in his direct lineage to graduate University. Extended family members who preceded him did so by the sacrifices of their siblings and parents. Education for his people was strategically dumbed down and made inaccessible. The men were separated from their families and forced to travel long distances from ‘homelands’ to provide labour for white colonists. The women have borne an unimaginable burden without ever escaping poverty. His grandmother did hard labour until the day she died and never understood how someone would pay him to play a game.  He got rejected from kindergarten because he failed the readiness test of reaching over his head and touching his ear. He was sent away from home at age nine for a proper education and held back a year because his foundation was so poor. He has endured corporal punishment and police brutality. He stumbled on sport by accident. He has lost countless family members to treatable illnesses or solvable crimes. His dream was to provide his mother with the standard of living she deserved. She died before he could. He gets treated with suspicion in his own neighbourhood. His name gets mispronounced in his own country. He reads, writes and speaks in a language that is not his own in his own country. Every time he succeeds, someone, somewhere wonders if it is due to a ‘black card’ with invisible advantages. If and when his competency is acknowledged, he is labelled a ‘different’ kind of his people and left to reconcile this with the rest of his loved ones. And he is one of the privileged ones.

IMG_2048 (1)Being grey comes with privileges that make life easier. Please never mistake easy for better.

I could not be more humbled or proud of the journey your Dad has walked.  He can teach you patience, tenacity and grace in  ways I never can.  I pray you develop his endurance and quiet sense of confidence against the current of messages suggesting otherwise. Your brown family has fought and died for you to be exactly who you are. Those are rich, lasting gifts that far outstrip financial inheritance.  Please always learn from them, recognise their sacrifices, mourn the potential they were robbed of and carry proudly each action that has led to you.

You can be and do anything you want. You are the perfect recipe, exactly as you are. You come from devoted and proud families on both sides. All of us love you fiercely and are committed, together, to provide you with a wealth of lessons and opportunities. You can and you will claim yourself, rise up and live your best life, regardless of what obstacles may arise.

IMG_8408For me personally, I am terrified of failing you. Inadequately preparing you or misdirecting my (often excessive) energy. Parenting involves a lot of stumbling around the dark. No piece more so than this. There is no ‘Grey Mama Parenting Crown Children’ handbook. I have no idea what I am doing nor the opportunity to fall back on what I already know. But I promise to do my absolute best.

We love you beyond measure and are so proud of the girl you are becoming. I continue to mourn the moments and years that have passed, but love absolutely nothing more than watching you live your little life. You are a priceless treasure Khaya Mbiyozo. Please do not ever forget it.

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