As this year draws to a close, and I look back at how lucky I’ve been, I’m reluctant to give an audible sigh of relief, because that bitch the universe sits around, ears pricked, just waiting for me to let down my guard.
But, prior to this one, it had been a very, very long time since I last had a good year. The decade leading up to my 50th birthday last year, in particular, was nightmarish, a truly hideous combination of loss, conflict, poor health, financial trouble and the occasional bout of genuine despair. I’m not good at expressing pain or fear, so very few of those around me, if any, were aware of it, but I’d started feeling the kind of broken that, if you leave it too long, can’t be fixed.
There were many areas I knew I’d have to tackle if I wanted to get my life back on track before it was too late, and being physically well seemed to be something I could address myself right away. I’d already quit drinking in 2013 and smoking in 2014, and over the course of 2015 I lost the 25kg that I’d slowly but surely put on over a decade. I did it by the tried-and-tested expedient of eating less and exercising more, which had the agreeable side-effect of totally overhauling my entire approach to food. There’s no doubt that I’d become an emotional over-eater, so my year-long get-fit kick did double duty by solving that particular emotional problem. And now my health has never been better – I’m the same weight I was in my 20s, but I’m much fitter because I’m not a smoker any more.
Another thing that was at least partly in my power to change was how I was working. Importantly, I decided to stop allowing some clients to get away with exploiting me – clients who regularly underpaid me and/or rejected quotes they deemed ‘too high’, while at the same time expected me to drop everything to attend to their every need, to do extra work for free, and to work overtime and/or over weekends, etc. As a result of this decision, I lost two clients, which made me panicky; but within a few months, I’d gained several new clients, all of them nice to work with.
On top of that, I’ve worked on some great projects this year, including several books, one of which (John Meyer: A Retrospective) won ‘best book’ in its category at this year’s South African Independent Publishers Awards.
And the third thing that was in my power to manage was my unerring attraction for and to crazy men. I made an active decision to stop having relationships with certifiable people – and I say an ‘active’ decision, because once or twice I’ve found myself in relationships without really having intended to get into them at all. This year, despite some fairly serious temptation from what previously would have been irresistibly (for me) dysfunctional men, I’ve stuck to my no-crazies guns. If I’d worried that this would drain a little colour from my life, I needn’t have bothered: the colour is there, but it’s in all sorts of other wonderful things. I’m learning that you don’t have to live life at a tilt to feel excited about it.
One thing that absolutely wasn’t in my power to control, and which was perhaps the hardest thing to cope with, was watching my two grownup kids (both in their 20s) battle through various challenges. A mother is only ever as happy as her unhappiest child, and at times I was very unhappy indeed. But over the last few months, both seem to have found their spots in the universe – for now, anyway.
My father, too, has been a source of happiness for me. He’s a very healthy, active and involved 81-year-old, who lives half the year in Europe and the other half in South Africa, and even when he isn’t physically here, we’re in constant contact by email. It’s incredibly valuable for me to be able to bounce things off a person with his intelligence and life experience, knowing that any advice he gives me will be in my best interests. I hope I can do the same for my kids one day.
And my friends have also contributed in amazing ways to my good year. During my decade horribilis, I lost a few friendships that I’d previously thought unassailable; it really shook me that friendships could fall apart so easily, and that even my best efforts couldn’t mend those broken bridges. But it also reminded me how precious genuine friendships are, and I’m more grateful than ever for my loyal and lovely friends.
This year was a great one for travel for me, in spite of the fact that I can’t afford to travel at all. Not only did I go on the trip of a lifetime with my father on the Queen Mary (and get to see some of those selfsame very precious friends in the UK), I also went to Joburg for my friends Amanda and Alex’s 50th, where I reconnected with some women I haven’t seen since we were at school together. I visited a fantastic game reserve, Erindi, in Namibia, on a working trip. And I did some amazing hikes, including the Whale Trail which, although it’s run with the kind of slapdash lack of attention to detail we as South Africans have come to expect from anything that involves the government, is a salutary reminder of how privileged we are to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
I’ve also finally, after years of plotting and planning, begun work on building a house. With the first phase completed, it currently consists of only a single garage and the house foundations up to wall height; it will take another few years of plotting, planning and saving before I can continue, but it’s a great start.
I’ve saved the last spot in this list of blessings for my granddaughter, Jessie, now 2½, a central joy in my life. I’ve been extremely involved in her life since her birth, and now that most of the very physical hard work of helping to raise a baby is behind us, I’m re-experiencing the huge fun I remember so well about having kids in ‘the wonder years’. And now I have more time and more resources than I did when I was a hardworking single mother, so I can do things like spend an hour or two sitting on the veranda with Jessie, having a ‘tea party’, while she chats to me about ‘goats’ (boats) and ‘crippets’ (crickets), and encourages me to drink up with a hysterically patronising, ‘Come now, darlin’.’
In fact, something that happened on my birthday this year more or less sums up this annus mirabilis up for me. It was a Monday morning, and I’d taken Jessie, who contracted a series of nasty cold/flu bugs during the winter, for chest X-rays. With the X-rays clutched in my hand, I went to the clinic in Malmesbury and found a space in the very full waiting room there, queuing with the halt and the lame to see the doctor. A black woman with a very tiny baby came in, and I shifted over to make room for her. As she sat down next to us, her baby started crying. Jessie (a dummy addict) looked at the baby, then asked me, ‘Where’s the baby’s dummy, Nana?’
I replied, ‘Not all babies have dummies, sweetie.’
Jessie pondered this. The baby continued crying. Then, completely spontaneously, Jessie suddenly started singing ‘Tula tu’ to the baby.
The baby’s mother and I looked at each other with big smiles. It was a very precious and specifically South African moment: this little white toddler singing a Zulu lullaby to a tiny black baby.
It was only when the baby’s mother joined in the song, and Jessie looked up and realised that the entire waiting room full of people were watching and listening to her, that she stopped, embarrassed. But it made my birthday.