Woman on Top

“Good morning,” the Bokmakierie bird would have said, if I had eyes to see and ears to hear. He was sitting on a thorn tree branch outside the kitchen window, watching me chop carrots.

He saw me first, because I didn’t look up the first or second time that he ‘trilled’, or when he chirruped again, more loudly. Eventually, he played the party trick that make these cheeky, yellow mischiefs a popular garden accessory: he rang like a mobile phone.

And then I looked up from my carrots. “What have you been doing with your life today?” he appeared to have said, since coincidentally, I had been wondering the same thing.

“Not much, but a lot,” I answered. In fact, I couldn’t remember what I’d eaten that morning, since at least a thousand other things had crowded, squashed, into one day between getting up and chopping carrots.

My mother says that there are no such things as coincidences – only meant-to-bes. There also are no problems; only challenges. Because Bokmakierie flew away seconds after our conversation, I forgot about him until the following morning, when my friend Daniela posted an eye-openingly wise comment on her Facebook profile.

While reading it, I felt reasonably certain that Bokmakierie and Dan’s post were one of my mother’s meant-to-bes.

Dan offered us 12 ‘Zen Things’ to remember during a busy day. We see these pop-up philosophies all over social media these days and most miss the memory bank because there are so many that we’ve reached sentimental saturation point.

But what the art of Zen and birds have in common is a simple methodology, really – one that we are fast forgetting.

I put Zen to the test, thanks to Dan and Bokmakierie, just for an hour or two and would you know it? Bird Zen works.

Remember to do one thing at a time – and do it slowly, deliberately, completely. That’s the first step. Chopping carrots, for example, should be about chopping carrots, and not about rushing the job in your head. The rush speeds up your heart rate and makes you anxious; not only will your carrots be a chore, rather than a serving of nutrition, but you may snap at someone later, because your ‘blood is up’, as gran used to say.

Bird Zen also advises that we do less. Can we? Is it at all possible? I tried it and yes. There was a quarter hour scheduled for clearing the right-hand side of the garage last week, but I was tired and it had been a hot and tiring day. So I didn’t do it, as I’d done so much else. And both the garage and my sanity are still there.

“Put space between things”, is the next tip. Meaning time, actual things, visits with people – anything that exchanges energy or takes up space. Putting space in your life gives you room to breathe.

My kids respond best to number six on the list, which is “develop rituals” and “designate time for certain things”. I didn’t know, until I started having eyes to see and ears to hear, that my young son loves, beyond measure, family hugs. Thinking back, I remember now that he’s mentioned family hugs a few times, but we don’t do it often enough. It’s a ritual and so, it must be done – and often.

Our grandparents and older generations understood the last bits of bird zen so innately: devote time to sitting; smile and serve others; make cleaning and cooking become meditation – and live simply.

Do you remember your granny, aunties and elderly neighbours sitting on the stoep of an afternoon, drinking tea and talking, or sometimes not talking, but being silent; punctuating the peace with an occasional “ag, ja” or, “shoo, the wind is up”?

Wise old birds, those.

Beth Cooper Howell
First published in The Herald newspaper



Woman on Top

This morning, I walked away from a sticky situation and left it in the hands of someone more capable because I simply didn’t have the patience to deal with drama – not before a cup of tea, certainly.

Impatience has been a permanent stain on my character for as long as I could spell it. Strangely, on the face of it, impatient people may seem like the most chilled out, smiley people you know; but put us in a compromising situ – with places to go, zips to zip and appointments to keep – and we morph into stroppy toddlers with a thirst for trouble.
I’ve often wondered why some people do patience better and, as a result, lead far more peaceful lives. Are they destined to not lead the pack, choosing the path of friendly followers, while the handful of us with a short fuse actually get the job done – on time and well?

My aggressive adherence to schedules and obsession with beating the clock have proved career winners for two decades – no editor ever has had to chase me down for copy and, when I was a teacher, both heads of department and pupils knew that what needed to be done would be done – not by Friday, but a week in advance. I wore impatience like a crown and lived the lie that my life was infinitely better because of it.

But today, when I simply didn’t have it in me to help my grumpy toddler deal with his disappointment about the rain at school – meaning no usual swing-swing routine – I could have chosen the path of the uber-mom, who would have found a way to both teach emotional balance and eventually coax a smile. Instead, after a few failed attempts at empathy, reasoning and distraction, I simply gave up. What’s the point of flogging a lost cause?

Our competitive world worships at the feet of achievement and so, for naturally impatient people, it may seem that we’re built to win – after all, if Richard Branson had just stood around and gone with the flow, he’d never have built a pretty plane.

But since I feel unhappy when I’m feeling impatient, there must be a flaw in that modern argument. And science, as always, proves this to be true. If you’re a true-blue ‘impatient’, then what you’re really getting knotty knickers about is the irritating emotion you’re feeling when things aren’t going your way.

Like this morning, when my toddler was in a towering rage over an apparently simple thing like rain, I felt powerless (I’m no meteorologist and don’t know a workable rain dance), annoyed (everybody else under three is happy – why aren’t you?) and stupid (why did I make the outside swing part of your goodbye routine anyway?).

Beth Cooper Howell
First published in The Herald

Uncovering a Truth in a Tragedy

Once again, it’s been the best and worst of times for our country – and our little slice of it, in particular.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve hardly had time to blink. From one crime or disaster to another, it was hardly surprising that expatriates named and shamed us (and tried to hide a certain relief that they’d left).

The problem with people, though, is people. I have watched a nation being tarnished, lambasted and split along racial lines; its sunny, Mandela-painted reputation blotted. If I was a real-deal conspiracy theorist, this would look like an undercover smear campaign to me.

But here in Port Elizabeth and surrounds, I’ve also noticed an incredible force at work. Something biological, perhaps, rooted in nature; or possibly a sign that in the Eastern Cape, community is an action word, not just a concept.

When one of our own was murdered last month, we united against evil, crime, women abuse and every other despicable assault on the human right to live peacefully – and to be safe at home. I felt the event more keenly than some, because I share a past with many of the people connected to the tragedy.

Elsewhere in our communities, other women shared the same fate, or will soon. What happened to Jayde Panayiotou should not happen to anybody. Regardless of the circumstances, suspects and facts (or rumours) surrounding a tragedy like this, this is what we banded together for and said: we will not have this happening in our neighbourhood, or yours; and we will not stand for it.

In times of crisis, people become their true selves. Perhaps, says Maia Szalvitz, a TIME magazine neuroscience journalist, it is because we are wired this way.

“Our brains are designed so that our stress systems can be soothed by social support: in response to the calming words or gentle touch of loved ones, for example, the bonding hormone oxytocin tends to lower levels of stress hormones. We learn this from infancy from our parents or caregivers; as we grow, our stress systems remain intricately linked to the presence of others who can provide comfort and relief from anxiety.”

Szalvitz says that many studies now show that strong social support extends life and improves health. During disasters, our “social networks largely determine our fates: the more connections we have and the stronger our bonds are to each other, the more likely we are to survive, not just physically but emotionally. To prevent and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, these ties are the best medicine. It’s when we face the toughest times that our true nature reveals itself.”

On social media, at church, in marches and during conversations with friends, thousands of people tuned into this biological wiring by focusing on a beautiful and much-loved teacher who has become an icon for everything good in a world gone mad.

And this is what we should cling to, rather than getting caught up in the tabloid frenzy that comes from a real-life event being twisted into a ‘story’.

If we’re innately built to give comfort and support in a time of crisis, then that is what we should do.

Beth Cooper Howell

First published in Woman on Top in The Herald

Putting Things into Perspective on turning 40

Hitting the halfway mark in life is a blessing or a curse, depending on whether you’re feeling the love, or counting crow’s feet instead.

This was the most memorable quote thrown at me when I cruised out of my thirties recently. Truly, I expected to be a banshee of sorrow on the day – primarily because I’m just not a spa and salad girl. I’m also not ‘worth it’ enough to spend R600 on wrinkle cream. And as Scottishly fair-skinned as I am, there have been many dark days of too much sun, zero water and sneaky boxes of sulphur-rich wine.

The literature says that I’ve failed miserably at looking after my external assets; and my insurance broker worries about my pension future, since I’ve tended to live for today, rather than plan for tomorrow.

I can’t imagine what type of celebration 40-year-olds held a century ago. Many were already dead; others were in the throes of raising an eighth baby; some were loosening their corsets and to hell with it.

But it was my party this month and I cried – and laughed, sipped chardonnay, ate three helpings and wore red lipstick. And, happily, so did everyone else; most of us were hitting the 4-0s or skating through them. Some were mere newts, having turned a fresh-faced 30 in months gone by.

Because our media-saturated brains promote ageist attitudes, I was sure that I’d be upset. And when I’m blue, I hide. An original plan to book a venue, invite 200 peeps and sing on stage fizzled with a bang and whimper. Next year perhaps, I said, when I’m more used to not being 21 anymore.

But my BFF was flying down from JHB and, being an organised, energetic 38-ish, insisted that we mark the occasion with my two favourite things : food and friends. It was such a last-minute shindig – from simple box cake at home with the kids to a full-on wine and platters knees-up with 18 girls. I didn’t know if I wanted this – until I did.

Between courses, I had time to review not only my life, but the lives of the beautiful, smart, funny women around me that night. Between us, we have dozens of kids, a handful of husbands, boyfriends or mellow singles, jobs ranging from stay-at-homes, law and interior design to administration, art and journalism.

When I was younger, I notched lots of success stories into my ‘me’ belt. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved and I want more. But I want it less strenuously than I did then – which is ironic, considering that there’s less time in which to get it.

The touted adage is that 40 is the new 30. That’s bollocks and now I know why. There’s never a better time than now, no matter what age you are. My dear friend Penny recently completed a colourful road trip in remote parts of the country and brought back stories to tickle my funny bone. She’s in her sixties and does a hundred fun things regardless of age or health; I’d like her to write a blog, but she wouldn’t want to be tied down by the boringness of deadlines. She’s having too much fun.

We should celebrate milestones because we’re glad to be alive. Not because it’s traditional, or expected or to ward off the terror of getting older. At the very least, it’s a good excuse to eat cake.

Beth Howell
Journalist and editor

First published in The Herald