Easter Holidays

April 15, 2018

We’ve had two weeks of school holidays over Easter. School holidays are intense. Maybe it’s just me. One of my friends said she loves the time off from the usual routine. I said, ‘Really? WTF? Are you serious?’ My children are my beloveds, the highlight of my existence and the apples of my eye so I feel guilty that I really enjoy the three hours when they are at school every day.

School holidays are nonstop go go go. Megan and Jessica’s stamina astounds me. Their energy could power a jet or send a rocket into outer space. By bath time, I’m done for the day and I crave backup. I use the app called Find-my-iPhone to track Al’s progress home. While the children splash about, I watch this little dot moving slowly along a map. At 19h00, it’s bed time (for them, mine is only slightly later). One of my friends posted this on Facebook and it sums up our evenings:

Easter Sunday was good fun. Megan and Jessica gorged on eggs and then I suggested we put the rest in a Tupperware to save for another day. It’s been about two weeks and they still haven’t enquired as to the whereabouts of their chocolate. Isn’t that weird? I’ve been contemplating how bizarre this is as I nibble through their eggs and Lindt bunnies every evening.

We went away for three nights. After Al’s busy season at work and this never ending winter, I so appreciated the change of scenery and the quality time together.

As we drove back home, Al said he had a superb time but didn’t feel relaxed. Every day the children were completely and utterly exhausted from glorious, happy, busy days. Alastair and I wondered if they may sleep late and if we might score a bonus lie in. Not a chance. When children go to bed early, they wake up early. When they go to bed late, they wake up early.

It wasn’t a true break where we detached from all daily responsibilities, enjoyed leisurely lie-ins and veged on a lilo in the pool while drinking a cocktail with a mini umbrella sticking out the glass. Travelling with three small children is like going away with three chimpanzees. It’s a tall order to expect to be relaxed by the end of it. Happy and bonded, yes, but not revived and zenned.  For now, we don’t have holidays as such; they are more like family trips.

We spent two days at Europa Park, the big amusement park in Germany and one day in Colmar in France.

During this trip, I remembered a snippet out of the very interesting book called ‘The Band of Brothers.’ The book is about the group of American men that landed in France on D-Day and then pushed eastwards until they finally stopped at Hitler’s country home town of Berchtesgarten. The author interviewed these men and asked them which country they liked most out of all the areas they passed though. They unanimously agreed the Dutch were tops. Second in line was … Germany. Even though they were liberating Europe from the German clutches, they actually enjoyed and identified with the German culture and way of life.

They said that when they bombed the living daylights out of a German city, the following day the citizens emerged from their bunkers and were all hands on deck to repair the damage. In contrast, the French didn’t give a toss and waited for someone else to eventually get round to filling craters and repairing smashed up buildings. I think that mentality endures to this very day. I remembered this when we were in Germany last week because I like Germans too. They are so organized and productive and motivated.

Europa Park is in Germany on the border with the Alsace region of France. Alsace Lorraine switched between France and Germany a few times over the years. This makes it my favourite part of France because it is French but with a structured, disciplined German influence. There is a marvellous two-room museum in the basement of a building in a village just outside of Colmar. It is very unassuming but it’s one of the best war museums I’ve ever visited. Unfortunately I didn’t explore it in any detail because my three little chimps aren’t interested in history or the Second World War.

Al is holding Jessica and Megan looks awkward because they are both terrified of life-size dressed up creatures. They never sit on Father Christmas’s lap and they shed their skin when they saw the Easter Bunny roaming round our local mall.

I love German food. They are aces at cooking pork and I enjoy spatzle and a good schnitzel. We rarely eat out in Switzerland. It is too expensive and the food is generally underwhelming for the price. This sacrifice and deprivation means that when we are away and go to a restaurant, it’s a major thrill. These days it’s easier to eat out with Megan and Jessica as we tranquilise them with colouring, cards or the iPad. Kate is the challenge because she bounces and wriggles around like a hooked fish. Al and I take turns to hold her so one of us always eats at high speed and the other has cold food. It’s a pity the children don’t enjoy restaurant food as much as we do. They only eat marguerita pizzas, french fries and their body weight in mayonnaise and ketchup.

Europa Park is magical. We loved it. It is divided into different sections each representing a country in Europe. The children were so happy and that made us happy too. I can’t wait to go back.

It astounds me the way Europeans are so tolerant of dogs in public places. Do you know dogs of all shapes and sizes are allowed at Europa Park? I can sort of understand a poodle or a little lapdog but we saw big, fierce looking dogs there too. While we waited for Al on a rollercoaster, I spotted this man and his massive dog. It was taller than Megan and had testicles the size of tennis balls so I had to take a sneaky photo:

I like visiting other countries in Europe because it boosts my confidence with French. I’ve now expanded my repertoire enough to offer French as a communication option in addition to English. I don’t understand a lick of German and I hate that lost, clueless feeling. I don’t understand how people live for years in a foreign country and not learn the language. I used to have this thick tongue and deer-in-headlights disorientation when I first moved to Switzerland but that has gone now. It is only when I am away that I realize how much I’ve progressed and this gives my self-confidence a nice boost.

When we were in Colmar, it suddenly poured with rain for about 20 minutes. The wind blew with an end of world fury that turned my umbrella inside out. We ran in search of shelter but the tiny patisseries and cafes nearby weren’t suitable. They wouldn’t look kindly on our double pram (dogs yes, prams no). We ran around like rats in a burning building and then we noticed a homeless man who beckoned a crowd of us into the cathedral. We sheltered in the church while the rain pounded outside. I’m sure there’s some deeper symbolic meaning in that. It felt special, as if we were characters in a real life picture of how God gives sanctuary and refuge from the storms and greyness of life. It was one of many spontaneous Happy Moments during the trip.

 

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Spring, Charged, Discipline and Parties

March 19, 2018

Look what I found in our garden under the snow.  Buds!

Spring!

This seemingly interminable winter is finally coming to an end.  I’m over the general winter heaviness, the grey, the minus temperatures, the freezing winds, the rain, the short days, too much time indoors, the children’s addiction to tv, walking to school in all weather conditions and dressing kids in winter jackets and other bulky paraphernalia.

One of the things I love most about spring is that it doesn’t appear gradually.  It bursts forth, all of a sudden.  One day it’s winter and then – BOOF! – it’s spring.  It’s like an eruption of light and colour.  I like the way all this life was lying in wait, having a little rest, under the deadness of winter.  Everything feels more crisp, clear and fresh in spring and because I have weather dependent moods, I feel fresher and lighter too.

I like watching things grow.  I think it is pretty amazing the way you plant a little seed and then a shoot pushes through 15cm of soil as it stretches up towards the light above.  Last year we started a vegetable patch for the first time.  We have a small metre by a metre one.  It was fun and educational for the kids so this year we’re expanding it.  There’s something extra delicious about a freshly picked courgette that you’ve grown yourself.  We didn’t know how many seeds to put in so I said to Al, ‘Just chuck them all in.’ I didn’t have high hopes because for a few weeks, we watered it and nothing happened.  But by the end of summer, our veggie patch was bursting.  It reminded me of the fairytale about the magic porridge pot that kept overflowing with porridge and no one could stop it.

Charged

The French have a beautiful descriptive word for when things are busy and full-on.  They say c’est très chargé which translates to ‘it is very charged’.  Charged makes me think of hair standing on end, of static electricity, of hovering over the edge of a cliff, of walking a tightrope, of a lit match near petrol, of a hissing firework just before it explodes.  Some times of the day are particularly busy and then I think, ‘Wow, this feels charged’.  People often ask how I am coping with three kids and I say, ‘It’s great, just very charged.’

Comedian Michael McIntyre said there are four basics that you have to do every day when raising children – feed them, wash them, clothe them and get them to sleep.  Simple things on the surface, but not in practice.  Each of these daily tasks is a battle and the source of charged moments in our house.  For some reason, children resist them and you are forced to compromise in various ways.  Why do they do this?  It’s a mystery.

My most recent intensely charged situation was on my birthday, when Jessica got gastro and vomited multiple times during the evening – once on the lounge carpet, once over the kitchen floor, once in her bed and once into my cupped hands.  Of course it started at dinner time, the most charged time of my day anyway.  I put Kate down so she wept (she likes to be in permanent physical contact with me at all times).  Jessica stood naked in a pool of sick and demanded a hot water bottle (a hodda boddle, she says) for her achy tummy.  Megan cried too because, at that precise moment, Netflix buffered and My Little Pony stopped working and to any child that is a catastrophe.

Sometimes I am so busy and things are so charged (tantrums, tears, spillages, mess, not listening, general obstinance, Al at work, vomit and other sickness) that if one more thing is added to the mix, I may combust in one big pop, like a popcorn kernel in hot oil.  What does one do in a charged situation like I experienced on my birthday?  Call Daddy.  Guess what he said?  ‘I will be home in ten minutes’.  He dropped everything for me and that made it one of the best and most memorable birthday gifts ever.

Discipline?

Discipline.  This is my weak point.  I need more discipline because most of my day I feels as if I am herding cats.  I know of a child who threw stones at cars and others who tried to jump from a first floor apartment window on to a trampoline in the garden below.  That is hard-core naughty and Megan and Jessica are not like that at all.  They just don’t listen well and this creates most of my charged situations.  It’s as if they are a bit deaf or their ear canals are clogged.  So when I say, ‘please put on your shoes’, then they don’t respond.  It is as if I am speaking English and they only understand Chinese.  Or it’s as if they only transmit a certain sonic frequency (like a whale) and don’t register the pitch of my voice.  This is my latest challenge and area for personal development.

What are the best ways to get children to listen?  Someone recommended the book ‘How to talk so children listen’ but I don’t feel like reading it even though I need to.  I love reading but I find the parenting, self-help genre is mind-numbingly dull.  Maybe I’m just not that desperate yet.

When I am pushed to my limit, my reflex is to wave the wooden spoon and threaten a whack on the bum.  But this doesn’t seem fair to me.  I’m trying to teach my children to be self-controlled and less physical.  Spanking as a primary means of discipline doesn’t feel like a good example to them.

The children listen to Alastair more than they do to me.  Al’s method is to count to three.  One!  Two!  Three!  I have no idea what will happen at four, and I don’t think he does either.  Fortunately his deep, no-nonsense voice rallies them to action when he hits about number two.

Many of my American friends do timeout but that hasn’t worked for me.  It is only effective in certain contexts.  If I want someone to eat their dinner or put on their shoes or get ready for bed or get in the car, I can’t send them to timeout.

I tried a star/reward chart but it fizzled out because it took forever to collect stars.  We even got into negative star territory and it was becoming too mathematical and complicated for a 5 and 3 year old.  In the beginning I said that after collecting ten stars for obedience, help with chores, being kind and listening then they could choose a treat. Ten stars was too lofty a goal so I reduced the required number and then it seemed stupid to get treats after just two stars.  I chucked the chart in the bin when I told Megan she could earn a star after she cleaned up the lounge and she said, ‘Don’t worry Mommy.  I don’t want a star.’

Parties

I recently hit on a technique which has been working well in getting Megan and Jessica to do what I want.  If they’ve been invited to a party, I tell them that if they don’t eat their peas or get in the bath or go to bed then they can’t go.  Birthday parties are very important to kids.  Every time Megan and Jessica fight, they shout ‘I won’t invite you to my party!’  If one of them has something the other wants, they’ll say, ‘If you give me that, I will invite you to my party.’

I’ve gathered that Megan and her pals talk a lot about parties at school.  She has already started thinking about her vinnations (invitations) for her party she’s planning in August.  I asked her what cake she would like and she said, ‘a wedding cake’.  I’m under a lot of pressure to live up to their party and socializing expectations.  This is challenging for an inhospitable introvert like me.

How to survive charged moments

The thing about kids is that you can be completely worn out and fed up and then they will do something so surprising, so precious and so adorable that it fills your tank right up and gives you the will and energy to overcome the next charged moment.  This morning I was lying in bed with Jessica, who had woken at 5am and wouldn’t go back to sleep.  She whispered in my ear, ‘Mommy, you’re my best friend.  I’ll invite you to my party.’

I turned around and saw Megan and Kate holding hands in the car. Moments like these make the charged ones so worth it!

 


Heidi, Faith and Rose

February 27, 2018

About ten years ago, I was comforting a friend who was in the midst of a devastating family crisis. Her middle name is ‘Hope’. I overheard her conversation with her sister who said, ‘You need to have some faith. You’re not called Hope for nothing.’ I’ve never forgotten that. I liked the way her parents took a wish for her life and a quality that they esteemed so highly and then they carved it into her name so it could become part of her identity, of who she is.

No one gives a toss about middle names. They are rarely used, except on official documents. Alastair and I decided that we didn’t want the second name to be a bit of extra nothing sandwiched between the name and surname. We’ve got Megan Heidi, Jessica Faith and Kate Rose but all three children could share the same middle names because the Heidi, Faith and Rose bits represent a kind of tattoo that we hope embeds into their identity and becomes a permanent reminder throughout their lives.

HEIDI – a thought on happiness

Megan’s second name is Heidi. We named her after Switzerland and nothing seems more quintessentially Swiss than Heidi. Switzerland is not utopia and it is not all yodelling and romping from hillside to hillside while feeling alive with the sound of music. They say the grass is not greenest on the other side but actually it is greenest where you choose to water it. Switzerland is the first place I have lived where I have felt the most settled. This is where I want to sink my roots and water my grass. Our new upgraded life here was such a contrast to the grey, damp misery we felt in London and we thought we would name Megan after the place both Alastair and I are most happy.

When I was living in London, there was a time when I didn’t know how to get out of the rut I was in. My job bored me to the point of screaming. I would cry every morning before work so my muesli was mixed with milk and tears.

I remember saying to a friend that I was in limbo, as if I was a surfer treading water in the sea while I waited for the next big wave. He said, ‘Julie! In life, you don’t wait for waves! You make them!’ I will never forget that advice because I now firmly believe that happiness comes from deliberate action, from effort on your part. Actions create reactions. One thing leads to another. Don’t stand still. This name, this Heidi is a reminder to my girls to persistently and deliberately angle their lives in the direction they want it to go.

Things rarely fall into your lap. You are unlikely to be handed a life you dream about, like a sparkling gift – here, take this life – but actually you must try to make the life you want. As you’re doing that, you need to find joy in the small, day to day things and create happiness throughout the journey, rather than putting it on hold until you get to a final destination.

Even though our choices and decisions are important, the things in life that don’t go according to plan are usually more character-building and formative in the long run than the things that do. You need to expect the unexpected and make sure your beliefs about your life are anchored internal certainties rather than external circumstances. The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. Contentment is more often linked to what you’re made of inside rather than the circumstances outside.

Funnily enough, Megan even looks like Heidi!

FAITH – a thought on trust and courage

It is through my husband and little girls, my beloveds, that I have felt my greatest joy … and my greatest fears. I would like to wrap them in cotton wool and stow them under the bed to keep them safe. I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. Fear is the only shadow in front of my sun and no matter where I move and what I do to evade it, it lurks around and blocks out some of my light.

I waste a lot of time by future-tripping and stewing in ‘what-ifs’. My overactive imagination needs to be disciplined and kept at heel and the best way for me to do this is to surrender my family up to God every day. By the time I had Jessica, I realized I needed to let go and lay my babies like my Isaacs on the altar and accept that God loves them more than I do, which is difficult to imagine. That’s why Jessica’s second name is Faith.

I copied this out a book I read and stuck it in my journal. It’s so good. Pity I can’t remember who wrote it –

You just close your eyes and let every futile fear slip away. And then, in this new state, free from fear, you ask yourself: who am I? If I could live without doubt what would I do? If I could be kind without the fear of being fucked over? If I could love without fear of being hurt? If I could taste the sweetness of today without thinking of how I will miss that taste tomorrow? If I could not fear the passing of time and the people it will steal? Yes. What would I do? Who would I care for? What battle would I fight? Which paths would I step down? What joys would I allow myself? What internal mysteries would I solve? How, in short, would I live?

I want my children to be brave and courageous. No matter what life throws at them, I want them to remain resilient and unbowed. The sad reality is that life easily tends towards the negative so you must push against that and decide you won’t fall. Like a lighthouse. Lighthouses make a great metaphor for life. They stand firm and solid while they resist storms and waves and darkness. I love this painting by a South African artist called Therese Mullins. It’s called ‘Defy’.

As you know, I devour books on World War 2. My favourite hero of all time is a Swedish man called Raoul Wallenberg. He saved around 100,000 Jews during World War 2 by issuing them Swedish protective passports and sheltering people in safe houses. He led one of the most successful and extensive rescue efforts during the war. I bet you’ve never heard of him though. It upsets me that he isn’t more famous and celebrated.

This Jewish lady called Edith Wohl worked with Raoul and recalled the impact he had on his staff: ‘He gave us courage. He was so courageous that he made the rest of us ashamed to be afraid. Because of him we all became more optimistic. After a while, it became impossible for us to consider him a normal human being. Instead we came to see him as superhuman; someone who had come to Budapest to save us, a Messiah.’

I’m not sure I have the courage to resist like a lighthouse or like Raoul Wallenberg but I wish I did. I’m not nearly as brave and resilient as I would like to be. I hope that my children will have a superhuman faith and courage in the face of hardships. That’s another reason why Jessica is called Faith.

ROSE – a thought on contribution and compassion

Kate has ‘Rose’ in her name partly as a tribute to my mother Rosemary who is top notch and the most devoted, adoring granny ever. We are so blessed that she visits us often.

We also chose Rose to remind our children that they should not exist in a bubble or a state of oblivion. They must be roses among the thorns. Al and I would like our children to be net contributors rather than net takers. They must leave a good fragrance in the world around them. I reckon that happy, kind and courageous people are great to be around and leave a pleasing fragrance that draws others towards them.

Al and I want our children to be compassionate. We should care for people and our planet. I think that most of the world’s problems could be solved if everyone was just kind. It’s so simple but it’s a very difficult thing for human beings to do.

Al and I don’t want our three girls to waste precious time reinventing the wheel. Maybe they can learn from their parents’ mistakes and insights and use their names as a head start in creating rich and splendid lives that are unencumbered by worry, discomfort and the judgement of others. We wish them Heidi and Faith and Rose.

 


2018, winter and other news

January 27, 2018

2018, here you are. This year my primary resolution is to manage the time I spend on electronic devices. I find that people are half present these days because they always have at least one foot in cyberspace.

I worry I’m too preoccupied with my iPhone. The problem is that it has become my one stop shop for so many things – photos, to-lists, maps, encyclopaedia, conversations with friends etc.  In my defence, at least I don’t yak on the phone for hours the way my parents’ generation did so maybe I shouldn’t feel so guilty.

I need my phone and other devices because they are my pipes to the outside world but I’ve decided that, in 2018, if I’m going to be on my phone or computer, it has to be worthwhile. I’m going to spend less time twirling around the internet and reading toxic, fear-mongering articles and news reports that give me a nervous twitch.  This year, I’m going to spend more time with my new friends Judy, Gordon, Aaron and James.   I bought myself a subscription to masterclass.com for Christmas and it is fantastic. I’m taking virtual cooking courses with Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck, writing classes with Judy Blume and James Patterson and I’m learning screenwriting with Aaron Sorkin, just for fun. Annie Leibovitz is also going to teach me how to take decent photos. The masterclasses are filmed as if these fabulous people are talking directly to me, as if I am their pal and we are having a chat at a coffee shop. Wonderful!

Winter, urgh

I always divide winter into two parts – there’s the bit before Christmas and the bit after Christmas. November and December are fun because there’s the festive build up to Christmas and the excitement of the first snowfall. January and February are intense. You just have to hunker down and focus ahead to spring. The problem is that I have weather dependent moods so if it is grey outside, I feel grey inside. The low lying cloud over the lake has reappeared and I hate the Wuthering Heights, mist-in-the-moors vibe.  I find that the longest, most exhausting days are the ones when we stay at home and unfortunately we do this more often in winter.  We also walk to and from school so we are at the mercy of all weather conditions.  Try walking in horizontal rain with three kids.  Fun.

Skeletal trees and day in day out greyness

One thing I struggle with in winter, particularly with little kids, is the heat. Yes, you heard me right. I said the heat. The Swiss heat their buildings to roughly the temperatures of the inside of a pottery kiln. Swiss buildings are hotter inside in winter than they are in summer.

Overheated buildings are challenging because as soon as the kids feel the slightest bit warm or uncomfortable, they strip.   They are quick to fling their clothes off but slow to put them on. Often when we leave the house, Kate is bundled in my wrap and becoming hot and agitated while the others are still half naked and faffing about. Jessica thinks it’s fine to leave the house in ballet pumps and a leotard when it is zero degrees outside.

Sometimes I wish Megan and Jessica helped me a little more. They are only 5 and 3 years old, I know, but I’m not asking for them to make their own dinner or operate the washing machine. I would just like them to help me by putting on their shoes and a jacket when I ask. Maybe I expect too much.

I’ve concluded that children are exactly like these collapsible push puppets. Whenever you push them and need them to do something – put on their shoes, eat dinner, get in the car, tidy up their toys etc – they collapse and become floppy and uncooperative.

Other news

This is Al’s busy period so he is working long hours. He’s warned me well in advance so when he phones and says, ‘I’m going to be late tonight’, then I can’t be passive aggressive and disappointed like I usually am when he is 15 minutes late (15 minutes feels like 150 minutes at dinner/bed/bath time).

A picture of Daddy drawn by Jessica (age 3).

Kate is chunkier and losing that newborn fragility. She still has no interest in her baby toys, possibly because she has enough stimulation from her two older sisters who are like two human, life-size rattles.

Boisterous sister love

Kate usually sleeps non-stop from about 8pm to 4am, which I consider sleeping through the night. Whoo hoo! It baffles me why babies insist we stand while soothing them. Whenever I sit down and rock Kate in my arms, she objects until I stand up and do it. That’s why parents are so zonked – we can never sit down. It was the same with Megan and Jessica. Why do babies do that? It’s a mystery.

I find I sometimes struggle to go back to sleep from 4am onwards but any sleep deprivation is my fault, not Kate’s. I sit quietly breastfeeding in the dead of night and my body sees this as a moment for deep thinking – dissecting the past, planning for the future and analysing the present. My brain careers around like a runaway horse. I remember one of my favourite writers saying, ‘My mind is a scary neighbourhood to wander alone in at night.’

My newest challenge is the TV. That’s another reason why I hate winter – because we are indoors more and the TV or ipad are such temptations. It’s crack for kids. It is a mood-altering, trance-inducing sedative that turns Megan and Jessica weepy, sluggish and irritable after the initial high. It may give parents respite but the aftermath is annoying. Today I had enough of the tears and rage when I turned off the TV so I’ve banned it indefinitely … or until tomorrow.

Megan and Jessica adore their schools. I’m so happy they’re happy.  They rarely recount what happened during their days but Megan jabbers in French and she plays by re-enacting her experiences in the classroom with Jessica as her pupil so I see what goes on indirectly.

Beef

To end off, I want to share a profound thought from Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass course.  He said that in life you will never be able to please everybody so you shouldn’t even try. He said, ‘Think of beef.  There are so many ways to prepare beef.  You can make boeuf bourguignon, filet mignon, beef wellington, you name it. But, if you want to cook beef in the way that the least number of people find objectionable, then you would make a McDonald’s hamburger.  McDonald’s hamburgers are nice, but they’re just ok, nothing special, nothing memorable.  If you were a chef, you wouldn’t aspire to make them.’  This a lovely lesson, especially for chronic people pleasers like me.  Do I want to be the human equivalent of a Big Mac? Ew, no way.  I love this image so much that I’ve now absorbed it into the daily Surycz family lingo.   Be steak, be stew, be a roast.  Be interesting, be different, be you.

 


Books read in 2017

January 1, 2018

In 2016, for the first time ever, I started keeping a list of the books I read during the year. It was fun, so I did the same in 2017. I read less this year. I didn’t read a single thing the whole of October as my mind was fluffy and distracted after the birth of Kate and my horrendous flu. Then, in November, I read the French translation of Jojo Moyes’s book ‘Me Before You’ and that was a slow chug. When I read anything French, I stay in first gear all the way.

I love reading. These days everyone reads a lot all the time. You can’t help it because we are constantly force fed words from every angle on our phones and computers. The non-stop bombardment of words from the news, whatsapps, Facebook, emails etc feels as if I am living beside a 100 piece marching band.

Reading an actual book is different. A book is not something that adds to the noise; it quietens my world down. I don’t have time to read in long leisurely stretches but I grab every spare moment I can. I step inside a book, I enter it and the world around me fades away for five minutes or so at a time. There’s nothing more magical than getting lost inside a fabulous book. This year, thanks to my reading, I’ve stayed at home while I travelled to Rwanda, North Korea, Cambodia, China, India, Somalia, South Africa, the UK, the US, Japan and Germany.  I’ve also gone back in history multiple times.  Pretty cool hey?

I’m not sporty. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I can’t sing (completely tone deaf). I can’t play a musical instrument. I can’t sew. I can sort of cook. My art is words. I LOVE words. Nothing moves me like beautifully crafted sentences strung together in beautifully crafted paragraphs. Libraries are my art galleries, my museums. A big, quiet, old, dusty library is a sacred and magical place.

I believe it is my parenting duty to carve out a little time to read every day. I want my children to read so I should too. Someone once said to me that children tend not to do as you want them to but they often imitate you. For a while Megan starting saying ‘oh heck’.  This bothered me. I said to Al, ‘Who the heck taught her to say that?’ Oops. I reckon the best way to teach certain behaviour is to model it. I want Megan, Jessica and Kate to have interests and passions so I must show them that I have mine.  It’s a paradox that the things you don’t need to live – books, art, music, dance, theatre, connecting with nature and so on – are the things you need to live.

I read many great books this year. In fact, I never finish a book that isn’t good. Some are better than others and the notable mentions are written in red on my list below.

FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2017

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell – Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favourite authors so I inhale anything she writes. I read on my Kindle but I always buy Maggie’s books in hard copy so I can hold them and touch them and stroke them. Any book she writes is a totem, a precious object to be treasured forever. When she releases a new book, I buy it on the day it comes out and then I ration it and allocate myself a small portion to read every day so I draw out the heavenly experience and make it last as long as possible.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – This book is the diary from when Dr Adam Kay was a doctor with the National Health Service in the UK. Given the broad spectrum of people who use the NHS, you can imagine how hilarious this book is. I couldn’t put it down. It’s light and fun with serious undertones. It opened my eyes and made me grateful for people who work in the medical profession, so much so that when I was in hospital for three days when Kate was born, I gushed thank-yous, you’re amazings and I’m so gratefuls to every nurse and doctor that came into my room.

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart – This book is about an autistic boy told from the perspective of his dad. It has a warm and happy ending and was beautifully written. It’s the kind of book where I wanted to cry at the end, not because the story was particularly sad but because the book was finished. A good book should leave you feeling bereft at the last page and this one did exactly that.

I also recommend the classic war book ‘With the Old Breed’ by EB Sledge and the memoir called ‘Rena’s Promise’ by Rena Kornreich Gelissen. Both of these were educational and humbling and I think they should be compulsory reading in schools. The world would be a kinder, gentler place if everyone read them. 

  1. Band of Brothers by STEPHEN E AMBROSE
  2. With the Old Breed by EB SLEDGE
  3. Son of Hamas by MOSAB HASSAN YOUSEF
  4. The Taming Queen by PHILLIPA GREGORY
  5. Beyond Band of Brothers by MAJOR DICK WINTERS
  6. Sweet Revenge by JANE FALLON
  7. An African Love Story by DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK
  8. The Little House by PHILLIPA GREGORY
  9. Trophy Child by PAULA DALY
  10. The Key to Rebecca by KEN FOLLETT
  11. Helmet for my Pillow by ROBERT LECKIE
  12. Europa, Europa by SOLOMON PEREL
  13. In My Hands by IRENE GUT OPDYKE
  14. Rena’s Promise by RENA KORNREICH GELISSEN
  15. A Train in Winter by CAROLINE MOOREHEAD
  16. As the Lilacs Bloomed by ANNA MOLNAR HEGEDUS
  17. First They Killed My Father by LOUNG UNG
  18. China Marine by EB SLEDGE
  19. Le Garcon en Pyjama Raye by JOHN BOYNE
  20. The Break Down by BA PARIS
  21. Big Little Lies by LIANE MORIARTY
  22. Lying in Wait by LIZ NUGENT
  23. Village of Secrets by CAROLINE MOOREHEAD
  24. Lion by SAROO BRIERLEY
  25. Marry Me Tomorrow by CARLA BURGER
  26. A Boy Made of Blocks by KEITH STUART
  27. Unravelling Oliver by LIZ NUGENT
  28. Into the Water by PAULA HAWKINS
  29. Glass Half Full by CARO FEELY
  30. Harvest for Hope by JANE GOODALL
  31. A Respectable Trade by PHILLIPA GREGORY
  32. Maybe in Another Life By TAYLOR JENKINS REID
  33. They all have their Exits By AIREY NEAVE
  34. Emmanuel Macron by ANNE FULDA
  35. Holiday in the Hamptons by SARAH MORGAN
  36. The Gustav Sonata by ROSE TREMAIN
  37. The Mayor of Mogadishu by ANDREW HARDING
  38. The Alice Network by KATE QUINN
  39. The Identicals by ELIN HILDERBRAND
  40. They All Fall Down by TAMMY COHEN
  41. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by JONATHAN ALLEN AND AMIE PARNES
  42. Then She Was Gone by LISA JEWELL
  43. The Map that Leads to You by JP MONNINGER
  44. Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza
  45. I Am, I Am, I Am by MAGGIE O’FARRELL
  46. The Last Anniversary by LIANE MORIARTY
  47. Cry Freedom by JOHN BRILEY
  48. In Order to Live by YEONMI PARK
  49. God and the Transgender Debate by ANDREW WALKER
  50. The Choice by EDITH EGER
  51. The Girl in Cabin 10 by RUTH WARE
  52. This is Going to Hurt by ADAM KAY
  53. The Girl with Seven Names by HYEONSEO LEE
  54. Our Souls at Night by KENT HARUF
  55. WTF by ROBERT PESTON
  56. The Bonfire of Berlin by HELGA SCHNEIDER
  57. Paris for One and Other Stories by JOJO MOYES
  58. Very British Problems by ROB TEMPLE
  59. How to Stop Time by MATT HAIG
  60. Reasons to Stay Alive by MATT HAIG
  61. The Humans by MATT HAIG
  62. Avant Toi by JOJO MOYES

 

 


Surycz December Update

December 3, 2017

Can you believe it is almost the end of 2017? Where has this year gone? It is important to us that Megan and Jessica understand the true meaning of the Christmas season. It is our responsibility as parents to talk to them about the nativity because they are unlikely to learn about it in any other way in this godless, secular country. Megan’s class has a Christmas theme throughout December and not once will they mention Jesus, I guarantee you.  I’m pleased to see the Christmas story is sort of sinking in because Jessica explained that Mary had a baby in her tummy and then Jesus ‘came out of her bum’ in the stable.

Usually at this time of year, a layer of fog hangs over the lake. It’s like living under a wet grey blanket for weeks on end. The constant dreariness sets off a sour and persistent seasonal depression in even the most upbeat of people. So far this winter there’s been no sign of the clouds. Hooray! It’s not the cold of winter that bothers me most, but the weakness and scarcity of light. If there’s blue skies and sunshine, then I’m happy.

During the past two months, my life has become really busy. Not in a stressful or complicated way, but enough to make me topple into bed like a felled oak at about 20h30 every night. This busyness is a combination of the baby, Megan’s new school routine and the shorter winter days which mean there is less time in which to fit activities, chores and appointments.

Kate is 8 weeks old and growing exponentially. Sometimes I look at her in the morning and I notice she has changed overnight. I am up to my eyeballs in baby clothes. Kate has more clothes than me. Babies grow so fast so I have loads of little outfits in various sizes and it’s hard to keep order so I can make good use of the array of gifts, hand-me-downs and clothes I’ve bought myself. I detest clutter, excess and waste so this frustrates me. The funny thing is that the cupboard looks too overwhelming so I end up putting Kate in more or less the same clothes every day.

So far Kate sleeps like a champ at night. She wakes up once or twice for a short time. The day times are more of a challenge because she rarely naps beyond 45 minutes at a time and likes to be held or wrapped up on my chest in the baby carrier. It’s difficult for her to settle during the day because she’s constantly jigged about by her boisterous older sisters or we need to get going to fetch kids from school, head to an activity etc. It’s Murphy’s Law that as Kate settles into a deep, peaceful sleep, we must leave the house. ‘Righto! Up you get! Let’s get going!’ I’ve also told Megan and Jessica that when Kate has her eyes closed, they must stay away but I’m struggling to drum in this concept. Megan will say, ‘I didn’t wake her. She woke up herself.’ Yes, she woke up herself after you bounced on her or kissed her or after you breathed on her with your face 1cm from hers.

Megan and Jessica have no concept of how delicate a baby is. They treat Kate like their dolls that they love very much but also carry round the house by their feet. They are caring and maternal and want to be involved. I have to keep one eye on them because if, say, Jessica wipes Kate’s nose, she may pull it off or suffocate her.

Sister love

The key to managing three children under five is to be organised and to let some things slide – my personal appearance is an example. It’s a challenge enough getting the kids dressed to leave the house when they don’t listen to my instructions or when they demand to be dressed by me and then they make themselves as floppy as a jellyfish or as stiff as a board. I have about thirty seconds to sort out myself, which is just about enough time to brush my teeth and that’s it. I don’t care! I just make sure to avoid mirrors and sometimes when I catch my reflection in a shop window, it makes me yelp. Our handyman remarked on how lovely my wedding photo is and then asked in shock and surprise, ‘Is that you?’ as he struggled to connect me with the person in the picture. I reckon I have plenty of time in the future to get rid of the soft, sponginess of my post-baby body and use make up, hairbrushes and colour coordinated clothing again.

Looking after Kate in the car – holding her hand and making sure she has some company

I’m slowly getting into a groove and learning lessons along the way. For example, we need to eat dinner at 17h00 in order for the children (and sometimes me!) to be asleep by 19h30. I can’t cook from scratch in the evenings because of the distractions so I batch cook on the weekends or do it in the morning when the girls are at school.  Al keeps wanting to invite people over for teas, dinners and braais and I reckon, no problem … in about 5 years.

Dinner time is my biggest juggle and weakest point of the day. Someone is always weeping/screaming during this time. A child (or all of them) demand to sit on my lap or be fed. They refuse to eat what I serve or they do so at snail pace. They want to watch TV. They refuse to clean up the lounge. Someone starts undressing.  There’s rage and frustration because I poured their drink into the wrong cup or gave the wrong colour plate. Someone cries because someone else poked them with a fork. Someone knocks over a glass of water or a bowl of peas – we can’t go through dinner time without some sort of spillage. Kate tends not to cry and emits more of a squeak, like one of those plastic bath toys. So I’m wiping, stirring, chopping, serving, comforting and feeding while bouncing Kate who emits a non-stop, rolling squeaksqueaksqueaksqueaksqueaks. Often it gets a bit much and I daydream of walking outside, slamming the front door and sitting on the stoep by myself with a glass of wine and a cigarette (not that I’ve ever smoked before in my life).

I’m grateful for my full and busy but simple life. Since it is almost the end of 2017, here is a picture of our Happy Jar that I have been diligently filling every day for the past three years. I’m very proud of it. Every evening we reflect on our day and we write down what moment made us feel most happy (or least unhappy, if things are rough). A happy moment is something you create in a day. It is not a moment for which we are grateful because I believe gratitude and happiness are different and gratitude is no guarantee of joy.

I want my children to understand that happiness does not necessarily revolve around success, wealth, popularity and brilliance. You are likely to be more content if you notice the significance in the ordinary little things. Happiness is less of a luck-based feeling that you wait to fall on you like magic fairy dust, but is instead something you choose to make for yourself and seek out in every day. Suffering is inevitable, but joy is not. I’ve learned that enjoying life is more about appreciating the journey, rather than being completely focused on the destination. This makes life a lot like paper mache. You layer it on, one piece over the other, one experience over the next until you have something richly textured and vibrant at the end.

I once read somewhere that life is a series of battles and blessings. Battle, blessing, battle, blessing, good, bad, good, bad. I don’t think life is necessarily as linear as that. Sometimes the battles and blessings, the good and bad are mixed in together and you must learn to identify and pick out the blessings hidden inside the battles. I want this to become our family’s habit. The reality is that life naturally tilts towards the negative so we must push back against misery and relentlessly pursue the light. I think it is rather special that all five members of our family have the same blood type. Each of us is B+ (B positive). How’s that for a sign to BE POSITIVE! Here’s to many Happy Moments in 2018!


Getting into a groove and other news

November 3, 2017

This month we’ve been getting to know Kate. Newborns remind me so much of miniature old people. They’re all shrivelled, toothless, hunched and sleepy. It feels as if I’ve had a 105 year old woman sucking on my breast. Newborns, especially those in a sling or wrapped against their mom, also remind me of treefrogs. It’s the way they suction to their mother’s chest and their limbs are so thin and angular and crunched up under their trunks. Once I said to someone with a newborn, ‘Awwww sweet! He looks just like a treefrog.’ I honestly meant it in a good, complimentary way.

I’ve set the bar very low (or is it high?) and my primary focus has been to keep Kate alive. Last week I nearly dropped her. I read somewhere that babies have no worries or fears except for one – they are scared of falling. My poor girl. I’m trying so hard to be a good mom and there I go, almost legitimizing her greatest fear. As you can imagine, that incident gave me a sleepless night as I lay in bed, stared at the ceiling and worked myself into a tizz over the what ifs.

Kate’s two older sisters love her so much and probably a bit too much. It is a very real possibility that they could kiss or hug her to death. Megan and Jessica like to hold Kate and have a fixation on carrying her around the house. I think they want to copy me. Megan says, ‘I want to walk and carry her.’ This cannot happen, it must not happen without adult supervision so I cannot leave Kate unattended for a second. This is the most stressful and exhausting part of having a newborn baby. I can’t even go to the loo on my own and I now do my ablutions at high speed. Megan and Jessica mean no harm but they don’t understand how delicate Kate is or how easy it is to trip or slip on the toys and other land-mines strewn on the floor.

Playing with make up … and Kate

My saving grace is my Moby Wrap. Best invention ever! I tie it round me and stick Kate inside it and this frees up my hands. I’m rather like a kangaroo and Kate is my little joey tucked in my pouch.  She sleeps soundly when she’s in it, possibly because this is the only place where she feels so safe and protected from her over loving sisters.

Even when I am around to supervise, things get a little hairy such as when I was driving and I noticed in the rear-view mirror than Megan had shoved her foot into three week old Kate’s face. ‘I’m just showing her the hole in my sock,’ she said.

This is why Kate struggles to sleep during the day unless she’s in the wrap

I turn my back and they’ve painted Kate’s nails. Luckily it’s just marker pen and not real polish.

For over two weeks after Kate was born, I was laid up with horrid flu. I developed a cracking, whip of a cough that left me more limp and weary than I’ve felt in ages. I was worried Kate would catch it given the way I was breathing and spluttering all over her. ‘Are you breastfeeding?’ the midwife asked, ‘Then she will be absolutely fine’. And she was. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t catch any of my germs, not even the slightest sniffle. It was like my breastmilk was this magical protective shroud. Nature can be so awesome.

My problem – and it’s a good problem to have – is that I have an oversupply of milk and my boobs are squirting left, right and centre. Every feed takes me less than five minutes but Kate takes in a lot of air as she gulps down the milk. I spend a while helping her burp out these elusive air bubbles that cause her such pain and discomfort and make her thrash and writhe about like she’s a hooked fish. I’ve forgotten how onerous this burping malarkey is. I don’t have the patience or skill for it. I angle her in all directions, thump her on the back, bounce her up and down, rock her about and still nothing happens. Sometimes, when I’m really tired and the burp won’t budge, I want to hang her upside down and bang her on the back with a judge’s gavel. It must be confusing for Megan and Jessica that we disapprove when they burp but there’s relief and celebration when Kate does it.

My mom was here for seven weeks and has now left. Alastair and I agree that the best way to love us is to love our children and Granny does this so well. Now that she’s gone, I’m figuring out my new routine and ironing out the weak points. Dinner time with three little kids is a particular challenge. It’s like a chimpanzee’s tea party. Why is it that everything falls to pieces at dinner time? I hoped that Kate would sleep while I feed the other girls but she’s wide awake and rock n roll. I’ve always had visions of sitting round the dinner table and calmly reflecting on the highs and lows of our day. Instead, Alastair’s still at work, Megan and Jessica turn feral and there’s generally a lot of weeping and wailing. All three children want to sit on my lap and Megan and Jessica suddenly become incapacitated and unable to feed themselves. I say to them, ‘Why is it that I never need to spoon feed you ice cream but I have to spoon feed you your lasagne?’

Then we have a lot of: I WANTED THE PINK PLATE! WHERE’S THE BUNNY SPOON? I CAN’T EAT THIS WITHOUT THE BUNNY SPOON! I don’t understand why food tastes completely different if you put it on a green plate vs a pink plate. Why does food taste better on princess utensils? One of my friends said her children have the same reaction if they break their arm or if you put their juice in the wrong cup. Hell hath no fury like a 4 year old whose sandwich has been cut into squares when he wanted triangles.

Alastair says that if dinner time becomes too much of a battle, then I should just give up and send the children to bed with empty tummies. I can’t bear this because I want them to eat my food dammit. I put so much effort into making fresh, home-made meals from scratch and it breaks my heart to see it unappreciated. I know I just need more discipline. ‘Consequences Julie’, my mom said. ‘They just need consequences.’ But what are the most effective consequences for bad behaviour? I’ve tried star charts, treat deprivation, no TV, time out etc etc. I find the best thing is threatening a paddywhack on the bum, but this is not really the mom I aspire to be. I don’t like frothing at the mouth and chasing my kids round the house with the wooden spoon.

Next to Kate – doing a poo and watching the iPad

During this past month, I’ve realized that love is limitless but my attention is not. I only have 2 hands and there are only 24 hours in a day. That’s the juggle but, after the years of mind-shrivelling, soul-corroding jobs in my twenties, I’m up for the challenge.

My friends love sharing articles on Facebook that go viral because they are about how amazing moms are, how hard core parenting is and how we need to give ourselves grace and carve out more ‘Me Time’. They share articles and advice on how motherhood is the hardest and most unappreciated job in the world. They discuss sleep deprivation and how gruelling this phase of our lives is and what a fantastic job we’re all doing. It’s very go-girl, mom-power, sisterhood kind of encouragement. I thought I was the only person on the planet who finds these things so nauseating until I read one of these articles on a Facebook link and then skimmed through the comments at the end. Some person somewhere in the world, called Sydney Chandler, wrote a response that resonated with me so much that I copied and pasted it into my journal.

Whenever I feel frazzled or like I’m operating as a flying saucer looking for a place to land, then I read it for some healthy perspective. Here it is verbatim:

Sydney Chandler ·

This is the life you chose and every other day there’s some article with these women patting themselves on the back for making a choice no one forced them to make. You are not a soldier dropped in a hot zone risking your life. That’s REAL stress and battle. You’re not law enforcement, federal or otherwise, once again risking your life. You are a mother and many women before you and after you have and will be one. Stop acting as if you’re reinventing the wheel and applying for sainthood and martyrdom. My mom was a professional and raised 3 kids and guess what, not one time did she whine, moan and complain, she and my dad just got on about their lives and that was that. She had tons of friends, went to lunch, dinner, shopped, had a successful career and was a role model to us. She never said I had to become a mother, she said live the life I wanted to live. Enough with these poor me, I need constant adulation and gold stars articles about motherhood. You’re not special. If you’re having a hard time and let yourself go, then that’s on you. Toughen up, pull up your big girl panties and stop the whining.