On raising heathens

Lately, I’ve been fielding lots of questions about religion from my kids; I’ve bumbled them all. My 4 year old, from the back seat of the car on the school run ‘But why did those people want to kill Jesus?’

And my 7 year old, who’s been combing through a Children’s Bible he got for his first birthday. ‘Jesus couldn’t really walk on water, could he?’ Like his Dad (and unlike me), he is ruled by logic. If it doesn’t make sense, it just doesn’t hold up. Then, after a recent school outing to a Mosque, ‘Am I a Christian or a Muslim?’

We could’ve sent our boys to the secular school across the road (boy, would that have been easier) but instead we schlepp across town so they can go to a traditional school with sound Christian values. I’m not a Christian, and my husband, like most of the people I know, is what I’d call a cultural Christian — born into a Christian family but not necessarily a Christian at heart, or a practicing Christian.

I did go to a Convent primary school and a Christian high school. To this day hymns (particularly those solemn Catholic ones) move me to tears, and I love going to Church. I think Jesus’s message was beautiful, but I’m also drawn to Buddhism. Without knowing why, I’ve always had a statue of the Buddha in my bedroom; it’s only recently, since I’ve delved deeper into Buddhist doctrine, that I understand why. For me, it speaks directly to the pitfalls of our frenzied, modern world, and gives practical tools for finding calm in the storm. The Baha’i Faith, my mom’s religion, has some wonderful beliefs too, like equality of the sexes,  harmony of science and religion, the unity of humankind.

It’s easy to be cynical about organised religion — after all, wars have been fought in its name, and some religious institutions are corrupt and rife with hypocrisy. But religion (or is it faith, I tend to confound the two) is a beautiful way to make sense of an uncertain world. Often it provides solace where nothing else can.  If, in your heart you believe in a particular faith and all its teachings, how comforting that must be.

Beyond being spiritual creatures, humans crave a sense of belonging. Religion, with it’s associated rituals and cultural practices, provides just that. Christmas is a time of family and togetherness, whether you’re thinking about those pressies under the tree or reflecting on the birth of Jesus. Likewise with Easter — for many, it’s as much about holidays and gorging on chocolate and Easter egg hunts than it is about remembering the death of Christ. It can be a sacred time, or one devoid of any religious beliefs; either way, it’s a time for the tribe to gather, and it gives you a sense of your place in the world.

But, back to those questions. What on earth do you teach a curious young soul about religion, if you don’t have one yourself? If, like many people who don’t belong to an organised religion like to say —  you’re ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Kids need guidance, some kind of compass with which to navigate the world, and they like certainty. But maybe it’s okay for them to know that there aren’t any solid answers; religion is a deeply personal journey, one they’ll have to take themselves. Their faith, if they have one, may be continually tested, but that’s part of the unpredictability and beauty of the human experience.

I told my 7 year old he doesn’t have to decide now; there are many religions in the world, and they all teach us important things. I wish I’d have remembered my favourite quote about religion, which beautifully encapsulates what I’d like to teach my kids, whether or not they’re baptised (they’re not), or we go to Church (we don’t):

My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.
-Dalai Lama

Notes from a Luddite

If someone had told you, back in the eighties, when we were tearing around (unsupervised) on our BMX’s, that when we were adults, we’d be addicted to hand-held (incessantly beeping) electronic devices that would connect us to each other 24/7, you’d have scarcely believed it. The words digital detox would have been a tough one to wrap your head around.

And yet I’ve just emerged from a 10 day screen hiatus; it was just the re-jig I needed. It’s not so much that I was spending too much time on social media — more that the constant distraction would derail me from whatever I was doing, or meant to be doing.

After mindlessly scrolling through my feeds, I’d be left feeling unsatiated and no richer for having done it (often I’d feel creepy and stalkerish for checking out the posts of people I scarcely knew, or didn’t know at all – the old-school equivalent of reading someone’s diary).

Facebook feeds can also be discombobulating. Scrolling from hot bods in bikinis, to a horrific crime story; cute faces of babies interspersed with pleas to sign petitions. It’s a melange of news/fake news, exhibitionism, trivia, entertainment, political insights and opinions that can boggle the mind.

Also — and perhaps most importantly — I was setting a very bad example for my kids. Monkey see, monkey do right? There are a glut of studies revealing how technology stunts our kids growth and development; the results are bleak. My boys are still young so I haven’t even begun to navigate the real minefield of technology. I hear it gets trickier, and riskier. Social media, gaming and cyber bullying? Lordy!

Steve Jobs was apparently a low-tech parent; he famously commented that he doesn’t let his kids use iPads. I’ve read many tech engineers are similar, sending their children to tech-free schools and restricting their usage at home. The fact that the inventors of those little tyrants in our pockets give them a wide berth surely gives us pause for thought.

The dialogue around technology’s hold over our lives is not likely to subside — it’s here to stay, so we need to find ways to exist peacefully with it. And of course, screens aren’t all bad. Curling up on a winter’s day watching David Attenborough with my kids — bliss. Listening to my husband and boys scream at the screen during rugby matches? Heartwarming. Flicking on Paw Patrol when I desperately need to send an email or am craving some alone time? Sanity saver. iPads on planes and trains? Only fair on the other passengers. And it’s pretty darn fantastic being able to connect with friends, family and like-minded peeps any time of any day.

My approach these days after my (very productive!) detox — dip in and out, every now and then — don’t hover too long or get sucked in too deep. Keep it sporadic rather than regular. Enjoy the modern miracle that is the interweb, but keep it firmly reigned in.

 

Coffee With: Renata Harper

It’s time for our next Q&A! Just love these soulful, beautifully crafted words from Renata Harper, editor of EnviroKids.


Why do you do what you do?
The natural world is my muse. Writing is one of many ways that I can express my love for nature and celebrate her keepers and creatures. I took the position of editor at EnviroKids (WESSA’s quarterly magazine for young eco-champions), because it’s a powerful way to share the magic of our planet with young South Africans. As a reluctant “grown-up”, it also allows me to be childlike, to play and enthuse.

Even if wordcraft weren’t my chosen profession, I would continue to write for myself. I’ve written through confusion, anxiety and heartache and it always brings me to the other side. I guess I write mostly to make sense of myself and of the world.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? 
I would love to have been born in a musical! More feasibly, I would work in wildlife rehabilitation (and write about it) or be a conservation documentary-maker. I don’t discount either as future possibilities!

The 3 books that have had the biggest impact on you?
Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari – it reminds us to look much further back and much further forward than we tend to.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – I experience it differently each time I work through it. More recently, it’s given me the courage to slowly opt out of routines and roles that don’t reflect who I am. Scary, but it couldn’t have come at a better time!

The Magic Faraway Tree series, by Enid Blyton – because I always knew trees held other magical worlds.

A quote you love?
“You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one…”

I also love this comment by Barbara Kingsolver, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: One Year of Seasonal Eating: “People often ask me whether I feel I’m missing out on city life. I look around, at the mountains, at the setting sun, and I wonder who is missing out.”

Your perfect getaway – forest treehouse or beach shack?
Forest treehouse. I love the coolness and wisdom of trees, the diversity of life they support, the dancing of the light. (But an unfenced rustic bushveld camp would win, hands down, every time.)

Your favourite way to recharge?
SARK, one of my favourite creativity authors, writes: “When a child gets crabby, put them in water.” My version would be: take me up a mountain. Movement, exploration and adventure energise me as much as rest does. And I love a good movie! I often go alone, and at unexpected times, just to escape and delight myself.

Top of your bucket list?
Costa Rica – I’m fascinated by its biodiversity, as well as the environmental ethos embedded in its governance. Then Botswana… I’m just waiting to win a 4×4.

Advice you’d give your 16-year-old self?
Reach out when you need help. Support – financial, spiritual, practical – is everywhere and comes in the most surprising ways, if you just ask for it. And take tango lessons – if you don’t, you’ll regret it when you’re 37. Conversely, she’d remind me not to let others, even (especially!) those who are well meaning, to deflate me.

Your favourite ‘wild’ place in the city?
A time rather than a place: dawn, because it’s precious no matter where you are. In my urban life, I am alert to wild moments all the time, like the African harrier-hawk that raided the Cape sparrows’ nest in our garden and the squirrel that planted its own crops (peanuts, of course!) in our veggie patch. Without these kinds of wild reminders, I’d feel “ecologically bored”, as George Monbiot describes it in Feral.

Humanity in a hundred years – where do you think we’ll be?
If we can listen to nature’s calls and our own deepest, most authentic longings… if we can rewrite our story to be more compassionate towards the planet… I can see us thriving alongside nature. There are enough of us who care.

Your source of strength when the going gets tough?
A belief in a bigger picture, and knowing that I don’t always see it in the moment. And the kindred spirits in my life, both human and animal.

For you, winning at life is ……….
… when I experience time as expansive. I’m very aware of death and time is the most precious resource to me. I’m happy when I lose track of it, when I can follow my curiosity, play within a creative process. I hate having to rush though my day or a project, or to focus solely on an end-product. I start to feel down when my time feels squeezed. This has made working in a deadline-driven environment very difficult for me at times.

What you’d still love to accomplish in this life?
I’d love to experience a natural area intimately, to understand its needs, to witness its challenges and victories, to know its stalwarts and upstarts. Professionally I’d like to write a book on creativity as a way of living, as well as a humorous animation with a strong conservation message (I’ve written one brief scene!). And I’d like to finally start a blog.

Biting the hand that feeds

A school friend grew up on a tobacco farm in Malawi, and like me, had been sent to boarding school in South Africa at a tender age. At our 25th year reunion recently the topic of smoking came up, and she told how whenever she gives her Dad a hard time about his smoking habit, he reminds her that tobacco paid for her education.

I can relate. Plastic paid for mine.  Visiting my Dad’s plastic factory is a vivid childhood memory: the squishy sacks of plastic polymer; the noisy machines compressing the pellets; standing at the end of the production line, waiting to see the colourful cups being spat out, still warm and steaming; the words ‘injection mould’ and ‘virgin material.’ I remember long trips back to boarding school, our Kombi packed to the rafters with plastics that we’d deliver en-route.

And yet my Dad, unapologetically capitalist, ended up with green-leaning kids. Plastic has been top of our hit list in trying to whittle down our waste. My sister, a scuba instructor who sees first hand the state of our oceans, recently shared something on Facebook and screeched ‘Stop Fucking Using Plastic!’ And my brother is seldom happiest than when knee deep in worm muck churning out compost.

It’s a tricky one. My Dad worked his ass off so he could give us what he prizes above all else – a good education. Without that (plastic-funded) education, one that lifted us out of the structural limitations set by apartheid, our lives might have taken a very different trajectory.

Something to be mindful of when we rail against the system? We all need to make a living in the world. If we’re lucky, smart, or both, we manage to marry our ideals with our livelihood; others bump up against all kinds of socio-political barriers – work is a way to pay the bills, it can’t always be aligned with our beliefs or worldview.

So while it’s wonderful to have choices and hold fast to our ideals, there’s always the flip side. Someone on the other end whose livelihood depends on the thing we’re lambasting or crusading against. It’s a theme that can be applied most anywhere – poachers trying to eke out a living; children working in sweat shops to help put food on the table. For everyone trying to build what they believe to be a better world by challenging the system, there’s someone propping it up, living hand to mouth.

Those are extreme examples and I’ve gone on a bit of a tangent. Bringing it back to those pesky single-use plastics that are choking our oceans, I still avoid them. But I’m seldom militant about it; our push and pull world is after all stupendously complex.

 

Rookie errors

Broad Beans

I made some rookie errors when I planted our veggie patch last summer. I jumped in too quickly, without observing the patch – where the light falls, what the wind does – etcetera. The site is, it turns out, dank, with very little winter sunshine. But – never mind – I cut everything back, let it hibernate and ready itself for spring, and took a little break from urban gardening.

I also planted during a drought, which may have been a little unwise, but our well-point is up and running. The water tank and the patch are on opposite corners of the house (there were some space restrictions and it was the only way we could configure it). No worries – we’ve rigged up a very long hosepipe and fashioned a tap – and, with some effort, we’re able to feed the groundwater to our veggies. Minor obstacles.

It’s September and look at these gorgeous blooms that are springing to life!