Embracing the joy



Sometimes, on the first day of term, it's best to get over yourself and embrace the joy.

Sometimes, on the first day of term, it’s best to get over yourself and embrace the joy.

I haven’t updated my blog in over a year; I used to write every day, but that was when I was (really very) sick and had something to write about. And didn’t have to go to work because I was bed-bound. I think the fact that I was on all manner of very relaxing, consciousness altering pharmaceuticals (morphine anyone?) might have helped. But when the tumours started to shrink, and the scars to heal, I found I had nothing to say. And so my blog has been neglected.

But recently something happened which made me think I had a blog post left in me yet: I went back to school.

I was a teacher for many years but it’s a hard profession, and when I found myself weeping into the bookshelves at the local library in despair at the thought of going back to school, I knew it was time to leave teaching. And I did what many an English teacher before me has done: became a copy editor. After all, we are pretty much the only people left who care about things like semi-colons, gerundives, and The Oxford Comma (special insider teacher/copy editor joke: I’ve just used one). And don’t even get me started on ending sentences with prepositions. But when you are a teacher in your heart, whether you like it or not, you are a teacher. So, sighing heavily, I started teaching again this year, after nearly a decade out of the classroom.


I feel as if I have come home. Admittedly to a rather dippy hippy woo-woo country estate, filled with idiosyncratic uncles, batty aunts and whimsical cousins with names like Paisley Peace and, contrarily, Storm. Let me be clear, though: I love it. But there is no doubt that the extent of eccentricity is extraordinarily high.

The first day of term is a case in point: the teachers have a staff meeting. So far, so National Curriculum. But then we go outside and stand in a circle. Thirty teachers standing outside in a circle is not so difficult to picture. Until we had to skip – you heard me: SKIP – around trying to get in touch with our joy. And then we were instructed to break the circle and run around, embracing happiness. Picture it: 30 middle-aged teachers leaping about with their arms in the air shrieking with hysterical laughter. As I clutched my stomach, cackling and snorting (as you do) uproariously, the headmistress put her arm around me, beaming. “This wasn’t in your job description, was it?” she laughed merrily before bouncing off, arms aloft as she cavorted about, embracing the joy.

And then we went off to have faculty meetings. And we were back to being sensible again.

And when I found myself telling my friends about my day, and they all laughed at me in stunned horror, I knew that, much as I was laughing about it, I was in the right place. I would much rather be working with people who can laugh at themselves, who want to invite joy into their lives than with “normal” folks. And even though I struggled with the bit where we had to bend down and touch the earth and then reach towards the sun encircling all that warmth and imagine bringing the warmth into the classroom (mostly because one of the aforementioned tumours was in my hip and the hip replacement, though a miracle, does mean that bending down is not my favourite movement. Or maybe that’s just my age), I knew that if I were a parent, I would want my child’s teachers to bring warmth into their classroom and make my child feel loved. Because education is about so much more than just filling a child’s head with knowledge – it’s about helping them find out about who they are. And heaven knows that these days if anyone needs to know anything, they just ask The Google.

Just the other day our German exchange student came into the staffroom (and by staffroom, I mean broom cupboard) and said: “Ze children are playing soccer and guitar outside and ze teachers are laffing loudly inside. Zis is a very happy school, ja.” And I thought that that pretty much summed it up.



Image Let the Sunshine In

Come colours rise


rainbow-nation-sa2 There is a gentleman who has come to our door, asking for work on a couple of occasions. And I give him a sandwich and some food and tell him I have no work for him and send him on his way.

But somehow this morning I couldn’t bear the desperation in his eyes as he told me he would clean my driveway and pointed to all the places where, in all fairness, some work does need to be done. But you can’t just take people off the street, can you?

Even half a day; I just want to work.”

When I lied and told him I didn’t have any money to pay him anyway he said he didn’t mind, I could pay him another day. And I think that’s what cracked me. So I told him to come back on Thursday for half a day.

And then I felt terrible all day because I know I shouldn’t allow complete strangers off the street into my home. It’s just asking for it. Whatever “it” is.


Maybe it’s white guilt or left-over-from-my-church-days guilt: you know, that bit about I was hungry and you didn’t feed me and I was a stranger and you didn’t invite me in and whatever you didn’t do for one of the least of these you didn’t do for me.

Or maybe it’s the knowledge that we are all one. We come from the same Spirit and will return to it. And that as someone who has been blessed so abundantly I feel it’s only right to – at the very least – give a hungry person a peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich. I’m sorry to sound vaguely churchy but if you saw my garden you would know that the only appropriate word is “abundant”. It is a green madness of verdant abundance. Fuck. That nearly sounded poetic. And just like that, I don’t sound churchy anymore!

And then there’s Come Colours Rise, that astonishingly lovely South African carol anthem by Grant McLachlan which we were practising at choir last night. It is so beautiful and so moving I can’t get through it without having to mouth the words and blink rapidly so that no one can tell that I am all choked up with the loveliness and sadness of it all. “Come colours rise, old fears subside” how can you not weep? And open your heart?

And so I let down my white South African guard and have invited a stranger into my house. Well, driveway. I’m not entirely without survival instincts in this bloody and beautiful country of ours. It’s the balancing of survival and reality and safety with compassion and empathy and giving a man a chance that is so hard, don’t you think?

Image from Global Fusion Productions

Of Teaching and Tumours


My clever, fabulous (and increasingly famous – she is BFFs with Michelle Obama and you can see her on TV on Sundays at 5pm teaching those revolting children in Dream School how to make her famous Love Sandwiches) friend, Karen Dudley, has launched another cook book which is bound to fly up the Exclusive Books Bestseller list just as her first one, A Week in the Kitchen did.

And it was at the book launch on Friday night where I bumped into her mother-in-law (read more about her antics here) who rebuked me loudly for not having posted that my second brain tumour was now DEAD in my head and that I was perfectly fit and flourishing. “What is the point of having a blog if you don’t keep it updated?” she berated me. I saw her point and apologised profusely. But in the manner of all esprits d’escalier (LOOK IT UP!) I only thought to mention afterwards that DH Lawrence couldn’t write a damn thing when he was teaching because it was so exhausting:

Last Lesson of the Afternoon

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart
My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start
Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,
I can haul them and urge them no more.
No more can I endure to bear the brunt
Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score
Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? – I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them –
I will sit and wait for the bell.

This is how ALL teachers feel ALL the time. So no, I didn’t update my blog. I am sorry.

So here are some pictures of me having a mask thing made so that I couldn’t move my head (or swallow, or breathe) while having massive doses of radiation nuking my brain tumour, rendering it DEAD. 


     mask  www.learningtoliveonpurpose.wordpress.com

Gotta sing!



The Philharmonia Choir of Cape Town about to start singing at St George’s Cathedral. Minus me.

I went to see my choir perform the other night. It’s one of the things I have pulled out of (as mentioned in my previous post here) while I contemplate my massive marking load and the reappearance of my brain tumour. They performed in the freezing cold St Georges Cathedral a programme of new (and complicated) music which our new and very enthusiastic choir master had chosen for us. They sounded wonderful. I was so proud to be a part of the Philharmonia Choir and to think that normally I have the privilege of being allowed to sing with them.

Listening to the ethereal Lux Aeterna by Lauridsen (don’t worry, I’d never heard of it or him either) under the vast arches of the cathedral made me feel like a happy planet calmly floating through space while angels sang at me.

Even My Beloved, who never normally comes to hear the choir sing because “listening to that music makes my soul hurt” thought that “it wasn’t too bad.” High praise indeed!

I am always astonished at my great good luck at being allowed to sing in the Philharmonia Choir. And every Monday night I marvel that a hundred or so people from around Cape Town come together until WAY past my bedtime for the simple pleasure of singing together.

It seems to me that everybody loves to sing. Everybody. Even people who can’t sing love to sing. You just have to watch an audition episode of Idols to see that. There are all sorts of reasons why people enjoy singing: it releases endorphins, which make us feel good; it is an aerobic activity and we have to breathe deeply when we sing which is good for us and calming and like a meditation. But while all of those things happen when we sing in the shower, there’s something different about singing with other people.

According to a 2008 study 98 percent of choir members rated their quality of life good or excellent – despite the fact that 51 percent – twice the norm for Australia, where the study was done – had long-term health problems. And there are numerous other studies that show that singing in a choir is good for you, physically and mentally.

It was that final scene in As it is in Heaven that led me to the choir. That sound as all the choirs stood vibrating harmonies as they felt their spirit and true voices resonating made me weep with sorrow that even though I loved to sing, I hardly did. Singing along to the radio isn’t quite the same. So I joined the choir. And there are times at rehearsal when I have to stop singing because all those voices singing some beautiful piece of music makes me so happy and so grateful that I have to stop for fear I will start weeping right there in the church hall and embarrass myself and the good people of the choir. I don’t think I have ever made it through The Hallelujah Chorus without having to stop and breathe and blink rapidly to stop the tears of happiness.

And I don’t think my strong reaction to singing in the choir has anything to do with aerobic activity or feel-good endorphins being released, no matter what the scientists say. I think it’s because when we sing together, just for a moment, we are reminded that we all come from the same place. Just for a while, our egos and our bodies, which separate us from each other and from God are transcended and we breathe the same breath as God and each other and remember our true selves and our true home.

Come and listen to the Philharmonia Choir of Cape Town sing Songs of Praise at the City Hall on Sunday 27 October at 3pm and again at 6pm.

Here’s the Philharmonia Choir singing the Hallelujah Chorus at the City Hall

And here’s us singing Ein Deutches Requiem by Brahms with the New Apostolic Church Choir, also at the City Hall.

Brain tumour, round two


learningtoliveonpurpose.wordpress.comSo the brain tumour has decided to stage a comeback. The neurosurgeon couldn’t get it all out because it was sitting “in a confluence” of arteries. So it was either leave a bit behind or have me bleed out on the table. To death. As it was I had to have two bags of blood. So I’m guessing it was a bit of a blood bath in there anyway. I should have suspected something when I saw him before the surgery and he was wearing white wellies like a Pick n Pay butcher. So (like the tax man) he took what he could and left an itty little bit behind. Which is growing. Hardy little fucker.

I thought I was fine with it, I really did, until Sam (the bastard) said that I should stop acting as if my brain tumour was no big deal and I had to do some rapid blinking to stop myself from weeping into my dim sum. (The dim sum at Haiku is perfect by the way. PERFECT.) I don’t often have an emotional reaction to anything but when I do, I know that something is up. So clearly Sam had hit a nerve that I didn’t know existed. Sometimes, I am willing to admit, denial is not necessarily the most helpful option.

I still don’t feel like it’s a big deal (I just have to have a spot of radiotherapy and then it’ll all be fine, so no biggie. Although the bill will be a bloody large biggie: a cool R200 000 to fix me. Again.) but I am tired all the time. And something has to give. So I have pulled out of or cancelled everything that I felt I should be doing but which just made me feel weepy at the thought. You know when the thought of sewing new buttons onto your choir uniform makes you feel like lying down and sobbing that maybe it’s time to give in. There is a part of me that feels bad about letting people down and not doing some things that I feel that I should do. But mostly I just feel so relieved. Now I can concentrate on marking exam papers and sleeping. Sometimes we just have to listen to our bodies.

Of course, at some stage I’m going to have to work out what my body is trying to say to me. It has, after all, sent me a brain tumour – TWICE – in a concerted effort to get its message through to me. You would think that an (admittedly ex-) English teacher would have a better grasp of metaphor. But in my defence, I have a brain tumour, and clearly some brain function has been compromised. 

image from maincourse101

My real job


So for those of you who don’t know, I decided it might be fun to teach again for a bit. So here I am at False Bay College in Fish Hoek, using one of my free lessons to write a blog post (relax! All my lessons are prepared, all my worksheets are photocopied).

The students here are lovely – as long as you don’t expect them to do anything they don’t want to do, like actually do any work, for example, or come to your class on time. I have taken to locking my classroom five minutes into a lesson so that if you are late you can’t come in. Jinna, Miss, no other teacher is so strict. But generally we rub along quite nicely. Ish. Sort of.

But there is one fucker. There he slouched: earphones in his ear, feet up on another chair, head level with the back of the chair he had slid so far down in his seat, hands in pockets, seething with anger and resentment and who knows what else. I had handed out a worksheet and (stupidly) expected them to get their books out and start working after I gave them that instruction. But that was naïve and silly of me. So I went round to each student and politely asked them to get their books out and start working. And to put away their cellphones. And to stop eating because break was over. When I got to this fucker, I gently (in all seriousness, I was not rude or aggressive when I spoke to him; I am trying to be lovely so that my tumours don’t get agitated) asked him to take his earphones out and to sit up and start his work. Well. You would have thought I had insulted his mother and his sister the way he went off at me. I have never, in more than 18 years of teaching and 47 years of living been spoken to so aggressively by anybody. Not even the bergie on the train was that aggressive (and he was drunk and homeless and probably should have been on meds of some sort). I have worked with gangsters (real ones) and drug addicts and people who have criminal records and never ever in my life has anyone spoken so aggressively to me. And it was totally out of all proportion to my gentle request. I didn’t even bother to engage with him. I simply moved away and haven’t spoken to him since.

And there are some girls who do that whole Haaaih, unh unh, Miss! as they shake their heads in derision at me and then they start speaking in Xhosa and I don’t know what they are saying but it’s clearly uncomplimentary and about me. And I find that decidedly rude. And it makes my hackles rise. Rapidly and aggressively. And even though I have read enough Carl Rogers to know that the learner learns best when there is little or no threat to the self and even though I know that reacting to their anger just increases the anger in the situation, I fall for it and allow my ego to say: how dare they talk to me like that/treat me like that/behave like that.

I have been reading “A Return to Love” by Marianne Williamson. This morning I read: “… you are a child of God and … you came here to heal and be healed … [your] real job is to love the world back to health.”

And so I am concentrating on breathing and being calm and radiating love (well, maybe not radiating exactly. I am more like an exceedingly dim, flickering, sputtering candle) because my real job is to love these difficult, angry students back to health. Oy vey. 

Image by SerrAlex

Speaking out



Deb Shapiro, author of “Your Body Speaks Your Mind”, suggests that you ask your body what it’s trying to say. If your body speaks in metaphors, what is it trying to say by creating your ailment? As I may have mentioned before, I don’t really do emotion too well. And I most certainly don’t do anger. Perhaps, like Woody Allen, instead of getting angry, I grew a tumour (or five).

I recently had experience of getting angry and speaking out. Well, shouting out. In public.

I was on a train, coming home from work in the city. It was rush hour so there was standing room only. And by room I mean not enough. And then a drunk bergie* got on. And the bergie was generally upset about life and was shouting at the world. And falling all over me. And breathing his drunk bergie breath on me. But in the manner of commuters the world over, I kept my eyes down and ignored him. Until he started shouting in my face and then something in me snapped. And I shouted back at him: DO NOT BE SHOUTING IN MY FACE!

I’m allowed to speak!” he railed at me.

Yes, you are,” I said, quite calmly, given the circumstances, “but you are not allowed to shout in my face.” Needless to say, that did not go down well with him and set him off on an even louder, more outraged stream of (drunken) invective. Clearly, engaging in any further discussion was futile so I quietly moved away and found a space further down the carriage while people parted silently, eyeing me with suspicion and possibly pity. But I found it liberating. Someone had utterly invaded my space and for once I had loudly and vociferously defended it.

But I still struggle with the line between keeping the peace, knowing when it’s futile to engage in a fight that will go nowhere – and saying what I need to say. Mostly it just seems too difficult, and dangerous, so I swallow the anger and try to let it go. And make tumours, obviously.

* a bergie is a homeless person, a hobo.


The luck of the Irish


IrishI knew it would come back to bite me in the arse. I have written a couple of columns for Life magazine (relax! The one you get for free in Life hospitals, not the TimeLife magazine with all the great pictures) based on my blog. In which I refer to my orthopaedic guy as attractive. I believe I call him “a bit of a McCutie” in one and “My Rather Dishy Orthopaedic Surgeon” (several times, nogal) in another. Which is fine except that his receptionist stumbled across the column and showed it to him. And then he phoned me to tell me he’d read it. And to find out how I was. Which was so sweet of him. But mortifying because all the while we were chatting on the phone all I could think of was: he knows you think he’s hot. The shame of it all. And him telling me I looked I like Chewbacca while I was in hospital (he arrived one day while was trying to brush the knots out of my five-days-unwashed and decidedly rats-taily hair. I may have looked less than my usual lovely self. Chewbaccary even).

Oh well. He is hot. And he gave me a bloody marvellous new hip. Every time I run (relax! I mean to catch the train!) I marvel at the fact that I can run (ungainly as it may be). When before the op I couldn’t even walk.

Of course, having studied somatic psychology (and by studied I mean: spent 14 weeks examining the tip of the iceberg) I do have to wonder why my body created those tumours. According to somatic psychologists, your body tells the truth even if you don’t – or can’t. So, if the body really does speak the mind, as author Deb Shapiro claims (in her book, Your Body Speaks Your Mind), then what is my body saying about me and my life? What thoughts or memories, what anger or unhappiness has been metaphorically eating away at me while literally eating away at my bones?

But I am forgetting myself! I am an Irishwoman and a Plunkett, and we don’t do introspection or feelings. We just live in denial, suppress everything (hence, I presume, the tumours) and drink! Sláinte!

The (woollen) web of appreciation


This seems like a much better use of wool.

This seems like a much better use of wool.

 Many (very kind) people have asked me about my blog and why I haven’t updated it in so long because they miss my blog posts. And, you know, my great wit and stuff. But the truth is, I just haven’t had anything to say. And I am too busy working and studying and doing my fieldwork. So even if I had something to say I don’t really have the time – or more specifically, the ENERGY – to write. But recently something happened which made me wonder if I had another blog post in me.

Today’s post is about the Web of Appreciation. You can begin rolling your eyes now.

So I have spent the last 14 weeks going to the lectures of my final module (apart from the fieldwork) at college. (For those who don’t know: I have been studying for a Diploma in Counselling at the South African College of Applied Psychology. Of course it has taken me about two years longer than I anticipated it would, because I have had to take time off to work. And grow tumours.) Anyway. So this last module, Somatic Counselling, was probably one of the best courses I’ve done at the college. The course material was fascinating (and life changing) and the lecturer was great. Even if she didn’t give me 95% for my last assignment, which has kind of been my average. UP UNTIL NOW.


We recently had our last lecture and we spent the entire three hours dealing with the fact that the class was over. Seriously. THREE HOURS. I felt like a cold, hard bitch because I was just like: okay, onward and upward and the fact that I’m never going to see you people again is of no consequence to me. Obviously not out loud. In my head. Out loud, I just kept quiet and tried not to roll my eyes too much while everyone else was going on about how sad they were and how they were going to miss everyone so much. But I did wonder: is there something wrong with me? Why am I not weeping and wailing about the fact that I am never going to see these people again? (Seriously, there was weeping and wailing. WEEPING AND WAILING.)

Amongst other things, we had to make a WEB OF APPRECIATION which involved taking a ball of wool and tossing it to someone and then telling them about how AMAZING they are and thus creating a web. I know I have a degree in psychology and now (almost) a diploma in counselling but maybe I have the wrong temperament when this kind of slushiness has roused me from my torpor and inspired me to write a rude blog post.

When I told My Beloved about it he looked at me in horror and left the room, muttering about “you psychologist types,” which made me feel much better because clearly I am married to a cold, hard bastard and so we are a matching pair. 

Image: www.acuteday.com

How to quit smoking


red wine Learningtoliveonpurpose.wordpress.comIt’s been five months to the day since I had my last cigarette. How did I quit with such ease, you may ask? I shall tell you: I got cancer. Admittedly only for a few weeks until they decided it wasn’t, in fact, cancer, but still. That initial period of shock was all it took. I did have one moment, a couple of weeks in, when I almost smoked: my friend Sam and I were opening a bottle of red wine (while My Beloved was lighting the fire) and I said, wistfully, “Ooh, this is exactly when I want to smoke.” And then it dawned on me: “Hang on – I already HAVE cancer, so what difference will it make?” Sam is not often wise but he looked at me shrewdly and said: “But you can unget cancer.” And I thought, Ja, maybe smoking when your body is already fucked, is not the wisest move. So I didn’t smoke then and haven’t, not once, wanted one since. And, as it happened, I did unget cancer. 


Image from Ménage à Trois wines wines