JOURNEYING WITH CANCER


I am journeying with a client who is fighting cancer. This mother of three boys, wife, daughter, sister, friend and mentor to many women – invited me into the sacred spaces of her inner world whilst she is going through extensive chemotherapy and all that it brings. In our last session she posed the question: “What does my life mean and what will I have to show about my life should I die this young?” After our session I reflected on her question by asking myself what I have learnt from her life? In order to answer this question, I need to share some of her story.

Recently, after the cancer spread to her brain, she underwent radiation of her skull. This resulted in the permanent loss of her hair. After a week or so, as tufts of hair started to fall to the ground, she mourned her hair which will never re-grow. Soon there were only a few patches of hair left on her head and then she did the most extraordinary thing: her sixteen year old son was standing next to her while she was shaving the last bit of hair – she turned to him, gave him the razor and asked him if he wanted to make her “smooth”. He was happy to do so. This very practical moment became witness to and of their intense love and respect of each other. For me this action spoke of the trust between them. This moment was about allowing her son to see her at her most vulnerable, yet at the same time holding a position of so much strength. It made me think about allowing people to see us in our vulnerability and how much courage and strength it takes to show our hurt, speak about our insecurities and to acknowledge how fragile we sometimes are.

My client also started to make memory boxes for her husband and sons. Some might understand this to be a sign of giving up or over – that she no longer holds hope. On the contrary, this is about celebrating life and valuing one’s experiences. I thought to myself – each one of us should be making memory boxes. These memory boxes should be updated ever so often. We need to share how we experience life while we live it. Ten years from now I most probably will not remember how I felt about the highlights and lowlights of this year. There are lessons in these moments and if we do not document it, it is lost: to ourselves and to others. One day, my daughter or son, when they are the same age that I am now, might want to know how I experienced or handled age-related challenges. If we document our lives, we will be able to engage with wisdoms gained from our past experiences.

I am learning many other lessons from this journey with cancer. One of the most profound lessons of this journey is our desire to keep our dignity even when disease or other circumstances threaten to steal our grace and composure. It leaves me with the question: what is human grace and how do we live a life that will protect our own dignity but also the dignity of others?

Empty nest syndrome


Recently our youngest child flew the nest. Towards the end of last year I started to prepare myself for this event, as many people warned me about the empty nest syndrome. I also reminded my husband to prepare himself for this new phase in our lives, but he felt that I was putting the cart before the horse and that there was no need to run ahead of ourselves. Even so, I decided to visualise what our lives would be like and what I needed to do to embrace all that might come with the impending empty nest.

During this process of preparation I went through a period where I felt a sense of loss, but also a sense of achievement and excitement. I was excited about my daughter having the ability and opportunity to study at a university. I experienced a sense of accomplishment as we were able to guide and support towards her dreams, as we did for our eldest, her brother. She achieved her own goals and is now on her way to prepare herself for her adult life and an independent economic future. I realized that the home would be much quieter, but after twenty one years of sharing my space, being mom’s taxi, and organising my days in such a way that I would be available to my home and my family, whilst juggling post graduate studies and a practice, I was looking forward to the freedom that the empty nest would bring to my daily routine.

The big day arrived and we helped our daughter settle in her new living space. On our way home, both my husband and I experienced sadness, some anxiousness but also excitement about her prospects and the future ahead of her.

The next day I continued with my life and though I missed my daughter dearly, I really enjoyed and cherished the arrival of this new phase of my life. For the first time in twenty one years it was just my husband and I in our home. Our couple-hood had the opportunity to take centre stage, without interruptions or competition for shared energy and time or the needs of our children. BLISS! I could honestly exclaim: ‘Empty nest syndrome, what empty nest syndrome?’

About a week after our daughter’s departure, my husband started to really struggle. I often found him in our daughter’s room, stroking her cat, staring into space with tears in his eyes. Eventually he shared: ‘This is so much harder than what I ever thought it would be. I miss them terribly and feel without direction and purpose’. My husband has always been a very involved dad and used to do things like the kids’ breakfast, packing their lunch boxes and helping with other chores. Suddenly he came home with no one to engage with but me, who was quite happy with the void, I must add.

His sense of usefulness diminished and he felt without purpose. After two weeks of tears and deep sadness, he engaged with me in a long discussion about his experiences. He shared that for so many years his sole purpose (to his mind) was to provide financially. As a white South African Christian man he was indoctrinated from a very early age that he was supposed to be the primary breadwinner, he needed to take care of and protect his family. Suddenly this purpose seemed fulfilled and what now? The children were on their way to independence … what was his purpose now?

Was his response due to a midlife crises or indicative of the patriarchal society we life in? Why did everyone expected me to experience the empty nest syndrome but not my husband?

Often so much emphasis is placed on men’s role as the financial provider, that providing on other levels are ignored. My husband did so much more than just provided financially, yet he could not see this. He was unable to see that he will continue to provide in many other ways in our children’s and their children’s lives!

You might wonder in what other ways did my husband provide. He provided and supported on an emotional level in terms of co-parenting by co-creating an environment in which the following could thrive: stability and safety, encouragement, companionship, wisdom, emotional comfort and physical presence. He was also the handy man, fixing stuff and the one who knew how to do things. He gave hugs, read bedtime stories, had dad and son talks, dad and daughter talks. He contributed by loving me as the mother of our children. They saw him treating his wife with respect and equality, creating positive ways-of-being, living with integrity and honouring his personal moral compass.

Looking at the multiple ways in which my husband provided made me wonder why it is so difficult for men to see beyond their contributions other than just financial provider? Did patriarchal ideas become so internalized that men (and women) are unable to see their own worth in terms of their contributions to their families? Why do men (and women) buy into the discourse that the most important function in a family is that of breadwinner? Did the church, with its rigid gender role prescriptions regarding the man as breadwinner and the woman as caretaker and nurturer, create a society which values financial contribution of a man more than emotional and spiritual partnership? Did these patriarchal ideas, as often promoted by churches, contributed to a materialistic mindset which undermines men’s constructions of themselves as fathers and husbands and even as human beings? Did this turn men into walking purses with no apparent other function?

 

To live is to risk and to risk is to live


This past week I attended the Woordfees in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The Woordfees (Festival of Words) is a yearly event, which takes place over a week where new publications and plays are presented. There are also many panel discussions regarding current issues in the spheres of politics, literature, socio-economics, languages, cultural diversity and religion.

Many of these discussions included participants who hold very different views. The outcome of such discussions were highly stimulating, challenging and sometimes controversial dialogue. As I listened to many of these discussions, especially regarding religion and spirituality and the expression thereof, it affirmed my awareness of risk. To take a stand on a issue often will position you as the “other” – distinct to those who might believe or understand differently than you. One risk being seen as the opposition or in the worst case scenario, being completely misunderstood.

My awareness of risk was heightened during the several theatre productions which I attended. One such production dealt with a mother’s agony and desperation as she tries to convince her daughter not to commit suicide (Good night mom – Nag Ma). The heart-wrenching story is not just about hopelessness, but rather about the daughter’s decision to take control of her life and therefore decides how she can or cannot live in it and how she would end it. From here I moved to a play in which a middle-aged woman shares her journey of lost love, youth, betrayal, divorce and the re-defining of her life (Just desert, dear – Dit is koue kos skat). And lastly, I watched Vaselientjie, the story of a white girl who grew up with a coloured family in South-Africa. She was removed from this loving and nurturing family due to the Apartheid policies and placed in a orphanage. We see how she has to fight for her own survival and well-being. In this orphanage each child had their own story of abuse, survival and who to make meaning of the cards which they were dealt in life. It was an inspirational story, deeply sad and tragic at times but also funny, uplifting and encouraging.

All these experiences made me reflect on the concept of risk. There are so many story lines about risk, but the most compelling one for me is what I define as: To live is to risk and to risk is to live. One can stay within ones comfort zones and never challenge your ways of believing, understanding and meaning-making. Or one can move outside that which you hold as the known and your safe space: emotionally, spiritually, physically, intellectually, culturally and relationally – to discover and explore new story lines and new meanings of the taken-for-granted knowledges and unchallenged “truths”. It invites us to engage in an ever-changing “reality”, to move beyond and outside that which is safe: to experienced in different ways.

Reflecting on the concept of risk, made me ask the question: What is safe or safety? The answer I came to (for the moment) is that safety is a state of mind. You can feel safe in the most unsafe situations when you allow yourself to let go of that which you believe is the only way, in order to create space to allow other voices and ways of understanding in your space. The “other” is then no longer the enemy, but rather just another way of making meaning, which not necessarily means that you have to negate your understanding. It allows for many different “realities” and which can co-exist in the presence of tolerance and co-diversity in an ever-changing discourse.

English site: Just desert, dear http://www.kosie.biz/index.php?option=com_zoo&task=item&item_id=4&Itemid=198

http://nb.bookslive.co.za/blog/2010/05/03/nuwe-marita-van-der-vyver-dis-koue-kos-skat/

http://bookslive.co.za/bookfinder/ean/9780624048862

Vaselientjie http://www.thefreelibrary.com/%22I+am+becoming+someone+completely+different+…%22%3A+the+utilisation+of…-a0164254753

http://www.volksblad.com/Vermaak/Nuus/Sandra-Prinsloo-skitter-in-Nag-Ma-20110713

Die Woordfees (Festival of Words) – http://www.woordfees.co.za/)

PRIDE 2012 – Celebration of the wonderful LGBT diversity in South Africa’s Mother City!


Last week-end I participated in the Cape Town Pride walk. The first question that might spring to most heterosexual minds is: What is PRIDE?

Pride is a yearly event that is celebrated all over the world when LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bi-, trans- and inter) sexual orientations are honored and celebrated. It is important to understand the history behind this walk of activism. In the late 1960’s, gay men and women used to be terrorized by the police, often beat, jailed, raped and victimized in every possibly way. Gay people congregated in “safe” places to socialized, but these places were often raided and police brutality was in the order of the day. In 1969, after yet one such incident of police brutality, the LGBTI community responded with the Stonewall riots, which in turn led to a yearly protest march against the discrimination towards LGBTI people. It also became a walk of pride, thus being proud (and not ashamed) of their sexual orientation. And yes, sometimes gay people do flaunt their sexuality in these marches in order to say to the world :THERE, SEE MY SEXUALITY, RAW, EXPLICIT AND IN YOUR FACE, DEAL WITH IT, I WILL NO LONGER HIDE! Sadly, It is often only these images that are portrayed in the media in order to create sensationalism, which in turn perpetuate many of the negative stereotypes regarding gay sexuality. However, it is my experience that the vast majority of participants are average men and women who walk with joy and tolerance without being “over the top” or extremist.  (http://gaylife.about.com/od/stonewall/a/stonewallhistory.htm)

The second question you might have, is possibly: Why do I, as a heterosexual person, participate in this walk? Well, for me personally there are many reasons. However, I will only share one of these with you, namely that I choose to celebrate the wonderful sexual diversity with which we are created and I stand and walk in solidarity with like-minded people.

In South Africa the gay “issue” has always been a highly contentious, especially within our faith communities, but also within the secular community. Gay people have been demonized and vilified and were (and still are) often labelled / judged as sinful, unnatural, perverse and even abnormal.

As Kinsley (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kinsey_scale), I too believe that sexual orientation is found on a scale, thus on the one end we have heterosexuality and the other end homosexuality. In between these two positions we have millions of variations of sexual orientation. Too illustrate: I know very effeminate heterosexual men and I know very masculine gay men. This speaks of the enormous variety and diversity with which we were created and how we express our sexuality. Interestingly, this variety is also found within the animal world and the higher in development (closer to humans) the species are, the higher the incidence of homosexuality.

After all, sexology is one of the youngest sciences and was only founded en developed in the 1960’s. It is also only recently, since MRI brain scan technology, that we get a glimpse of how our brain work. Sexuality is seated within our brain and not in our pants as was previously believed.

Our sexuality is part of our being – it is not something that we can separate out of the rest of our psyche. I therefore find it extremely offensive when some churches prescribe: “you may be gay, but just not be a “practicing” gay, thus you have to live celibate”. It is as good as saying you may be a human, but just not a practicing human. In other words, you may be alive, but please do not live as a human (In Afrikaans: jy mag lewe, maar jy mag nie menswees nie). Part of being human is to make social connections, to love, to express our feelings, to seek intimacy and to engage in relationships. To expect of people to live without such connection and intimacy, is inhumane!

I believe that many people find have an issue with gay people because they sexualize the person. In other words, they do not see being gay as the essence of a person, but rather equate being gay to having sex with a person of the same sex. Being gay become for them just about same-sex sex and the person is dehumanized in the process. Sexual orientation is not just about sex, it is about each and every fibre of a person’s being and consciousnesses.

I celebrate our sexual diversity and urge each and every person to be very careful with judgments, intolerance and condemnation of those people who are not heterosexual. Let us be mindful of the complexity with which we are created and let us respect diversity instead of judging that which we do not understand or that which we fear.

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For my Afrikaans speaking readers, please listen to Dr Dave Pepler’s talk  on Homoseksualiteit in die diereryk:  http://www.rsg.co.za/images/upload/sound/klanke/20120307_TJAILA_Dink_Groen.mp3

LIFE – LIVE IT.


This photo is of a sculpture outside The House of JC le Roux winery, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

On Wednesday it was my forty seventh birthday. My husband took me to this venue for a wonderful tasting of “champagne”/ sparkling wine. When I saw this artwork something jumped in my soul. It is a wonderful artwork. One feels young, playful and full of life when you look at her.

This work spoke and moved me deeply. For me she is dancing with a ball in high heel shoes. My understanding/interpretation of this sculpture is that it a reminder about how we can life our lives. It spoke to me about living life to the fullest, maybe even sometimes a little inappropriately. I mean after all, who wears high heel shoes and play with a ball in something that looks like a 1920’s bathing suit? The answer I came up with is a person who understands that life is precious!

Life is for living and my only responsibility regarding life, is to live it. My responsibility is it to do so with all my energy, conviction and passion in ways that will be life-giving to myself, others and the earth.

I hold onto the same deep sense of freedom and acceptance, which I see/feel in this sculpture. I have peace when I embrace life with all its challenges and remind myself that life is not about who you are, what you have or your achievements, but about the effects you will have on all that you touch: physically, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually, financially and any other way you engage with others, yourself and the environment.

Over recent years I have come to a place and space where I define contentment not as being content with what I have, but rather with what I do not have. This does not mean that I do not have any ambitions or dreams left. It only means that I live in the here and now for today with all that I have to the best of my ability.

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh in BEING PEACE My well-being, my happiness depends very much on you, and your well-being, your happiness, depends upon me. I am responsible for you, and you are responsible for me. Anything I do wrong, you will suffer, and anything you do wrong, I have to suffer. Therefore, in order to take care of you, I have to take care of myself. (pg. 42)

Ps. I do not mind sharing my age, after all, age is just a state of mind.

Christmas decorations and blessings


Christmas is for me a time of reflection. Over the years I have established many rituals to support my awareness of self and others in this time. The most meaningful ritual relates to my Christmas decorations.

I love Christmas decorations, especially the Christmas tree lights. It symbolizes for me Christmas as the celebration of Light and Life: Jesus, Light of the World and the possibility of light each one of us.

For some years now, I buy every Christmas season two or three new strands of Christmas lights. Over the years my collection has grew and today I am able to fill our living spaces with lights.

When I put the Christmas lights up, I invite those who assist me, to join me in a ritual. For each light that I put up, I name a blessing that I experienced in that past year. I also name a way in which I can extend that blessing to others in this time of light and love.

One of the blessings I named this year was access to technology and the world wide web which enable me to connect with friends, family and colleagues all over the world.  I extend this blessing by means of this blog today and invite you to join me in this ritual of naming blessings.

May our souls be connected as we look upon our Christmas lights and decorations and may we stand in solidarity to bring light, justness, justice and love.

Christmas greetings.