Tales & images from life as me…


The day the world went dark

Having a baby lights up the world. It’s not easy, but all the clichés are true about how you’ve never known love like it, how magical it all is blah blah. The thing is it comes with a dark side too. One I only fully understood slowly over this first year of my first child as I fell totally and utterly in love with this tiny little character.

It didn’t happen all at once, it crept in, seeping into my heart and head and every cell until I realised… what a horrible, dangerous and messed up world we live in!

Seriously, I’ve lived my life absolutely fear free. I have travelled all over the world, leapt off cliffs, out of planes, been skiing, had typhoid, pneumonia, malaria, been in gun sieges (yes, plural!), camped with wild animals. It never really occurred to me that my brave brave parents must be quaking somewhere with the heads in a bucket of sand.

And all that was nothing really. Not compared to the terrifying prospect of the thousands of childhood diseases, bullying (cyber or otherwise) that can cause children to take drastic actions, perverts, roads! Oh my goodness, I have to work so hard to switch my head off sometimes.

We are nearly at our little boy’s first birthday. What a year it has been. Highs and lows to the extreme. But it has all been pretty cosy and safe so far, and this amazing kid just smiles and smiles and smiles. The thing is, he’s barely seen the outside world – that amazing, glorious beautiful world that is so fraught with danger I’d like to keep inside wrapped tightly in cotton wool with a layer of bubble wrap for good measure! I can handle him bumping his head or eating dog hair, I am pretty un-stressy mum about that stuff, but the thought of him caught up in drugs and unable to communicate with us simply because he’s a teenager and thinks that we won’t get it, or don’t care, or whatever – well it makes me cry. And I mean to the point where I can barely turn on the tv. Last night a childrens’ cancer advert followed by a BB2 film called ‘Disconnect’ about the internet world we live in had me absolutely beside myself, red faced and snotty because all I could think about was him and all he’ll have to face. I don’t want it to change him; for him to close up because his heart’s been broken, or because some other kids thought he wasn’t cool enough. I can’t bear for him to go through any of it.

But then I remember the incredible gift that my parents gave me: They kept all that fear a secret. I don’t mean they didn’t talk about issues and concerns, but that they let me go without showing me how frightening that was for them. At every stage they let me run off with no idea that they were still standing there, watching me go, arms wide ready for me to run back whenever it got too much. How very, very brave they were.

And how hard it is going to be to pass on that gift! But I am determined we will do the same for our boy because without that freedom he might miss all the joyous, beauty and wonder that is out there too.

So, on this Valentine’s Day don’t just think about the kind of love that makes you all mushy and romantic. Think about the big loves. About family and friends who have been there and supported you, both in tough times and celebrations.


what makes a home?

In the non-literal sense, I’ve been building a home from the ground up these past two months and it’s got me thinking… which parts are actually important?

It all started with finding the property – and that’s definitely part of it, feeling safe and protected from the elements, being in a location that suits who you are. It’s certainly practical, but it’s hardly the critical ingredient. I think I’ve proven I can live just about anywhere over the years – I’ve done studio flats, student housing, my dark little Kenyan bungalow, and our great big place in TZ, a 26 bed dorm in Sydney, a tent which I moved throughout Southern Africa and all sorts in between! The walls and the location don’t make it home.

Step 2 was buying some basics and unpacking my suitcase, borrowing some things, and beginning to personalise the place, but the fact is it was empty until Damien arrived.

As soon as he landed and joined in the process the whole thing came alive and we shopped and we cooked and we discussed, and there is no question that good helping of love makes home considerably more, well… homely! But I’ll return to that later. For us, the next step was more practical – the arrival of our shipping container.

As we unpacked we unleashed great splashes of our old life together into our new one. The pieces sat a little incongruously together initially, but are slowly starting to meld. The unloading of ‘stuff’ marked an interesting transition for me. Some of it I had missed, or really meant something to me – often the old things or the keepsakes – but a lot of it felt overwhelming. This was partly because our tiny house here in the UK represents around a tenth of the space we had in our old house in Mwanza (!) so there were practical elements to consider, but also I was shocked by how metaphorically cluttered everything suddenly felt. Did we need all this stuff? How did we collect so much? I realised I’d been enjoying sense of freedom at having only ‘the basics’ until all this arrived and, whilst I was very happy to be reunited with personal items and see our beautiful Zanzibar furniture again, it felt rather like eating a MacDonald’s – all good fun but somehow artery clogging, slowing you down.

Since then we’ve sorted through the boxes and found homes for what we wanted to see every day, put several (ok around 40!) boxes into storage and found a balance for our new home. But I have vowed to shed anything I don’t use every six months or so.

Next step… the dogs! I’m the first to vouch for the fact that pets are part of a home (though I’m more of a cat or goldfish sort of a girl) and my husband was so excited about their arrival that no one could deny it’s part our home-building process (in fact, the night before I was kept in hospital for observation, potentially about to give birth, and you should have seen how torn he was – see my baby born or go to collect the dogs at Heathrow?!?! Really?!). It was no mean feat to get them here but now they are very much ‘at home’: Treading muddy prints through the house, taking up what little floor space we have with their beds and bowls and spreading short blonde hairs into every nook and cranny!

What’s ironic is that I’m sure I can feel how much they are missing Africa and it’s making me miss it even more instead of making me feel more settled. It must be a shocking transition for them arriving in the UK for the first time in their lives without any comprehension of what just happened when they were loaded into boxes and put on three different flights! And now it’s different smells, no open doors so they can wander as they please, no lizards or hyrax to play with, or askaris, different food, different weather, different rules. I can’t help but empathise a little.

Anyway, so we have the roof over our heads, we have each other, our stuff and our pets, but is it home? Not quite, somehow. It’s pretty great, don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining, we have so much and we have just left a home where people have so little. But it doesn’t feel real yet. It’s like the set for a play. We are, of course, awaiting the arrival of our baby any day now, but even that doesn’t quite feel real yet (despite the size of my stomach and the ache in my back and hips!). So what will actually make this a home for us, and for our son? It’s so strange to be creating a home for a whole new person, one whose personality is not shaped. I wonder what he’ll make of it all; which parts he’ll come to love, which items he’ll treasure (from the teddy he’ll choose as his favourite in his childhood, to the family heirlooms he’ll hang onto in his adulthood). What other ingredients must we add to make a foundation for him to grow?

I think perhaps it’s partly about shared memories – our house is a bit of a blank canvas right now. It definitely helped when my dad put our wedding photos up on the wall, but now we need to start making new memories here. And I think it’s a little about traditions – how your family does things, from Sunday roast to Christmas Day, cements your little unit and reflects your values. And the repetition of a family tradition makes it comfortable, and memorable too. We’ll have to decide how we do things, how we blend the traditions of our two families and of our multiple cultures to make it all work. I haven’t cooked a roast here yet, come to think of it, perhaps that’s a place to start. And as for Christmases, we are already starting to have our own unique little pattern of Italian, Scottish, English and African influences. No doubt I can add an Easter egg hunt and birthday treats and dog walks and movie nights and bonfire night parties and all those little adventures that we loved in our childhoods.

All that will take some time I guess. As will the other crucial element – people. Of course, I have my fantastic husband and best friend. In fact, I’ve just been blubbing over the movie The Notebook – not a good one to watch when you’re already emotional and full of hormones! I can’t believe I’ve never seen it before. It actually made me very conscious of the simple truth that home is really just wherever your partner is when it comes down to it and the children have left and the dusk sets in. But right now I’m at an earlier stage in proceedings and we will soon have a baby, so I think there has to be more to it than ‘us’ even if that is at the core of it all.

There’s no question that one of the elements that adds such richness to life is people. Friends and family. I guess it’s the thing that, as ex-pats, made us constantly refer to ‘home’ as the place where we were not (I think I have mentioned before how in England I was always going ‘home’ to Tanzania, in Mwanza my holidays were spent at ‘home’ in England). Home is where our favourite people are, and sadly for us they are scattered everywhere. We miss a lot of people in our lives, and we know that we will see them, but you do need friends who are part of your everyday life and who share in regular slices of your days. So now it’s time to meet some people here and make some new friends. I’m just having a hard time finding ways to this whilst I’m 39 weeks pregnant, can only waddle and feel like a bit of a weird potential-friend stalker! Again, I guess it takes time. I’m also finding it tough that our new friends will never have known me before we were a couple, or even before we were parents. How strange that will be (surely they will only ever know part of me?), and yet it has to happen if we are to settle here properly.

In the past I’ve been more of a ‘home is where my hat is’ sort of a girl, and never needed much to make it so. But here is a whole new stage in life. If home is where the heart is – I’m not sure mine is necessarily here. It maybe under an acacia somewhere on an open plain teaming with wildlife as the sun rises. But my loved ones are here and so my heart is here, and who can fail to feel happy when winter sun catches bare barked trees in silhouette or when someone greets you in your own language in a culture you understand and are accepted in? England has a lot of good parts and we will build a home for the foreseeable future. Perhaps the critical ingredient is time. And love, lots and lots of love.

I’d love to hear your additions to this list of what’s important, perhaps you’ll inspire us or help us find more things to get us settled. As always, thanks for reading.

beginnings and endings

It’s hard to spend a great deal of time thinking about birth and the beginnings of life without thinking about the end of life and the aging process. Creating a new generation means shuffling along that proverbial ‘mortal coil’ a little and realizing that we are getting older. We do this at intervals of course – the major birthdays, the big life changes (first day at uni, first job, buying a property, getting married) but not in such a specifically mortality-related way perhaps.

For a start, there are suddenly wills and guardians and life insurance concerns that crop up and we are forced to consider what might happen to our child if we were no longer there, but on a more subtle level there is the fact that our child will never see us the way we think of ourselves. They won’t remember our youthful looks – the ones that turned our partner’s head initially – they won’t know that we were wild adventurers, that we were carefree and unafraid once. They will see only the parent we have become from the time they reach around 7 years old and memory really establishes itself.

Instead they will be frustrated by our slowness, by our muddling stories or not understanding the leaps in technology, the latest music or what is now socially acceptable that wasn’t in ‘our day’. Is that it then? Have we had ‘our day’? And is it selfish to want it to continue? I’m sorry to sound miserly but, as much as I would give this baby anything and I haven’t even met him yet, I don’t want life to end. There is so much pressure to be this wonderful, selfless earth mother character in today’s society that we aren’t really meant to say this out loud (and I am trying to steel myself for some negative comments in response to this post), but the fact is I don’t want to stop my romance with my husband or our magical travels or the creativity that inspires me. In fact, more than that – I want my child to witness these things; to grow up with their light in his life so that he knows their wonder too.

Of course we are in the age of ‘you can have it all’ but I am not talking about having a job and a family. Not necessarily. I’m talking about NOT becoming the stressed out monster who moans about her lot, nags about homework and is all about getting through the day or keeping the routine. I’m talking about keeping the magic, the inspiration, the joy… even the youth? I know I can’t look like I did forever – I don’t recognize my body now and I’m really trying to prepare myself for the shock after it’s been through childbirth so I guess I have to suck that up (although I can’t help the little hopeful part of me that is kidding herself that with a little bit of gym work and a good diet… ha ha ha! Of course I also imagine the results will give me back my pre-25 figure!) – but the point is I’d like to feel young, to still have the urge to play, OK OK… and to look, at least, the way I recognise myself.

Wow I’m not painting a very nice picture of myself here, am I? Vain, selfish and scared of not being young anymore (even though, at 35, I’m clearly not that anyway!). But isn’t this a lot of people’s internal dialogue? Aren’t we all a little daunted by what we’ll become? Don’t lots of people in their 60s, 70s, 80s look back and feel a little sad they aren’t still in the thick of it all: healthy, vibrant, looking to a future full of dreams?

I am lucky that I have parents who still do a great deal, who get out and travel and live and enjoy the theatre and garden and read and get involved in the world, but even they won’t deny that it gets harder. And they stand beside us watching us forge ahead, occasionally stepping in to scoop us up when things get tough, without ever a trace of envy. Will I be good enough to do the same?

In many ways I think I will. I have had so much so far, and I know I have many years’ more experiences to gather up (life doesn’t end with a baby, it just changes – right?!) and I have such great hopes for the little boy we are going to love so much, I know I will be so proud of his every step through this amazing world. But I do not want to bear witness to my own fading and it is hard for any self-aware individual not to be conscious of that. Do I matter in the grand scheme of things? Not one bit. Have I changed the world in any way? Not yet. But he could, and maybe that is all that it’s about.

Help! A tiny person’s coming

Who’d have thought that a miniature human weighing just a few kilograms and unable to walk or talk yet, could cause so much fuss!

I’m learning that it’s all very well getting pregnant and moving across continents and playing ‘new house’, but at some point you will be forced to face reality and actually prepare for the arrival of this tiny person in a way that you have never prepared for the arrival of anything else in your whole life.

In the past month I’ve done antenatal classes (where I learned to clean chicken korma from a doll’s bum!); discussed my birthing options (until I’m so confused I’m considering just requesting that I be knocked out until it’s all over); and bought all sorts of mad additions to the house (including the cutest cot you’ve ever seen, a daunting looking bath contraption and a car seat which hubby is currently proudly sporting in the back of his car!). But even all of this has felt a little bit like play-acting… until, one fated sleepless night I decided to read the dreaded baby book. Alien words like ‘transition’ (previously a nice innocuous word suggesting a positive change – a sort of caterpillar to butterfly thing perhaps? Not in this case!), ‘crowning’ (previously associated with gold and diamonds. Not in this case), ‘episiotomy’ (that word should not contain the phonetic of ‘ease’ in any form!)… and as the night wore on the reality that this baby has to come out, one way or the other, set in.

It’s an odd concept to actually face: having to prepare for pain. This is not something we do. Pain is something that’s generally a surprise and warns us something is wrong. There are very few circumstances where you plan for it. I mentioned this to hubby. “Torture?” he suggested, helpfully! …Fantastic!

And the one piece of advice everyone thinks it’s worth offering up…? ‘It’s really important to stay calm.’ HA HA HA.

With this in mind I decided I should really get back into yoga. I am really missing my DVD-assisted guru, Nina, in TZ, plus I thought it might be a good way to meet people. I’m told to bring 2 pillows and head for a local church hall by 10am. At 5 to ten I have two big orange sofa cushions in the back of my car and am desperately searching for a parking space in our new town. I get a bit lost, which results in a late entry just after everyone has said who they are and how pregnant they are. I stumble in, red faced, massive orange cushions in tow (everyone else has little, tasteful, discreet affairs I notice!) and everyone turns to me in unison. “Hi,” I say to the expectant (in more ways than one!) crowd, dropping a pillow onto someone else’s mat space and desperately trying to retrieve it without groping her in my flustered state. “I’m Mel… and I’m late, sorry.” I add pointlessly before plonking myself down, a little too hard for the size of me, in the only remaining space. Needless to say no one spoke to me for the duration and my hopes for some mummy networking were crushed. Oh well, maybe next week, with smaller pillows and better parking planning! Still, the yoga itself was ok.

And what does this weekend have in store? Well an exciting visit to Oxford to visit our hospital and meet our consultant, see the facilities and learn even more about the grueling ordeal ahead! Whoop whoop! Maybe they’ll take some more blood and urine if I’m really lucky!

The upside of all of this, though, is that it is all part of the preparation to actually meet that tiny person. I’m glad I’m being forced to take all these steps or I might never have got myself ready. I’d have happily done 10 months of pregnancy and then gone ‘oh, maybe I should consider the baby at some point!’

I guess my plan is simply to set expectations, of myself and of tiny person, as low as possible. That way I won’t be disappointed, I might just be pleasantly surprised. It’s not that I’m a pessimist, just that so many people share such awful tales of misery, isolation, pain and the occasional psychotic break that saying I plan to get showered and dressed every day is just a step too far, so I’m not saying that.

Managing hubby’s expectations, however, may be something of a different ball game. Even at this stage, he looks at me dragging my enormous self around and exclaims ‘Darling, tomorrow you must do nothing. NOTHING. Just relax.’ But in almost the same breath there are expectations of cleaning, collecting things in town and what we might have for dinner, and on returning from a day in the office there is always the expectation that you have achieved something. And NO, having tea with a friend or undertaking a creative pass time does not count – it falls, apparently, into neither category. It is not physically relaxing nor achieving something that contributes to the house… hmmm. A difficult one, particularly as I know that once baby actually arrives every mum I’ve ever met has told me that the only way to survive is tea with friends and lots of cake! Oh well, I guess it won’t be too difficult to avoid as long no one talks to me at yoga!

So, we’re almost there: 1 set of shipping, 2 dogs, 3 expected visitors, 4 more medical appointments and 5 weeks remain before we might just end up with a baby that hopefully doesn’t go too pear-shaped! I’ll keep you posted ☺

Note: For those of you who signed up to this blog because you were interested in my travels, my photography or my writing, and haven’t the slightest interest in kids don’t worry, I don’t want this to become a parenting blog and I’m not going to stop traveling, taking pictures or writing, but I guess since it’s all about ‘life as me’ some of these life things do have to come into it. And how I manage being a mum and trying to still be me, is bound to be a big part of the next chapter. Bear with me, I’ll try to keep it light and human.

In My Garden

I was feeling somewhat uninspired this week and not sure what I’d end up writing on this blog. But my office looks out over our garden and out towards the lake and I decided I would set myself a challenge. Every time I look up from my computer I witness some little scene from nature – I have seen hatchling kites being fed, a giant monitor lizard (around 5ft) trying to fight off the dogs, birds building nests, snakes whipping along branches and all sorts of wonderous little glimpses into a world where I do not belong. Today I gave myself just 15 minutes to snap as many things in my garden as I could. Not only was it an eye-opener, but it’s also a great illustration of the differences between different countries. I took almost 100 pictures (none of them especially masterful, but that wasn’t the point!) in an effort to record the mass of action that was happening right under my nose! Here’s what happened in my garden this afternoon.

For a start we grow a lot. Red peppers, rocket, lemons and (when the season’s right) mangoes and avocados weigh down the trees.

And of course the bird life is abundant. Here’s what I found in just those fifteen minutes:

But there are also other animals:

Plus there are usually a few domestics friends to be found:

This is Tom and Tamu our very fearsome guard dogs (hmmm!) searching out the shade.

There are some bright tropical flowers:

in my garden-24

Plus, Africa is well known for its Beaugonvilla. It covers endless walls with its vibrant shades – we have several different colours around our garden.

In fifteen minutes I was surprised at how much there was to see and reminded again that it always worth looking twice, noticing the details, and enjoying where you are in this moment. I am no longer uninspired and shall return to my book writing with renewed enthusiasm!

So… what’s in your garden?

Call yourself a writer?

I’ve spent the past eighteen months ‘being a writer’ and feeling fraudulent a great deal of the time. It’s been like training for a job without any idea what the actual criteria are and without anyone to guide you.

When I was a teacher it was simple – I had the qualifications on paper and several classes of students to prove it. When you say you are writer, the first question that inevitably follows is “oh what have you written?”. Translation: ‘what have you published’. Up until recently my answer has only been “I have written articles and I’m working on a book”. Pathetic! Everyone knows working on a book, actually finishing a book and then actually getting said book published are three entirely different things!

What’s worse is that the response is often either ‘oh, I’ve always wanted to write a book!’ or ‘do you have an agent?’ both of which make you feel all the more pathetic in their own way! And the worst response of all, has to be: ‘What’s it about?’.

Panic! How do I explain this without boring them? It’s a complex web of a story with satirical commentary on our modern times with reference to a host of classic literature, but I’m going to have to tell them first that it’s Sci-fi for teens, set in dystopian fiction… uh oh… lost them! It’s a terrible feeling to sense that person’s interest wander. If I can’t hold one person face-to-face how on earth can a whole book command a loyal mass of fans! Going to have to work on my pitch!

Do I qualify as a writer? No!

A little over a year ago I am embarrassed to remember that I sent out an email to friend of a friend who was high up in the publishing world. It asked him to consider the early chapters of my book and let me know ‘if I had something, or if I was wasting my time.’ He never responded.

I now understand that he did not respond because it was not for him to tell me. If he had told me to give up, would I have stopped and never written another word?

I only knew quite recently that I would not.

Words are around me all the time, I can’t control them, they swirl into sentences that insist on being written. Those are the good days, but even on the bad ones, when I cannot write, I want to write.

Recently something has shifted. On the outside, there have been two, marked, positive developments: first the inclusion of a short story I wrote some time ago in a proper published book (thus making me officially a published fiction writer – even if I am sharing the space with lots of other writers! Here’s the link in case you feel like supporting me/us by buying a copy – sorry have to get al the plugs I can! The Best of CafeLit); and second, watching a select group of teenagers read the first draft of my novel and enjoy it – talking about the characters as real people and worrying about what will happen next. Don’t get me wrong, there were criticisms, suggestions and corrections, that was the whole point of the exercise, but all these have done is strengthen my resolve to work on it further and really get it ready to be seen by agents.

And that brings me to the inside. On the inside something shifted too. A conviction has formed. One that says it doesn’t matter if this book doesn’t work, or if an editor doesn’t commission my article or a client wants to change a sentence – I will write another book, see another editor, do better for that client. Because I am a writer.

There is no qualification, except to write. It is not glamorous or financially rewarding. I am not arrogant in my affirmation of this. I have earned it, I will earn it. But this week I had to share this revelation! Now when people ask be what I do I won’t laugh or hesitate any more, I will simply answer. ‘I’m a writer.’

Me and Sue went in a Canoe!

I’ve lived alongside Lake Victoria five years now, and am ashamed to admit that I have never paddled my own canoe (I’d like to think I’ve done the metaphorical version!).

Sometimes life here does get dull. It’s all very amusing having to wait to get out of my gate because of a herd of goats and cows with gigantic horns, or giggling at the fact that there’s a hairdresser in the butcher shop (I say ‘shop’ – it’s only slightly larger than a portaloo, there is no window, no electricity or water and, quite often, no meat!). I do enjoy meeting friends for drinks and attending the school play. But, at the end of the day, we are quite seriously lacking in terms of entertainment, high-octane action and new experiences!

So there I was enjoying a coffee with my friend, Sue, and wondering what I might do to perk myself up, when she suggested popping out on the canoes. Well, I have to admit that at first I wasn’t that enthusiastic – there are two canoes at the local yacht club (it should be called tiny boat yard, really) and they don’t look all that inspiring. Particularly as they rest beside a little boat with the word ‘Rescue’ painted on its prow… it’s rotten and has a hole! Once you’re out there you’re out there alone! But I decided I was up for it – despite the horrors of Bilherzia (a nasty disease in the lake which attacks your organs) and the presence of crocodiles and the lack of coast guard or rescue boat! Our safe little inlet belies the enormous size of this breadth of water that spans three countries and is responsible for hundreds of deaths each year, as well as being the life source for thousands. Luckily for me, it was the perfect still evening, with beautiful soft light.

We pushed off from the jetty and I was instantly besotted with this magical mode of transport. Total silence except for the dip, stroke and lift of my paddle. Seeing the world from water level makes water hyacinth and rock formations suddenly big and you, in turn, quite small. Plus, birds are not threatened by your noiseless approach, so tiny kingfishers dive and flit confidently right beside you.

This time I wasn’t quite confident enough in my paddling skills to have brought my big camera, so I just snapped a couple of shots on the phone. Next time I’m going out fully equipped!

This week my blog is neither TIA Tales nor The Write Time, it is simply a moment. One which reminded me that it’s very important to have moments …and live in them, enjoy them to the fullest and all those other momentous clichés! Find yourself a moment this week and share it – I’d love to hear what you’ve been up to, wherever you are.