Café Mischu in Sea Point

cafe mischu sign

It’s harder than you might think, living in this cool city, coming up with cool places to go for coffee which you’ll also want to blog about, so when my friend, Craig, suggested Mischu in Sea Point, I thought, hurrah, yes. Mischu is opposite the Spar, and the reason he likes going there – other than the great coffee – is that he says it’s funny watching women have conversations when their faces don’t move. And while on the day we were there I didn’t spot any of those and I really liked the way they’ve done it up and it’s the kind of place you can definitely hang out with your Americano and watch the world go by, it got me thinking about this whole botox thing and why I have such a problem with it.

And it’s not because I’m not vain or don’t care about getting old and ugly. I care about it much, and I spend ages in the mirror worrying that my teeth aren’t white enough and that my sun spots will eventually take over my entire face and I’ll look like an alien and I hate when I gain weight and my clothes cling. And in the interests of vanity I bleach said teeth and I eat salad when I want pasta and wear BB cream every single day while pretending I’m au natural, but there is just something about the botox thing that makes my toes curl.

It’s like I have these two opposing forces where the one is super invested in looking good at any cost, while the other – I guess you can call her my inner dyke, though I suspect that’s deeply offensive – says ‘fuck that for a lark. I’m a woman, not a girl. I’m amazing just as I am, and I don’t have to buy into that twisted conception of what female adults are supposed to look like. I don’t have to be skinny and hairless to be accepted, and I certainly don’t have to look like I’m 25 in order to have value in this world.’

And while I’m incredibly fond of the vacuous, shallow version of myself and have the bags and shoes to prove it, it’s the other voice that I pay attention to because she feels closer to the real me. Because I am more than the sum of my parts, and I can hold my own intellectually and in spaces that would have scared the daylights out of me when I was in my twenties. I might have had fewer crow’s feet, but I was also rather dof and uninteresting by virtue of not having done very much. Your average 20-year-old has a lot of living to do before they make interesting dinner companions and, honestly, I value having seen some things in my life and having an opinion very much more than I do looking perfect in the mirror.

And fuck knows, when you get to 40 you’ve seen some things. I’ve had my heart smashed more times than I care to count; I’ve given birth twice without so much as an aspirin to help a girl through (what was I thinking, right?); I’ve held sick, feverish babies through the night and got up at the same time the next morning to do the other things that needed to be done. I’ve made a life for myself in a far away, cold country and endured the relentless heartache of being away from my home and my tribe. I’ve written things that have made people laugh out loud, and things that have made people so furious they wanted to lynch me on the spot. I’ve made good choices and terrible choices, and I’m not more special than anyone else, I’m just alive in the world, as we all are, and getting on with this journey I’ve picked out for myself.

And to deny my face the lessons I’ve learned – to pay somebody money to inject poison into my head so that when I’m really, really happy or really, really sad you’d never know – feels like the biggest travesty. Worse, it feels like betrayal to myself, because I have earned these lines, every single one. These lines are living. These lines are what I have lived and the things I have seen and done. They are drinking wine late into the night and talking with my husband about what matters. They are shouting in rage when he doesn’t get a thing about me and I can’t believe how hard it is being married. They are the terror that he won’t get off the plane and I’ll lose the love of my life because he is the coolest human being I have ever known, and they are shrieking with laughter when my maddest friend picks up her phone and talks in the same funny voice that used to have me sent outside the classroom in Std 7 for my uncontrollable hysteria.

They are worrying that my children are safe; sadness that my dad doesn’t feel good about his life; hoping my mom gets home safely when she works late at night. They are consoling our daughters when their daddy goes overseas every month for work, the angst that I might have offended a friend and the secret 3am fear that I’ll never write that book. Maybe it isn’t as ‘beautiful’ as the smooth, blank faces you see on younger women, but to me its beauty lies in something else – in its naturalness and its grace and the message it sends to my daughters about what really matters in life. And it’s not whether their mother has a wrinkle-free forehead. It’s not the hope that people look at me and go, ‘wow, she looks great! How does she do it?’ And I never think that, anyway, when I see someone who’s had work. I feel pity and a kind of sadness for what she thinks she has to be to be loved and to feel okay in the world.

And maybe I’ll change my mind in 10 years when the passage of time really starts marching across my face, but honestly I don’t think so. I think that other me will nip that thought right in the bud. Because the kind of beauty that comes of knowing who you are and what you have to offer doesn’t exist at the end of a needle. Anyhow. I think I got off track. Café Mischu does kiff coffee. My wrinkles and I will be back.

The service is warm and friendly, and the coffee is goo-ood.
The service is warm and friendly, and the coffee is goo-ood.

On Getting the Crap Mother of the Year Prize – Again

One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.
One of my three favourite human beings in the entire world.

So, today two hideous things happened to me today before 8am. The first one was being woken up, pre-alarm on a Monday morning by my six-year-old reminding me that today is Chef’s Day at her school. Chef’s Day is a weekly fund-raising initiative whereby each child has the chance to be the hero by bringing a snack to school (scones, muffins, fruit kebabs) which the other kids have to pay R5 for and the money goes towards school stuff. And the reason why Chef’s Day is happening on a Monday instead of a Friday, as normal, is because this particular mother was so involved in her work and fighting with the traffic department and getting lambasted by internet trolls and making it to boot camp and choosing doors for the new deck that she forgot. Which meant that the other kids were so disappointed they wouldn’t play with her at break time. Ouch. Wow.

So, I put on my gown and rushed blearily to the kitchen frantically thinking of how I could miraculously transform the sad contents of my empty post-weekend fridge and kitchen cupboard into thirty tasty, inventive treats. I had a box of Nomu instant chocolate brownies, but it requires a bunch of eggs and I ate the last two with chakalaka for breakfast yesterday. I bought popcorn at the 7-11 last night, but we’re clean out of sandwich bags. My husband is the pancake pro but again, we are eggless wonders. So, at a loss for inspiration, I apologized profusely to my little girl and promised her that the following day she would take the best Chef’s Day treats ever in the history of Chef’s Day to school, and that I was sure her friends would let her play with them today – while she cried quietly into her Cheerios and I died a thousand deaths.

But wait, that’s not all. The second we walked through the school gates I was accosted by her little friends who wanted to know why we didn’t show up at the fabulously fun birthday party in Camps Bay on Sunday which was just so much fun! The one I had diligently punched into my phone calendar with an alert and everything but obviously had forgotten to save. So just kill me now, why don’t you? And I don’t know how other mothers seem to be so on top of things. It’s not like I sit in an office from nine to five. I work from home which gives me wonderful flexibility, and the time to drive around for an hour on a Tuesday looking for the green felt they need to make a dinosaur habitat/find Monster High Doll costumes/buy eggs. But I struggle. I had no idea of the amount of time, energy and dedication schools require of parents.

I’ll get an urgent SMS on a Wednesday at 5pm to send wool and sequins and feathers to school the next morning because they’re making puppets. Wool? You can still buy wool? I live in Green Point. The birds left centuries ago. Cue: a worried child and a mother having a panic attack. And I wonder if life was so crazy for the previous generation of mothers and we were just too busy being kids and self-involved to notice. My mother-in-law (who I think is secretly a saint parading as a human being) had five children in six years in a small apartment in Denmark with no washing machine, disposable nappies or Mr Delivery. The mind boggles. Then again, she didn’t work outside the home, there was no Shimmy’s Beach Bar and they went on holiday exactly once a year to their little house by the sea. While she can only have worked unbelievably hard and deserves every medal going for getting four boys and a girl through toddlerhood and teenagehood without anyone dying, life must have been somewhat simpler.

I heard an interesting saying the other day which sums up this age pretty well – ‘I’m busy therefore I am.’ How true. I know that if I don’t have something to do for five minutes, I go into a panic and start planning a dinner party for twelve. My father-in-law frequently shakes his head at us and asks why we always have to be going somewhere. Good question. Where are we going? Sometimes I actually catch myself running between my office and the loo. And I’m not bursting, and there’s no fire. It just seems like there isn’t a second in the day to waste. There are too many dinosaur nests and deadlines and party invitations and Chef’s Days to deal with. For me, anyway. In order to do this right sometimes I think you’d have to make it your full-time job. Anyhow. I have promised my daughter that tomorrow she will be taking the yummiest, blingiest, most outrageously fabulous Chef’s Day treats with her to school, and again I will endeavour to get my sh?t together, actually press ‘save’ when I enter dates into my phone and be the kind of mother I want to be. On top of stuff and perfect and not guilty quite so often. I can only try.

On Feeling Utterly Lost for No Particular Reason

So, I’ve been racking my brain to come up with a blog idea for today, but nothing wants to ‘stick’ because all I can think of is how utterly lost and miserable I feel for no particular reason. Then late last night I got a message from my friend in Sweden saying how much she loves the ‘real’ pieces, and how they resonate for her, so maybe this blog needs to be about that. I’ll run with it see where it takes me. If nowhere, at least I’ll get a good cry out of trying.

The thing is, in this linear, scientific, cause-and-effect world we’ve created for ourselves, things need to have reasons, and that’s why times like these – when you want to crawl in a ball and have everything go away but you can’t say why, exactly – are so bewildering. You can’t ‘just’ feel stuff. You must be able to explain it. And I guess there are reasons – there are usually lots of them, but they’re not always as obvious as we’d like them to be. For me, one is definitely about not having a place to go to in the morning for the first time in quite a few years. And while I have no doubt in my mind that I needed to leave where I was and spread my wings and do something new, the reality of an empty day alone at home scares the living daylights out of me.

It’s fun to stay home when you’re supposed to be at work, but we under-emphasize how reassuring the structure of a day in the office is. I like people, and the nonsense (and sometimes serious) talk you have with colleagues – those individuals you find yourself spending many hours a day with and get to know and love. I liked making them laugh and being used as an agony aunt, and the little office rituals related to birthdays, new babies and resignations. It’s not really me to spend this amount of time alone. And, while I am working harder probably than I ever have, I’m not getting paid for much of it, which totally confuses my brain. Does it still qualify as work? By what rights do I get to sit here and talk about libraries when I should only be doing stuff that pays?

So, it’s that plus coming down from the high of starting the blog and having people read it and like it and the unmitigated affirmation that gave me, but then realizing that the gazillions of work opportunities I’d hoped would magically open up, didn’t, and then even more of a sense of what the hell am I doing? What is my next career move? Surely I need to have some sort of plan for myself; some ‘direction’ if I’m to be allowed to exist on this planet. We human beings have a really hard time just being. So, I need to try and change the focus from what the blog will do for me to the real reason I started it – for the simple, unabashed love of stringing words together.

Yesterday one of my closest girlfriends sat next to me on my couch and held my hand while I blubbered and said to me, ‘you are doing this for you. And yes, you are reaching people and making them think, but you are doing this for YOU.’ And she is right, of course. It’s a solitary pursuit and it can be lonely as hell but there is nothing else I really want to do. So, I’m going to try to remove (or at least acknowledge) the pressure I’m placing on myself, and let this process take its course.

And, maybe hardest of all, is giving myself permission to feel lost and lonely and scared without a ‘good’ reason. No, nobody in my life has died; yes, I have people who love me; no, I am not homeless; yes, I have everything I need. But I still feel fucking horrible and I can’t explain why. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow, and maybe I won’t. Maybe this funk will take a while to lift, and maybe that’s okay, too. Perhaps we don’t have to feel happy and together all the time and put up a façade that everything in our lives is fabulous when actually we feel seven years old and want our moms. My name is Susan and I feel sad, and there’s no ‘because.’ That’s all.

On Libraries and Life

Sea Point library.
Sea Point library on a winter’s morning.

On my very first day at university as I found my way to the library on UCT’s labyrinthine upper campus, I spotted a poster stuck just outside the door. It read, simply, ‘The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened.’ Today, those words would spark the faculties of critical thinking I was to develop during my years at that institution and I would immediately think, ‘whose culture? What does ‘culture’ mean? Who are these doors opening to?’ but back then, they stopped me dead in my tracks and I distinctly remember tears of awe and gratitude filling my eyes.

Because I had been a terrible High School student, skipping classes as often as I could get away with, doing the bare minimum of work and not taking one damn thing my teachers said seriously. While in my final year I half-heartedly tried to make up for lost time and get a university pass, it was too little too late, and I’d pretty much messed up my chances of getting accepted. But, the universe works in mysterious ways, and somehow someone in UCT’s admissions office must have thought there was a glimmer of hope for me and I got the acceptance letter in the mail (I wish I still had it – it changed my life), and then I was there, walking through those hallowed doors of learning and culture which, by some miracle, had been opened to me.

I never took that privilege for granted. While other students partied and drank, I’d had my share of that, and I knew my time had come to show them what I could do. I worked hard and got firsts for everything. I couldn’t get enough of learning. I listened intently to what my lecturers said; I ate the wisdom they dished up to us, their hungry, hopeful students. I had found my place in the world, and it was within the grey corridors of the English department where daily I would pass the offices of J.M. Coetzee, Andre Brink, Stephen Watson; writers and thinkers who, through words alone, changed the landscape of South Africa. Those were happy years for me. I was home.

Yesterday, as I stood in Sea Point library waiting to return some overdue books, I thought of UCT’s library where I spent so many happy hours poring over mind-bendingly beautiful combinations of words; hand-writing essays (we had no laptops in those days); studying for all I was worth. Libraries smell and feel the same wherever you are in the world. There is a church-like quality about them, even when they’re shabby and low on funding and most of the people visiting them look as worn as the newspapers they sit in a corner and read. When I go to my local library I see a segment of the population I wouldn’t normally, and when my favourite librarian is there – a softly-spoken, bespectacled man in his fifties – suddenly there is time in the day to talk about books and authors. In that musty-scented stillness the bustle of life comes to a halt.

On that day, an Irish woman in her sixties was ahead of me in the queue. She was happy because the book she’d been waiting for, Freddie Mercury’s biography, had finally arrived. It was three weeks late, and every day after work she would come by to see if it had been returned. She told me she was his biggest fan, and knew all of his lyrics by heart. I told her my husband used to work close to Freddie’s home in London, and when the news broke of his death he was one of the first people to put a rose outside the singer’s door. She smiled broadly at that story.

Then, the bubbly, young librarian who was working the evening shift reminded her that she had promised to sing a Freddie Mercury song the day her book arrived. ‘Oooh, that’s right,’ she said, in her lovely, lilting accent. ‘Hang on – I was just listening to it in the car – ‘I see a little silhouetto of a man/ Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango?’ And then, quite spontaneously, an old guy standing nearby in a trench coat and I joined in with, ‘Thunderbolts and lightning/ very, very frightening – me!

We chuckled, said goodbye and I headed out into the dusk to my house with lots of rooms and noisy children and cooked a butternut curry, and the Irish woman went home to her house with her book and probably read it while she ate supper and the old guy in the trench coat went off to his life somewhere else. People say print is dead and that soon there won’t be any more books. I hope they are wrong because that will mean no more libraries, and libraries are places of magic.

A Beach in Winter

Sophie milnerton beach

The incredible thing about Cape Town winters is days like today when the temperature sails up to 24, 25 degrees, and beaches where the south-easter howls in summer, like the ones around Milnerton, become perfection itself. We found ourselves there by accident after we discovered the Milnerton market was closing up for the day. People were surfing, swimming, looking for mussels or, like us, just chilling and admiring the view of Table Mountain.

Susan Milnerton beach

Sophie and I dozed and watched the water, and Per and Elisabeth wandered off to find shells.

After an hour or so we walked up to Maestros for cold beer and garlic pizzas. On the way home 5fm played cool music and we turned it up loudly and drove with the windows open and the air was warm and the world felt good. And the thing is, this is where we live – not in crime stats or newspaper articles or doomsday predictions about the future, but in days.

Per, Elisabeth milnerton