Book’s Beginnings

July 9th  (prologue)

July 9th, for me, is a memorable date. It was the day I was married, in a fairytale wedding, at a castle in Scotland. It’s a date that has either lifted my spirits or fell hard upon me, depending on the year; the time of my life. I was married for eleven years and have now been separated for seven. The last few years I’ve been in the clear; have managed to maintain benign thoughts as July 9th comes and goes. I’ve done the work, I’m good. That is, until today. July 9th now screams for attention — a wounded day that cares little about love or pain, or what it’s asking of me. July 9th is making sure that I will never again be able to treat it as just another day.

Pink liquid is being pushed into my veins. It’s not how I pictured it – like in the movies where you sit for hours hooked up to an IV, reading books and magazines or chatting to your neighbour. I brought my computer along, thinking I’d have two uninterrupted hours to do some work. Instead, nurse Jackie (her real name) sits prepped before me. She’s working the first syringe with two more on deck. We’re playing a game of deception. The plastic tubes look like they’re full of Kool Aid but it’s medicine that’s being pumped into me that will kill the cancerous cells inside of me. It will also kill healthy ones. I don’t feel sick but from this day on, for the next several months, this ‘medicine’ will turn me into someone who looks sick — bald, skinny, powerless. As it saves my life, it will also zap the life force out of me and with that knowledge, I’ll struggle to define who I am in all of this. I don’t know if I’m ready for this level of acceptance. Again. Why again? No this isn’t a cancer that’s returned, not literally. Just another challenge that’s come at me, out of the blue. I’m trying to remember the feeling of doors opening. I must go back four years to the last time I tried to remember who I am and what’s important to me. Then, it was brought on by an event that shocked me out of complacency. I thought I got it – I thought I was on the road to some smooth sailing. I guess not.

 

Annie Griffiths  (March 13, 2012)

I’m sitting on a balcony seat at the Jack Singer Concert Hall feeling giddy. Finally, I’m in the same building as one of the reputed photojournalists I’ve been reaching out to over the last several months.

A Camera, Two Kids and a Camel is the name of Griffith’s sold out talk. It’s also the title of her book, the one I just bought in the theatre foyer. She has spent three decades working as a photojournalist and she did it, amazingly, while raising two children. She’s done exactly what I had once envisioned myself doing about twenty years ago. I thought I’d be the one, baby on back, camera in hand documenting cultures around the world. Instead, when the time came, my camera bag was put down; replaced, for all practical purposes, with a diaper bag.

Griffiths opened her talk by showing a photo of her first assignment as a student of photography, describing it as “the day I became a photographer;” explaining she was “in heaven” as she took the image of a tree bathed in light. In her book she writes, “It was the first of a lifetime of days when time stood still and I became far less important than what I saw in the camera’s viewfinder.”

I felt a pang listening to Griffiths. I have few regrets but in that darkened theatre in Calgary, in the very city where my photographic dreams began; as her experiences were unveiled, I was reminded of motivations long forgotten. Griffiths’ words during her talk wondrously echoed the themes I expected to be addressing in a book about women photojournalists. She spoke of the tool the camera can be for communicating the resiliency of women in the world saying by doing so, “we can change the world”. She spoke of human connections and a certain “intimacy” that arises with strangers by virtue of having a camera in hand.

At one point Griffiths talked about an assignment she had in Nebraska on a family ranch. Staying as a guest, she was awakened one morning by the light, a sunrise so beautiful and luminous she grabbed her camera and tore out the door to get the shot. After hooting and hollering over the incredible image she had captured, Griffiths then noticed a line of cowboys also taking in a first in a lifetime scene – that of a National Geographic photographer shooting in nothing but her underpants. Her message, and one she also communicated to a crowd of Calgary school children yesterday afternoon: “Find something in your life that excites you so much, you run out of the house, forgetting to put on your pants.”

There are more women on my list with whom I hope to meet. I couldn’t have chosen a harder ‘breed’ than the photojournalist to try to pin down, in time and location. There were other things to consider.  I was telling these women that I was researching a book on women photojournalists. It wasn’t a lie. I intend to write that book. I’m just not yet sure of the concept or even what it is I’m trying to illicit from them. Is it bad, I wonder, to admit that this is a personal quest that’s as much about me reclaiming my sense of self as it is about them and the work they do? Must these be inseparable?

There was something about the time I worked as a photojournalist that sticks with me; never quite leaves me alone. It arrives in flashes, the way a vivid dream haunts a day causing emotions to rush as meaning makes an escape. Pursuit of an explanation has, until now, felt futile because it doesn’t ‘fit’ into the composition of my days. I’m meeting these women hoping they can do the impossible — hold me in a dream so I won’t ever again forget what makes me feel alive.

 

Zurich, Switzerland. 1999-2009. Position: Hausfrau

I lose myself in the average day. In a world that presents no apparent threat, I’m dysfunctional. Mind numbing tasks cause me to forget myself, leave body parts strewn throughout the house. Chores then become an act of survival, my female form eventually taking shape as the day progresses. Once I find my legs, I managed to walk throughout the house collecting things. Toys introduce an ear; girl’s pants, a nose; newspapers unveil a breast. Just in time for my husband, as he walks through the door at the end of the day, I find my fingernails, eyelashes and lips. I come to him, slightly rising to my toes and brush my lips with his – careful not to let them loosen and fall to the floor. I had clumsily made order of things but the puzzle was never right. Pieces were always, always missing.

SUV’s pull up to the school; kids pile out and hours later they all pile in again. What happens in between?  What happens in between the drop off and pick up, while my husband walks through a parallel universe, gone to work by the time I  awaken. I’d moved to Switzerland but inhabited yet another foreign territory, that of a hausfrau and of motherhood and I was unsure of my footing.

I recall the early days, wondering if this would be the day someone asks me where I am from. If so, I’d explain that I’m from Canada and when the kind mother replied saying how beautiful it is there, I’d agree. From one beautiful country to another I’d travelled, or so it seemed… if you don’t count the journey in between.

Perhaps she’d ask about my husband. Wonder if he’s Canadian or Swiss. But I’d be getting carried away, letting my imagination run wild at this point. The Swiss don’t pry; aren’t prone to small talk either. But, I’ll forge ahead, imagination usurping culture.  I’d tell the woman that I met him in South Africa. Surely here, the conversation would fall silent and I’d ache for continuity. Is it so hard, I’d wonder, to say such simple words?  If the ever so kind mother would just find it in her heart to say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” my feet would fill the shoes around them, trust the ground beneath the soles and I would, just like that, be standing right there in the world again.

What happens in between? In between the story I hold inside and me asking you what bank it is that your husband works for.  Inhaling deeply, I feel like my 8 year – old rushing in the door at the end of the day head filled with a tangle of thoughts. With distracted mind, I capture her words as they fly in the air; hang them on a line, like laundry needing to be dried and sorted —put in its proper place. But, I couldn’t expect that from a stranger – such hard work for my words. I’d choose the easy way out – blame language or culture for our awkward moment and our words would become so very practical.

With cold toes and a shiver settling in, I’d say good-bye to my daughter outside the school, and as I catch another mother’s eye, I’d smile. Maybe she’d be the one who surprises; opens a porthole for this incongruent being; pulling me ever so gently through. Yes, she’d be the one to ask: “What is it you did in such a place?” Allowing for that space where the language of my past can be interpreted. Encouraged, this breathless child would speak, relying ever so much on her to understand what the hell I was talking about.

I was a photographer for a year on a newspaper during the country’s first democratic elections.

“Did you see anything awful?”

Socks fly out of my mouth.

“It’s a pretty dangerous place, isn’t it?”

Underwear and bras catapult from my teeth

“Were you at all frightened?”

Shirts and blouses swirl in their glory above my head; a tornado of laundry threatens to lift me off the ground.

The school bell rings with each article stopping mid-flight; hanging suspended in the crisp fall air. She walks away, a child tugging at her sleeve and all comes tumbling down.  I gather it up, the costume that covers my life, grateful, for a time, that it keeps me safe and warm.

 

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What Lies Beneath: Making the Case For Cultural Understanding

I pull from a box, loose magazine pages peppered with photos of my kids and a byline with which, post divorce, I no longer identify. The words though are familiar, and eerily consistent to how I feel some ten years later. I used to write for a parenting magazine and was allowed free run with a regular column in which I sorted through my experiences as a new mom living as an expat in Switzerland. I’d made small volumes of these columns for my daughters before we left hoping one day they’d be able to look back to recognize a consistent effort to discover the honesty and sometimes humour of situations as I navigated my way through a foreign culture. With these columns splayed out on my desk today, I realize I’ve forgotten much of what I wrote but as I read through them, the thread running through my life, from South Africa to the creation of Culture Dock pulls surprisingly taught and vibrates with what I hope was always an understanding tone.

One column snags my attention. In it, I had written about visiting an online chat forum for expat moms in Switzerland where more than a few members weren’t exactly seeing the best of their adoptive country. The group moderator felt the need to step in, remind everyone to think twice before hitting the ‘send’ button as tempers flared. I chirped in with a little input, something to the effect that if expats can’t work at understanding what’s beneath the surface in a country like Switzerland, what hope do other places have that have genuine racial problems. They were obviously just overwhelmed Mamas, probably missing home like crazy but there was a reason I felt my opinion here, mattered. It was because of my columns in the parenting magazine that I was recommended to author a book about Swiss culture for a global guidebook series, and I’d just put the final draft to bed when I took it upon myself to ‘educate’ the poor expat moms.

I remember when the email came in from the publishers of Culture Smart and how scattered I felt as I was pulled in too many directions; unconvinced I could research anything outside of my own experience. I recognized the opportunity for what it was and knew I was in no position to turn it down but I had no idea how I was going to pull it off. I had written a book a few years prior and understood the commitment it takes of both time and focus. The project was daunting – not just for these reasons but because I was to be a resource of information for an entire culture of a country that despite its small size, wasn’t culturally homogenous. I lived in the ‘German part’. There was also the French, Italian, and Romansh areas and the urban/rural factor to consider. I feared perpetuating damaging stereotypes and imagined responses from Swiss friends who may take offence or point out exceptions to the rule as I attempted to navigate the customs, etiquette and history of their home and of a land and people I had grown to love. In my columns, I’d been cracking jokes about the phonetics of a gas station attendants wishing me a ‘gute fahrt’ and spewing concerns about my daughters’ mastery of their first language of English, as they played in Swiss German and did homework in High German. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to depart from my personal voice and speak authoritatively for a collective of ‘outsiders’.

Of course, I accepted the gig with Culture Smart. Drawing from my own experience while also utilizing the help of Swiss friends, books and articles, I addressed such things as making friends and doing business in Switzerland; I discussed values and attitudes, holidays, languages and in less than 15 pages I summed up no less than two thousand years of the country’s history. These are concise volumes that deliver the essence of countries and their populations in handbooks fit for travel. Because I wrote Culture Smart: Switzerland, my experiences in the country became richer and my perspective more tolerant. As a visitor to a foreign country, the moment one decides to not be offended or assume there’s only one way of doing things; to be curious about traditions and behaviours, everything changes – doors open. Not only do we learn something but we’re changed forever, and for the better, in the process. We never look at our own lives again the same way and cease to hold ourselves to be so precious.

A headline from Britain’s Independent newspaper after the Manchester bombing said, There’s only one way Britain should respond to attacks such as Manchester. That is by carrying on exactly as before. I’m dismayed by those taking this as an opportunity to criticize such a tact; attempting to make the courageous embarrassed for being too politically correct or too passive. It’s time again, for me to chirp in. This is just another example of social media being used to polarize people into disparate views. Beyond the headline, the article in The Independent goes on to say, That is not to say police should not track down who was responsible for such vile murder. That is not to say the security services should not step up their efforts and do all they can to stop a repeat of such slaughter. What the article implies, is that we average human beings do not have to let terror attacks spread terror or let cowards and control freaks turn us into something we’re not. Most importantly, we don’t have to lose our sense of tolerance for one another.

It reminds me of something a councillor once said to me when I was going through my divorce.  When someone acts so disturbingly don’t let them move the goal posts, don’t let them change the rules of the game to suit just them. Pressing on is not putting our heads in the sand, it’s courageously standing by principles despite people who are insisting you should be afraid. It appears more and more obvious to me that apart from those who wreak havoc in the world, the rest of us fall into two camps — there are those who understand bullies and those who fear them; I figure it’s the former that’s going to move the world forward.

Please visit our Start Some Good campaign and think of making a pledge or sharing on Facebook to help with our launch! Thank-you!

Reason 1 1/2

Yeah, kinda like the platform in Harry Potter that will take you to distant, unexpected places. As much as I’ve become a tech entrepreneur, pitching an app that facilitates cross-cultural understanding, I am, at my core, a writer. Reason # 1 for starting Culture Dock got personal. Where it left off, is also where I began writing my next book, over eight years ago when my husband left me.

It took me awhile to steady myself to write, but I did. I had been a hausfrau, writing when I could. I wrote a regular column for a Swiss parenting magazine called The New Stork Times (yeah, you read that correctly). I authored a book about Swiss culture. I penned a feature for The World & I about Bosnian refugees in Switzerland and a couple of freelance pieces for The Globe and Mail, one about the return of the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich’s old town — the birthplace of Dadaism, the other about an Igloo hotel in Zermatt. I told myself this work wasn’t much because I, deep down, hoped to be a prolific writer while raising small children in a foreign country with a husband who worked pretty much all the time. I poured my heart into everything I wrote. It all mattered to me. Even when I couldn’t sit down to a computer to write, when I had no idea who I was writing for, the words were always there backing up inside of me. I’d have scraps of paper and grocery receipts with notes scribbled on them of things I wanted to write about scattered in my car and around the house. Sometimes St. Bernard Switzerlandthey came together, sometimes they didn’t but right now, after all these years, I’m stringing them together in a story that even I find hard to believe.

I’ve been through a series of small explosions that are not strong enough to kill me but powerful enough to take me down, for a beat. Below, you’ll find the beginning of my book. I’ll keep posting, hoping you’ll share if you want to read more. It’s the preface to a story that led me to meet some of the world’s top female photojournalists in destinations around the world, to travel with my daughters so they could understand the world beyond their own pristine doorstep, to conceptualize an app that helps people around the world better understand one another. Throw in there a battle with breast cancer (that could be a book itself) that ends up being the impetus for rediscovering my own core strength.

If you are more into entrepreneurship than a woman’s journey to reclaim what matters in life and want to help get a cool product out into the world here’s our crowdfunding site. It explains, in detail, the app and our intentions for its growth.

Today, when we can put ourselves out there so easily; say what we’re about and what we care about I thank you for taking notice of the ‘blue bits’ that have held me together and have kept me moving forward — perhaps they’ll do the same for you.

 

(Preface) 

THE BOX 

You may not realize it, but every time you bring your camera up to your eye you’re making decisions about composition. Simply put, composition is how you choose to frame the picture you’re about to make. 

Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

With a knife, I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in, I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize, I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me, in a flak jacket, flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of Solitaire, I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am, bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of these photographs, who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

Please like, share and hashtag #bluebits. Thank-you.

 

Start with the Corners

…or reason #1 for starting an app called Culture Dock.

Have you ever been watching a film and you hear one line that feels like it’s being spoken directly to you? Each word hits you, like you’ve tapped the ‘pronunciation’ button on Duolingo, the one with the turtle next to it so you can slow it down and take the opportunity to really understand. I was watching the British ‘rom-com’ Man-Up on Netflix when this quip from a bar stool, between friends, became less a line in a movie and more a manual for life:

You’re an emotional jigsaw, you need to piece yourself back together. Start with the corners and look for the blue bits.

The date was March 19th and I’d just finished my last round of radiation following surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer. My hair had grown in about half a centimetre and the strength in my body had begun to return but not much else in my life was operating cohesively. We had started development with the Culture Dock app  but with all the recent challenges, I was losing site of why I embarked on such a massive project.

It wasn’t the first time I’d looked for markers, not the first time I’d felt like my body parts were scattered all over the place, needing to be put back together again. But, it was the first time I’d heard an inspirational quote that was, at the same time — so damn functional.

‘I’ve got this’ I thought. The ‘corners’ represent the reasons I created Culture Dock. Once I remember these, it’ll all makes sense. Right?

The first corner is easy. I’m in Johannesburg, South Africa and I’m way out of my comfort zone but for the first time in my life, I’m doing something that I decided to do on my own, that I’m passionate about.

A few weeks, prior, I’d shown my portfolio to the editor of a newspaper. The publication called New Nation was black owned and edited and almost entirely black staffed. With deep roots in the anti-apartheid movement, its editorial team had found their place in the struggle as journalists and photojournalists fighting injustice with pen and camera. I was a skinny little white woman from a ski town in the Canadian Rockies, presenting portraits that I’d taken in the kingdom of Lesotho that my photojournalism instructor would have called ‘smiling peasant shots’.

“These are very nice’ the editor Gabu Tagwana, said to me, “but have you taken any action shots?”

I must have presented as a curious story to him, one he wanted to see play out because despite my feeble answer that “I’ve shot plenty of photos of ski racing in the mountains of my home town”,  I got the job.

I’m covering a rally in an area then known as the Western Transvaal. The right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) is granting freedom of the city to its leader, the notorious white supremacist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche. Accompanying me is another staff photographer, Andrew Tshabangu. As we photograph the ceremony, Andrew stays close and at one point quietly asks me to ‘not venture too far away’. As he does this, he raises one eye above his camera to tell me, rather shakily, ‘These are the photos I’ll never forget’.

In defiance, not far away, Umkonto we Sizwe (MK), the military wing of the African National Congress, is granting freedom of the township to Joe Modise, the founder of MK. From marching bands and grey uniforms with swastika-like emblems, Andrew and I slide into a stadium full of black South Africans. It isn’t long before he ventures off, my eyes following him as he explores freely with his camera. I stand, feeling exposed on sun- parched grass with bleachers, packed with people, on either side of me. Fists rise in the air and without music, Nkosi Sikelel‘ iAfrika, fills the stadium. As the booming voices belt out the pan African liberation anthem, it resonates in a place deep inside me and I remember what I came to do – take pictures.

I fall into a rhythm, moving with the sounds and personalities of a country stiffened by fear and bolstered by courage. It’s the beginning of the most incredible year of my life. With camera in hand, I feel grounded but also open and curious. I find in this, the most incredible way to exist. We don’t have to be in such extremes to have our sense of curiosity about the world jolted. I’ve since learned I can return to familiar stomping grounds, lift my camera and see things I’d never noticed before.

My first corner of this jigsaw puzzle life isn’t a place or a thing, it’s the memory of a feeling I don’t ever want to lose. It was hard to find, at first because it got lost in the messiness of raising young children in a foreign country and living life as a hausfrau for an unintentionally long period of time while my husband climbed the corporate ladder. That long lost piece snapped into focus in a single moment when he walked out on me saying, ‘I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures.’ Must I mention that we met in South Africa? That I’d written a book about the culture of his home country, Switzerland; that I’d been waiting for the day we could again travel and enjoy seeing more of the world?

Pardon the well-worn cliché but It seems I’m on a streak of turning lemons into lemonade; turning heartbreak into words and words into apps and apps into platforms that help people understand one another. But, I haven’t yet got that far. I guess you could say, I’m still looking for the blue bits cause there’s still work to be done.

I invite you to read more about the Culture Dock app and to make a contribution to our crowdfunding campaign on Start Some Good. Thank-you to all who’ve already pledged their support and shared this campaign on Facebook. Every little bit helps!

Stay tuned for reason #2! 

Purchase my photographic memoir, Black Taxi: Shooting South Africa, about the year I spent working as a photojournalist in Johannesburg during the lead up to South Africa’s first democratic elections. 

Five Reasons Why

Photo: Grant Trammell GT-Insta@thenybureau

Today we launch a crowdfunding page for Culture Dock on a site called Start Some Good. That we’re doing so on a website with this name, says a lot. With a platform that facilitates cross-cultural understanding across the globe, we, essentially aim to put a little more good into the world.

About Culture Dock, I’ve had people say to me, ‘It’s one of those ideas you wonder why no one has already gone out and done it’. I’m a 50+ single Mom who created a tech company and slapped a CEO label on myself to get an idea out into the world. So why me? Why now? I have no interest in pretending I’m completely comfortable in the world of tech start-ups. The reasons for ‘The Dock’ come from my experiences in life and in the world and in this, I see its strength.

‘Five Reasons Why’ will be a series of blogs I’m going to write during the run of this campaign. I’ll start with the most obvious reason for creating a dock celebrating global culture and somewhere along the way, I’ll confess to the one I’d rather not admit to.

What I write, will have little to do with technology nor the hustle of being an entrepreneur. I’ve been living that for the past couple of years yet every day, beneath all of that there is a story that got me here. I’ve had to tap into it consistently to ground myself through the bumpy times. An author and journalist at heart, I find the crafting of pitch decks and executive summaries (and don’t even get me started on financial projections) to be somewhat soul destroying. Not losing site of how I got here, is what keeps me and this project going.

Totally History by Jackson Pollock

I once wrote an article for a ‘good news’ website called Tonic. I interviewed Leslie Hawke (yeah, the Mom of the lovely, Ethan Hawke) who during our interview revealed that someone once told her that her resume resembled a Jackson Pollack painting. At 48 she made a life-changing decision to leave an executive position with a tech start-up company in NYC and decided to join the Peace Corp. It was the first time in her life, Hawke said, ‘that things really made sense’ and everything she had done up to that point, served her during her time in the Peace Corp. When her stint was up, she went on to set up her own program, The Alex Fund to help severely disadvantaged children in Romania.

Hawke was just three years younger than I, when she flew off to Bucharest and never looked back. In her story I see similarities, ‘cept I made the journey backward. I started working as a volunteer in South Africa and ended up with a start-up tech company in Toronto; everything I’ve done until now, serves the vision that is Culture Dock and only by not losing sight of this, does my life make much sense at all.

We’ve been in a three week pause with the app as my developer performs a fix on the iPhone version. During this time, I turned my attention toward this crowdfunding campaign. Since we’ve been ‘bootstrapping’ the app, we literally must buy time now, to populate the app and get it ‘investor ready’. Not wanting to start the campaign with a glitchy app, I asked my developer if it would be ready by the 21st. He assured me it would and I prepared the campaign to launch on the 24th. Another delay ensued and the date was pushed to the 27th – April 27th a date etched in my memory but from twenty-three years ago and really where the story of Culture Dock begins.

Hope you stay tuned!

 

 

Keepin’ It Curious


An email I received a few weeks ago was asking me to provide my most memorable travel experience. It was from the publishers of one of my books, Culture Smart: Switzerland. About to launch a new website for their global guidebooks, they were asking all their authors to summon up a favourite travel memory and say it in no more than a hundred words. The challenge for me was not writing a single memory in so few words but choosing only one memory. So, I didn’t. Instead I submitted a paragraph that described more than one trip and spanned a couple of decades. As you can probably imagine, doing that in 100 words was next to impossible but it has prompted me to flesh it out because somewhere in those scarce words, that implied so much, lay the thread that led me to the creation of a video and photo-sharing app that facilitates cross-cultural understanding for travellers and the culturally curious. Since Culture Dock is soon to be released, I figure it’s a good time to fill people in on its beginnings.

As a young woman in my early twenties, I sat on a university campus in Durban South Africa listening to an Afrikaaner band called the Kalahari Surfers sing songs of protest and saw South Africans line up under a marquis announcing a first showing of ‘Cry Freedom’ some five years after the rest of the world watched this film about their own country’s struggle. It was 1991, Nelson Mandela had recently been released from prison and I was experiencing a country awakening as music and art (and political parties) were being unbanned. I was hooked, enough to return within two years to work as a news photographer as South Africa lurched toward democracy. I spent a year holding my camera to marches and rallies and even an execution. I photographed Nelson Mandela the day it was announced he co-won the Nobel Peace prize with F.W. DeKlerk. I took pictures of a ninety year-old woman with crutches, heading to the polling station to vote for the first time in her life. There is no one memorable moment. They stack up, one on top of the other, each one breathing life into the next whispering ‘don’t ever forget this’; urging me to not ever stop learning more about the world around me.

But there is one trip that brought me to tears, not because of the beauty (or the horror) that I saw through my camera’s lens but because I’m now a mother and looking out at the world is never with a single gaze; it’s done with the knowledge our children too are taking this all in, learning from where we’ve been, what we’ve done and will be the ones that will eventually move this world forward.

In 2013, I returned to Johannesburg with my daughters, then age thirteen and fifteen. I introduced them to the family that welcomed me with open arms, into their home in Soweto; to Tsholofelo who was around the same age as my daughters when I first met her and her mother and grandmother. We spent a day with my old friend, the photojournalist Victor Matom, who teaches youth photography in Soweto. With him, we wandered dusty roads taking photos, engaged with people as Victor reached out his hand and gargantuan heart to passersby who all seemed to know him. All of this, and the smell of coal burning stoves, the vibrant clothing worn by women, the explosion of colour as the sun plied its way through a hazy sky toward the horizon stirred memories that banged up against the moment I was sharing with my daughters. We visited the Apartheid Museum where they saw the country’s dark history on display and events I’d attended before they were born.

To be there with my daughters could have felt surreal but instead it became one of the few times in my life when everything made sense. There were reasons I traveled, reasons this country seeped into my heart. I was showing my daughters a place that literally changed my life and the message to never forget this, to never stop learning about the world around us, was being amplified. Somewhere in all of that, the seeds of Culture Dock were born. At the time, I didn’t know if it was going to be a series of books, or a website, or the app it’s ultimately turned out to be. What I envisioned was a space that encouraged curiosity about the world that would be relevant to today’s traveler. Through much trial and tribulation an app called Culture Dock has been born. Its roots go back twenty-five years but took force in earnest three years ago when the idea of an app to facilitate cultural awareness first came into my mind. Through wrong turns, delays, technical glitches and a few other unexpected obstacles, the app will soon be rolled out onto what feels like a precarious world stage.

My intention is to begin a ‘global love affair’. As Canada takes the lead by sharing our rich cultural diversity for our 150th anniversary of Confederation, the rest of the world will be asked to join in. People as well as those in the tourism and culture sectors will be invited to upload photos and videos of local culture onto the app’s channels, sharing such things as local customs and traditions; geography and landmarks; nature and wildlife, you get the gist.

Despite all the crazy delays with the app, it’s helping me to now feel like I’m doing something productive, beyond liking a few posts I agree with on Facebook or feeling my temper rise with arguments that lack reason or empathy. You may be asking yourself who is this woman who thinks she knows what the world needs. I’m not assuming I do. I’m just someone who’s pulled the thread in my life and come up with a platform where I hope people will say ‘hey look what we like to do in our corner of the globe!’ Or, ask a question of someone who does something they may not understand. What I can say for sure is that I know my life has been enriched by people I’ve met who have grown up in parts of the world that are different than what I’m used to. I can tell you how my life expands when I’m curious about different traditions, customs and values.

One more thing, before I exit this expanded travel memory, it’s almost an aside but it happens to fit in perfectly with the points I’m making here. A few weeks into development of the app, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m healthy now but I’m not going to let a bitch like cancer knock me to the ground without saying I learned a thing or two. In this life, we need to focus on the healthy parts. Cancer may run through us, through society; we may allow toxic substances into the system to try to kill it but it’s at the expense of our own life force. By focusing on the healthy parts, the ones that by far outnumber the unhealthy parts, it’s the only way we can feel empowered when life gets crazy. This is how we keep the energy flowing, keep wanting to live for a better day and in the process, we learn just how strong and empathetic we humans can be.

So, who’s up for a global love affair?

Visit Culture Dock and subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on Facebook to keep up with our news because it’s almost time to start filling the app with everything unique to your neck of the woods!

Memoir

For those of you who have been following me over the years, I must have you rather confused. Wasn’t I writing a book a few years ago? And what’s with the app I’m now pedalling that facilitates cultural awareness? I am still writing a book, and the app… is just me, still trying to make the pieces of my life fit. It will be out next week, and I love the direction it’s taking. Tonight I miss writing. I haven’t been doing enough of it over the past year because life… it kinda broke me. I need to revisit a thread that reminds me of a voice that needs strengthening, so allow me to share, again, words I wrote awhile back.

(Preface) THE BOX

 You may not realize it, but every time you bring your camera up to your eye you’re making decisions about composition. Simply put, composition is how you choose to frame the picture you’re about to make. ~ 

      Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

          With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

          Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me, in a flack jacket, flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

          Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

          Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

                                                              JUST ‘OTHER’       

              Before he left, our daughters bought pouches and filled them with small stones for him to carry. Dropped from their palms were a rose quartz, an agate and bloodstone offering him both love and protection. Wrapped around the stones was a note from me, a bandage holding tight the wounds that had not yet begun to bleed. My message wasn’t original, just words about a field and forgiveness, said best by Rumi. I knew it was us he was questioning, our marriage and what it meant to him. He’d made this clear. I could only let go as I watched him gather his families hopes and dreams in his pockets and set out to meet himself. He hadn’t been asking for permission. This was solely about him.

          Little girl’s fingers left smears on a wrinkled sheet of paper that was taped to the kitchen wall. It was a map pulled from his pocket before leaving on his journey; handed to our daughters age eight and ten for them to follow the pilgrimage he was taking through Northern Spain. At first glance it appeared so utterly basic, a display of my husband’s intentions that showed absolutely nothing of what was happening to the life of our family. It was December of 2008 and he was to walk the Camino or what is also known as the Way of St. James to hold back the years, renew a spirit that hadn’t yet found what it was searching for.  As he left, embracing me at the train station, he said, “I love you, I hope I work out my shit,” neither his lips nor eyes met mine. I was scared but I had respect for what he was doing. 

          As our daughters traced his route, the places, Pamplona and Logrono became real to us as did his pain. “My feet are freezing and my knees are aching.” The pilgrim with a cell phone relayed to his family. It was December and cold. This trek, this road to Santiago normally takes people a month to complete, if not longer but it was never his plan to walk the entire way. He didn’t have that kind of time to work out his shit. I awaited his decision around Burgos, where he was probably making a plan to accelerate; depart from the path he was on and take a bus toward the ceremonial end where seekers arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. 

          One needs to walk the last one hundred kilometers to earn the Compostela or official certificate. The pilgrim can state whether the goal of his or her Camino is ‘religious’, ‘religious and other.’ or just ‘other’. “Just other” would have sufficed. It was enough for the pilgrim office and it would have been enough for me yet he insisted, by way of explanation to our daughters, that he was going to a place where people who believe in God go to figure out their lives. I’d never heard him speak this way before. God had never been a focal point in our family, at least not been used as a reason to do anything, 

          Late one night another text came in. His backpack had been stolen and he was at a police station. Some considerate pilgrims from Brazil had lent him clothes and even money. It was three in the morning but I didn’t question the strange hour. I just thought of him in a cold police station, exhausted and thinking of me. An hour later, as the phone laid next to me in bed, where he used to lay, it chimed and a text came in. My eyes met the screen of my flip phone and I read, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, it’s me who needs to change. I love you.” 

          The gasp of air allowed, as I surfaced into the world again was brief. Within a day I eddied, taken down again by my husband’s narrative. With Christmas less than two weeks away, while shopping for gifts, another message from him came in:  “I’ve decided I’ve had enough of these so-called pilgrims. I’m checking into an all-inclusive resort in Tunis. Hope you aren’t too disappointed.” 

          In retrospect, I can only guess that text was meant to explain the suntan he was going to come home with and the pounds he kept on rather than shed. The day he returned he asked us to pick him up at Zurich’s main train station. My children ran to him; I received a hug and kiss from arms and lips that felt like they’d travelled far away but missed the return flight.

          My husband sat next to me in my car asking if he looked “enlightened.” The mere fact that he was asking told me otherwise, but I lied,  and weakly replied, “Yeah, you look good.”  

         As he excitedly told our daughters how he’d ridden horses on the beach, a sense of nausea enveloped me. The contrast in our emotions couldn’t have been more stark. Being held in limbo for the last few months, wondering if my family was about to fall apart, had been a personal hell—and it had been made that much more difficult by the mind-boggling fact that my husband was coming home just two days before Christmas. His light and breezy mood was emoting neither sympathy for what I’d been through nor reconciliation. It was something else—something outside the realm of emotions I’d been anticipating. Whatever was going on with him, I felt, it had very little to do with me. 

          Our daughters were asking questions from the backseat, but their father was struggling to answer them, unable to remember the names of the places we’d been tracing on the map he’d given us of Spain. 

            “That place where they run the bulls, Pamp . . .”

            “Pamplona,” I awkwardly finished his sentence for him.

              Staring straight ahead, I drove through the streets of Zurich, where holiday shoppers were out in full force. The city, to me, is one of the most beautiful in the world; its old buildings, steeples, and narrow streets appear to be designed specifically for the perfect Christmas scene. In the old town, a market sprawls, offering up baked goods and Glühwein to keep shoppers warm during the holidays. Next to the lake, people young and old gather in a tent around vats of warm liquid beeswax, and make candles. This activity had become a family tradition of ours over the years: with a long wick looped over our fingers we would dip into the vat, patiently pause to let it cool, then dip again—sometimes for hours. Even as our feet became cold and our bellies began to rumble, the vision of what we were creating impelled us to keep going. Time passed; layer upon layer strengthened what was once a spindly string into a form capable of emitting light and warmth. 

           Today, we returned to our house—the one we’d bought just two years prior—and I tried to read the signals, looking for the warmth that should come from someone who’s left his wife on tenterhooks as he contemplated life for the past three weeks. The man who had been my husband seemed to have disappeared, and I was quickly becoming aware that I would never have a sense of that person again. His actions were not one of a father returning for Christmas—he was already a step ahead of the holidays, if not twenty. His first priority when he returned was to get bindings mounted on a new pair of skis, even though we hadn’t even spoken about going on a trip to the mountains.

          The obvious conversation that had to take place—the one that was the culmination of three months of being held in limbo—was left to me to instigate. “When are we going to talk?” (When are you going to put this nightmare to an end?) I finally asked.

          We sat together on the sofa, and he spun a disingenuous tale of how he figured out it was time to unravel himself from the fabric of our family (though he said it in a far less poetic tone). If I were to try to remember it verbatim, I’d fail. My mind was spinning trying to make sense of what was being said. I strained to hear something real, something authentic to help me focus. Eventually I did. With absurd yet heartbreaking clarity, this moment of my life was defined, in one sentence, by my husband.  “I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures” 

           How could anyone who had ever known me, yet alone loved me ever say such words?  In an instant, I was faced not only with his callous indifference but the immediate impulse to survive this by taking responsibility for the things I’d neglected that had once been fundamental to my character. “This is not my story.” I kept saying to myself as I felt my world shatter around me. 

          The day before Christmas, at dinner, while my husband slept off what later I would learn was jet lag, I had to address my daughters’ questions and tell them that Daddy wasn’t back—that he was leaving. I asked him to stay until December 29th, to help with the kids. He initially agreed, but by the 27th he had grabbed his skis and headed out the door.

          Things weren’t adding up at first; it was the cliché credit card statement that ultimately gave it away. Initially I paid little attention to it—my husband may be going through a midlife crisis, but I thought I knew what he was and wasn’t capable of. I mean, who would make up a story about doing a spiritual pilgrimage and think they could get away with it? Furthermore, the entries on the American Express bill were in Spanish, that made sense since he’d been in Spain—right? 

          It was during a very long and confused call to my mother in Canada, late one night, that I was prompted to retrieve the statement to take a more careful look. Before a long list of charges was a currency I didn’t recognize. It was neither that of the Swiss Franc or the Euro. With my finger (the one that had been following a map of Southern Spain for the last three weeks) I scanned a particular transaction, one from a women’s boutique . . . in Argentina. On closer examination, I realized that none of the transactions were from Spain. All of them—including hotels, restaurants, and shops—had been charged in Argentina. My husband had been there for the past three weeks, and he’d been there with the woman he’d been having an affair with for quite some time. There were no cold toes or aching feet; no stolen backpacks. The only revelations stemming from his journey were the ones slamming into me full force as I shakily told my Mom I had to go. 

            “Did God tell Daddy to leave us?” 

              It was Jemima, staring up at me in the cold light of the next day. Of my two daughters, she is the one who always has a question and is never satisfied with a quick answer. What are the rules here, I wondered. He had done whatever he wanted so what were the rules?  How am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to say? The responsibility I felt was crushing but it also brought clarity; not for the state of our family but to be as true to myself and daughters as I possibly could. In the absolute silence after my daughter’s question, this certainty pressed through me. 

It’s never left.

 Visit my FB page at:Kendall Hunter Author

My book has taken a few twists and turns and needed space and time to come together. I figure it’s time to sneak preview a chunk of it; well, at least its beginnings. This seems so very far away now —  a good sign I guess, that the distance traveled, in every way, has all been worth it…

 

     “You may not realize it, but every time you bring your camera up to your eye you’re making decisions about composition. Simply put, composition is how you choose to frame the picture you’re about to make.” ~ 

      Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

          With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

          Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met when I worked as a photojournalist in South Africa. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me, in a flack jacket, flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

          Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

          Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

                                                              JUST ‘OTHER’       

              Before he left, our daughters bought pouches and filled them with small stones for him to carry. Dropped from their palms were a rose quartz, an agate and bloodstone offering him both love and protection. Wrapped around the stones was a note from me, a bandage holding tight the wounds that had not yet begun to bleed. My message wasn’t original, just words about a field and forgiveness, said best by Rumi. I knew it was us he was questioning, our marriage and what it meant to him. He’d made this clear. I could only let go as I watched him gather his families hopes and dreams in his pockets and set out to meet himself. He hadn’t been asking for permission. This was solely about him.

          Little girl’s fingers left smears on a wrinkled sheet of paper that was taped to the kitchen wall. It was a map pulled from his pocket before leaving on his journey; handed to our daughters age eight and ten for them to follow the pilgrimage he was taking through Northern Spain. At first glance it appeared so utterly basic, a display of my husband’s intentions that showed absolutely nothing of what was happening to the life of our family. It was December of 2008 and he was to walk the Camino or what is also known as the Way of St. James to hold back the years, renew a spirit that hadn’t yet found what it was searching for.  As he left, embracing me at the train station, he said, “I love you, I hope I work out my shit,” neither his lips nor eyes met mine. I was scared but I had respect for what he was doing. 

          As our daughters traced his route, the places, Pamplona and Logrono became real to us as did his pain. “My feet are freezing and my knees are aching.” The pilgrim with a cell phone relayed to his family. It was December and cold. This trek, this road to Santiago normally takes people a month to complete, if not longer but it was never his plan to walk the entire way. He didn’t have that kind of time to work out his shit. I awaited his decision around Burgos, where he was probably making a plan to accelerate; depart from the path he was on and take a bus toward the ceremonial end where seekers arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. 

          One needs to walk the last one hundred kilometers to earn the Compostela or official certificate. The pilgrim can state whether the goal of his or her Camino is ‘religious’, ‘religious and other.’ or just ‘other’. “Just other” would have sufficed. It was enough for the pilgrim office and it would have been enough for me yet he insisted, by way of explanation to our daughters, that he was going to a place where people who believe in God go to figure out their lives. I’d never heard him speak this way before. God had never been a focal point in our family, at least not been used as a reason to do anything, 

          Late one night another text came in. His backpack has been stolen and he was at a police station. Some considerate pilgrims from Brazil had lent him clothes and even money. It was three in the morning but I didn’t question the strange hour. I just thought of him in a cold police station, exhausted and thinking of me. An hour later as the phone laid next to me in bed, where he used to lay, it chimed and a text came in. My eyes met the screen of my flip phone and I read, “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, it’s me who needs to change. I love you.” 

          The gasp of air allowed, as I surfaced into the world again was brief. Within a day I eddied, taken down again by my husband’s narrative. With Christmas less than two weeks away, while shopping for gifts, another message from him came in:  “I’ve decided I’ve had enough of these so-called pilgrims. I’m checking into an all-inclusive resort in Tunis. Hope you aren’t too disappointed.” 

          In retrospect, I can only guess that text was meant to explain the suntan he was going to come home with and the pounds he kept on rather than shed. The day he returned he asked us to pick him up at Zurich’s main train station. My children ran to him; I received a hug and kiss from arms and lips that felt like they’d travelled far away but missed the return flight.

          My husband sat next to me in my car asking if he looked “enlightened.” The mere fact that he was asking told me otherwise, but I lied,  and weakly replied, “Yeah, you look good.”  

         As he excitedly told our daughters how he’d ridden horses on the beach, a sense of nausea enveloped me. The contrast in our emotions couldn’t have been more stark. Being held in limbo for the last few months, wondering if my family was about to fall apart, had been a personal hell—and it had been made that much more difficult by the mind-boggling fact that my husband was coming home just two days before Christmas. His light and breezy mood was emoting neither sympathy for what I’d been through nor reconciliation. It was something else—something outside the realm of emotions I’d been anticipating. Whatever was going on with him, I felt, it had very little to do with me. 

          Our daughters were asking questions from the backseat, but their father was struggling to answer them, unable to remember the names of the places we’d been tracing on the map he’d given us of Spain. 

            “That place where they run the bulls, Pamp . . .”

            “Pamplona,” I awkwardly finished his sentence for him.

              Staring straight ahead, I drove through the streets of Zurich, where holiday shoppers were out in full force. The city, to me, is one of the most beautiful in the world; its old buildings, steeples, and narrow streets appear to be designed specifically for the perfect Christmas scene. In the old town, a market sprawls, offering up baked goods and Glühwein to keep shoppers warm during the holidays. Next to the lake, people young and old gather in a tent around vats of warm liquid beeswax, and make candles. This activity had become a family tradition of ours over the years: with a long wick looped over our fingers we would dip into the vat, patiently pause to let it cool, then dip again—sometimes for hours. Even as our feet became cold and our bellies began to rumble, the vision of what we were creating impelled us to keep going. Time passed; layer upon layer strengthened what was once a spindly string into a form capable of emitting light and warmth. 

           Today, we returned to our house—the one we’d bought just two years prior—and I tried to read the signals, looking for the warmth that should come from someone who’s left his wife on tenterhooks as he contemplated life for the past three weeks. The man who had been my husband seemed to have disappeared, and I was quickly becoming aware that I would never have a sense of that person again. His actions were not one of a father returning for Christmas—he was already a step ahead of the holidays, if not twenty. His first priority when he returned was to get bindings mounted on a new pair of skis, even though we hadn’t even spoken about going on a trip to the mountains.

          The obvious conversation that had to take place—the one that was the culmination of three months of being held in limbo—was left to me to instigate. “When are we going to talk?” (When are you going to put this nightmare to an end?) I finally asked.

          We sat together on the sofa, and he spun a disingenuous tale of how he figured out it was time to unravel himself from the fabric of our family (though he said it in a far less poetic tone). If I were to try to remember it verbatim, I’d fail. My mind was spinning trying to make sense of what was being said. I strained to hear something real, something authentic to help me focus. Eventually I did. With absurd yet heartbreaking clarity, this moment of my life was defined, in one sentence, by my husband.  “I don’t want this, I want to travel, see other cultures” 

           How could anyone who had ever known me, yet alone loved me ever say such words?  In an instant, I was faced not only with his callous indifference but the immediate impulse to survive this by taking responsibility for the things I’d neglected that had once been fundamental to my character. “This is not my story.” I kept saying to myself as I felt my world shatter around me. 

          The day before Christmas, at dinner, while my husband slept off what later I would learn was jet lag, I had to address my daughters’ questions and tell them that Daddy wasn’t back—that he was leaving. I asked him to stay until December 29th, to help with the kids. He initially agreed, but by the 27th he had grabbed his skis and headed out the door.

          Things weren’t adding up at first; it was the cliché credit card statement that ultimately gave it away. Initially I paid little attention to it—my husband may be going through a midlife crisis, but I thought I knew what he was and wasn’t capable of. I mean, who would make up a story about doing a spiritual pilgrimage and think they could get away with it? Furthermore, the entries on the American Express bill were in Spanish, that made sense since he’d been in Spain—right? 

          It was during a very long and confused call to my mother in Canada, late one night, that I was prompted to retrieve the statement to take a more careful look. Before a long list of charges was a currency I didn’t recognize. It was neither that of the Swiss Franc or the Euro. With my finger (the one that had been following a map of Southern Spain for the last three weeks) I scanned a particular transaction, one from a women’s boutique . . . in Argentina. On closer examination, I realized that none of the transactions were from Spain. All of them—including hotels, restaurants, and shops—had been charged in Argentina. My husband had been there for the past three weeks, and he’d been there with the woman he’d been having an affair with for quite some time. There were no cold toes or aching feet; no stolen backpacks. The only revelations stemming from his journey were the ones slamming into me full force as I shakily told my Mom I had to go. 

            “Did God tell Daddy to leave us?” 

              It was Jemima, staring up at me in the cold light of the next day. Of my two daughters, she is the one who always has a question and is never satisfied with a quick answer. What are the rules here, I wondered. He had done whatever he wanted so what were the rules?  How am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to say? The responsibility I felt was crushing but it also brought clarity; not for the state of our family but to be as true to myself and daughters as I possibly could. In the absolute silence after my daughter’s question, this certainty pressed through me. 

It’s never left.

 Visit my FB page at: f/16

 

Closer to Om: Energy Bars

Is it just me, or do these energy bars taste like an Eat-More chocolate bar (with a little added cranberry tang) to you too?

For those of you who’ve been following you’ll know I’m making a somewhat gallant attempt to step up to the plate and make some of my sister Mystee’s (aka Om Cooking) healthy recipes and post a few blogs about the whole experience. Last week was Raw Bircher Muesli. The results (according to the very particular tastes of two teenage daughters) were encouraging enough to keep going! Please feel free to stir it up a bit or mix yourself in by leaving comments here or on Facebook.

DSC_7059

Better than an Eat-More!

This post is going to be short and sweet partly because I enlisted the help of my 15-year old daughter, Jemima, to warm up the peanut butter and rice syrup; mix in a few other ingredients and bring some giggles into the kitchen. I had, already, half of the ingredients (opted to use up the generic cocoa I had in the cupboard – shhh!) so quickly picked up the brown rice syrup (never knew this product existed) rice crisps (no Rice Krispies to be found in the house), cranberries and almonds (organic to pick up the slack!)

All went swimmingly but the mixture was a wee bit dry at the end. Mystee points out that you can add some almond milk if this is the case; since I didn’t have a stand-by stash of almonds pre-soaked and had run out of my last batch of homemade almond milk (why do I hear Ms. Anderson, my high school Home Ec teacher, scolding me in my head?) we let it slide and pressed the whole shebang into the pan and hoped for the best.

It would appear, we’ve hit on another winner! Jemima says they were “super easy” and both she had her older sister Sadie say that if we can switch the peanut butter for almond butter, they’ll both pack them in their lunches for school. Yay! I’m almost tempted to stop now while the going’s good. My kids still think it’s cool I’m trying to cook like their talented auntie Mystee and I haven’t yet turned them off of über healthy eating. Do I dare try another?

For those who want to try, the recipe is below. For those wondering, the recipes that Mystee is sending to me are all recipes that she has developed or expanded on over the years. Many are twists on old classics, an upgrading of sorts for optimal nutrition.
For the energy bars, Mystee says she’s chosen rice syrup as a sweetener because it’s caramel like in flavour but also low on the glycemic index so the body doesn’t react quite the same way as it would to cane sugar or the corn syrups found in a lot of bars. ( doesn’t create as high a spike in blood sugar)  The bar is loaded with complementary proteins found in the oats, nut butter, and nuts to provide a full spectrum of amino acids.
Good enough for me!

 

Energy Bars

3/4 cup organic smooth peanut butter or almond butter

3/4 cup brown rice syrup

1/2 cup organic cocoa or even raw cacao powder if you have access to it

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 cups quick organic oats

11/4 rice crisps

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup raw sliced almonds

and… an optional drizzle of melted dark chocolate for the top!

Mix the nut butter and rice syrup together in a saucepan over very low heat until just softened and combined. Remove from the heat and add cocoa powder and cinnamon. Add the rest of the ingredients, mixing well with your hands to combine. If the mixture is a little dry and crumbly add a touch of almond milk.

Press into a lightly oiled 9X11 in. pan. Drizzle with melted dark chocolate if desired. Refrigerate until set (about 1/2 hour) Cut into squares.

Closer to Om: Raw Bircher Muesli

So I started out a little “flat footed”. If you read my last post I explained an intention to tackle the recipes of my wildly creative and health conscious sister. (Mystee @OmCooking)

The first recipe of choice was her, raw bircher muesli. Truth be told, I was bamboozled by her comment: “This raw breakfast cereal goes together in minutes before bed and is ready to eat when you rise in the morning!” Bingo! I was familiar with this traditional Swiss breakfast and I could get it over with in “minutes!”

But, there was a hitch. One, that as I headed off to the local organic market, I hadn’t yet decided how to address. Was I going to go the regular Kendall in the kitchen, “speed and convenience is of the essence”, route, or “Mystee mode”? My first stop at the Big Carrot, here in Toronto, was at the bulk bins for oats and pumpkin seeds. It was when I turned the corner; heading straight for the cartons of Almond Breeze, when a truly organic wave of guilt rushed over me.

In Mystee’s recipe, in parenthesis next to 1 ½ cups of Almond milk it read: “(from previous recipe)”. I had my reasons for this challenge, to up my culinary game; to face the lingo of milk bags and soy lecithin granules and push ahead. That “previous recipe” was telling me the almonds I needed to buy, should I decide to actually press my own almond milk, had to soak for 12 hours. This meant I’d be throwing this “quick and easy” recipe together in the wee hours of the morning if we were going to have it for Sunday brunch.

Fresh almond milk

My fresh almond milk!

Text to Mystee: “ Do almonds really have to soak so long for the milk?”

Mystee:  “at least 8 hours”.

I’d be home with my groceries by four. Mixing muesli at midnight was something I could manage, even if it did sound like a really bad Swiss folk song.

The nut soak was only one of my challenges. My daughter’s drool over the mere thought
of bircher muesli from Confiserie Sprüngli in Zurich. Sliding this under their noses for a Sunday brunch wasn’t going to be an easy feat. There was also the realization at 11pm (well after supermarket closing hours) that I had not one banana left in the house. Thanks to the ubiquitous Starbucks and their banana basket at the till, I was (queue alphorn) blenders a blazing by 11:30. (what’s a half hour anyway?)

Bircher muesli classique at Confiserie Sprüngli, Zurich.

Bircher muesli classique at Confiserie Sprüngli, Zurich.

Aware of my nighttime shenanigans, my daughters awoke this morning eager to taste.

“It’s so good! A lot like Sprungli” says my youngest, Jemima. (keep in mind they haven’t been back to Switzerland in a year and a half) “…but the fresh berries make it different.”

Just as I’m thinking I’ll stir in slivered almonds next time (if there is a next time) instead of pumpkin seeds, my eldest, Sadie, calls up to me as I tap away at my computer:

“Mom, can I have this for breakfast tomorrow before school?”

Now that’s what I’m talking about…

Thanks big sis!

Bircher Muesli a la Om Cooking.

Bircher Muesli a la Om Cooking but made by me!

Recipe for Raw Bircher Muesli

This raw breakfast cereal goes together in minutes before bed and is ready to eat when you rise in the morning! The combinations of fruit and nuts are limitless.

1 cup gluten free rolled oats ( oats only contain gluten because they are tossed in flour to prevent them from sticking. Gluten free oats are readily available at most natural food stores)

11/2 cups almond milk (from previous recipe)

1/4 cup chia seeds

1 large ripe banana mashed

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/3 cup raw sunflower, pumpkin seeds, or almonds

fresh berries if in season or grated organic apple or chopped organic pear

a splash of maple syrup if you like it a little sweeter

Before bed combine oats, almond milk, chia seeds, mashed banana, and raw seeds or nuts in a tupperware container. Stir to combine and then place in the fridge.

Upon rising, stir in desired berries or fruit and sweeten if desired!

Enjoy!

Recipe fresh squeezed nut milk

My (read Mystee’s) favourite nuts for making nut milk are raw almonds and hazelnuts. You will need a good blender and a nut milk bag which you can purchase for around $5 at your natural foods store.

Soy lecithin comes in granules and a liquid form. The granules are much easier to work with and more cost effective!

This basic recipe can be enjoyed by the glass, in a smoothie recipe that follows, or in the muesli recipe that comes a little later!

1 cup raw almonds or hazelnuts

4 cups water

1 pitted soft date

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 tsp. soy lecithin ( to emulsify)

Soak the nuts in 2 cups of water for 12 hours. Drain and rinse well with fresh water.

In a blender combine the soaked nuts with 2 of the 4 cups of water to start and the rest of the ingredients. Blend on high for up to 2 minutes until the mixture is homogenous. Add the remaining 2 cups of water and blend again for 30 seconds.

Place your nut milk bag over a large bowl. Pour the nut milk mixture into the bag. Gather the bag around the opening with your hands and squeeze gently until all of the liquid has been extracted into the bowl beneath. There is very little nutrition left in the pulp but you can save it to mix into oatmeal or even to feed to the dogs! If you have a dehydrator there are lots of options once the pulp is dehydrated and ground into flour.

Pour the milk into a pitcher and store in the fridge for about 4 days.

Closer to Om

A recent post by my sister on her “Om Cooking” FB page, sums it up:

“My mom makes the best cheesecake, the baked kind that fills a gigantic spring form pan, the kind that you keep slivering away at until you have eaten the whole thing! This is my raw variation. Cashews and macadamia nuts kissed with lemon and vanilla, cultured with acidophilus on an almond crust with fresh organic strawberry balsamic coulis and fresh berries!”

mystee cc

Mystee’s not so cheesy cheesecake

She’s posted a photo of the cake, so perfect in its presentation it could sit in the window of a Patisserie on Rue de Seine in Paris.

Mystee is the daughter who inherited the cooking gene… and then some. She has taken a course at The Natural Gourmet Institute in NYC and studied with Matthew Kenney at his raw cooking school in Santa Monica. She’s taken numerous workshops (that sound, to me, to be straight from the pages of Harry Potter) on elixir craft and fermentation and spent over 25 years healthily honing meals for her own family while gaining a loyal following in the Rocky Mountain community of Banff —the epicentre of all things healthy and wholesome.

Mention “raw” to me and I’m more likely to be thinking about a file on my camera than something I’m about to ingest. Of course, as the mother of two, (who lived as a hausfrau in Switzerland for ten years where kids still leave school for a hot lunch every day) I do, of course, cook but it would be fair to say that it’s not the kitchen that inspires my creativity and I can be rather impatient when it comes to following a recipe. My ideal dinner leans more toward a bubbling pot of Gruyere cheese with a dry Chenin blanc and perhaps a closing grappa to settle the tummy. If this all comes with a table of good friends and family, even better. I’m not prepared to totally give this up, but I admit, I need to up my nutritional game.

raw pizzas

Raw Greek Pizza from Om Cooking.

In six months I turn 50. There’s been talk, (that hasn’t entirely omitted the idea of climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro), about what to do for this monumental birthday. But on the phone recently with Mystee, the truth comes out.

“I just want to be on solid ground for my 50th birthday. To reach professional goals that will help to secure the future, for the girls and me, but I also want to make some changes that will keep me feeling half my age, for the next fifty years”.

Our father recently turned 89 and has the vigour of someone in his thirties. He’s frequently spotted, by bemused locals, gliding on his rollerblades or rising a couple of hundred metres in elevation over Banff Town, on his mountain bike, to take in the view. Yes, we’ve been graced with good genes and I figure if I’m going to be living in this body for another half century, I had better be looking after it.

So, instead of bracing myself for my sister’s next culinary Facebook post, I’ve decided to gather my strength and face it head on. Shortly after our conversation, I send her an email:

“Here’s the deal Myst. I want to be inspired to make meals that are healthy, for myself and for the girls. If you could send me some recipes, meals, snacks and drinks, I’m going to make one each week and write about it — even if the result isn’t pretty. Kind of an “If I can do this, anyone can, Julie and Julia, scenario.

So, this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to stare down the unrefined, the whole and the raw and turn them into something my teenage daughters will eat. Stay tuned and wish me luck but feel free to mock and/or encourage me as you see fit. I can’t do this on my own!

 

Fondue. So easy, so simple. so good....

Fondue. So easy, so simple. so good….

 

 

 

 

 

Funny Underpants: Confessions Of Some Unruly Undies

It’s not easy to say this — I’ve got to come clean,

‘bout the problems I’ve caused, in the places I’ve been.

 

To be Poppy’s underpants has been my fate.

I could ruin her life if it’s not yet too late.

 

You can’t really blame me for not liking the dark;

making her throw off her tights right there in the park.

 

My underpants are funny!

 

Poppy’d scream from above

and she’d reach down and give me quite a rude shove.

 

What happened to summer? I’d solemnly reminisce.

The fresh air and sunshine, that’s what I miss!

 

What’s with all the tights that pinch and squeeze;

just let me out, I don’t care if you freeze!

 

So I made life miserable for that little kid;

I know that I shouldn’t but that’s what I did.

 

Sit still!

 

Her mom would constantly yell.

I just knew in Poppy’s eyes, tears were starting to well.

 

My underpants are funny!

 

Poppy’d repeat;

as I kept slipping then gripping, letting her take the heat.

 

Poor Poppy, she said I was driving her crazy,

I overheard her cry to her best friend Daisy.

 

Is it me? Is it my bum?

I must figure this out cause Im feeling quite dumb.

 

I squirm and fiddle – I tug at my middle.

They never feel better, not even a little!

 

The day soon arrived when things came to a head.

It was a battle of wills like no other — it’s said.

 

Little Poppy, more than anything, loves to ski;

but under those layers, I don’t wish to be.

 

Just off the lift at the top of the run,

was where I decided I’d have a little fun.

 

I started with the left cheek and then with the right.

Yup, I was up for a grand old fight.

 

Oh no, not here! Poppy shouted, aghast.

 

She’d have to think of something

and think of it fast.

 

Her mother, she knew, would tolerate no more.

Funny underpants for her had become a real bore.

 

If Poppy let out the tiniest whine,

Victory I knew would solely be mine.

 

Then I heard something strange; it was in Poppy’s voice.

What lay ahead of her clearly wasn’t a choice.

 

My underpants are funny!

 

But she took off like a dart.

To look at her mom’s face, she hadn’t the heart.

 

She wriggled and jiggled and flew down the slope.

If she was going to make it down, she could only hope.

 

Finally, my goal I believed was in reach.

These snow pants would be off and we’d move to a beach.

 

I clutched and pinched as she maneuvered each bump.

Little Poppy skied wildly, even taking a jump.

 

Her parents stood, almost afraid to look.

Then finally, in wonder:

 

Wow! Our little girl COOKS!

 

At the bottom Poppy stopped, her face full of snow.

Unbeknownst to her, she’d skied like a pro.

 

From the chalet, applause suddenly rose from a crowd.

Poppy ignored me completely as she rose and she bowed.

 

She’s ungrateful to me for all that she’s learned.

My part goes unnoticed; I’m feeling quite burned.

 

My season will come and I’ll soon be free.

Till then, Poppy must learn…

                   

                      I’ve just gotta be me.

 

What’s Happened To Me?

For those of you who’ve been orbiting this adventure and catching a few FB posts, it may not yet be clear what exactly it is, that I’ve been up to. The same, in a sense, goes for me. 😉 The path hasn’t always been clear but I’ve been following one, nonetheless, that takes me back to a time in my life when I worked as a photojournalist. It’s essentially to regain a sense of being in the world that I, for some reason or another, let slip away. This is why you’ve seen FB posts of photojournalists, whom I’ve met over the last couple of years, doing amazing and incredible work all around the world.

Anyway, this week, I happened across a few articles that I wrote some eleven years ago while living in Switzerland that, quite astonishingly, remind me of just how long I’ve been searching to “regain the spirit.” I kind of throw myself under the bus with this piece entitled, “What’s happened to me?” but here goes.  At the time of writing, I was regularly contributing to a parenting magazine called “The New Stork Times” (yes, you read that correctly). It’s not going to make it into the pages of f/16 but it’s entirely relevant and I feel compelled to post it. 

Here’s a quote for ya, “Somewhere, at some time, there has to be an integration of who we once were and the life we are now leading”.  I said that, not yesterday but over a decade ago and in the context of this journey, that has become f/16, it gives me goosebumps (and a bit of a kick in the pants). If you enjoy it, I may dig up a few more…..

Grand San Bernardino weeks before leaving Switzerland

Grand San Bernardino weeks before leaving Switzerland

From the September 2003 issue of The New Stork Times:

Where am I? I’m not talking about the physical surroundings, I’m talking about me, the person inside a body that is simultaneously taking on house, kids, kindergarten, playgroup, extracurricular activities, marriage etc. Remember those days when you were convinced that all the experience you were gaining pre-marriage, pre-kids, was going to get you through the tough stuff later on? That the life-enriching smorgasbord of a world that you were feasting upon was going to make you one heck of an interesting person and a kick-ass Mom? Then the family whirlpool begins: you’re adhering to feeding times, nap times, completely preoccupied by the hours of sleep they’re getting and the one’s you’re not. Life is eddying about you while you lay sprawled over the plug hold clinging to a personality that’s being sucked down the drain.

“So what do you guys do — I mean in your spare time?”

My husband and I were on our first weekend away without our kids. I hadn’t been away since I was nine months pregnant with three year old Jemima. An American dinner guest at the wedding we were attending in Lugano, was curious about our life in Switzerland.

“Like, what are your hobbies?”

My mind went blank. Surely, I thought I could think of something to say. I heard myself mutter. “We have kids. Umm, two. They’re young…five and two.”

He nodded understandingly but my answer registered on his face as being quite insufficient.

Surprisingly, to me, my reply was enlightening as I struggled to think of something I, myself, enjoyed. I started to feel like a high school graduate applying for my first ‘real job’ with an embellished Curriculum Vitae. Hobbies, hmmm, well, I like to read (not a lie, I’ve gone through seven different books just this week, who has to mention the author’s were Dr. Seuss, A.A. Milne and Lewis Caroll. I love travel (I live in a foreign country doesn’t that speak for itself?) Skiing. (Haven’t skied upright without a kid between my legs for five years but have mastered this backbreaking technique). Photography (drawers full of snaps of my kids that will some day be put in an album). Oh yeah, and let’s not forget —learning about other cultures — even if it is an every day survival tactic living here in Switzerland.

The guest went on to talk about his horseback riding experiences and I went into hyper self-analysis.

What’s happened to me? My kids are at an age when it’s getting easier to do things. The routine is changing. They’re capable of so much  more and I, as a Mom have to pick up the ball and move into new territory, so to speak.

I used to dread even the thought of a holiday. Honestly, with all the challenges of adapting to a new country with small children in tow, why would I want to take this show on the road and go to yet another new place? I’d much rather stick to my house and work at the somewhat fragile roots I’ve planted. I wasn’t proud of this attitude but quite frankly, it’s where I was at.

But, now I realize things have got to change. This is when it should all kick in — where we draw upon life as it was rather than gripe over how much life has changed since having kids. Somewhere, at sometime, there has to be an integration of who we once were and the life we are now leading.

Am I getting too philosophical? I’m up late. It’s when I think best. It’s when I think! I’ve taken to enjoying this time after all have gone to sleep and the house is quiet. I absolutely, with all my heart appreciate a silent house. Original thoughts fight for their rights inside my head. As I gradually concede the worries of the day, flow away. I’m tempted to veg, to turn on the TV and not think too seriously. Contemplating my options. BBC, CNN..a German flick to see what little bit of the language I can now actually pick up, I eventually put down the remote.

I think about what I remember of family life as a kid. Mostly, I remember the holidays. The day to day stuff is mostly a blur but the family activity is the manna that enlivens my memory. Living in a new country is, in a sense (to steal a phrase), like being a perpetual tourist*. If only we could adopt that curious, fresh perspective and apply it to every day; convey that sense of trying something new to our kids without focusing only on our limitations. Somewhere within all of that emerges someone I’m familiar with; someone who isn’t doing all the things she once did but who has regained the spirit that made her want to do them in the first place.

*”Perpetual tourist” is term used by Paul Bilton in his book of the same name, ‘The Perpetual Tourist‘ — published by Bergli Books

 My book on Swiss Culture: Culture Smart: Switzerland

f/16

9603907-camera-lensf/16, is a memoir. It began as a book about women who are photojournalists but evolved, out of necessity and the encouragement of some incredible people, into a narrative that also includes me. And, so too has the title evolved. f/16 is a setting on a camera’s aperture. There’s something known as the “sunny f/16 rule” that assists with correct exposure of difficult subjects. This aperture setting also allows for increased depth in an image. f/16 also represents the sixteen women who are photojournalists whom I spoke to over the course of a couple of years. They are the pillars of this book, holding their focus on the world while I, in a sense, had to learn to read the light, all over again. It took me awhile to figure out my own approach to writing about women in the world (the photographers and those photographed), but I have. Today, I thought I’d share the prologue. Just days before the idea for this book began to take hold, this is what was going on:

Prologue

Dragging the heavy cardboard box outside into the sunshine, I struggle to remember what’s inside. This was the box left behind, stored away in a friend’s basement after packing our belongings and sending them off to Canada. Kathrin gently reminded me of its presence when I arrived. ‘Perhaps while you’re here, pick a sunny day, take that last box outside and go through it to see what you need’. I’m staying at her home near Zurich while my two daughters visit their father who still lives here in his native Switzerland. The box had been taking up space in their basement for a year and a half now. She was right, it was time for me to deal with it.

box 3With a knife I slice open the packing tape and tentatively peel back the flaps. On top is a decorative hat made by one of my daughters in art class. This must be the box of things too fragile to ship, I’m thinking as I gently remove the hat, wondering what lies beneath. Peering in I find, layer upon layer, the many paintings and drawings made from kindergarten through grade school. The ones I could never throw away.

Beneath the art, at the box’s core is something solid, heavy. It’s a black case that I immediately recognize. I remember. The strength mustered to drag the box into the fresh spring air dissolves as I anticipate the case’s contents. Sitting down on a cement wall, perching its bulk on my lap, I gently unzip its sides, causing photographs to fall to the pavement at my feet. Precious images of little girls in princess costumes, riding bicycles and holding pet rabbits; those of daddy and his daughters with the majestic, powerful Alps as backdrop splay around me. Mixed in are other images. One of my ex-husband in the mountains of Lesotho in Southern Africa from the time we’d met. Others, a right-wing Afrikaaner with arms in the air, moments before his execution, and one of me in a flack jacket flanked by South African soldiers, confront me.

Finally, scattered on the box’s floor are heaps of photos and negatives, all taken at any given time over the last eighteen years. After I remove each one individually, I sit motionless, staring at the chaotic stack in front of me — an abandoned game of cards after all hands have folded. If only it had been a game. This was the box of things too difficult to bring forward; it was all that was just too much. Moving ahead without them for a time created a buffer, one that allows me now, one image at a time, to endure. In a long game of solitaire I hold each photo for a time, allowing memories to wash through me. By recognizing pairs and sequences that no one else could have possibly seen, I am bit by bit, being pieced back together. Not until I’m finished do I begin to understand, it was I who held the camera. There was someone who existed outside the frame of all of these photographs who was strong enough to stand in the world bearing witness to all she loved and all she feared.

Putting most of the photos neatly back into the box ready to be shipped, I choose several of my kids with their father, some of the children alone, and a handful of my ex father-in-law who recently passed away.  I put them in a large envelope. Tomorrow, I’ll give them to my daughters, to give to their father. I don’t know why. It’s the only hand I feel I have left to play.

Please also visit the book’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WhatItMeantToMeMemoir?ref=hl

Pulling the Thread

“One day it will be Christmas! Not some day… one day.”

The photojournalist Victor Matom’s booming voice resonates across the New Nation news room. The year is 1993 and his country, South Africa, is lurching toward democracy; anticipating the first all-race elections only months away.

Victor worked freelance for the paper I was volunteering for. He took the time to show me the kids he was teaching photography to in the townships and introduced me to a woman named Ethel Mabala who was caring for over 100 children in a her small home in Soweto. We happened to be among the first on scene when right-wingers were gunned down in the homeland of Bophuthatswana, weeks before free and fair elections were declared. Continue reading