Sunday, February 26, 2012


The story of the Jewish Holiday of Purim is the story of Esther.  It is better than any mini-series that has ever aired on television, but it reads like one:  full of power, deceit, love, secrets and betrayal.  
At the conclusion of the story lies victory-  of the Jews surviving in Ancient Persia (Modern Day Middle East), and celebration with a queen that was Jewish, just like them.  

The celebration has endured and is now called Purim.  It  takes place on the Jewish calendar this time of year. It is festive, colorful and filled with family. 
The Book of Esther is in the Old Testament, nestled in between the Books of Nehemiah and Job.  The story is one of a girl who was brought into a land to be chosen as a new queen for the most powerful king of his day, Ahasuerus (Xerxes). 

The story begins with Ahasuerus, after getting word of the fruitfulness of all he owned,  deciding to throw a party that would last 180 days.  The drinking feast given by the King, for the army of Persia and Media and for all his servants and people, was supposed to conclude with a 7 day drinking feast for the women organised by the Queen Vashti (Ahasuerus’ wife)  in the pavilion of the Royal courtyard.  Since they had thrown the six month party, the King thought it only fair to reward the ordinary people with a week’s celebration. 
At this feast Ahasuerus supposedly got pretty drunk and ordered his wife Vashti to display her beauty before the people and nobles wearing her royal crown. When she refused,  Ahasuerus was furious...and embarressed in front of all of his guests.  He quickly decided  to “remove her from her post”, and was supported by the royal advisors.  After all, they said,  if the King’s wife will not obey, what example is she setting for all of the other wives of the kingdom?  
After he removed her (banned her from his presence), he sulked and stewed...and eventually cooled off.  In his cooled-off state, the King remembered that being married was pretty cool... and with the right woman it might be a good thing, right??  
So King Ahasuerus called for all of the young women in his kingdom to be presented to him, so that he could choose a replacement.  There was no interview, it was just a babe-walk. 
One of the young virgins was Esther, an orphaned girl who had been fostered by her cousin Mordecai.  Esther, just as she was, won the admiration of everyone who saw her. She “found favor” in the king's eyes, and was made his new wife. 
Esther, upon Mordecai’s advice, did not reveal to anyone that she is Jewish. Esther, obedient and loyal to the man she trusted as her father, made sure she did everything Mordecai said. This evidence of a humble and grateful disposition was seen as a special grace that charecterizes Esther throughout the story. 
As Esther lives in the palace, her foster-father, Mordecai, was part of guarding in the king's gate; which afforded him the opportunity to keep watch over Esther all of the time.  Shortly after she was chosen as wife #2 for Ahasuerus, Mordecai discovered a plot by the King's own servants, Bigthan and Teresh to kill the king.  Mordecai informed the royal guard, who apprehended and hung the men summarily, and Mordecai's service to the king is recorded – written in a book that is for the king’s histories. 
It is here, in the story, where we meet the King’s power-hungry prime minister, Haman, who (by the way) seeks to be worshipped.  Mordecai, who sat at the palace gates, refused to bow down to him, and angered Haman greatly.   Having found out that Mordecai is Jewish, Haman planned to kill not just Mordecai but the entire Jewish minority in the empire.
Like most politicians, Haman tarted up this plan and presented it to a clueless Ahasuerus, who gave him permission to execute this plan.   When Mordecai found out about the slaughter-plan, he ordered widespread penitence and fasting. Esther discovered quickly what had happened, but wanting to remain a-political, sent message to Mordecai that she had no intention of approaching the king about it...after all, just look what he did to his first wife! 
Mordecai sent her this message: "Don't think that just because you live in the king's house you're the one Jew who will get out of this alive.”  His warning came with a reminder- "You could have been spared for such a time as this."

Esther quickly realized truth, and requested that all Jews in the area fast and pray for three days together with her.  On the third day she would ask to “have an audience” with Ahasuerus. 
Before meeting with the king, Esther cooked up a huge feast, and got on her best clothes.  The food was so great that the King promised to do ANYTHING she asked of him.  Esther chose to invite him to another feast, the very next day - in the company of Haman.
Haman, full of himself and confident that he is loved by not only the king, but his wife, had a special  gallows built for Mordecai, with the intention to hang him there the very next day.
That night, Ahasuerus suffered from insomnia, and asked that the the book of histories be read to him to help him sleep.  As it was being read, the King remembered the services rendered by Mordecai in the previous plot against his life. As he thought to himself  he would not be here without this man, he also realized that Mordecai, had yet to be rewarded. 
During the thought process, Haman came in.  King Ahasuerus asked him “What should be done for the man that the King wishes to honor?”   Thinking that the King was referring to himself, Haman declared quickly the best thing he could think of: the honouree should be dressed in the king's royal robes and led around on the king's royal horse. To Haman's horror, the king instructs Haman to do so to Mordecai.
The Bible has a way of letting us feel the twist of the knife in Haman’s back.  It is priceless. 
After Mordecai’s  parade,  Ahasuerus and Haman attended Esther's second banquet.  It is here that she spoke: revealing that she was of Jewish descent and that  Haman had been planning to exterminate her people.  

The king’s famous temper flared up again, and he left the room.  Taking advantage of his audience with the queen,  Haman fell at Esther’s feet and begged her to ask the King to be merciful on him. 

As the king came back from the palace garden into the banquet hall, Haman was groveling at the couch on which Esther reclined. The king roared out, "Will he even molest the queen while I'm just around the corner?" When that word left the king's mouth, all the blood drained from Haman's face.
As the King said this, one of his servant said: “Hey! Look at that!! Just outside is the gallows that Haman had prepared for Mordecai!  Why don’t you hang Haman there right now?”  The execution was quick, and the King’s anger was appeased.   
The Jewish people survived the plan of annihilation.  Haman was killed and Mordecai was rewarded.  Esther became a valued voice to the King and a hero of her people.  How cool is that?  I have learned so much from the book of Esther.  For instance:
·          beauty helps a lot getting a visit to the King, but you need your brains once you’re in there;
·          It is always good to have trusted advisors;
·         honor your family, who loves you and needs you; 
·         You should pray when there is pressure, rather than panic; 
·         The best way to get anything you want from your husband is to cook him his favorite foods and then look really hot when you serve them to him....
What?  Those are valuable lessons!   I also notice that Esther was given her role as a queen and never abused it.  She was gentle and smart, and didn’t out her enemies until it was the right time.  She trusted God, even when He seemed absent.  She was known for being noble, bright, trusting and secure...and a stone fox.

Sigh.  I hope one day people will remember me that way.

Purim is a time to bake in the Northern Hemisphere because it’s cold.  Here’s a popular recipe from a girl called Tori, who calls herself “Shiksa (non-Jewish lady) in the Kitchen”   

Cheese Bourekas
These Cheese Bourekas are also a fun recipe option for the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim.

Purim is often celebrated with a meatless menu in honor of Queen Esther, who became a vegetarian to keep kosher in the palace of her non-Jewish husband King Ahasuerus. Stuffed foods are traditional for Purim, as are triangle-shaped foods. These Cheese Bourekas are both triangular and meatless, making them a great choice for a Purim menu!
By Tori Avey, The Shiksa in the Kitchen

·         2 sheets puff pastry
·         ½ cup crumbled feta cheese
·         ¼ cup grated kashkaval cheese (or substitute another ¼ cup feta)
·         ¼ cup ricotta cheese
·         1 egg
·         Salt and pepper
·         1 egg yolk
·         1 tbsp sesame seeds or poppy seeds for topping (optional)
·         Nonstick cooking oil spray

You will also need: large baking sheet, rolling pin, 2 small mixing bowls, pastry brush
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves: 18

1.       Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a mixing bowl, combine feta, kashkaval, ricotta, egg, a pinch of salt and a pinch of black pepper (if using all feta cheese, no need to add any salt). Use a fork to mix ingredients together till well blended. Make sure to break up any large crumbles of feta with the fork. Reserve mixture.

2.       On a smooth, clean, lightly floured surface, unfold one of your puff pastry sheets. Use a rolling pin to roll out the sheet to a 12x12 inch square. If using homemade puff pastry, roll your dough out to a 12”x12” square. Cut the sheet of puff pastry dough into 9 equal-sized squares, each about 4”x4” large.

3.       Place 1 tablespoon of the cheese filling in the center of each dough square. Fold the dough squares by grasping one corner and folding it over to the opposite corner to make triangles. Pinch firmly along the outer open edge of the triangles to seal. You can also crimp the edges with the tines of a fork, if you wish.

4.       Repeat this process for the second sheet of puff pastry—roll out the pastry, cut into squares, add filling, and seal the triangles.
5.       Spray your baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or line with parchment paper. Place 9 bourekas on each sheet, evenly spaced, giving them some room to expand during baking.

6.       In a small bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and 2 tsp of cool water. Use a pastry brush to brush a light layer of the egg wash onto the surface of each boureka. Sprinkle the bourekas with sesame or poppy seeds, if desired.

7.       Bake the bourekas for about 30 minutes, switching the baking sheets between the upper and lower racks halfway through cooking. Bake till golden brown and cooked through. Serve warm.

 RECIPE © 2012 The Shiksa in the Kitchen. All Rights Reserved

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Hlanganani Mentoring Meeting with our "dream spoons"   February 24, 2012

Today I spent the morning at Plot 1, our friend, Petros’s place where he hosts Mother Touch Academy Pre-school for kids living in Diepsloot and surrounding areas. Petros let us use the property for a meeting that has been in the works for about a month: one between a group of teen girls and a group of ladies ready to come alongside of them.  

 Like many ventures, the Hlanganani Girl’s mentoring program began with prayer.  We all prayed how to begin meeting with the pre-teens and teens girls of our church’s front-lined ministry, Hlanganani.  What we wanted to do was simply  to connect, perchance to build something meaningful.  After all, all of us believe that most “building” in the Kingdom of God is done bit by precious bit...just one friendship at a time. 
There are few things I say yes to, at the spur of the moment.  My plate is not only full of activity, but it is contingent upon what will happen next.  So, when I said yes to involvement in this new program, I was really giving into my heart – it was all part of what I had already been doing: building up the Hlanganani orphans. 

My new friend, Beth (whose ways are so pleasant, she seems to attract support) was leading the group of volunteers, so it made it easier to commit.   Also joining the team to help was my friends Leigh (a nurse, who we realized had so much in common with the girls, being from KZN), Eve (who I call Vi, a close friend), Mirriro (Mine and Eve’s friend and young firecracker) , Nonlandla ( an administrator at local clinic, Witkoppen) and Pamela (you may have read about her in previous posts – a star and a young girl herself from Diepsloot).  Of course, there was also me....along to learn as much as I could.

We prayed that the right girls would come, all ones enrolled in the Hlanganani program.  Begun about the same time we landed here in South Africa, Hlanganani (Zulu for “get together”) was designed to aid widows and orphans in a time of need.  The program was also designed to help people who were no longer able to care for themselves, dying of HIV/AIDS in the township. 

The girls that are enrolled in the Hlanganani mentoring program are without their parents... and range from ages 12 to 23, and all are in need of positive role models.  They came, today (like we did) not knowing what to expect.  In the end, we all learned something about each other. 

Besides serving hot dogs and cake, we all just “hung out”...remember that?  The way we all got to know each other in the teenage-ness of it all.  Hanging out, being together.  Seeing who responded to what and who talked and who didn’t. 

Cake was served, and most ate two slices...and they loved it, which made me feel good because I made it.  In the end, we did a small project where we decorated wooden spoons with our names and our dreams.
To hear the slices of hearts, the dreams we all have...everything from what we want to do with our lives to what kind of car we will drive was discussed, and we all laughed together and encouraged one another. 

When all was said and done, my gentle friend, Beth, had us all pray in a circle and I took pictures, not knowing how else I should capture the coolness of it all. 

I have never been drawn to working with teens, and I admit I was a bit apprehensive.  What today turned into was a time to unfold our hearts in front of each other and show ourselves from the inside out.  Our dreams, there in black and white, written on wooden spoons, showed that the precious mattered to all of us.  We exchanged spoons, as well, promising to pray for one another’s’ dreams. 

Looking back, it was wonderful.  I wouldn't trade it for the world.  

Laughing over cake... 

Monday, February 13, 2012


Valentine’s Day and I have kind of a love-hate relationship.  On one hand, I am a romantic at heart and I love good, unexpected love stories.  On the other hand, I see the day as a set-up (mainly for men to become oozing, sappy wimps who spend silly amounts of money on their women). 

Last year I wrote a blog that made people worry a little bit about me and the way I see this sweet holiday.  My daughter called me the same day I posted.

“Mom, what are you talking about?” Alicia said, a little offended that I sounded so jaded and cynical. 

“Well, you know me,” I tried to offer a light-hearted explanation.  “I’ve never thought that the holiday really is a day for love.  It’s more about showing off and being sappy...”

“Mom,” she cut me off.  “Valentine’s Day is supposed to be fun, to be romantic.”

The acorn does not fall far from the tree. 

In truth, I love romance.  I love feeling loved and I love showing my love openly.  For years, the night before Valentine’s Day I would set up little heart placemats for the kids and surround them in conversation hearts.  I gave little stuffed animals and candy to them and smothered them in kisses.  They grew up loving the holiday....

Mario and I (realists--and a little silly as well) would celebrate the holiday by boycotting it.  We chose to celebrate the day after, when chocolates were 50% off and the cards that didn’t sell were priced to go.  We would try to out-do each other with the cheesiest cards we could find.  I once gave him a “left-over” card that showed the silhouette of an African-American woman (complete with afro and formal gown) and said “With deepest love from your brown sugar.”

As the years past, the kids grew up and moved out and now Valentine’s Day was all about their significant others.   They showed every bit as much attention to the holiday as the rest of the world, and left my dad and mom in the corner, mocking the holiday from afar. 

I miss them all deeply, my kids.  On holidays I miss them more.  I am hal-way around the world, and boycotting the holiday is less fun when a country you live in is so foreign.  The day after Valentine’s Day here, things are packed up and re-sold the next year.  There is very little sale candies or discarded Valentine’s cards. 

Mario said tonight, when I asked him what he wanted to do tomorrow, “We never really liked the holiday, are you serious?”   

My husband is very romantic (in his own way) but very cool about celebrations.  His favorite thing to do is surprise me.  Still, I knew that he was thinking that his silly girl was disappearing and perhaps expecting a Valentine’s Day gift.  He’d rather us poke fun together, at the suckers who fall prey to paying full price for the same stuff every year.  I could see him weighing and measuring in his head... “How should I play this?”

Here, in the inky blackness of night, I am alone.  I am separated from my family yet again... and their celebrating stories.  I will not be able to talk with my kids, knowing they will all go out on dates together or smother their children in love and chocolate kisses...just like I used to do.  My granddaughters are  9 hours behind me, and I’ll be lucky to catch them, on their schedule. 

In a different place this year, I hand you the scribbles of a heart that is lonely on this day.  Can I be transparent?  It is a day that celebrates our version of romance that makes many, many people feel as lonely as I do today.

No matter how loved we are.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Yesterday I attended a memorial service in Diepsloot for Ntswaki Mabel Dhathu, a high school teacher and colleague of a friend of mine.  She was a young woman who barely looked old enough to finish her teaching degree  but served as an example of love and warmth...and was the light of her school. 

Such deaths are common, but one as tragic as the other.  I was especially moved by the life of this woman, since she shared with me a passion to teach, and I saw in her the promise of changing this world, one life at a time.

Bessie, my friend is a school governing board member at Diepsloot Combined, a high school situated inside of the township of Diepsloot.  She told me that she would have to cancel a lunch date we had set up for Thursday, in order to attend a colleague’s memorial service.

“Bessie, why don’t we go out to breakfast instead,” I offered.  “Then I’ll go with you for this lady’s funeral.”

“Oh, would you?” she seemed so pleased.  “I would be very much impressed.”

Over breakfast Bessie and I caught up with each other’s lives and the Christmas holidays.  We chatted, like all friends, over a myriad of subjects.  When it was time to go we passed a florist.

“Why don’t we get something nice for the family?” I asked. 

“Oh, yes,” Bessie agreed, eyeing a bunch of white roses in a willow basket.  We took them, although very simple, as a token of esteem and sympathy. 

At the service, the hall quickly filled with high school students, looking well groomed and gorgeous in their school uniforms.  Their eyes were bright with promise, and they spoke in hushed tones in respect for the event. 

Upon seeing the picture of her friend hanging near the podium, Bessie began to weep, shielding her eyes from me.  Her tears were so tender and so sad that I put my arm around her and led her to a chair in the third row. 

I was quickly corrected by the woman coordinating the seating.  “My darling,” she said, lifting me to my feet, “your seats are here.”  She led us to a table in the front, where a white cloth had been draped and had a water pitcher and glasses.  It was a table reserved for speakers, so  I  quickly realized that Bessie would be eulogizing her friend, and maybe I would say something as well. 

Soon the hall was full, and the buzz was amazing.  People from far had travelled, and I learned that Ntsawki was from Soweto, in the South-West of Johannesburg (Soweto literally stands for SOuth WEst TOwnship).  Diepsloot is in the newest township in Johannesburg, at the very northern tip of the city.  The commute for this beloved teacher must have been at least an hour away.

The service began with a prayer (yes, there’s still prayer in schools here) and a welcome to all of the family, friends and colleagues of Ntswaki’s. The principal began with the story of how she came to teach in Diepsloot, so far north of her home. 

“She wanted to make a difference in the lives of the learners,” he said.  “This meant that she wanted to go where the teacher’s shortage is.”  Diepsloot, the poorest township in Jozi, is constantly trying to fill teaching positions.  Since it is necessary for a teacher to hold a degree and a full credential, the teachers who chose to teach in Diepsloot would be paid very little for a lot of education.

“I remember telling her that Soweto is very far away, and that she should spend less time tutoring children after school,” he continued.  “She used to tell me, ‘If I go back later, there is less traffic.’”

Speaker after speaker told similar stories, and before my eyes, a woman I never met came to life.  She was sick (most likely with the deadly virus), and despite her diagnosis, kept as healthy as she could.  She worked cheerfully and steadily, helping her classroom understand the importance of the education she brought to them, and administrated for them.  She spent countless hours encouraging students and teachers, always uplifting them with her words.

“She was the light for us,” one of her students said, tearfully.  While the four top students in the class gave a hand-made card to the family and bowed respectfully, tears welled in my eyes. 

My friend, Bessie, told a story about her name.  “Ntswaki means ‘Finally, a girl!’” she said, through tears.  “I can see that the family was happy when she was born, and they took great care to educate her so that she could educate others.  I remember her working long after the school was over, and I would say, ‘Hurry home, Ntswaki, your family will say “Finally, our girl is home”’ and she would laugh.”  Bessie paused.  There was dead silence.  “I see that she has gone home to heaven, and although we will miss her she won’t be sick there.” 

Weeping and sobbing could be heard in the crowd.  There were hymns sung in perfect harmony, remembering the teacher by singing her favorite songs.  There were speeches given by the Teacher’s Union, which sounded alittle political for a memorial service, but a union worker never misses an opportunity to address the masses....  There were tears and laughter and lots and lots of singing. 

I think of her tonight, as I type this.  She was a woman with a dream to teach and to make a difference.  Her offering is one that is made by thousands of teachers world-wide every day.  Here, Ntswaki was a hero, not only for her actions but for her example to these students, these learners.  

Everyday a teacher leads people to wisdom, shares their love of learning and becomes a friend and a trusted ally to vulnerable children and teens.   This is highly magnified here in South Africa, and especially in the townships.   Many times, the only person encouraging education in a township child’s life is found at school. 
While Ntswaki was a stranger to me yesterday, she haunts me today. 

She is among a rising number of young women in South Africa that will die from the deadly virus.  The number of AIDS related deaths in South Africa has risen 93% since 1997. Among those aged 25-49 years, (Ntswaki’s age bracket) the rise is the most significant: estimated at  173% by the UNAIDS Day Report.  In 2010 there were an estimated 22.9 million people living with HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here I am, typing away, seeing her face in my mind’s eye.  More than a statistic to her family and her students and her co-workers and my friend, Ntswaki s the face of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

Beautiful, educated, and ready to live her life to the full. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


It's not enough to have lived. 
We should be determined to live for something. 
May I suggest that it be creating joy for others, 
sharing what we have for the betterment of personkind,
 bringing hope to the lost and love to the lonely.
                        Leo Buscaglia  1924-1998

When I first heard Leo Buscaglia speak, I was a freshman in college.  His personality was so large, that no matter what he said, it was filled with life and joy and I couldn't help but love him...and he spoke mainly about that very thing: love.

A college professor, he once told a story about a class he taught: LOVE 1A.  It made me laugh.  Being a freshman, I was taking every 1A class there was: Algebra 1A, English Literature 1A, etc., etc.  It was a way of the University saying "Since we're assuming you don't have a good working knowledge of this subject, we will give you one."  

Buscaglia told the 20 students he began the course with that he was going to "encourage learning how to love".  Most of them stayed for the full semester, not earning any college credit.  The class soon became USC's most popular course, with a waiting list of 600.  College freshmen, dying to learn how to love.  Many disconnected, just trying to make it through the day.  The concept of Love 1A opened the eyes of the world.  Can a human being be taught how to love other human beings?    

Love is a wide, deep, tall subject that has more facets than a diamond.  It is a moving ocean, with rules and people changing places constantly, with very few benchmarks of success.  Many people who consider themselves experts on love are usually accompanied by large, painful failures and wide open, bleeding scars where those they loved have hurt them.  Such "experts" choose to love and love again - open wounds and scars and all.

I have been too blessed in my life with love.  When I think of how much I have loved in my life, I get tears in my eyes.  I was raised by loving parents, surrounded by loving siblings, committed (and lost) my heart to more than one or two boys that made me feel stupid and weak, so deep was my love for them.    

In the shadows, and almost as a balance, I can say that I have also experienced darkness and hopelessness.  I had years of just barely making it... knowing I would never find true love, and been swallowed by a hopelessness that made me feel hollow and dark and cold and helpless and wrung out.  For some reason, in the darkest place, I was shown the most excellent love: the love of God, which defies description.  All I can say is that it made me realize He was real...and that He is love.

I had a child, a son, with black hair and blue eyes, and who looked at me and instantly showed me what love was.  I  loved him so deeply that it shattered my soul; he loved me so much that I felt I had purpose.

I was given Mario, who I married and loved with everything in me.  Even so, the tight-rope walk of loving someone so desperately felt precarious, and I was filled with aching insecurities because I wasn't super-model material...and he was.  He came with two boys, who gave me a chance in their lives and I was so grateful, even though I knew they hoped that their parents would reunite...and I ached for them in their disappointment, in a way that didn't fit in my happiness to be married to their father.  I loved their hope and spark and wanted us all to be family without any issues, but felt the strange ache of half-ness  that comes with blended families and step-mothering.  

We had a daughter together that stole my heart and I thought I would explode in my happiness and inside I was desperate to be on steady ground, be the perfect mother that they would love forever and ever...

My parents, my siblings, my children, my if I could explode with love already, I was given Africa to love.  I looked into faces of children who ached for connection and orphans with hope and widows who searched for the best thing this world has to offer: love.  Working alongside of my heroes and my friends and my family here who loves me and laughs at me and takes me seriously and rejoices in my purposefulness.  

Each day my heart grows.  That's what love does to a heart, doesn't it? As I write, I understand the unpredictable losses and grief that gut us and make us want to die and be done with this heart... are balanced by the joy-filled, sparkly, outstanding surges of cartwheels that only love can bring.  

Love has made me cry when I've realized that a person I love hates me in a way.  I've grieved openly in a train when I realized that my grandmother was gone for real, and the tears were inspired by the love we shared.  Love has made me stay here even though there is so much love there.

My purpose in life is to love....

What is yours?

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
 "What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."
 "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
                                                                     From The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams   

Monday, February 6, 2012


My favorite Valentine’s Day gift is a set of black pearl earrings, with a matching choker strand, given to me by Mario, my husband, many years ago.

Jewelry has always been a tricky proposition for me. My lifestyle and my beliefs shape what I do and don’t wear. I have always admired well-cut diamonds, but not worn them, mainly because the working conditions in the mines are so horrible. What we have seen of the diamond industry here in South Africa, we do not admire. The same case can be made for gold and silver, but the precious metals are everywhere, and my most prized possession is my wedding band, a simple 10 karat gold band.

What ends up happening is that I wear very common baubles, costume pieces that change with fashion and are pretty inexpensive. In reality, I am usually bare of adornment, mainly because of our work (relating to the very poor is not done well, even in costume jewelry). Once, we were burglarized, and my jewelry box rifled through...but nothing was taken. This is indicative of what I wear.

I was a young girl when I fell in love with pearls.

My Nana used to wear a strand with a clasp as beautiful as they were. Delicate and Irish, and as luminescent as her pearls, she would tell me that they were a gift from her late husband.

“Good pearls,” she said, “light up a woman’s face.” It was true with her, and she glowed when she wore them. After she died, the same pearls lit up my mother’s face.

In researching how they were made, I was equally fascinated with the process. Oysters (and many other molluscs) have an outer shell that is made of two parts, or valves. The shell's valves are held together by an elastic ligament. This ligament is positioned where the valves come together, and usually keeps the valves open so the oyster can eat.

A mistake happens: an mollusc swallows sharp debris (usually a piece of rock sand) and can’t spit it out. To lessen the effect of irritating debris, the animal tries to ease its discomfort by coating the speck in calcium carbonate, which hardens around it to form a pearl. The inside shell (nacre) of an oyster determined color, luminescence and beauty. Since most nacre of oysters is usually a glossy white or silver, the fruit will be a glossy white or silver as well.

To have such beauty be born of pain gives me hope for the dark areas of my life.

Black pearls are made by a species of oyster called Pinctada Margaritifera, or the “black-lipped” oyster. Historically, they are mainly found in Tahiti, so they began being called “Tahitian Black” pearls. In the past, black pearls were amazingly expensive due to their extreme rarity. Approximately one in ten-thousand oysters produced a black pearl, and of these a small fraction was of adequate luster, shape and size to be desirable. In recent years, because of culturing (pearl farming), the pearls have become more predictable- and less expensive.

Although manufacturers can dye pearls black, it takes extremely rare conditions to form pearls that have that dark, eerily iridescent glow.

When I opened my gift many, many years ago, I gasped. The earrings were in a box similar in size to an engagement ring box, with an inside a brilliant white. The luminescent rainbows before me spoke to me of a long-lasting love and beauty that is possible through rare pain. I didn’t know what to say.

“They’re real,” Mario said. He meant “cultured real”, but wither way, I balked.

“Why did you buy them for me?” I asked him. I have to say, as beautiful as they were, all I could imagine was the expense.

“Because,” he said, “You wanted them.”

I never asked for them, he probably only heard me telling a story similar to this one that I have told you. He dissected my stories of admiration and my love for my Nana, my adoration of pearls and the way they can turn an ordinary woman into a queen. He listened and watched as I would tell stories of the darker nacre of the black lipped oysters, influencing the rainbow of the black fruit that would eventually emerge.

And then he bought them for me: two perfectly farmed black pearls, which glow against my skin and make me feel like I am worth a great price to the man who gave them to me.

Three months later, for Mother’s Day he gave me a choker strand to match. “This wasn’t as expensive as the earrings,” he said, almost apologetically. I marvelled at them, and there, in gold filigree, was the clasp that was like my Nana’s. Almost as beautiful as the luminescent beads they held together.


I wore them this past Sunday, and as I put them on, I thought of how beautiful and rare they are to me. They are among my prized possessions.

One day, they will light up my daughter’s face.

Pearl, pleasant to a prince's pleasure,
To cleanly enclose in gold so clear,
Out of the Orient, I boldly say,
None ever proved her precious peer.
~from “Pearl” a middle-English poem

Friday, February 3, 2012


Lorraine in her favorite uniform
eish (aysh) - Used to express surprise, wonder, frustration or outrage

Yesterday, while shopping with my friend, Lorraine, I was accosted by three men who began shouting at me and threatening me with physical violence. I am amazed it has taken this long for me to have had an experience like this in South Africa.

From what I heard when we moved to Johannesburg, there was a threat of violence daily, mainly prompted by the severe poverty and the wealth juxtaposition. Instead, I found Johannesburg (Jozi) to be friendly and courteous and a collision of cultures forced to live together- resulting in a sweet fragrance of a city.

Yesterday was different.

While we buzzed through CNA (kind of like an Office Max inside of a mall), we were on the hunt for elusive subject notebooks containing lined paper with 72 pages. After the January specials (Schools here begin in January) all of the stores we had checked had no more left. Our last stop was CNA, which is no bargain hut.

“These are R4.29 a piece,” I told Lorraine, after locating a stack of them.

“That’s too much,” she said. Lorraine is a poor domestic worker, who helps us two days a week. I had offered to take her shopping so that she could find books for her children back home in Zimbabwe, who had all just started school.

“How about I’ll buy them?” I offered. Lorraine refused. The price was too high and she saw it as a rip off. Just two days ago they were a whole rand-fifty cheaper.

“Then let’s go ask them if they will give us the January price,” I said. Lorraine and I went to the counter, where the woman working told us that she couldn’t reduce the price because the computers were programmed to charge R 4.29 a few days ago. After a bit of haggling and a whole lot of charm, I realized that there would be no discount, thanked her and started to leave the store.

“Lorraine,” I said, as we exited the line, “why didn’t you let me buy them?”

“Because, Janet,” she whispered. “Christof will be cross with me for paying that price, even if you helped me.”

I smiled. It reminded me of Mario. We were both married to frugal husbands.

As we exited through the narrow aisle, three men were talking loudly among themselves. Looking back, they appeared to be arguing about something, but it was during the time that Lorraine and I were talking.

Since the way was blocked, I said “Excuse me.” The men didn’t hear me, so said it louder, “Excuse me, guys.” One of them spun around and looked at me. The other, looking past him, yelled “Excuse YOU!”

I was startled, but I smiled. It’s kind of a nervous habit of mine, to smile during crisis. Also, I wanted to get by and get out of there.

“What do you mean by shouting at me,” said the guy who spun around. He was unusually close to my face.

Even though I didn’t say anything, he continued. “Are you CRAZY?!” he screamed. I looked into his (heavily bloodshot) eyes for sign of something sinister.

“Are you CRAZY?!” he asked again. I was still blocked as he shouted, “Don’t you ever raise your voice to me again, or I will slap you!” He had his finger in my face by now.

I felt a strange anger raise up in me. I had done nothing except say excuse me and lightly touch his elbow. He acted as if I had yelled it at him in a condescending way. I wanted to tell him I wasn’t scared of him and that he was a pathetic excuse for a man, threatening to slap a woman. Instead, I wised up, and realized that I had stumbled upon a wolf-pack (drunken, to boot) that had to show their misguided sense of manliness to each other.

I kept silent.

Over the aisle I could hear “Alright, Alright!” in an authoritative voice. It was the cleaning lady, coming around with her mop in hand. “There’ll be no fighting in the store!” She was looking squarely at the ring-leader, and I could tell it was a sobering moment for all of them. Here comes the big mama, and it is a shame for a mama to call you out here.

About the same time, a security guard came up behind me and got in between the man and I.

It was then that I could see that there was an “escape route” – and I took it. Lorraine (who was shaking) and I shot outside of the store and into the safety of the mall. As we walked out, I could see more security guards following the men. One man asked me, “What happened?”
“I said excuse me and he exploded,” I said.

He nodded, and sized me up to see if I were alright. Please, I thought, it takes more than drunken idiots to rile me.

I dropped off Lorraine at home, and ran straight to my gym appointment. I was late, and was scheduled to meet Mario there. As soon as I saw his car, I started to cry (think 5-year-old girl seeing her mom after she had been bullied).

By the time Mario saw me, he hugged me and I collapsed into big, fat sobs, holding on to him and letting out my story between sobs.

“What did you do?” Mario asked, probing why the man reacted why he did. Mario knows (as most of you do) that I am not exactly patient with injustice, even if the injustice is bad manners and not moving out of my way. He assumed I was rude or impatient, or that I really did yell.

“I promise,” I said sincerely, “this time I didn’t do ANYTHING!” I felt completely absolved of any wrong-doing...this time.

Mario (a former peace officer) asked “What would I have done?”

“You would have seen them, sized them up and used another aisle to exit,” I said, laughing through my tears.

“Exactly,” he said. He kept stroking my hair, assuring me that I was okay and the whole thing was over.

Back from the gym, and now at home, I saw Loraine (who lives on our property) and asked her what she thought about the whole thing.

“Eish!” she said, shaking her head. “Those Nigerians!”

“Were they Nigerian?” I smiled. Lorraine knows everything.

“Yes!” she said. “Couldn’t you tell? And they were drunk! They always disrespect women as the drink....” She went on to go through every tale of drunken Nigerian activity she had ever witnessed in her life. I think she was trying to make me feel better, so she told me tales and purposely made me giggle.

Last night, before going to bed, I asked Mario to pray for me. The incident was a memorable one, but I didn’t want to have nightmares. He held me close and prayed a prayer of peace. I slept last night, like a baby. And this morning I thought of all of things I could have done differently, from exit strategies to personal insults.