Monday, 26 July 2021


I’m one of those people (one of only 1 million South Africans) who gets the flu vaccine every year, because I teach and also because flu is extremely unpleasant.  Also because I’ve seen it kill a strong young man of 30.  Around 5000 die every year from flu.  I have it down to a fine art; the key being to get it in April as soon as it’s available so that you have a full 6 weeks of warm weather to build immunity before winter hits.  So when Covid-19 registration opened early, on the 30th of June, for the 50-59 age category, I registered immediately, knowing that so far, this was the only perk of having turned 50 in May.  Just 6 days later, before even getting my responding SMS, I received a WhatsApp from a friend saying she had popped into a vaccine site and that I should go straight away as they weren’t busy, and so I did.  I was perfectly healthy and excited to receive my protection.

The following day I felt a bit tired, as expected, and took it easy.  On the 8th I started with some aches and a dry cough, and when this continued for 2 more days, I figured my immune system was showing a strong response, but by the 10th I googled the side effects and realised that a dry cough was not a side-effect of the vaccine and with my aches intensifying, my symptoms were probably not related to the vaccine but in fact, by sheer perverse fate, in fact, the dreaded plague itself.

For the next 3 days I had non-stop body aches and fever, but aside from the slight dry cough, I had no actual upper respiratory or sinus symptoms.  This isn’t too bad I thought, without mucous, I can easily handle this with Paracetamol, Ibuprofen and sleep.  I took to bed, grateful that I wasn’t working at this stage, and with my mood optimistic.  But then the fever and aches carried on, and on, for another week and my chest became progressively tighter. Twelve days of fever and aches in all ensued.

Never in my life have I consumed as much pain medication so consistently; waking through the night to keep topping up.  On day 9 (Covid days are counted from the onset of symptoms although one can be infected as much as 2 weeks before) I went for a Covid test and my extremely vigilant GP called after hours to let me know the result was positive.  She then called me again on Friday morning (day 10) to see how I was doing; she informed me that as a Discovery Medical Aid Client, I had access (on confirmation of a positive test) to R2000 additional (non-saving) funds for Covid care, which included 2 telephonic consultations and 2 in-person consultations!  At this stage, I still thought I could just tough it out on pain-killers, but she wisely cautioned me not to take risks, citing examples where people younger than me had suddenly taken a turn for the worse, losing oxygen capacity rapidly.  I allowed her to prepare a prescription for me including an asthma pump, an oximeter (a device that measures your blood oxygen levels by clipping on your finger) more ACC and other meds. 

On the same day (day 10) I received the news that my mom-in-law had passed away from Covid.  I had first heard that she was ill just 10 days before and had been around to drop off some soup and fruit the same day (possibly where I contracted it, but I wore a mask and sanitised as I left the house). She had been admitted with low oxygen levels just 6 days earlier.  This made my illness feel even more serious.  Although at 83, I knew she was in an age category that had a 40% higher risk of fatality, I could not believe how swiftly she had succumbed.  Like many of her age group she had bought the conspiracy theories hook, line and sinker and so had refused to be vaccinated even though she had been eligible since May.  There had been no reasoning with her and now her beliefs had sadly shortened her life by probably 10 years (her mother lived to 99).

Days 11 through 15 were the hardest. By now I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.  I was tired of taking medication.  I was tired of lying in bed.  I was too ill to read and I was tired of listening to audiobooks.  Previously mild aches, like my arthritic thumbs, were now very painful, my chest was tight; the weather had turned bitterly cold and worst all was the unending isolation.  On day 13 I visited the doctor and was prescribed antibiotics for my chest.  Friends were checking in but often I felt too ill or ‘foggy’ to respond, it became too tiring to update people or respond to messages.  I had long dropped off all social media. My brain felt muffled and I began to feel like an alien, caught up in my un-ending illness.  This was also the week in which riots broke out throughout the country.  Illness, death and now this mayhem.  Like many of us, I felt caught up in a dystopian nightmare.  Luckily for me, I was far from the areas affected.  It was hard to feel compassion in the midst of my own private misery.

Since I had separated from my husband 7 months earlier, I didn’t have a partner to take care of me, or keep me company or cheer me up.  This was my first post-separation illness, which made it so much harder.  My older son made some meals, washed dishes and did laundry, but was out with friends most nights; and my younger son played X-box non-stop.  Lockdown level 4 meant very little was happening anyway.  For the lack of responsibilities, I was very grateful.  Another thing I was very grateful for was that I did not lose my sense of taste or smell!  However, my appetite was low and I even stopped drinking coffee (extremely unusual for me).

Finally, on day 15 the aches had stopped but then the headaches started.  Three days of unremitting headaches accompanied by mild nausea.  On the 3rd day, I could no longer bear it and stopped all pain-killers and medication, thinking that perhaps 16 straight days dosing pain-killers every 6 hours was having a negative effect on my system (some dehydration possibly too).  For 2 nights I slept in the lounge; my bedroom had become an intensely unpleasant place, like a post-traumatic stress trigger.  I honestly could not go into it without feeling nausea and overwhelming memories of fever, sweating and pain. It felt like a prison cell and I wondered if I could ever again see it as the sanctuary it had always been.

I’m not sure whether or not stopping the medication was connected, but thankfully on day 17, the headache lifted.  For the first time in 17 days, I had no aches or pains without the aid of painkillers. Hallelujah!  I was tired, mildly nauseous and still felt very foggy-headed though.  For the first time also I was forced to venture out as my son was due for surgery to extract his wisdom teeth. 

Being out in the world for the first time in 2 weeks was an unreal experience.  It wasn’t just like coming out after lockdown, it was like coming out of solitary confinement. My head was still foggy.  I looked at people laughing, chatting, hair neatly done, nails manicured; going about life with an ease that seemed like a distant memory to me… how did they do it? Re-entry felt like swimming through mud for me.  It felt as though I was invisible, not a part of the human race.

That night my headache exploded again accompanied by a drenching night sweat. Covid? Medication? Menopause?  I took one Panado and tried to ride it out with lots of water.  This time it lifted sooner.  Day 18 I went for a walk on the beach, this was great for my spirits but not great for my chest.  That night I had to dose with ACC and use the inhaler again. The next day I took it slower and enjoyed a long call with a friend.  I finally responded to WhatsApp’s and thanked friends who had checked in and prayed.  For the first time in a long time, I felt human again. The fog had lifted. Today, as I write (day 20), was my 2nd day of the return to planet earth. I cleaned my house which has been virtually untouched for 2 weeks and I marvelled at how amazingly wonderful it feels to be well!

My story is not unique.  As I discovered during the weeks, several of my friends were also ill with Covid at the very same time.  It seems that we in the 50-60 age category have been most let down by our government, that offered us vaccines too late – in mid-winter, in the midst of a vicious third-wave of Covid - a poor consolation for a group of people highly likely to suffer more severely from getting ill.  Perhaps not entirely the government’s fault; the greed of first world countries has also played a role.  Those northern countries are now happily enjoying an un-masked summer while we white-knuckle it through winter.

My story is also a privileged one. The luxury to rest; the luxury of medical aid; the luxury of a vigilant doctor; the luxury of a safe and warm home.  I cannot help but think of the many, especially elderly who have died alone, or in shacks, without the luxury of an oximeter to alert them to dropping oxygen levels.  As horrible as the illness was for me personally, so many have had it far worse.

I truly hope that this is the end of my Covid journey.  My chest must still clear and I find I am still easily tired.

There are many lessons to be learned.

Firstly, dear friends, please vaccinate as soon as you can.  I you have to get one every year for the next 5 years because of variants, then do so!  This is an extremely unpleasant and unpredictable virus.  We do not even know the long term damage that it may have done to those who have had it.

Secondly, please continue to be vigilant about masks and social distancing.  This echoes meaninglessly in our ears.  Just after I was vaccinated I met someone and they stuck out their hand in greeting.  On every other occasion in the last year I have responded with an elbow, but for some reason, this time I was tired of being rude and I shook his hand.  A week later he too had Covid.  I don’t know for sure that he contracted it from me, but I felt terrible.  Had he died, I would always have felt guilty.

Thirdly, isolation is very hard!  I say this as an introvert who loves huge amounts of alone time; but it does something to one’s psyche.  Human connection is terribly important and we neglect it at our peril.  Perhaps, here my situation was somewhat unique, being newly single and away from long-standing friends; however many people live alone and illness itself tends to make us less likely to reach out and connect.  I am so grateful for those who kept checking in on me.  I have a deep new appreciation for connection of almost any kind with other humans!

Some of you will still have to face this illness despite your best efforts to avoid it.  I feel for you.  Whilst I was ill, I had little remaining energy for compassion but now my compassion is renewed and I will pray more deeply for all who continue to suffer as well as meet the needs of those who are suffering.  May God grants us his strength and grace for this challenge and may it soon be over!

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Negative Space

If there were balance in the world
Then l would wish you joy
Proportionate to my pain.
May your joy be all-consuming and overpowering.

And may your heart expand
By the pieces hollowed out from mine
By my salty tears.

As you lie awake feasting
On the dreams of your future,
Drink deeply from the wine crushed from the fruit of mine.

Natalie Simmons 2020

Friday, 10 May 2019


I discovered this title from a Facebook page by the same name and I find the quotes they share to be particularly powerful. Like this one.

For four years I had four kids living in my house, in three different schools. I was teaching full-time, and running a guest house.  Futhermore, because we live in the countryside we have to drive 30-45 minutes to get pretty much anywhere. So I know a bit about being busy, but I have very deliberately worked my way out of that.  I am grateful to be in a much quieter season at the moment.

How busy are you?
Firstly recognise that everything that requires effort is work: house work is work; taking care of kids is work; meeting family commitments is work; driving a car is work; service in the church or community can be work.  Your 8 hours at your chosen occupation is just one facet of the work you do.

The sum of all your daily tasks may be taking you over the top.  Studies have shown that in the workplace people are literally getting ill and even dying from stress and busy-ness*.

Being too busy usually results in being too tired which could mean:

      Being unavailable to others. Are you able to be a good Samaritan – spontaneously? Or are the needs of others just a disturbance in your schedule?

      Inability to notice beauty. Do you stop and smell the roses, or in my case, appreciate the clouds? Or are you caught in a treadmill of rushing to do, to get to the next thing, without appreciating the moment?

      A sense of being overwhelmed or continually rushed. Sometimes we can be so caught up in a mindset of busy-ness that it infiltrates even our family time and leisure.  And are you passing that on to your kids?  Our kids lives can be scheduled to the hilt with extra-murals. 

      Hobbies and social events becomes another ‘to do’. Our hobbies and even church or community service can become quite driven, and can stop being beneficial or fun.  Likewise social engagements and spending time with friends can become just another thing on our to-do list.  Then we tend to cut back on these, and yet they are the very things feeding our souls.  Rather cut back in other areas to allow these to have the impact that they need to have!

      An inability to do nothing.  Do you need constant activity or constant entertainment? I have often heard people saying, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t work.  That is a not a good thing!  There is so much to enjoy in this world! There is so much outside of an office!

      Never reflecting deeply on anything.

      Hardly ever reading for enjoyment.

      No spiritual life.

Are you too busy? Ask yourself, are the things I am doing or attending, filling my tank or continually emptying it?  Is it filling my child’s tank or empting it?

I want to encourage you to free up space in your life.  I truly believe that our lives need time for more silence and solitude as well as inspirational activity to fill us up so that we can give out meaningfully into the world.

Life is here for us to delight in it: to delight in God, in being alive; to delight in creation and being creative.  The opposite of ‘busy-ness’ is not inactivity but peace, harmony, contentment.

Marva Dawn says: “The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, begins in reconciliation with God and continues in reconciliation with our sisters and brothers - even our enemies.  Moreover, shalom designates being at peace with ourselves, health, wealth, fulfilment, satisfaction, contentment, tranquility, and - to sum it all up - wholeness.” (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly)

Does your current lifestyle provide that for you?

The first step in embracing a slower pace is to recognise the problem and to make an intentional choice to slow down.

One of the most fundamental things that helps me do this is the concept that:

Think about the people in your life: did you choose them based on what they do or who they are?  If you chose them for what they do or earn, we would call that shallow.   Do you love your children because of what they do or who they are? Likewise you are worthy just as you are!

God’s value of you rests in who you are, irrespective of what you achieve or accomplish.  His interest is in who you are becoming, your character.

Our culture, on the other hand, measures us on productivity and accomplishment. And the standard is often completely unattainable.  More so than ever, our culture projects the idea that we must be PERFECT partners, parents, friends, social activists, employees/employers, and we must have perfect homes and holidays, and our children must do well at school and out of school and then they must go on to study well and get the perfect job, partner, etc.  If we can’t be perfect we must at least market ourselves via social media as appearing to be perfect!  Our culture lives by Vanity not by Value.  So we will need to make an intentional counter-cultural choice to live by value.

Let go of guilt. Living at a slower pace is not being lazy, although it may feel like that at first.  If your life has been run at a furious pace for some time it is going to feel odd to slow down.  But being uncomfortable is not a bad thing.  If you’re serious about change you can allow yourself to feel the discomfort and move beyond it.  It can take a lot of time to unwind.  

You may even get bored, that’s good. That’s when the magic starts to happen…

...Look out for part 2 in Becoming Unbusy.

·       Jeffrey Pfeffer: Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do about It.

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Slow Teaching

I wrote this 4 years ago, but didn't publish it. Still true.
I want to start a movement called ‘Slow teaching’ in the same spirit as the Slow Food Movement. Because we’re starving our children, serving them superficial and contrarily highly complicated information instead of soul-building, sustaining basics.

I speak as someone who has just moved from a very small, very unique school where ‘slow teaching’ is mostly standard fare; to a large government school, a very good government school; where compliance to the education department syllabi is adhered to.

Now I must take a group of students through a beautifully written book with several complex themes in a matter of six to eight 30 minute lessons. It’s a thin-ish book but this is a second (or third) language for my students, so they barely understand the story. And I don’t have the time to go slowly enough to explain all the words, or to re-read paragraphs. I can’t take time out to discuss the setting of South Africa and Hillbrow in the 70s, and the strange dynamic between the white teen and the black foreman; I can’t stop and discuss the mother’s drinking and how the drinking of a desperate and overwhelmed widow is different to the binge-drinking of a pleasure seeker. Not being able to discuss these things does no justice to this powerful little book and it does no justice to my students.

Because a second language is a requirement and not a choice, most of these students will probably never use this language they are learning. But how I wish that at the very least, they could communicate in it. I wish that after our 10 years of instruction they could converse with someone comfortably. Surely that would be the most basic expectation when learning a second language? But unfortunately, the ‘powers that be’ have decided to include superfluous information like delineating storylines, and complex grammar, like clauses, to the syllabus. This kind of ‘super-information’ does the very opposite of what is intended. It does not enrich the meal but thins it out, because it steals time that should be spent on the basics like vocabulary-building, informal conversation times, and reading. Instead of having their tummies filled, this over-pumped knowledge must be skimmed through at a pace which allows no time for deep substantial learning.

The same goes for other subjects. Children battle through complicated mathematical equations but still cannot add, subtract, divide and multiply properly. They know financial and political terminology that would stupefy the average man in the street, but they don’t understand the difference between debit and credit, they haven’t discussed the concept of democracy or capitalism.

And so we push them to attain this mythical achievement called a matric which will open the gateway to life; which in many cases is nothing more than learning a set of forgettable facts and formulas. Something is very wrong with the state of our education system.

Sunday, 20 January 2019

How was your week?

I know this was probably one of those polite questions where I was supposed to respond with, “Fine thank you, and yours?”
But I was caught off guard and when I just stared slack-jawed into my memory, she was forced to say, “Is that a tough question?”
Well yes. Because nothing really bad happened but… Let’s take a look shall we.

First, there is the ongoing matter of trying not to eat, breathe or move on the right side of my mouth.  Let’s just say if you thought getting a crown took you into the league of supersonic teeth aka JAWS (the 007 one), then you like me, are sadly mistaken. Seems I am soon to have the thing extracted.

Next, there’s the ongoing siege of ants who are determined to invade my kitchen.  I then commit acts of ant genocide only to find that their envoys have not satisfactorily communicated the message back home, and another bunch of suckers are sent in.  I have to admit, they’re wearing me down…

Thirdly. My son is now farming rabbits.  The dogs think it’s a fabulous idea.

Fourthly, have you heard there are hardly any female Uber drivers?  I know why.  Most women with driver’s licences are actually already busy ferrying around their teenage offspring and their friends. For free.

Fifthly, due to above I didn’t get anything done.

Sixthly, the third Monday in January is considered the most depressing day (see link mostly due to a lack of finances and unmet expectations.  If you, like me, have done the bank card dance at the till this week (ok, let’s try putting R200 on this one and then the rest on this one) then you know what I am talking about.

Seventh, we seem to be having a continuous heat wave this summer.

Eighth, politics is depressing whether you live in South Africa, the UK, the USA or probably anywhere.

Ninth, the comments people make on Facebook make me want to scream.

Tenth, did I mention my tooth was sore?

Monday, 7 January 2019

On my way

On my way out today I saw:
55 yellow and purple wild flowers standing proud in the breeze
34 cows lolling in the veld
21 birds insect-hunting across the sky
13 children of God waiting along the side of the road
8 guinea fowl unsure which way to turn
5 sunflowers in search of sun
3 buck meandering the cool morning
2 bright red Bishop birds pestering a stem of grass
One grey cloud of sky over-arching all

And above it the over-arching Spirit of God.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Are you a non-conformist?

I grew up always feeling outside or other.  Some of these reasons were: Being an only child – it’s a lot more common today, but in the ‘70s it frequently meant I was viewed differently and excluded from the mystical world of sibling-hood and the classic Cosby family picture.  Also, we didn’t have a television.  My parent being avid readers and viewing themselves as somewhat bohemian, intellectual sorts; decided not to buy-in to the TV culture which was sweeping the nation in the early 70s – this not only led to frequent questions of, “Are you poor?”, but it left me outside the chit-chat and copycat games of Charlie’s Angels, Pop Shop and The Bold and the Beautiful.  And then just to put the cherry on the cake, we lived in a brand new suburb where schools had not yet been built, which meant that physically I was also an outsider from school, where it seemed that everyone else was in walking or cycling distance from one another.

Then we come to the end of Grade 6 where I go off to a leadership camp to pick the next year’s prefects.  Introverts will cringe with me as I mention the words ‘team-building activities’ and ‘obstacle courses’. Fast-forward to the last night’s campfire where the vice-head teacher invites us to vote for our future leaders. One by one the names are called and hands are raised.  I have no recollection of my own name being called, maybe we closed our eyes? I don’t remember.  What I do remember is myself as an earnest 11 year old, hearing each name called, and not voting for anyone… 

You see I didn’t intend NOT to vote, but as each name was called, I carefully evaluated and found them wanting in some way.  Clearly, my standards were way too high!

I don’t believe that I thought I was better than everyone, I think I was just a young idealist (time has borne this out) with high ideals for leaders!  I was still discovering my own mind and how the world works.  Realising that I had voted for no-one and that we were out of names, I would have loved to go back and say, ‘Ok right, let’s go through the list again.’  Sitting in the dim light of the campfire I was not aware that anyone was watching this inner journey of discovery going on, but someone had.  To my utter mortification the vice-head teacher called me out, “Why have you not voted?”

How could I reply? Hardly knowing my own mind, I could not admit my own truth – that I hadn’t thought anyone was ‘good enough’ - so I said, "I don't know."  His disdain for me was palpable, and I don’t recall him saying anything else, but I knew in that moment, there was absolutely no chance I was going to be a prefect.

When I got home, I sat down with my mother with whom I was always open and related the story.  What a balm to my soul as we reached the end of this sorry tale and there was no judgement from her, but an outright laugh, “I’m proud of you she said, you didn’t conform to the expectation, and we are raising you to be a non-conformist!”

Sometimes huge chunks of one’s character can be moulded in one moment like that.

Embracing that freedom not to fit in with the crowd has many a time been intensely liberating.  There have been several times in my life where my mother’s words have empowered me to stand alone.  I have also learned that invariably you are not alone – you will find there is a small tribe somewhere who will welcome you and embrace your thinking.  Seek them out!  

This has been especially true in matters of Faith – which is odd because Faith seems so often to form itself in community; how alone one then is when one cannot find a community of Faith!

At other times it has been a comfort when I have desperately wanted to fit in and found that for reasons beyond my control, I just could not!  With time I have learned that those who seem to fit in the most are often the most enslaved to others, or what others think.  I have also learned that the feeling of being outside looking in is common to all of humanity.

My determination is this: Embrace your uniqueness.  Allow yourself to feel the pain of exclusion.  Know that it is at once precious and meaningless!  Precious, because it reveals you as unique, individual and worthy of your own view of the world.  Meaningless, because it is also often a figment of your own construction of the world.  Often it is not your family, your income, your background, your gender, your race, your ability, your education or any other damn thing that puts you outside – it is only your choice.  Don't allow those things to determine your ability to belong or participate.

Make sure your choice is honourable and pure.  Examine it scrupulously; and should it reveal an unworthy or false opinion, then deal with it swiftly and brutally.  But if it is worthy and true, then stand by it, no matter what.  

To conform or not, to fit in or not, to participate or not, to act or not... is your choice, and your ability to make it is pure power.

“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.” (Romans 12, The Message)