Creatures Great and Small

Yup, that’s a baby whale!

This has been a week when critters prevailed at the beach and the tales are as extraordinary as if they were fabled. It’s hard to know where to begin, so we will go from ground to air to sea.

Neighbour Chris is into snakes. Every time I visit I either have to keep on the deck of their house, or keep my eyes averted as I enter their lounge to avoid looking at the rather attractive Burmese python that is housed in a glass terrarium. The reason for my aversion is the hapless mice and rats in the box with it awaiting ingestion. Chris accuses me of anthropomorphism but I cannot help it – I have far too vivid an imagination and I empathise with all creatures. I even remove spiders and put them outside rather than kill them.

Chris’ brother Scott is here from Dallas writing his thesis at the moment. His feelings about the terrarium are similar to mine: cages just don’t sit well whether the creatures in them have any feelings or understanding about being incarcerated or not. I met him while walking on the dune roads wild-eyed and gabbling. Gradually the tale unfolded.

Another snake, this time a Natal green snake had been found and put in the glass cage, together with the python and the rat. This snake was to be the pet of Chris’ fourteen year old son. They came downstairs one morning to find the rat had completely eviscerated the green snake. A part of me wanted to say: “Good for you! Go, rat, go!” An awful story, which to my mind, completely explained Scott’s agitation. The tale, however, did not end here.

The next day, Scott was in the kitchen when he heard thuds coming from the lounge accompanied by some rather high-pitched shouting. The rat was now attacking the python who was trying to shed its skin, and the thuds were the rat being bounced off the glass walls as the python, who was bleeding on its head and elsewhere, defended itself. Scott decided, quite rightly in my opinion, to ignore all that was happening and continue preparing dinner. He suggested to his nephew that he too find something else to do and let nature take its course. That is, until he heard a new sound: bang, bang-bang, bang-bang-bang. He flew out of the kitchen to find Chris shooting at the rat with a BB gun! At this point he decided enough was enough and left home!

Yellow billed kites are summer residents here and they floated in a couple of weeks ago. It is interesting watching Snatch’s reaction to these graceful aviators. She seems to know that she is too big for them, but she takes up a defensive crouch and watches them very carefully over her shoulder just to make sure that they aren’t singling her out for dinner. They are most intrepid and come in close to look for any scraps that might be waiting for them. A piece of meat on the pole at the end of the deck was adroitly collected. The cucumber was discarded.

The highlight of the week for me, however, was going fishing with my son and neighbour from atop the dune, John. The chaps who run the charter business are located a little south of here and are characters of note. The sort of rough diamonds one tends to find in these more remote locations. John’s wife Jane has nicknamed them “The Cowboys”. So it was with a spirit of resilience that we met Philip on the beach, boarded Calypso and set out to sea.

The fishing was abysmal, but the whale spotting was extraordinary.

Our first sighting was a calf erupting out of the water like a bullet straight into the air. Not once, but over and over again with all the exuberance of youth on a frivolous Friday morning. My camera clicked away, and I managed to miss all of the show! But I was thrilled on putting them onto the computer to discover that I did, in fact, have two very blurred outlines of whales and I am proudly sharing the least blurry of these with you. These are hump backed whales, and whilst not the biggest of the species they are pretty huge, especially close up.

Next we had a cow and her calf cross within spitting distance in front of us. As skipper Philip said, even the babies made our boat look small. We watched them swim by us in awed silence feeling somehow privileged to be allowed so close to mammals that most of us know best from books.

The grand finale was a pod which treated us to a full display of all their antics. They started with the fin slap, then onto the tail whacking with a few back flips thrown in. It was utterly amazing and we yelped with delight at each new trick that was performed for us. I was flabbergasted at the amount of water that is displaced when these enormous mammals do a backflip.

We came back fairly tired out after a day on the water to continue the battle of the bats. Faithful Arlindo arrived half an hour before sunset, armed with his netting and Silicone spray, to continue his quest to secure our gingerbread house against these useful but noxious critters. My son had had little sleep because of the incessant rustling and squeaking in the walls of his bedroom. Saturday morning we were awoken around four to hysterical shrieking and thudding against the walls of the house as the bat brigade returned to find eviction notices across their access points.

We ended the week sitting on the beach last night watching the full moon come up over the ocean. It was incredible. Once again I stood in awe of my Creator, overwhelmed by His grandeur and the opulence of His creation. I can’t wait to see all He has for me this week!

Treasures from an old brown suitcase


My Mother

It’s been a really strange week at the beach. It began Sunday before last when we awoke to no power. This situation continued throughout the day until sometime after 8pm that night, at which point all cell signals died!
As you know by now, this is a small community consisting of only 6 permanently resident families, so when some of them leave the enclave it creates a certain imbalance. When communication ceases it causes a mild form of hysteria which is what happened at the beginning of the week.
Nevertheless we all survived the vagaries of the weather, services and absent members, and by midweek everyone was back where they belonged, for a couple of days anyway. The electricity has been more on than off, but the cell signal has come back stronger, albeit a little up and down. It makes one quite fit as at the first complaint of breaking up you take off towards the signal point, yelling as you go: “Hang on while I go upstairs!”
But none of that is the point of this blog. Confronted with a cold, wet Sunday I thought what better time to start sorting out the old brown suitcase with all those family photographs in it. It would be undignified to tell you for how many years I have threatened to do this. So I settled myself on a cushion near to the big windows to take advantage of what light there was and started making orderly piles of pictures according to family, holidays, houses, Kruger etc.
The best part was when I got to the really old pictures, the ones that were faded and in some cases had bits peeling off them. One caught my eye – it was of a little girl with a long mass of unruly blonde curls. My granddaughter has a mass of blonde curls and we have been wondering who the culprit in her lineage is. I found a few more pictures of this young lass, and then the penny dropped – it was my mother! I came across an old-fashioned portrait of her as an infant, in what passed for colour in around 1928, on cardboard and there was no longer any doubt that her legacy lives on to some degree in her great-granddaughter.
I felt an overwhelming sense of joy as I thought how happy she would be, knowing that her genes did actually count. She always bewailed the fact that I was my father’s daughter and there was little evidence of her involvement in my creation at all!
I went back to the pile of pictures with renewed vigour and tried to identify some of the other family members. I recognised the family farmhouse in Fort Beaufort, but little else. I felt frustrated that for whatever reason I had not spent enough time with members of my extended family who would know all these people and be able to fill in the very substantial gaps in my knowledge of my family history. In the midst of my ruminations, I found another gem. This time a picture of my father when he was in his early twenties. My father died in 1962, and I have no pictures of him prior to his marriage to my mother in 1952, so this was a real find. Again I was thrilled to see the family resemblance passed down to my sons.
Then I happened on a brown envelope and this was the best treasure of all. In it were about thirty letters written by my grandfather to members of his family from the front in World War One. It was strange reading words and phrases that I myself use without knowing how I have come to do so, on paper that is almost 100 years old. The first letter is dated 1917, and they cover his postings in France, Belgium, Germany and his stays in London and Ireland. A maddeningly brief mention is made of his receiving the Military Cross from King George V himself at Buckingham Palace.
As I shared this with my neighbour and fellow writer, Scott (ah, I have yet to tell you about Scott, but not now) he said “Oh well there you go, that’s another book!” As we laughed I thought “Yes, and I am going to have live for at least another fifty years if I am going to get them all written!”
Life is full of surprises and I loved the contrast that on a dreary, cold, and dank Sunday I discovered treasures that caused my heart to soar. Those who have lost close family members early on will understand how I felt, the sudden link and insight into someone who is a part of you but whom you have never met. It somehow gives me additional strength knowing that I have ancestors who led brave lives that are worthy of recording.
There are so many wonderful stories out there. I wonder how many of them are shared. I wonder, too, how many secrets are nestling untold in graves around the world. It makes me a little sad because I think that we are the poorer for it.
The Beach
September 2012

Caution – Fire Hazard!

One of the first indicators that one has tumbled into the generation gap is when your children bring home music that you do not understand. In fact, you are not sure at times that it is music, it seems to be a meaningless rumble of irritation.
Happily, like most things, this irritation does pass and there comes a time when some sort of common ground is reached. My sons, knowing my musical preferences, are good about introducing me to new singers they think I will enjoy and so I have just purchased, under instruction of course, a CD by young singing sensation, Adele.
I put it on as soon as I got home and was half listening, and I must confess half impressed, when she sang a line that made me stop what I was doing and start listening. It was a line that gave the first words to expressing some of what I have been grappling with over the past few weeks.
Why is it that pain, or heartache, or hurt, or remorse, any of those painful emotions are so destructive? Why are they so difficult to unravel, to grasp hold of, deal with, overcome? I was thinking about emotional healing, and it is patent that unless we can unravel the threads that cause the pain, we can never come to a place of wholeness.
As I heard Adele sing “… so I spend my whole life hiding my heart away” I got the beginnings of an answer. The old clichés about walls of defence don’t really put it as well as this line does. How do you heal what is hidden? The short answer is that you don’t, you cannot. If a surgeon does not see where the tumour is, he is not able to cut it out.
The prophet Isaiah puts it this way:

Look, all you who kindle a fire,
Who encircle yourselves with sparks:
Walk in the light of your fire and in the sparks you have kindled –
This you shall have from My hand:
You shall lie down in torment. *

We lock ourselves into our pain, and as we do we lock others out. We also lock out any help, even divine aid, that might bring release. That wound then festers inside the prison of our hearts, turning ever inward, boring into the soul, unleashing its torment. The only solution is to make sure no further barbs gain entrance, so light the fire, build the wall, turn the key do whatever you think you need to in order to protect that wound.
If you have ever built a fire outdoors you will know that not only does the heat keep predators away but sparks fly off that themselves have the potential for starting a fire, or burning whatever is close by. That is what happens to us: as we build this ring of fire we burn those that get close to us and we hold at bay any others that might want to get close to us.
I am of the generation that was brought up to believe that it is right to hide one’s heart, that it is shameful to admit to pain. The ability to control one’s emotions is praised. As for getting help – the “shrink” stigma is a great deterrent. I would like to put it to you that those advocates of “bravery” and the “stiff upper lip” brigade are really advocates of cowardice.
In truth, it takes gut wrenching courage to face one’s pain. Looking your hurt in the face is just the beginning of the process. From there you have to move onto owning it, taking responsibility for it and dealing with it openly and honestly. Hidden is never good. Casting blame onto others, no matter how justified that might be, only delays and obscures the issues. As the prophet says, we light the fire that surrounds us, we have to accept that we have a portion of blame. We have to take the first steps to extinquish the blaze, and if we get blisters in the process we need to know that they too will heal. We are the only ones who can open the doors, and “unhide” our hearts.
Fine, you might say, I’m open, I’m brave, but how do I get rid of this ache, how do I find the courage to trust again, how do I move forward from here?
I have a picture in my mind of a scene in heaven. God is pacing the floor because He cannot bear to see the agony of his finest creation as the enemy of their souls causes them to tear each other to shreds with cruel words and deeds. Jesus is there, and He is moved not only by the plight of fallen man, but also by the sorrow of His Father. The Holy Spirit is restless, impatient, waiting for the time when He is released to play His role in the redemptive plan.
It is only the overwhelming love of a Saviour, who, when seeing His father’s anguish at the pain inflicted on and by His pinnacle creation, cries out: “Let Me go, I can do it, I can take the beating, I can even bear the cross if that is what is needed to end all the hurt, all the suffering.”
God is torn between the need of His created man and His love for His son. The Holy Spirit is anxious, believing Jesus can do it, but the cost, can he really do what needs to be done all alone down there? God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit all knew the enormous sacrifice that was needed if complete healing and release were to become reality on earth.
The rest, one could say, is history.
So to answer your question: Will you let Him in? Will you allow your heart to stop hiding long enough for Him to find you? Will you allow His living water to extinguish the fire you have built around yourself? Will you allow Him to be your Saviour, this man Jesus?

13 September 2012

*New King James Version, Isaiah 50:11

Duracell Man

It is inescapable reality that every positive has its negative. The situation of this house, nestled among the sand dunes of Moçambique, within spitting distance of the Indian Ocean, to all intents and purposes is absolute paradise.
One of the attractions of this location is the moderate climate. As we go into early spring and I look back over the past couple of months, if the temperature dared to drop below 16 degrees we all shivered and cried about being banished to Greenland! So what happens come summer? The whales flee southwards to cooler waters and we roast. The beach is too hot to walk on a few hours after sunrise. In February temperatures climb towards the 50 degree mark.
It is at this time that being surrounded by fairy tale dunes becomes a little less idyllic. The reflection of the sun off the sand causes the house to become a sauna. My solution to the problem was to get planting. I found out about the best grass to plant, how to plant it, and began looking for indigenous trees to provide shade. I am not sure if there is anyone else who has attempted to plant a lawn on a beach, but let me tell you it is challenging to say the least.
I am ably assisted in my endeavours by the ever faithful Jaime who you have already met. I say “assisted” with a set look on my face. Jaime is not only imbued with great generosity of spirit, but he also has boundless energy and does not understand the concept or need for patience. He is severely ADD, but as he never went to school he has never been diagnosed as such. Not that I think a diagnosis would make much difference, but an understanding of how to manage him early on might have helped him progress a little further in life.
So, there is no sooner a sheen of moisture on the grass when Jaime darts out from the shade to move the sprayer. The game begins. I hover in the wings, waiting to catch him before he gets there. “Não, Jaime, não”, I call, and crestfallen he turns back, but only to a position where he can see where I am. I no sooner move out of sight than he again shoots forward to grab the sprayer.
He is indefatigable in his determination to water all the plants as expediently as possible. After an hour or less of this I am exhausted! I have dubbed Jaime “The Duracell Man”, stolen from an advert which shows toy bunnies wound up and running around, but one by one they all fall over as their batteries run out, until only the bunny with Duracell batteries is still up and running. The name has stuck and continues to be true of the man.
The wind can come up at any hour of the night, and Jaime will be there to rescue cushions and get chairs to safety. Let one car onto the sand, and Jaime will be there to eradicate its tracks with his rake. Guests arrive; Jaime’s head will pop up from his room under the house to check who they are, making sure they are friend and not foe, and greet them.
You may be wondering what the downside is of someone who displays so many positive attributes, and sadly there is a downside. I have come across this trait before in those who have been denied the basic right of education that so many of us take for granted. I’m not sure about other cultures, but here in Africa we tend to equate a lack of education with a lack of mental acuity. To be blunt, we regard anyone who is not educated as being unintelligent.
Have you ever noticed that people frequently become how they are adjudged to be? For someone like Jaime, it seems it is easy for him to behave as though he is unintelligent, because that is how he has been treated all his life. He has learnt that it doesn’t matter when he does things incorrectly: he will be excused because he does not “know any better”. This is not true. His ignorance is only with regard to learning as we know it, not with his ability to observe or reason.
Many, like Jaime, are quite obstinate in their ignorance, unwilling to change or progress. But I am not prepared to leave him like that. I am determined to prove my own theory that with patience an uneducated person can be encouraged to use their brain. Slowly, I am getting through to him, and slowly he is responding.
My reward is the huge smile that broke out the other day as he finally understood how to get the garden sprayer to spray where he wanted it to, instead of being filled with abject misery when it kept watering the deck instead of the garden!

©GMS September 2012

Who would plant a lawn on the beach?

“….and there is nothing new under the sun.”

The wisdom of Solomon in my mind somehow equates not only to his mind, but also to his opulent and grandiose lifestyle as though somehow wisdom and wealth are linked. 
The fact is there probably is a link between wisdom and the ability to ensure that one’s provision is well taken care of but that is not the thrust of my musings today.
Whenever I walk on the beach I am drawn to the rocks which are all shapes, sizes and even colours. There are many pools within the rocks which are a microcosm of activity, full of little reef fish, strangely shaped shells with critters inside them moving in slow and stately procession around their world, and occasionally a real gem in the form of a starfish or sea anemone is found.
One day, however, I looked at the rocks themselves.  There is one that is in the shape of an arch which is a tale for another day.  There are those that are covered in old oyster shells.  I would love to know why oysters favour certain rocks over others.  Some are covered in bright green sea moss, and look just like card tables.  Others still are patently full of iron and are a deep rust emphasizing their strength.
And then there are the shapes.  I have seen large and small perfectly rectangular rocks that would make great table tops, or steps.  There are the bricks, in some places thrown together and evoking memories of Robert Frost’s “Wall”.  One set of rocks have been so carved by the waves that they look like an old Greek city, complete with colonnades, columns, villas and streets in miniature!
From the rocks I began to look at the patterns in the sand.  I found herringbone, checks and stripes, bland tartans, so many familiar designs.  The shells add to the whole palette of the beach and prêt a porter eat your heart out for there is nothing there that you designed first!  The only thing is you think you are the designer and are unaware of the master craftsman who got there before you!
I have slowly come to the conclusion that there is nothing that has been thought of, created or evolved, that was not on this earth long before man had the idea. I even found a rock that reminded me of an abstract painting I had once seen!
And so the words: “there is nothing new under the sun” began a merry tune in my mind, until I had no choice but to look them up in Ecclesiastes 1:
9. “That which has been is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.
10. Is there anything of which it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
It has already been in ancient times before us.”

I was so excited to find that Solomon, the sage of so many centuries ago, had come to the same conclusion as I and even the thought that my thought was not original did not dampen my pleasure!It was inevitable that my thoughts would then turn back to the link with great wealth that I mentioned at the beginning of this blog.  “All very well thinking you are as clever as Solomon,” a little voice said, “such a pity you haven’t found a way to convert it to wealth as he did.” 

Uuhmm, but the answer to that came almost immediately as I looked at a paper on which were the meanings of my name that was given to me at the Ancient Paths seminar that I attended at the weekend.  One of the supporting scriptures is also from Ecclesiastes a little further on in Chapter 7:

12. “For wisdom is protection, just as money is protection.
But the advantage of knowledge
is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.”

The Art of Giving

The people of Mocambique went to rock bottom as only people who have been through a devastating civil war can go to rock bottom.
On our fist trip here after the war ended in 1992 there was nothing in this land, we didn’t even hear a birdcall. How most of the population survived is an absolute mystery, (or is it a miracle), to me? But for all this, they are the most generous people and I for one have learnt a lot from the way in which the people around me give without hesitation.
The Bible says that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). The derivation of cheerful here is hilaros, meaning willing, good-natured, joyfully ready, to have an enjoyment in giving that sweeps away all restraints.* In this place, that is pretty isolated from the rest of the world, I have experienced this joy first hand.
There is a ritual that takes place each week when Jaime, the guarda of whom I have spoken before, arrives back from his days off carrying a weighty bag. He hands this to me with a huge grin, and then waits with barely contained glee for my reaction to what is inside the bag. The contents vary according to what is available at Jaime’s home but there is always an assortment of sweet potato, peanuts, cashews, pawpaws, oranges, lettuce, guavadillas, cassava all carefully packed.
I have learnt to give huge exclamations of pleasure with each packet that I open, not only to show my very real appreciation but also so that I can see the delight grow in Jaime. I am so moved by the absolute delight this man, who has so much less than I do, takes in sharing what he has with me.
It has been a valuable lesson and one that has given new meaning to the comparatively dry teachings on giving that I have heard, and given, over the years. If I ever thought I was generous I know now that I did not know what the word meant.
So after all these years of thinking I was a fairly giving person, no worse and possible better than the next person, I now find that every time I catch myself wondering if I should do something for a neighbour, or if I should offer to make a salad with the last of my lettuce, I check myself sharply. I am finally starting to understand that the true spirit of giving demands that I must just get on and do it. There is no questioning, no arguing, there is just the seeking of what will bring pleasure and joy to the receiver.
I am learning not to worry whether or not there is enough of something, to just give it to whoever needs it, because I have so much more than I need. My fridge is full, and my heart is grateful that a man who has never been to school, who only speaks his own language has taught me how to give unconditionally.
Obrigada, Senhor Jaime
*Word Worth, New Spirit-filled life bible, NKJV
Copyright © Glenda Stephens, August 2012

God’s Canvas

What a Canvas on which to build

The colour of the sky each day changes slowly from inky magenta to bland light to the softest hues of pink and orange. Then there is a moment when it seems to me as though all creation holds its collective breath while another change takes place. And then a golden glow starts on the eastern horizon, grows stronger and though one expects it there is still a surprise and a feeling of awe as the sun appears in golden glory.
I like to think that each morning God spreads out a canvas which is the backdrop for the masterpiece He wishes to make of each day. His invitation is to us to join with Him in painting this canvas. The finale is the completion of the dawn that happens at sunset when again our Father delights us with a majestic show that lights up the skies in a concert of colours and shapes that is breathtaking.
As the stars are switched on we are able to sit back and contemplate the success, mediocrity or failure of each day.

What strokes should we have added, and what might the picture have been if we had used a different brush, different colours or indeed if we decided not to take part? Will there be a gap, did someone else paint our portion for us, do our strokes bring harmony or do they jar?
As I struggle with this new, yet old, identity of being a writer I cannot help but wonder what the words are that I need to write to complete my portion of this amazing canvas.
There are many questions that I wrangle with. How fictional is fiction? What measure of truth must there be in the tale to make it credible. There are many questions to do with truth. What is truth, and how much of it should I be willing to write? Does it begin with me? If I am truthful how will it be viewed? Will it bring benefit or harm, praise or criticism? Will it make my readers trust me more or less? What is the yardstick for measuring impact? Do I actually have anything to say that will add value to those who read my words? Will it fulfil the mandate of my Creator?
The tide this morning is what I think of as a quiet high tide. This part of the coast has a rocky reef specifically designed, I am sure, to protect the bathers. Most times high tide sees breakers crashing over the reef seemingly vying with each other to see which one can shoot spray highest into the air. There is a vibrancy that the exuberance of the competition ignites in me and I open my arms wide to greet the day.
But that is not the case today. There is a quiet soothing swish as the swells flow over the reef. Further out it is a different story – many tiny white horses abound that can only really be seen through binoculars and it is hard to tell the splash of the whales from the tops of fretful wavelets.
So there is conflict, not huge vicarious conflict, but subtle almost invisible conflict. The flecks of white, to my imagination, are thousands of words and it is up to me which ones I choose and how I order them to bring the peace of the nearby tide to the larger ocean. It is an awesome responsibility and one that I am wary of misusing.
Och, but I am fanciful this chilly Monday morning!
Talking of words, before I leave you to ponder what strokes you will paint on today’s canvas, the peculiarities of prescriptive text amused when I received this message: “You can come cow time”. It proved prophetic as it was in response to an appointment to jetspray the underside of my car, which as it turned out, was well plastered with cow dung!

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