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The Miracle of Life


Yesterday my youngest turned 6.  He is a “laat lametjie”  – came into our lives 14 years after the brother he follows.  As I have been preparing to celebrate and counting down the number of ‘sleeps’ to his birthday I was taken back 6 years ago to the time of his birth.  I realise again that though our journeys into and through life are not always easy, many miracles and blessings happen along the way – every day.

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I was an ‘older mum’ – in my mid forties, and so from the moment I knew I was pregnant, I knew that it might not be an easy journey.  And there were challenges on many levels – my age, I had pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure…), the challenge of the unexpected pregnancy, a husband in shock, a daughter in Matric, and son just starting high school, etc.  Quite early into the pregnancy I decided that I needed to do something creative to carry me through this time – to be my soft place to land.  One Tuesday night, as I drove my daughter home from choir, Balu Nivison, whom I had sent a one sentence email saying a mutual friend said we should meet, called me and invited me to join her ‘Moving Arts’ course that was beginning the next day.  I started a 12 week process of movement and reflection and art that ended in a friendship that I treasure.  At some point in the 12 weeks, I could not dance because my blood pressure was high but I continued with the art, writing, reflection and support within the group because it  gave me a deep sense of peace.  At the end of the course I knew I had the strength and peace of mind to handle anything.

A few weeks later, about 7 weeks before the baby was to be born I woke up with a strange, pain around my stomach – a ‘belt of pain’.  It was not a contraction – just a slow, steady, dull pain – more in the background than anything.  At first I thought it was just muscles stretching but it continued.  After no change in two days I decided I would go in to my Gynae just to make sure all was well.  I called Agnisia, my friend and ‘sister from another mother’ to drive me in.  After the check up he decided that I should be admitted for observation.  The ward said they would have a bed at two so she took me home to pack my suitcase and prepare myself.

I called my husband and sent out a few sms’s to let my daughter and son and a few other people know what was happening, ate lunch, and returned to the hospital.  This time Mr. B, a pensioner who drove the kids to and from school, dropped me at the reception.  I walked in and started to fill in the admission forms, feeling  so alone and wishing there was someone with me.  And as I finished, I turned around to see my friend Veronica walking towards me.  It was like seeing an Angel!  She sat with me while the nurses hooked me up to machines – foetal monitor, blood pressure machine, the funny thing they put on your finger to measure oxygen (or something) – and pricked and prodded me.  A steady comforting presence.

A little while later my Gynae, Jannerman, came in.  He checked a few things, while a nurse held my arm and pricked, and watched the blood, and pricked again…  She looked at the Dr and said, “No. ….”(I cant remember what else).  Jannerman stood at the foot of my bed and said, “Philippa, we are going to have to operate now. The baby is in distress, and your platelets are dropping.  We are just waiting for the blood from Tygerberg and then we will go on.”  I did not fully understand the seriousness of what he was saying but I knew something was wrong.  I had had an emergency cesear before and I knew they were doing this to save my life and if possible the baby.    I just said, ” I was sort of expecting this.”  He cleared his throat again and said, “And I am not going to be able to keep my promise to you.  I can’t do an epidural, we need to put you to sleep and work as fast as we can.  And I am probably not going to make a bikini line incision either but I will try to make it as neat as possible.”  At that point I decided this was not the time to ask many questions.  I had to prepare myself for the operation.  I gave him a half-smile and said, “I guess you have to do what you must.”

I was disappointed that he could not keep his promise – that he would make sure that I was awake to welcome this my very last child into the world.  I had been completely under for the delivery of my first two children – the first an emergency caesar, the second an epidural gone wrong.  I wanted to be awake to welcome this last one into the world.  Now it was not to be.  I breathed in thought, “God, if this is what you want, then let it all go well.”  What I thankfully did not realise at the time was that my pre-eclampsia had evolved into HELLP SYNDROME.  The dropping platelets meant that my red blood cells were breaking down and my blood was slowly losing its ability to clot.   There was a strong likelihood that I could bleed to death, or have stroke.   (For more info go to http://www.preeclampsia.org/health-information/hellp-syndrome)

It was around this point that my husband arrived at the hospital.  We spoke for a bit, and then left to get dressed to come into the theatre with me.  He walked me into the theatre and then said he was going to wash his hands. (What he actually did was go and sit in the waiting room which was better for the doctors doing the procedure.  They did not need the added pressure of a colleague watching them operate on his wife and child – especially under such difficult circumstances. Again I am glad that I did not know.)

I woke up hours later to see my son, daughter and husband in the room with the news that I had had a little boy and he was fine.  One of the nurses sent a message to all the people on my phone to let them know (sorry for those who did not know me that well). I was groggy with pain drugs for quite a while.

The next morning I woke up with a feeling as if I had just been through a very difficult time.  There was a different quality to the air and light. That day, or the next, I got up and went slowly to the neo-natal ICU  to see my baby – I needed to know how he was.  He was small – weighing I.7kg.  As I held him and breast-fed him the Peadiatrician came by, and as she left she told a colleague that Chris was her miracle baby.  I asked, “Why is she saying that?  There are much smaller babies in here.”  That is when nurse told me that she was in the theatre when Chris was born.  He was blue and did not move – 1/10 on the AGPAR score.  They resuscitated him, and on the second measure he was a 7/10.  (http://kidshealth.org/parent/pregnancy_center/q_a/apgar.html)  They gave him oxygen for the first 24 hours, but did not need to intubate him.  He was a miracle.

3 days after his birth I wrote this prayer and put in his cot in the ICU:

Prayer for Christopher – from Mom.

Bouy Christopher up

with Your breath

as he begins his life

Oh God.

May he dance to the

sound of Your voice

and be drawn forward

by the beauty of

Your light.

May he be cradled

in Your heart, Oh Lord

and protected by the

shield of  Your

softest Love

Amen

My prayer was answered.  Today he is a tall, strong, loving, talkative boy with a great imagination.  I am grateful to all those who supported us, all those who cared, prayed, and took care of my family.

Looking back I realise how important it is to have a great support system, and how important it is to know what you need to do to take care of yourself, and to prepare yourself for lifes challenges.  For me creativity, friendship and prayer are very important – and these things gave me the resources to support the miracle that was Chris.

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There is only one you…


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“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. “
Martha Graham

For a long time I have grappled with who I am and what my work is – especially at this point in my life.  I am drawn to working with story, and with voice, and I also feel strongly that I have skills as a facilitator and a coach.  The conversation within me has been about being one or the other, until I realised that all of this is me – all of this and more, and it is my responsibility to bring this combination of talent, skill and experience into the world.  It is so wonderful to arrive at this place.  May you also find that place, and keep the channel open.

 

Philippa in Maama's dress - laughing

Honour those who show up


Labyrinth by Francois Korver

 

A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were supposed to facilitate a one day workshop for some clients in Johannesburg.  It was the last session of a 7 month leadership programme and I had been asked to lead this final day using Story as a tool for reflection and planning.  I was excited.   Then things started to go wrong.  With all the previous leadership cohorts we worked away from the organisations premises, in a guesthouse with a lovely quiet garden, but because of the current financial context they were saving on costs and so they used their own premises – a distribution hub with lorries passing outside of the windows of the facilitation room regularly.  It was not the most conducive venue.  The dates had been changed in January, but somehow not all the participants received the new dates until a week before the course!  5 days before we were to facilitate the day was almost cancelled because of poor attendance.  Then, for some reason, they decided that we would go ahead.  So we were flown to Johannesburg and on arrival at the airport, both my colleague and I had two different shuttle services come to pick us up at the airport.  One organised by our administrator in Cape Town, and the other by the company!  We got to the B and B, and they were not expecting us because the client had not confirmed the booking.  Luckily they had rooms for us and this was sorted. Things were not looking good at all.

On the morning we were to work we got an email from the client to say that the numbers had dropped …  We were now expecting 6 or so people – from a possible 14.  We looked at each other and wondered what to do – cancel or facilitate? We had designed a very interactive process – time for reflection in small groups – to practice leadership skills of listening, asking incisive questions, sharing insights.  This required time but with only 5 people, it would be a short day – and would the design work with 6 people?

As we ate our breakfast and planned our day the thought came to mind about honouring those who came.  People had cleared their diaries, some had travelled as far as we had to be at the programme.  If we cancelled because ‘there weren’t enough participants’ what were we saying to them? And how many is enough? The saying, ‘whoever is there are the right people’ (from open space technology) came to mind, and I said to my colleague, “Whoever comes, lets facilitate what we have prepared.  We can tweak the exercises to suit the numbers, and we will most probably finish earlier than expected, but we would have honoured those who came.”  And that is what we did.

We ended up with 5, not 6 people – all men.  As we gathered to start people spoke about how angry they were with the way the course had been organised internally – and how upset they were with their own colleagues for not making the time to be there.  It was not a good place to begin the course.  So my colleague asked us to sit still, close our eyes, and she lead us through a visualisation which centered us and helped us to focus on the purpose of the day.  We worked with the Hero’s Journey, using it to reflect on the 7 months leadership journey they had been on.  And then, instead of the sharing in small groups, all 7 of us sat in a circle, and each participant shared their journey with such honesty and integrity.  And then – in a very unexpected turn – each of the listeners gave the speaker feedback.  I was struck by how aware they were of each person’s journey.  For everyone in the room there was someone who had seen their struggles and successes within the organisation, and was able to reflect this back to their colleague.  They gave statements like, “You took a job no one wanted to take.  In fact we thought you were crazy, and you have worked wonders.  Now everyone in the organisation is looking at you.”  Or “You made a decision that made sense to your family, but could have been a career limiting move.  And you have made it work for you and for the company.  You are a real inspiration.”  As we sat there, my colleague and I knew we had made the right decision.  Here were people in leadership, in an organisation, that understood each others challenges and were supportive of each other, who were able to speak openly with each other.  It was clear that these 5 people had the potential to make real differences in the organisation.

It was such a fulfilling day – all the challenges leading up to it faded away, and I realised three things:

  • Whoever comes – these are the right people and one should honour the effort they made to be there.
  • You have no guarantee what impact your work will have, but in being present, and giving your best to those who came – something will change.
  • Story is a very powerful tool to work with.  Each person told a personal story – in fact one person made it into a myth, but it was based on the organisation, and everyone recognised parts of it.  Through the storytelling they were able to articulate the movement and growth of each individual, and the challenges that lay ahead in a way that they would all remember.

 

What is truer than truth?


There is a Yiddish saying that starts with the question ‘What is truer than truth?’  And the answer is …  well read on and you will find it.  What brought this saying to mind?  On Tuesday I was one of the guest storytellers at the Cape Town Central Library’s first Storytelling Festival to mark World Book Day.    I LOVE telling stories and jump at any opportunity to share them – with children and with adults.  Working with young people is a special treat as they are not inhibited – they are ‘story-ripe’ and have not yet ‘learnt’ the myth that only logical, left-brained ideas matter.  Their eyes grow bigger as they imagine the world you are creating with them, they hearts move with the hearts of the characters in the story, and in the process you, the storyteller, see new things, that you had not seen before in the stories you tell.

I love folktales and  as is often the case, my programme drew on the oral tradition that I grew up with.  As I worked with the young people (and the adults who had accompanied them, or who were just walking by, and stopped to listen) I was reminded again of the power of story to awaken the imagination, to stir something deep in the heart and get people thinking.  My first group was a class of 9 to 10 year old boys, who had walked with their teacher to the Company Gardens in Cape Town.  Judging from their teacher’s demeanour it had been a long walk and I was expecting them to be boisterous.   But when I said, “Once upon a time…” they just sat back, listened, responding with their big open eyes, their smiles, their laughter and their questions.  I taught them the call and response song in the Luganda story, Kaleeba, and they jumped in and singing on time, in tune – never missing a beat.  And every time their part came I had only to look at them, and they were in.

Telling tales to these young boys I was reminded again of how the storytelling – story-listening space is co-created by the teller and their audience.  There is something about the quality of listening that spurs the teller on, and something about the quality of the telling that draws the listener in – and when the balance is right the story takes over the space and leads both the listener and teller on.  And then the background noise of the grass being cut, and the other children shouting, the distraction of people walking past and squirrels running up a tree fades away completely.

The next group was a mixed group of 12 to 13 year old boys and girls.  The first story I told them, Kakookolo, I had a feeling they felt the ending was too easy – basically he turned into a handsome prince, and they lived happily ever after.  So I told them a harder story – Labong and Gipiir – a story from Northern Uganda which I remember from my Grade 3 History class.  It is a story of two brothers who lived close to each other.

One day an elephant came into their gardens and was about to destroy their crop. Gipiir grabbed a spear, struck the elephant, and it ran away with the spear in its side.  They all celebrated, until Labong realised that the spear that was in the elephants side was his favourite spear.  He was furious and demanded that his brother bring back his special spear.  No pleading from anyone would change his mind.  So Gipiir went, and after long and arduous journey he found the house of Min Lyec, the Mother of Elephants.  She took him in, made him work with the elephants for a while, then gave him the spear, and a beautiful bead.  He returned home, gave his brother the spear and told him he would never forget how his brother had treated him.  A few days later Labong’s child swallowed the bead, and Gipiir demanded it back immediately.  He would not wait for the child to have a bowel movement.  In the end Labong was forced to cut the child open to retrieve the bead.  The next day the two families woke up, packed their belongings and left the place that had brought them so much sorrow – one family went westwards, and the other eastwards.

And so the story ends.

At the end of one story they said, ‘That’s a really sad story!!’ So we explored some of the following questions:  ‘Is that the only way the story could have gone?  What if so and so did not do that, then what would have happened?  What if you were so and so, what would you have done?’  Until we came to the point where someone said, ‘The elephant should never have come!’  I did not give them an easy answer, but left them to stay with those questions and thoughts.  I too was left with questions:  “What do you have control over – and are you aware of that all the time?  And when something terrible happens what do you do?  And when does the horror of what has happened end, and a new story begin?  And what of this experience do you take into the new story?  And does it help?”  Then someone said, ‘Tell us another story, one that’s not so sad.’

And so I told them the story of Nsimbyengwire – which is a twist on the Cinderella story, without the Prince Charming or the ugly sisters.  And I ended with Stone soup – which ended in spontaneous applaud!!

At the end of it all one of the girls put her hand up and asked, “Are all those stories true?”  To which I responded, “There is a Yiddish saying which goes like this, ‘What is truer than the truth?’  And the answer is ‘A Story.’

The African Women’s Decade – 2010 – 2020


I did not know that the African Union had made 2010 – 2020 the African Women’s decade – but they did!  Was there any media hype about it? Did I miss it, in the noise and media overload of this century?  Or was I just too tied up in taking care of my little 6 month old, who was just coming out of his premature stage and becoming stronger?  I don’t know, and I don’t think that really matters – not really… it’s just that the concept of the  ‘African Women’s Decade’ gives me a sense of excitement and possibility, and a sense of deja-vu.  It takes me back to Nairobi in July 1985 when Kenya hosted the U.N.’s 3rd World Conference on Women to ‘review and appraise the achievement of the UN Decade for Women’ (1975 – 85).   I was 21 years old and through some luck my friend Irene was able to get us to work as volunteers at the NGO Forum – see my badge!!! 😉 (P.A. Barlow)  It felt like such a privilege.

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To be honest I do not remember much about that time – except that it was very exciting, and the Forum was based around the National Theatre.  There were so many women in Nairobi – and the men, who had been excited about the prospect of being surrounded by many women ended up frustrated because all the women were interested in was Women’s issues!!!   Another thing  I remember that a group of us, young black women went to the Hilton Hotel (unaccompanied by any man) and they did not treat us like we were hookers, AND we had quick service!!! And all the street children disappeared from the streets of Nairobi for a time.

A lot was achieved, I am sure, – and a lot of decisions and strategies developed in the UN, Development agencies, Governments etc – but I want to know what impact it had on the ordinary woman.  Conferences often frustrate me because you spend most of you time listening to people talking AT you, and the most interesting encounters, for me, are the conversations you have over tea, or lunch, or when you are looking at the displays, and accidentally bump into someone.  I wish there were more spaces for people to engage – not just to ask questions of the speakers, but to sit and really engage, dream, plan, listen to each others stories, understand the different contexts….

You see I am more interested in the impact on people, rather than policy, and so on.  Policy creates an enabling environment, but if no one acts then its just words on paper.  I fight for women, but sometimes hard-nosed feminists turn me off.  I get frustrated when they paint all men with one brush (evil, pulling women down) and I reflect and realise that my mother would not have gone to University in the 1950s if it had not been for the foresight of her father.  Or when I can identify a number of women who pulled me back, and men who encouraged me.  I get frustrated when they speak of the patriarchical society, and then go on to behave in exactly the same way that they say men do – and thus silence all the women they are claiming to empower! Women, like men, are just human beings with strengths and weaknesses.

So while the idea of a women’s decade excites me, I want to approach it differently from the way it seems to come up in the mainstream.  I would like to be more awake than I was at 21, and, in some small way make this decade count in more than just words – or policies or projects  looking for funders (all of which are absolutely important – I know that).  The question I am asking myself, and you, is ‘What are you going to do to make  this decade of the African Women more than just words on paper – or people shouting in the political arena about what is not happening?  What mark will we leave – beyond the rhetoric and the hype – even if it touches just one person?

  • How will we define (or re-define) power, and powerful women?   Will it be all about money and business, or being senior in government?  Or will we recognise all the ways in which women support the continent?
  • What, in your deepest heart of hearts, do you want to be the legacy of this decade?  How can you contribute, in a new and innovative way – beyond the tried and tested ‘recipes’ that often do not touch the ordinary woman?
  • Who are we going to celebrate?  Whose stories will we share?  Will we celebrate that woman who makes sure (on her meagre earnings) her children have a safe place to sleep, a roof over their heads, and get an education as well as that woman who goes out and fights for policies and infrastructure, or who makes an impact in the field of Education, or in the Economy?  Or we going to focus on the ‘celebrities’?
  • Will we be able to go beyond the traditions that trap women, and recognise, also the ways in which women make those traditions work for them (check out this video – http://www.ted.com/talks/kavita_ramdas_radical_women_embracing_tradition.html)

How about starting by recognising your 10 most inspiring /powerful/amazing African women?  Lets talk about them! Send me a short email, and a photo, if you have one, and I will add them all to my blog.

As a starting point (and before I put my 10 most inspiring African women down) let me share this with you :

http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2012/12/06/the-20-youngest-power-women-in-africa-2012/

Hollow tree trunks


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In January I went on a one day retreat to gather myself, and my thoughts for 2012.  It was an impromptu invitation by a good friend and fellow storyteller, Gilly, to join her and a group of her friends – and just what I needed.  The venue was an old farm shed turned workshop /retreat space – with a lovely spacious garden to sit in.  As the day unfolded, we went outside, alone, to reflect – and I found a beautiful old, hollow tree to sit in and contemplate.  It was a warm womb-like space, with light filtering through in interesting places – and though I hate creepy crawlies, I did not even think about them.  I just enjoyed the feeling of being held in a space – barefoot, and on ‘holy ground’, listening.  And in that space some of what I was to do this year began to emerge.  Mostly I had a sense that this year was about being present, and listening and responding.  And it was also about a creative journey – that would not unfold quickly, all at once, but slowly, requiring patience, wisdom, trust and resilience.  As I drove home I was also clear about what I would not take on, and what I would embrace in January – and the biggest thing was committing to a 5 week storytelling course – daily from 9 am to 4 pm!!!

At the end of January I started the storytelling course called the Storyteller in the community and what an amazing journey!!  It was what I needed on so many levels, and gave me the resilience I needed to go through this year – challenges that I could not even begin to imagine.  And every week we were given a story to work on. One week I was given the story of the Trumpeter Hornbill, and as I read the story my heart beat faster because I knew this was a story I needed to work with.  I preface this with the statement that I love stories because the powerful stories have many layers of meaning, speaking to each listener in a different way and so often what a story seems to be about is not the only thing it is about.   This is particularly true of the story of the Trumpeter Hornbill – and before I speak about what the story reminded me of – here is a link to the story:

http://www.wisafrica.com/tag/trumpeter-hornbills-faithless-wife/

For me the story was about the things I really wanted to do/ felt called to do and the things that distracted me from “sitting on the eggs, and waiting for them to hatch”.  It was particularly powerful after having started the year drawn to a hollow tree.

So as this year draws to an end I reflect on what I have done, and what I have paid attention to – and though it has been a really sad year – with the passing on my mother – I  believe that for the most part I have paid attention to the things that matter, and not been distracted by those attractive things, that I can do, or am good at, that lead astray.  A lot of the work that has come to me has required me to use my storytelling skills – and what started out as voluntary work has led to at least one paid piece of work! I have paid attention to my family in South Africa and in Uganda.  My trips to Uganda, although they have been about sorting things out, have enabled me to grieve Maama in a place where people know her – and to see her reflected back to me by the people I have met.  (I could not have done this in Cape Town – not in the same healing way).  And somehow I have felt my roots grow deeper – centering me more.  I have attended gatherings that were meaningful, attended artistic performances that have fed my soul and had a sense of being on the right path – even though I cannot see the end of the path.  I know I have not yet arrived, but I know that this time I have stayed in my hollow tree trunk, and trusted that in time the eggs will hatch.

And so, it was appropriate, as the year drew to an end, that I found another hollow tree trunk – and a very old one at that.  And although I did not sit in it – I touched base with it, and all the meaning it held at the beginning of the year.  And as I reflect on the year that past, I realise that I was immersed in storywork – the love of which I shared with my mother – and I have carried a sense of being with her in all her fullness even I was carving my journey.

May you, in 2013, stay true to the things that are important, and if needs be, may you be sealed in a hollow tree trunk until the eggs you are caring for hatch!!!!

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Africa! my Africa!


My poem, ‘Velvet Skies’ is included in Africa! My Africa!  and it looks like the books will be delivered from the printers on the 20th of December !  Watch this space for the launch dates.

Africa! My Africa! an anthology of poetry is

“Patricia Schonstein’s personal selection brings together a wide, rich range of poems all held together by a simple yet deep honesty.

The words of Nobel Laureates, well-established poets, emerging poets and even Cape Town’s homeless people share the pages, expressing eloquence and wit, and reminding us of poetry’s unique place in the landscape of the human heart.”

She has included poems from over 100 poets!

As part of the process Patricia has, over the course of this year, been reading the poems out loud in very many parts of Cape Town – just randomly!  Here are some links from her blog:

http://patriciaschonstein.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/04/05/detention-kabali-kagwa-mtshali/

http://patriciaschonstein.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/09/05/reading-a-poem-by-takawira-dururu-outside-kwikspar/

http://patriciaschonstein.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/09/03/reading-a-poem-by-siyabonga-sibiya-at-the-red-sofa/

http://patriciaschonstein.bookslive.co.za/blog/2012/11/01/reading-a-poem-by-rudyard-kipling-outside-clarke%E2%80%99s-bookshop-in-long-street/

Patricia is an internationally published and critically acclaimed author and poet, a philanthropist and outspoken advocate for peace and reconciliation.   You can read more about her at – http://www.patriciaschonstein.com or at http://patriciaschonstein.bookslive.co.za/blog .

I am really excited about this project because it was put together to raise funds for another dream that she has – SEED READERS.  Seed Readers is a project that will produce story books, for children,  based on principles of peace, non-violence, non-racism and care of the earth. They will seed an understanding of our true role as custodians of the earth and oceans. They will inspire children to live ethically and in a sustainable manner.

Please email Afpress@iafrica.com to place your order of Africa! My Africa!

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