Tuesday, 30 July 2013

About language

The other day I watched something strange. A DVD of a performance of Die Kleine Hexe at the Z├╝rich children's theater. In the regional Swiss German dialect of my childhood. A language that, for me, is completely bound to a particular context and that I don't interact with very often anymore. But the experience was strangely comforting and evocative in ways I never expected. A few days later I watched this amazing video about a 17-year old who speaks 20 languages and that really got me thinking about language and how that relates to who we are.

When my daughter was born, I made the decision to only speak German to her, not the dialect, but the "proper" German. It was a pragmatic decision; I wanted her to be bilingual, but in a South African context I knew I had a better chance of finding German materials and people to interact with (the dialect being regionally specific and lexically, syntactically and phonologically different from the "proper" German).

It's been strange; I played in Swiss German, learnt to read in German, evolved into English and now am rekindling a language for this growing relationship with my daughter. Language is the mold you press yourself into. Its parameters become the limits of your expression, thoughts are made material out of its conventions and sentence structures. I've made my home in English now; it's become the language of writing and thinking and it feels messy to keep going between the two, yet I can feel that each language touches some different part of me, reaches somewhere that the other can't.

Sometimes existing between two languages feels a bit like a no-man's land. Neither here nor there. Languages leak across borders in a mess of code-switching and heat-of-the-moment direct translations. I listen to our fledgling interactions and wonder where it will end up.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Encounters with mountain monsters (or an evening walk up a hill)

There was once a little girl who lived in a cottage by the mountains. She always peeked out of windows at the big, wide world out there. One day she decided to be brave and go on an adventure, so she ventured out across the farmlands of burnt winter grass and up into the mountains. She passed through forests and said, "if you hold my hand I won't be scared." So we held hands and carried on walking. She passed by thorny shrubs and said, "if you hold my hand, the monster won't get me." So we held hands and it didn't.

At last she emerged at the top and the setting sun tickled the dry landscape with the last of her dusty-yellow rays. It was beautiful and felt like the top of the world had been conquered. But then, emerging out of the dazzling light, she saw an approaching figure. It was big and shaggy and had a long tail. The mountain monster had come.

The little girl stood frozen to the spot and squeezed my hand. I told her, "it's only a monster." She believed me and stared him down as he extended his curious, sniffing nose. She giggled. He was delighted. And then they played across the mountain top together, running and calling and standing on rocks as if they were kings.

And later, as she descended the mountain on the shoulders of giants, she told me, "It was okay, the mountain monster is friendly."

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Rest and retreat

What is it about the Drakensberg in winter? A few days away there can be so inspirational... the berg is so startling in her rough, wintery patchwork blanket of charred black and golden browns. The whole landscape just so alive with texture from the crunch of trodden-on leaves and bark, to the crispness of the freezing morning air and that seamless blue sky...
thin strips of dusty road diffusing into cloud behind cars... those distant mountain peaks stacked against the horizon, fading like a stage backdrop from washed-out grey to almost white in the hot noon sun...everything so burnt and golden at the same time...
Seriously, it's a breathtakingly beautiful place!

Monday, 1 July 2013

"Knit your own job"

Like any addict, I told myself I would only have a look at the preview on my Kobo account and then stop. Right. Before I knew it, and without so much as missing a beat, I'd downloaded the whole book to my tablet. Such are the dangers of eBooks.

Anyway, the book I'm talking about is Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity by Emily Matchar and it deals with a range of very interesting issues relating to the growing international trend of reviving the "lost" domestic arts like canning, bread-baking, knitting and the rise of home-based crafting businesses and the artisan economy. She examines these issues in relation to what it means for feminism and asks the questions " Why are women of my generation, the daughters of post-Betty Friedan feminists, embracing the domestic tasks that our mothers and grandmothers so eagerly shrugged off?" 

Much of her answer deals with the disillusionment with the workplace, particularly when it comes to working mothers and a new generation's demands for a healthier work-life balance. Very interesting. 

In her chapter "Knit your own job: Etsy and the New Handmade Culture", she speaks of the rise of the artisan economy - trades that work both within and outside of the economic system. For many it seems to be offering a viable work-from-home and be creatively engaged alternative to stagnant 9-5 corporate careers. Matchar writes:
"Lawrence Katz, the Harvard economist and former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labour, also talks of the comeback of artisans as an important job class. The artisan, Katz argues, may have more stability in the twenty-first-century economy than the corporate employee, since they can work either inside or outside the system."
 In relation to South Africa, with its thriving informal economy, it does make you wonder whether this is a viable reality for the masses of unemployed.While there is a healthy and growing handmade and crafting community here, when we think of "craft" many of us tend to still think of Zimbabweans selling wire key rings at street corners, or rural Zulu women doing traditional bead work, or woven baskets from the bustling Victoria Street Market. Is it, at least in the sense that Matchar describes it, a middle class luxury? As far as these crafts go, they haven't been attributed much value. Can the two "knit your own job" options be merged? If so, how? Certainly not having access to electricity, computers and the internet means that these traditional crafters remain firmly outside of the Etsy-economy Matchar speaks about.

Of course Homeward Bound is based on American research, which means completely different challenges in some aspects, but also many of the same - especially DIY culture as an expression of post feminism. It was interesting to read that many of the women Matchar talks to, couch their reasons for opting out of the formal workforce to stay home with their children as not anti-feminist, but rather in a discourse of personal choice. So for many women, smaller, home-based businesses have provided the balance needed to work and raise children. However,  Matchar also cautions:
"The new culture of craft and artisanship is exciting and worthwhile. At the same time, it's hard not to worry that the 'very-very small business' model is helping repackage old, failed ideas about microenterprise and women."
Homeward Bound was a fascinating read - I got very sucked into the world of DIY - organic gardening, frugal living, locavorism, urban homesteading, keeping chickens, knitting, canning, jam-making, homeschooling and attachment parenting.

The book made me rather keen on planting something (tomatoes P) and baking something (cake P )... we'll have to see how long the tomatoes last once I get back to work...


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