The Matter Of Words


The street was cobbled. Perhaps it was raining. It’s not always wet, but it is usually cold in London in early January. It was barely afternoon and it might have been dark already. I’m sure I didn’t mind the cold pinching my skin that was more used to the hot African sun at that time of year than the chilliness that stroked my bare neck with its icy fingers. South Africans in London are not always prepared for true degrees of freezing.

I didn’t mind. It wasn’t the cold that had my attention right then.

It was at least 20 years ago. The highlights of those weeks backpacking through Europe and London have faded. What I remember with vivid clarity are the details: the snow I saw for the first time in Lucerne, the brave Italian bikers who didn’t care about the side mirrors they snapped off the cars as they whizzed down narrow Roman alleys, and the pillow cases at the inn under the train tracks in Avignon that smelled strongly of vinegar. I knew they were clean.

London was our last stop. My backpack felt heavy after lugging it for weeks on my back, and the cobbled streets were dangerously slick in the rain.

I stepped into the bookstore to move away from the wintry, poking fingers of imminent nightfall and found myself in a world of wonder.

This bookstore was no different to any other I’d ever been in: shelves and stacks and displays of novels and recipe books and travel guides, biographies and plays and the latest bestsellers. An entire carousel of Mr Men. It was all there as expected.

What was unexpected was my reaction. As if I had never been in a bookstore before, the frenzied desire to own them all wrapped itself around my heart like the scarf I had forgotten to bring: Dickens and Austen and George Eliot and every Brontë I could find, including Anne. Poems by Milton and Yeats and Seamus Heaney and a big fat anthology of the works of John Keats. Plays by Moliere and Strindberg and I’m sure a Shakespeare or two.

Somewhere between Robinson Crusoe and Lady Chatterley’s Lover I misplaced my jacket and all my wits. How I would transport my newly acquired, gargantuan stash of classics from London to Johannesburg in a backpack that was already weighing me down was of no consequence. Or even of consideration.

Today, my greatest challenge in that situation would be finding a wifi connection to download all those masterpieces of literature. I would log on to Amazon, maybe read a sample but probably not, click Buy and be done. I could do it while standing on the cobbled street in the cold twilight, possibly using the bookstore’s wifi. Swipe. Click. Adjust the collar of my jacket against the chill.

The books are heavy, weighted with the words, the truths of their authors. Journals of imagination and dreams, pages of exploration and fantasy. Their colorful covers, bright canvases of promise and adventure, guard the path along which we can’t wait to wander or race, meander or gallop.

I love my Kindle, I do. It’s light and nimble, easy to carry, and would occupy little more space than a pair of socks in a heavy backpack. It is a portal to a world of words and anticipation, a world that is truly at my fingertips. And that is nothing less than astounding.

But its shelves are flat and gray. There are no wrinkled spines standing upright or leaning a little to the right, urgently but quietly beckoning to the eager reader. There is no inscription waiting for me on the title page, the date of my sixth birthday underlined in blue pen at the top:

To our own darling Nicky,

Wishing you many happy returns of the day.

All our love and kisses

from your loving

Gran & Sonny

There is no favorite bookstore with every book I’ve been wanting to read beautifully displayed, and no bookstore owner to chat with or to tell me about a little-known gem. She has known all my children since they were born and every recommendation is a winner.

My backpack was heavier than I could have ever imagined, carrying those books home. I even bought a large duffel bag for the overflow. But the sight of them, 20 years later, in my bookshelf and the feel of them in my two hands is worth every last, heavy step.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “Something I used to love but now hate is…” or “Something I used to hate but now love is…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, Allison (this week’s sentence thinker-upper) from The Latchkey Mom, and Kelly from Just TypiKel. Words matter.


More Than Words

MuirBeachEvery night she turns on the light in her closet and leaves the closet door open exactly one inch. She arranges the pillows and stuffed animals just so, and comes to find me wherever I am in the house: stacking the dishwasher, on the loo, plotting my next Word With Friend (turns out “yids” is an acceptable word), inspecting the lines around my eyes I could swear those three were not there yesterday…

“Mom will you come kiss me goodnight?”

Every night she asks.

I smile. Say of course in a sweet voice. Or yes with a hint of exasperation. I’m tired of this question, night after night. Or I mumble okay. A word in the affirmative. Every night.

And every night, after I’ve kissed her, she asks, “Will you tell Dad to come kiss me goodnight?” Every night.

I felt, this week, that I was drowning in words. Goodnight words, request words, instruction words, necessary words, words of love and words of thanks. Ridiculous words, hopeful words, fighting words. Written words, words of encouragement, crying words, and words from faraway.

So many words. And none of them my own.

I read extraordinary essays about complicated children, and confusing experiences and thwarted relationships. I listened to the doctor tell me how to treat poison oak, and to the pharmacist promise to let me know when those meds are available. I heard about little boys who tell white lies, and big boys who make me proud, and I didn’t get to talk about her Math problem because the conference was canceled.

I cursed the man who flipped me off as he pushed me into oncoming traffic, but only in my head. And on my way back I half-heartedly tried to find him so I could remind him a Stop sign means Stop even if you’re in a hurry, and that speeding cars and crashing glass can break my bones but giving me the bird will not harm me… but of course he had safely vanished down the tree-lined street and I never got to use my words.

I thought about these lines from a poem I studied in high school, “Not Waving But Drowning”:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

I wondered whether the poet, Stevie Smith, could possibly have meant the man was drowning in words. Of others. And of his own. Words that he never got to say, or think about, or write. Because he had writer’s block. Or his children’s words drowned his out. Or maybe they needed his words before he had even created them for himself.

Or because there was no one to hear when he slammed his bony elbow into the doorpost, so he whimpered “Fuck.” But only in his head.

I stood in the shower and drowned in words that were around me and on me and in me. I felt them buried in my heart and ringing in my ears. They tumbled and splashed, cascaded through my hair and clung to my eyelashes. And by the time I reached for the fluffy green towel, they had slooshed down the drain.

I have been drowning in words. I wished they were my own.

“Will you tell Dad to kiss me goodnight?” she calls softly to my retreating back. I sigh. Yes.

We pass each other in the doorway to her room. His brown eyes lock with my green ones. He smiles. I smile back.

Sometimes, no words are the lifeline you need.

With love and deepest gratitude to Jena Schwartz for giving me a space to hold onto my words, even as they sloosh down the drain. Inspired by the poem “Not Waving But Drowning” by Stevie Smith:

Nobody heard him, the dead man,

But still he lay moaning:

I was much further out than you thought

And not waving but drowning.

Poor chap, he always loved larking

And now he’s dead

It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,

They said.

Oh, no no no, it was too cold always

(Still the dead one lay moaning)

I was much too far out all my life

And not waving but drowning.

The Bravest Thing I’ve Ever Done


They decorate the air with sails of green and red and turquoise and yellow. They dance on gusts of invisible wind, giant soaring birds doing the tango. Strong and silent. Free and flying. The ocean is every shade of blue. And foamy white. I want to be there, on the waves, in the air.

It must take a lot of physical strength to dance with the wind like that. To fly on water. Strong arms to hold that sail. Strong legs to stay upright. Powerful inside to keep balanced. So much strength. And stamina.

And courage. To fly into the wide open sky. To let the wind lead. It must take a lot of courage and steeled, unbreakable, unbendable nerves to give over like that. To unknown waters, unpredictable wind.

I’m not sure I’m brave enough.


It’s a little more than a year since I hit publish for the very first time. I wrote about my longing to live in Israel, and I called it Kiteboarders Do Come Back. I published it on the wonderful Israeli-based news site, Times of Israel. It was 11pm at night. I was terrified.

My heart thundered in my chest. I don’t know why I did it so late at night. The noise in my head, in my ears, in my heart deafeningly drowned out any possibility of sleep. Every nerve ending quivered, from my intestines to my toenails and the tips of my eyelashes. Real. Fear.

I’ve never jumped out a plane to go skydiving, or leapt off a cliff with a hang glider, or taken to the ocean with nothing but a board, a sail and the wind between me and the sun. But I’m pretty sure this feeling of terror overpowers every shred of exhilaration in anticipation of these extreme, courageous feats. Before that adrenaline kicks in, before “Hey, I’m doing this, I’m flying, I’m REALLY DOING THIS,” must come “Oh. My. G-d,” and “W T F” and “I thought this was a good idea WHY?”

As soon as I hit that button I felt like I’d blindly leapt off a cliff. Sick with fear. Shaking with terror. That I’d made a mistake. Done the wrong thing. I wasn’t sure if I’d crash in a heap of broken somethings (heart, pride, feelings to start) or if I’d be lucky enough to feel the briefest whisper of wind in my too-short hair.

My kite boarder moment.


I love to write. To turn inward and be present and thoughtful with myself. To listen to my own thoughts, feelings, opinions and then name them with words on a white page right with my own fingers, before my eyes. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable to do even that, but I knew if I didn’t I was either going to drown in my own unnamed words, or fish them out of the deep blue where I could see them, count them, describe them, hate them, love them.

And it’s one thing to hold those words up to the light where I can see them. It’s another to hold them out for others to see.

Hitting publish is leaping off the cliff. It’s standing on stage in front of a packed theater and forgetting your lines (that has happened to me). It’s taking off on a board in the Bay, with a bright green sail above you, not knowing if you’ll make it back to shore or be tossed under the Golden Gate and far into the wild Pacific.

It’s unknown. And it’s terrifying.

And exhilarating.

I published that first piece about Israel because I didn’t know what else to do with my thoughts and feelings. They confused and troubled me. I wrote them out. Which helped, but didn’t quiet the restless grumbling I heard inside. So I held them out for others to read, in the hope that feedback, validation, discussion would help me find peace and fulfillment. It was not the first piece I wrote, but it was the first I showed to more than a friend or two.

And for so many moments after clicking the publish button, my arms went weak. My whole body shook and I lost my balance on that board. The sail slackened, and I regretted it all. Overshare, TMI, who cares if I want to live in Israel or that my dog is old or that my kids only talk to me when I’m in the bathroom!

But the wind caught the sail just so. And my arms felt strong again, and I took a deep breath. And did a tiny dance on the waves.

It’s scary, every time, to reveal these little and not so little parts of me in stark black words on a white page. But then the wind catches and gently ruffles my hair, and it’s more fulfilling to put it out there, than not to.

It’s exhilarating. To have found the courage. To feel brave.

Now if only I could learn to kite board.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt,”I’ve never had the courage to…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, and guest hosts Tarana from Sand in My Toes and Vidya from Vidya Sury.

I Am at Home Anywhere in the World When Reading or Writing

ONCE upon a time, 20-something and newlywed, I made my way north and west to begin a life atop a hill swirled in pale gray fog and clanging cable-car bells. Far, far from the early morning hadedas and hot African sun of my home, my future sparkled before me bright as the white sails that dotted the Bay, expansive as the red bridge I crossed to go to work. As strange as those hilly streets and twangy accents were to me, I was cheerily confident this too would become home.

But I was a South African in San Francisco – possibly the furthest in the world I could be from the place where I’d lived most of my life, where I had befriended Anne of Green Gables, and met Moon-Face, Silky the Fairy and Saucepan Man in The Magic Faraway Tree. Where I had fallen in love with Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester, and where I took a book with me to almost every family gathering, because I am the eldest cousin and the worlds created by Judy Blume and Mary Higgins Clark were far more exciting to me than playing hide-and-go-seek in the garden.


I was far away from that place and from the parents who taught me to read, from the friends who shared their books with me, and from the aunts who passed on their favourite titles, but I clung to my literary worlds. Armistead Maupin brought the beautiful city I now called home, to life. His delicious descriptions of characters and encounters in his famous Tales of the City series were more colourful on the black and white page than they were in my real life. Those books made San Francisco home to me in a way my job and apartment and going to the gym and buying groceries didn’t.

I wanted to write like that. I wanted to create worlds that eldest cousins could escape to, write words that were cozy and comforting and settled over my own babies like their warmest, fuzziest blanket. I wanted to share my thoughts and ideas and seedlings of creativity on the page.

My adopted, faraway home has indeed become home. I am raising four loud and wonderful children who clamor over each other like wriggly puppies to be the first to read the Sunday comics. I fight against the restlessness of being a stay-at-home-mom and delight in the endless moments of kids and dog and chaos. And I continue to read, and now I write.

I watch my son trip over the dachshund because his nose is buried in his latest sci-fi journey.The words are everywhere. I write them and read them, borrow them from libraries, and share them with my children at bedtime.

The words, read and written, transform my space: my special spot on my grandmother’s couch in Pretoria, my tiny res room at Rhodes or my son’s bedroom in San Francisco, the bench I sit on outside the school library or the parking lot outside the ballet studio. All of time and space, imagined or real, are contained in those words, and no matter where or when in the world I am, when I am reading – or writing – I am home.


This post originally appeared in South Africa’s The Daily Dispatch and The Herald as part of the Nal’ibali literacy campaign. Nal’ibali – it starts with a story. #Just15Minutes



Don’t say the F-word

There are very few words in the whole of the English language that I don’t love. I love the shape of words, how they sound in my head and out loud, how they feel in my mouth. I love speaking words and reading words and writing words. Long words, short words, nonsense words, new words (did you know the word “selfie” was invented in Australia?), words that rhyme, fancy words, slang words – and now I am sounding like a Dr Seuss book, so I’ll stop. You get the picture. Words are awesome.

But there’s always one that ruins it.

A tiny four-letter word. A word so apparently meaningless, but so laden with meaning it almost collapses on itself when spoken out loud.

F. I. N. E – Fine.

Awful word. Deceptive. Sly and sneaky.

Right away, it has too many functions: it’s an adjective, a verb, a noun and an adverb. Already having an identity crisis and it hasn’t even been used in a sentence yet! Put yourself somewhere, man, and stick to it.

Then it complicates itself further by having multiple meanings within all those categories: delicate, nice, healthy, bright, clear, polished, good-looking, sharp, pure, elegant, okay, excellent, exceptional, pleasant… for G-ds sake, find yourself! Say it and move on.

But the biggest problem I have with the word fine is the way I use it, to answer that easy breezy question:

“Hey Nicki, how are you?”

“Oh… fine…”


That’s what I say when I am anything but! I am not excellent, I am not bright, not even just okay. When I say I’m fine, I am usually the total opposite of all those things. But I say it. And there it floats, that silly little four-letter word, on a cloud of its own empty white puffiness, drifting benignly for all the world to see.

actual tweet from @OMGFunniest 12/9/2013
actual tweet from @OMGFunniest 12/9/2013

So then why did I say it? Why say I’m fine, if I’m not?

Usually I say it because I really do want to be “fine.” I want to feel polished and exceptional and bright and shiny – but I don’t, in that moment. So fake it till you make it! If I say it out loud enough, I’ll start to believe it and if I believe it then I’ll be it. That makes sense, doesn’t it?

Or I say it because there’s just not enough time as we pass each other in the parking lot for me to tell you how I’m really feeling – your grocery list is too long, and I’m off to my appointment and it feels wonderful that we ran into each other like this, but I’ll just tell you I’m fine because I’m not, and you’ll tell me you’re fine, and maybe next week or next month we’ll grab lunch or a drink and we can tell each other how fine we really are. Because I know you are not asking just to be polite, and that you really do care.

Or maybe you’re asking just to be polite – because it’s the way we greet each other in the western world. And if you didn’t ask me how I am, it would be rude. But I know you don’t want to hear that I’m anything but… fine, so I say I’m fine. I don’t say I’m great (because I’m not feeling great), I don’t say I’m sad or tired or angry (because I’m sure you don’t really want to know that I’m any of those things, and then you might feel you’ll have to ask me why I’m tired or angry and offer to help or something and you have your own not fine-ness to deal with). So I’m fine.

Feelings Inside Not Expressed ( Shrug. Smile. Meaningless, but so full of meaning.

The lying and posturing and pretending that all is in order when it’s not… That’s the direct translation of the word “fine” in Hebrew: beseder – in order. Life is seldom “in order,” for any of us. It’s messy and complicated, and we rage and we love and we’re exhausted and happy and hungry and frustrated – and we’re even fabulous or excellent or exceptional. Let’s express!

Full disclosure right here: I’m not going to say it anymore. I really hate the f-word – even more than I hate the m-word!

And that is saying a lot.

*m-word = moist