“So…. what do YOU do?”
We were at a dinner party and it was only a matter of time until the stranger seated next to me asked me the inevitable, dreaded question.
I hate that question. I really do. Because I am one of those people who finds it impossible to answer in a word… a sentence… or even a paragraph. My response to the questioner is usually a garbled combination of stuttering, umm‘ing, aaah‘ing and clearing my throat – with nothing of much substance added in-between.
The Questioner, of course, quickly learns that I’m a bumbling idiot and sorely regrets having asked me… but they force themselves to hang in there and politely nod (whilst their attention span drifts quietly off… over my shoulder and towards the pudding table).
I often wonder whether people really want to hear the answer to that question… the “what-do-you-do” question.
Perhaps they’re hoping for an easy, quick and simple answer, like:
“I’m an architect” or ”I’m a teacher” or ”I’m an accountant”.
Those kinds of answers allow the questioner to place the respondent in an easy-to-understand Box which he can then neatly file away in his brain with a few post-it-note instructions and reminders tagged on the outside.
When I imagine these boxes – I picture them as being brown and rectangular. Kinda like an office file. But these boxes have labels, and those labels look something like this:
- Description: Old, balding asshole who thinks he’s better than me. Think his name is Peter Watson.
- Lable: Banker.
- Instructions: Schmooze! He may come in handy.
- Description: Billy’s cousin Darren, the one with the red BMW.
- Lable: Doctor
- Instructions: I wonder if I should ask him about my knee injury?
- Description: Nick. Hairy. Greek. Likes to say “fail”.
- Lable: Cinematographer who filmed Semi-Soet the movie.
- Instructions: I wonder if he could introduce me to Anel Alexander?
- Description: Nick’s wife… the fat one. Forgot her name.
- Lable: I don’t know what the fuck she does. Don’t think she knows either.
- Instructions: Don’t encourage her. Ignore. Politely. Don’t want to piss Nick off.
The last example is, of course,how I imagine that the typical stranger would file me. Especially those who meet me via my husband.
Other strangers, I think, judge it best to delete my file completely. What’s the use of remembering the label-less person who doesn’t fit into the filing system? It’s like those damned annoying business cards that are the wrong size and don’t fit into the business card holder!
What happens to those business cards, by the way? Misplaced? Thrown away?
And that’s often how I feel: easily forgettable. Because I am the box without a label, the business card who just doesn’t… “fit”.
Now – don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a pity party. I’m not all sad, miserable and wounded. I actually quite like not fitting. It has become the story of my life and there have been many, many scenarios… (insert harp music and eerie mist here as I hearken back to my childhood)
NOT THE FAIRY PRINCESS
Ballet class. Fifteen neatly groomed little girls dressed in pink leotards. They’re skipping and delicately flitting around the room in time with the tinkling piano music. One little girl stands out. Noticeable rounder than the others and decidedly lacking in co-ords.
“I said tip-toe like a little fairy, Heather Patterson! Not stomp like a little elephant!” scolds the ballet teacher, “…and stop slouching! You look like the Hunchback of Notre Dam!”
Nope. Definitely not the delicate fairy princess then. Not a good fit.
NOT THE BROWNIE
I don’t know if Girl Guides even exist anymore. But, when I was a kid, it was a huge deal if you were a Girl Guide. However, before you got to be a Guide and wear a blue uniform – you started off as a Brownie (and yes, a brown uniform).
In order to be deemed a Good Brownie and climb the Brownie ranks towards Girl-Guiderdom… you needed to earn your “Silver Hand” and your “Gold Hand” (embroidered little badges that proud mothers would sew onto the sleeves of said Brownie uniform). And, in order to get the Silver Hand, you needed to perform a few tasks: Grow a bean (into something resembling an actual plant)… darn a sock (side note: isn’t the word ‘darn’ obsolete? If not – it should be) or sew a button onto a blouse(‘blouse’ should also be obsolete)… skip with a skipping rope in a figure eight… bake something edible… recite the Brownie pledge… that kind of thing.
Let’s just say… I was the ONLY little Brownie who didn’t have a single badge sewn on to my sleeve.
No “Good Citizen” badge. No “Homemaker” badge. No “Sports” badge – and certainly no Silver or Gold Hand. I won’t relay the embarrassing details here. One day I’ll write a book and share my shame in due course. Let’s just say that it involved a mouldy avocado pip, a blood nose and a pin in my knee (yes – deeply embedded in my knee – with only the pin head sticking out).
So, not a Brownie either. A bad fit too!
NOT THE POPULAR GIRL AT SCHOOL
The age I would never, ever, ever wish to revisit was my 12th year. I was the last in my class to get my ears pierced, the last to start shaving my legs, the last to wear a bra (my mother refused to buy me a bra until my “bee stings” had developed into something more substantial).
And then… there was the Unspeakable Horror incident… (gathering strength to share the story publicly)…
THE UNSPEAKABLE HORROR
It was a Friday afternoon in late November and the entire school was summoned to the school hall to watch a Christmas play performed by the younger kids. All of us were squashed up on the wooden floor, sitting cross-legged, facing the stage. It wasn’t a loud play. There wasn’t any music and we strained to hear what the little actors were saying. At one stage in the play, it was particularly quiet – and that’s exactly when it happened.
I farted. It came completely out of the blue – unexpected, unanticipated and too late for me to change my sitting position in order to try and hold it in (I don’t think it’s possible to hold in a fart whilst sitting cross-legged). Worst of all, it was a terrible, thundering eruption that seemed to go on for at least a solid 30 seconds. There was a brief, shocked silence after the rumble from my bum had finally subsided, followed instantly by screeches of laughter from all the kids in the school hall. Everybody had heard the fart – teachers and children on the stage included.
Kids everywhere were turning around, craning their necks, trying to figure out the source of the fart. It wasn’t difficult to identify the culprit. I was the only one sitting alone with my face the colour of an overripe tomato whilst the kids around me frantically scrambled to distance themselves from me (and any possible stench) as quickly as possible. I remember desperately pleading with God in that moment to turn me into an ant.
“Please God… please! Make me an ant so I can crawl away with nobody seeing me! Please, please God!”
But, regretfully, God didn’t turn me in to an ant. Instead, I had to sit exactly where I was for the rest of the play while the kids around me giggled and whispered.
I was the standing joke for months after that. Suddenly everyone knew who Heather Patterson was. No longer the obscure unnoticed, I was the topic of general conversation!
“Here she comes!”, they’d say;
“Heather Patterson! The girl who farted in the school hall!”
In retrospect – now that I’m an adult, I look back on that time in my life and it dawns on me that at least I had a label when I was twelve!
Everyone in my school knew who Heather Patterson was. Why, ‘she’ was that weird tomboy chick with the long leg-hairs and the un-pierced ears who farted in the school hall. Heather Patterson was the famous Baked Beans!
I sometimes wonder whether it’s better to be known…even if it’s for something dodgy and embarrassing like farting in public or losing one’s swimsuit whilst waterskiing (been there, done that). But at least you’re known… at least you’re stored away in people’s brains and remembered.
Surely that’s better than being unseen… ‘invisible’… ignored – or quickly forgotten (like that proverbial odd-sized business card).
Maybe I should devise a new speech for any future strangers who dutifully ask: ”So, what do you do?”
And maybe, instead of stuttering and fumbling, I should confidently reply:
“I’m an enigma! You can’t pigeon-hole me! I’m an artist… I’m a Creative Creature… a dreamer, a doer, an inventor… a singer, a songwriter, a musician, a storyteller, a designer, illustrator, photographer and poet. I am a mother! I am married to the love of my life. ‘Home’ is wherever my husband and kids are. I’m a born-and-bred African – I love this continent! I love the resourcefulness of Africans. I love adventure – I feed off the new. You may have taken one look at me and branded me as “uninteresting” or “fat” or maybe even “housewife” or “Nick’s wife”… but I’m my own person – I have travelled all over the world, I have jumped off train bridges, trekked through lion territory with nothing but a compass… and I have swam on the back of a whale shark… and explored sunken wrecks and underwater caves. I can waterski, knee-ski, jet-ski (and have a deep love of the sea). I’ve raced snow-mobiles in Ohio… watched the shuttles launch from Cape Canaveral… dived the reefs of Hawaii and sang in front of thousands at Ellis Park Stadium. I’ve directed choirs, directed TV campaigns in Nigeria, hung with the locals in the most rural of villages in Mozambique… swam through the mountain crack in the Drakensberg, picked ticks off my husband in Kenya and was charged by a Rhino in Sabi Sands. I’ve travelled in Cuba in a 1950′s Chevy with a squealing pig in the boot. I’ve photographed child slaves (and cried thousands of tears for them) in Haiti. I’ve given motivational talks to students in Ukraine – and still have the small thank-you gifts they gave me. I’m hopelessly sentimental about letters, photos and gifts. I’ve eaten sheep brain (yes, it was gross). I’ve eaten pink aerolite (mistook it for candy-floss). I have bitten a bee in half. I have bitten a Rotweiller’s ear (in a lame attempt to stop her from biting the Border Collie). I ran my own successful graphic design business (and had the guts to get rid of it when I realised that it made me stressed out instead of happy). I’m untidy, I’m impulsive and I keep losing pens. I procrastinate. I hate conflict. I love chocolate and coffee. If somebody wants to buy me a present, they need only visit the stationery section at Exclusive Books. I’m a Tearfund “Inspired Individual”! I have a “thing” for old graveyards, bell towers, clock towers and wishing wells. I am fascinated by historical buildings. I have started up Beautiful Life Project… co-founded Tapestry of Dreams… launched VENT! in 2009… launched WOODO (Women who DO!) in 2010… and I’m currently working on another BIG-BIG idea called The Average-Extraordinaries! (I can’t stop myself – I have ideas all-the-time!)… I want to publish books, I want to write and direct a movie, I want to write and record more music, I want to mingle with the world-changers and brainstorm creative ways to solve the world’s worst problems…. I want to travel a LOT more…. I want to live in a house with a beautiful view… I want to have a voice. I want to change the world.
Put that in your brain and file it!”