{ Under The Bluegums }

A personal blog with craft tutorials, reviews of books, films, and music, parenting advice, and opinions on society and politics.

February 20, 2018

Book Review || The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown

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I took Mick Brown's 'The Spiritual Tourist' out of the library hoping for a sort of introduction to the Asian spirituality with which the Western world has been obsessed with. I have always considered myself a spiritual person, always planning to meditate and do more Yoga but I never seem to get around to it, lacking the motivation that such practices are purported to inspire in those who are regular practitioners.

After last January's trip to the Nanhua Temple in Bronkhorstspruit for its Chinese New Year festival, I was awed by the level of reverence in the quiet spaces of the temple. At the reception, you were welcomed with a stick of incense, which you could take to the altar of 1000 Buddhas and deposit in a massive holder with your own short prayer or devotion. But I found myself unsure of what to ask for and what to say thank you for. Which is not a very good situation to be in.

So I perused the shelves of the library for something to lead me and, while I'm not sure 'The Spiritual Tourist' was the appropriate selection, it ended up in my book bag heading for home. The autobiography was first published almost a decade ago, so it is a little outdated, particularly since some of the spiritual icons he managed to meet or attempted to visit have passed on, including Share International's Benjamin Creme and Sathya Sai Baba, and the Western reincarnation of revered Lama Thubten Yeshe, Lama Osel, rejected his destiny to become a filmmaker instead. But Brown's journey is a reflection of all of those who yearn for there to be something more than the day to day drudgery of faith - something that reaches within us and consoles us in our humanity, fragility, mortality.

Brown's journey begins in London where he suddenly, and perhaps coincidentally, seems set upon by Sathya Sai Baba - he notices portraits of the guru everywhere he goes. The final straw is when he receives a letter from a friend of his with a portrait of Baba inside, but when he tries to find the photograph again, he cannot. He jumps on a plane and heads for Puttaparthi in India, setting off his travels around the world to meet as many gurus and lamas and reincarnations as he can. Lucky him, I say. Not many can meet the people to whom they look for guidance. While he doesn't actually meet Baba, he does meet Lama Osel (still as a young boy) and Mother Meera, the 14th Dalai Lama, and an assortment of people who are more familiar with the search than he is and who possibly give him the most answers. The book is filled with the history of religions and spiritual groups such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and theosophy, so in this way it is helpful to set the different movements apart for those looking for something in particular.

Flickr/Alina Sofia [CC by 2.0]
For whomever Brown met who was familiar with his chosen spirituality, the answers about what our purpose was and how we could transcend the mortal coil were all the same, across all of them: Love of your fellow man, Service to your fellow man, Acceptance of your Own Divinity. A bit tough for many of us to see through as we watch the news, say goodbye to rainforests and animals, and become overrun by the very Western angst.

But what struck me the most in reading this book is the disappointing influence of the West, capitalism, and even the entire touristy experience described. For the latter, the thousands of people who descended on Sai Baba's temple in a single day, placed in lines, praying for the mere acknowledgement of Baba, being disappointed with only a few minutes of just his presence before he leaves, and then seeing the squalor of the local people who live just outside his door, who either beg for help or try to sell trinkets bearing Sai Baba's face - it feels so hollow just reading it. Perhaps it's a different experience being there. But perhaps not:
'In bars and hotel rooms across India you could see the Western ideal being transmitted on Star television, with its shoddy American and Australian soap-operas and glib Hollywood fantasies, its endless cycle of commercials for the products of the global supermarket which few in India could afford, but more nd more now dream of ... with a strident message: 'Your Right to Choose', educating this new, entranced audience in the role of advertising as the lubrican of a consumer society. To the sophisticated eye it had all the crudeness of propaganda. In a Madras newspaper I read an evalutaiton by a government psychiatrist predicting that india would soon be suffering the same incidence of mental illness as the West. The shelves of American self-help books in Madras's largest bookshop, offering advice on maximising the power of positive thinking and contacting your inner-child, suggest the problem was bringing its own 'cure'.
It is a good thing that books like 'The Spiritual Tourist' exist. They give an insight into the world and the thing we seek much more than we could have received and they show us that all the knowledge in the world is at our fingertips, and, possibly, even within ourselves.

February 14, 2018

Popular Culture || What Did I Think of Girls (All Six Seasons)?

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I spent last week binge-watching the entire oeuvre of Lena Dunham's Girls. The series has been highly-acclaimed by critics, being rated 89% on Rotten Tomatoes and 87% on Metacritic as of writing. I am glad I waited for the series to finish up before watching it and while the show has some interesting aspects, I'm happy I didn't waste too much time worrying over it for the last six years, because I can't believe it went on for as long as it did.

If you haven't seen it yet, it's about Hannah, Marnie, Shoshanna, and Jessa, four late-millennial friends who live in New York with the hopes of reaching their dreams. The problem is that none of them really know what it is they truly want to do or who they want to do it with. Hannah is the lead of the show. She wants to be a writer but can do nothing but talk about it, and uses every opportunity to show others that she is smarter than they are. She is also perpetually changing her mind. Marnie is Hannah's best friend, a perfectionist who seems self-assured but is just as insecure. Jessa spends the entire series telling everyone what they should be doing with their lives while she is the epitome of insecurity and the first to run away from unhappiness. Shoshanna starts out as an innocent in the games that the three other women play with each other and possibly ends up being the most centred and focused of them all by the end.

I wouldn't say I enjoyed the series as much as I wanted to know how it ends (it's the sadist in me). The humour is questionable, depending all too much on stereotypical representations and situations and lewdness to drive the comedy. The tone was also off for me: when an episode attempted to be lighthearted, it was overridden by the selfishness of the characters and the mysterious feeling that a parody of a situation was being made to look serious.

I like the way the series touched on sensitive issues in ways that either revealed both sides of the argument or opened up raw wounds on sensitive subjects, such as alcoholism, consent, race relations, mental illness, and abortion. This is one of the main reasons the show isn't too popular among viewers: it aims to trigger, on everything. But what is popular culture for if not to make us question the status quo, the current politics of the world, bigotry and prejudice, and political issues that often simply simmer below the surface?

One of my biggest complaints is the tired characterisation of the girls and many of the characters around them. Perhaps it is because something similar was done with Sex and the City, making Girls appear to attempt to be the voice of its generation. The character arcs are so slow: throughout the six years, Shoshanna is the only woman who becomes successful and confident, and the only one to recognise the toxic relationships her friends represent. Hannah's growth spurt only happens near the end of the series finale, where it seems all she needed to do was see a self-entitled teenager act like she did to realise she has been immature for all six seasons. While Marnie had the greatest potential for growth, she began and ended the story in her codependent relationship with Hannah, and only realises in the last five minutes that she needs to find herself. The only way I see Jessa having any growth was maybe not running away from Adam when he proposed to help Hannah raise her child.

If you think about it, we may think the show is about these women but it really is about relationships, their quality, and also how important communication - both conveying and accepting it - is in maintaining them. All the relationships break down because of the fear that honesty will cause them to collapse. Everyone on the outside of these relationships is happy to point out the girls' flaws and be honest with them in the hopes that they will improve. We are made to believe these people - Ray, Adam, Elijah, Hannah's parents - are being unfairly judgmental, but they have an honesty the girls' relationships lack. The women turn a blind eye to their own flaws and instead focus on each others' weaknesses.

HBO-Girls-Adam-ShoshannaI really struggled to like Marnie, Hannah, or Jessa: they were all pull-my-hair-out annoying and I honestly can't see myself being friends with any of them. The amount of time they spend talking to each other about their own feelings is only eclipsed by the amount of times no one is actually listening to what is being said. Shoshanna is really an outcast in the group, serving as a soundboard for all the other girls' feelings towards one another. The saving grace is, however, how well the characters are performed. Regardless of whether I like them or not, I think the point is that the viewers are supposed to be made uncomfortable; we are not supposed to like these women because they are real and they reflect our own flaws as we watch the show.

Throughout the series, we are forced to take a hard look at how women are judged and judge each other, often unfairly, often harshly, and often behind each others' backs. I recently overheard a man say a male colleague had to rein in his indulgence in 'female' gossip, and while this may be a stereotype it is one I've seen played out in office and social situations myself. In fact, it is interesting that I disliked the characters and it possibly reveals my own psychology as a woman doing battle with other women, since we are practically bred to be compete with each other for men, happiness, success, even motherhood. This also seems to be a favourite theme for Dunham, since her next venture into television, Camping, is also about 'woman on woman' crime. This 'mean girls' psychology often sees women separate themselves into social groups, themselves arranged in a hierarchy, and in order to 'fit into' the group, it is necessary to change who you are or be a pariah. It is part of our innate psychology as humans to need to belong and be accepted. Throughout the series the four friends in Girls seem to be breaking away from the social group they created but do so by systematically alienating themselves and each other from every member of the group. The dysfunctional manner in which these women leave their relationships is quite true to reality, because growing up and letting go is never cut and dry.

I cried during the episode in the final season where Hannah rejects Adam's help to raise her baby. It was spot on in reflecting that strange feeling you have when you realise you simply have to let go of the past and move on, much like the entire season. While Adam and Hannah resonated on a sexual and intellectual level, and the potential for happiness was always there, I think the pair realised they had both grown beyond each other, that it wouldn't be enough in the long run. It was heartbreaking. And that's how the end to a relationship always is. I take this episode to have been the true farewell to the series, because Girls realised it was time to say goodbye.

While I thought Hannah's growth being spurred by motherhood a tired idea, it made sense, as the overall point is not that Hannah, and by implication all her friends, have grown but that they are still growing, like her baby in her arms. The entire series looked at how these women grew apart and attempted to deal with their identity issues, failing dismally, even after six years. But the truth is that many people never know what it is that will make them happy. The final season is possibly the best overall, because we get to see the women without the negative influence they have on each other. The series did not end in a particularly memorable way, but it does end with the feeling that personal growth and success is not something you can ever put a finger on, and sometimes all it takes for you to be happy for the time being is to latch on to something worthwhile.

Have you watched Girls? I would love to know what you thought of it!

{Images: Facebook/GirlsHBO}

January 17, 2018

Book Review || Colour by Victoria Finlay

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Victoria Finlay managed to alternately fascinate me and plunge me into fits of jealousy with her epic journey into the world of paint and art with 'Colour'. Travelling around the world in search of ancient pigments and dyes, Finlay's book is filled with charming anecdotes, wild and tame countrysides, and odd ingredients, all mixed together with a healthy touch of history, both art and otherwise.

As someone who has often dabbled in the arts, this novel has brought a deeper meaning to the colours that I dip my paintbrushes into. Each one comes with a rich history that is connected to culture more than many would like to admit. 

From the sanctity of the Aborigines' ochre and the possible tone of green that may have caused the death of Napoleon Bonaparte to the mystery of the dye used for the corners of Jewish shawls, the purple tint that Cleopatra surrounded Julius Caesar with to impress him, and the scarlet that requires thousands of little bugs to be squashed, the rich history behind mankind's urge to make his mark is one of the most interesting journeys I have made.

There is so much knowledge in this novel that it would certainly be referenced many times, if not for historical facts but also for amusing stories about colours that will stay with you long after turned the final page.

For instance, did you know that prehistoric cave paintings remained so well preserved simply because they had not been discovered yet? The breath of visitors coming to view such paintings disturbs the humidity and airflow, causing the paintings to degrade. Or how about graphite once being used to oil the inside of cannons? At one stage it was a well-guarded resource. Or what about the American Puritans' clothing being blackened by logwood collected by retired pirates? Or cochineal, little white bugs, once forming the source of the most sought-after red dye and nowadays used to colour ham? Or the mystery of Stradivarius' orange varnish for Il Cremonese (a violin called 'The Tiger') and other violins? Or the fact that in ancient times many dyes were set using human urine, and dyers were isolated from the village because they collected it? Or the crocus flower's temporal existence resulting in a red spice that creates a yellow dye? Or Robin Hood and his Merry Men (if they were real) having worn Gaudy Green, a dye that was very expensive and thus served to taunt the authorities? Or Afghanistan's blue mountains that exported lapis lazuli across the world? Or the fact that Gandhi's first peaceful protest was in support of the Bengals protesting against being forced to grow indigo by their British overlords? 

Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) by Johannes Vermeer
 is painted with ultramarine, a natural pigment made from lapis lazuli.
The book is filled with such information, but Finlay also has a talent for creating visions in your mind's eye. One of my favourite descriptions of hers is below:
As we wallked, I imagined where the rock from each section [of a lapis lazuli mine in Afghanistan] might have found its ultimate resting place. The first 20 metres would have given the stones to Egyptian tombs; a little later was where the Bamiyan Buddhas got their haloes. Early on in the blackened section was a little side passage, the contents of which may have gone to Armenia for twelfth-century illuminated Bibles. A few steps later was where Titian may have got his sky from, and where Michelangelo didn't get his robe; farther on was Hogarth's blue, and Rubens' and Poussin's: a whole art history in one little pathway. [343]
The novel ends on a nostalgic note after Finlay visits Pantone, the company responsible for standardising colour.
...I felt glad that I had made my paintbox jouneys when I could still explore worlds of approximation and poetry, before the colours began to lose their words. [437]
I am equally glad, although somewhat jealous at what she managed to experience on her search. Without this book, I wouldn't think twice about the shade of colour I reach for in the art shop. Now the plainest of colours - like Midnight Blue, which used to be called Prussian Blue in crayon boxes - will always have a deeper meaning for me as I include them in my artwork.

January 9, 2018

#GoldenGlobes, #TimesUp So Hollow!

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Golden Globes Awards reporting has filled all our timelines and feeds, not only because of Oprah Winfrey's rousing oration against a system that preys upon those with lesser power when accepting her 2018 Cecil B. de Mille Award but also because so many women dressed in black for the evening in protest of what they and their fellow women have been through in Hollywood's misogynistic and sexist world. But their protest rings hollow for me. I'll tell you why.

I understand that an event like the Golden Globes reaches a massive amount of people as a result of its standing in popular culture. And so it would seem that making a political comment at such an entertaining ceremony would make an impression. The idea is that since the event reaches people, any activism and the reason for it would reach people, too. But my question here is how many people actually get to see this deeply into the Globes? Viewership of the ceremony this year was, after all, down 5% on 2017. How many people understand what's going on in terms of politics and activism at such an event? How many people will have seen only watered-down versions focusing on who won, or on what the stars were wearing? How many people really have access to everything the #TimesUp anti-sexual harassment campaign stands for? For the layman watching late-night news, does it mean anything that certain stars arrived with female activists as their plus-ones, or that the majority of women wore black? And if you're only into tabloids and fashion? Cue articles about hairstyle, beauty products, style...
Here are these ultra-rich people, who spend thousands on a single dress and all their accessories and make-up, attending an event that costs possibly millions of dollars, suddenly attempting to regain relevance after the #MeToo movement exposed men they worked with, admired, loved, for sexual misconduct. They've frantically launched a defence fund that will allow women in plainer professions redress if they run into trouble when reporting sexual harassment, which you can also donate to, and had pins with Time's Up printed on them to show solidarity, even though the fashion and beauty competition is certainly still fierce.
Which leads me to my second issue: they are still dressing up pretty and preening and beautifying their faces, setting the very same style and beauty standards by which women are judged throughout the world, inspiring those same ideas about what makes women sexy and beautiful, merely reinforcing stereotypes that women are only good for fashion and lookin' hot.
While the questions posed to female celebrities on the red carpet this year were much deeper than last year's due to the popularity of the  #AskHerMore campaign, which started in 2014, and because of the protest, how many people will really know what happened? Just think about back pages of tabloids and weeklies, where a dress or look is picked out from an event with almost no context.
Even more disappointing was that some men also wore black and 'Time's Up' pins, but were not asked any pertinent questions about the #MeToo campain or the prevailing status quo in Hollywood. They claimed to support it but yet where were their voices?

Perhaps this all comes down to my cynicism when it comes to Hollywood and privileged activism. The women who pulled the black dress move and then wore a 'Time's Up' pin have nothing to loose. They are rich beyond words and are very unlikely to face any violence as a result of their activism, unlike most women who take a stance against sexual harassment or abuse. They are already in places of power as some of the best actresses in the world. Wearing an LBD would not have been a fashion disaster. They are still complicit in this world of $600 gift bags, of sponsored beauty products and dresses, of style stars. It feels a bit disingenuous, even though I know they are not as separated from the normal world as us.Also, how has Hollywood's dark secret remained so for so many years? I certainly don't wish to diminish their personal experiences of harassment, but why was there this culture of silence? How did some people never hear rumours? Never see things happening?

But I suppose that is the nature of the beast: power begets fear begets silence. Well, I suppose at least their fund intends making it safer for women to speak out now...
My first reaction to seeing the actresses protesting on the red carpet in their expensive dresses was that they would have made more of an impression by not pitching up at all, but then boycotting the event would simply exclude them from the arena. Also, since the gist of my argument is that their complicity in the ongoing system and its beauty standards is problematic, perhaps they should all have made a statement by wearing the aprons and house dresses and blue overalls of those underprivileged workers they purport to wish to defend.

Forgive me for being cynical.

12/01/2018: Seal has claimed that Oprah Winfrey was aware of Harvey Weinstein's abuses. Sure, she heard the rumours but didn't believe they were true.

January 3, 2018

Happy New Year! Resolve to Heal Your Soul This Year!

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2018 has arrived! Heal your soul with my free printable 'Resolutions for Your Soul'!

Now that the party is over, and 2018 has officially begun, it is time to set those New Year's resolutions that are meant to guide your growth and success. In the past I have set resolutions that were all too specific, such as lose weight or finish all my unfinished projects. For the last few years I haven't set any resolutions as I never actually reach them, finding myself improving in ways I had not thought of.

So for this year, don't set resolutions that are most likely to be unsuccessful; set resolutions that focus on your mental, spiritual, and physical health in everyday ways. Improving yourself with these resolutions do take time, so I suggest writing a note or journal entry about how you're feeling today, work on your resolutions in small ways, and then take a look at your entry at the end of the year. I guarantee that, if you have been trying to improve yourself in little bits, your entire outlook will have changed.

Download the printable below by clicking on the image.

{Fonts used in printable: Yantiq by RainkarnichiCabin in the Woods by Mia Hague}

So here's to 2018 and a happier you!

Are you setting any resolutions this year? Let me know in the comments!

December 23, 2017

Movie Review || Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a visual feast. From the opening scenes of gigantic spaceship battles to the final red-as-blood-spattered salt plains of Crait, Star Wars has turned into a full-scale, awe-inspiring digital production that certainly does justice to George Lucas' original vision for the film series. I liked the movie, but believe there was really too much going on for the film to have been entirely effective. It has made this fan (mostly) happy.

I have to agree with Huffington Post reviewer Matthew Jacobs when he called the film 'bloated' and trying to do too much in a small space of time. There were too many focal points; too many ineffective new additions; too many characters but only a few developing; too many motives; and sometimes the humour seemed strained and forced.

The rest of my review below is full of SPOILERS, so if you don't want to have the film SPOILED before you see it, you had better leave - STAT!

At first, I believed the writing wouldn't satisfy hardcore fans, feeling there's something missing, some purpose, along with a plot flow. Taken at face value, overthrowing the First Order is too large a context to be the purpose of the film, since we don't know what is at stake. Without knowing how the First Order is bad, aside from being ruled by a Sith Lord, we cannot invest in the rebellion as we could in the first trilogy, or in The Force Awakens.

One of this film's drawbacks is its dependence on what we know of the Empire. What is the First Order's endgame? What is the Resistance's? Rey doesn't know why she was sent to find Luke, aside from the Resistance looking for him and her own needs. Furthermore, what exactly is the Resistance fighting for, aside from their lives? There is a lack of overall purpose and the steps heading toward the endgame overlap and intertwine, and it feels like ants whose pathway has been destroyed.

However, I finally realised there is a purpose and R2-D2 replaying Leia's original call for help in the film points to it: the spark of a new hope. It is the need for hope to be resurrected and sustained that holds all the Star Wars movies together, and is indeed the essence of this film, particularly with regards to Luke and his own redemption.

Hope is an abstract concept though and does not make the film better on the surface as you are watching it; I suppose it is the same for all good films: they improve with retrospection.
Luke Skywalker watching the remains of a Temple burn
I wish there was a better focus in this film. Perhaps on Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke to learn more about their pasts, or even a focus on the Resistance so we could learn more about the background of the First Order and how it came about. I mean, where did Snoke come from? How did the First Order come about after the destruction of the Empire? Filmmakers should not depend on book-based or even series-based canon to fill moviegoers in and I really enjoyed The Force Awakens because the story flowed well and made sense without dipping into canon. I think its use of A New Hope helped it along as there was a basis for how a successful story should flow. In addtion, the First Order killed an entire village of people for a USB stick and stole children to train them as Stormtroopers, so we knew why they had to be defeated. We were introduced to new characters but they were growing together. They had one quest.

The Last Jedi's story development is not based on any of its predecessors, and it crammed as much story into it as possible. We have a bunch of new characters building new relationships with old characters who are attempting multiple quests at the same time, and only some characters develop and grow. I think the separate stories would have been more effective in two films. There could have been more time to learn about the First Order, about Luke's journey after Return of the Jedi, Rey could have been trained for a longer time, the search for the codebreaker wouldn't have felt so rushed, we could have seen more of Captain Phasma and perhaps even Finn's history... But there again, I have no idea how the story will progress into the third film of the trilogy and maybe the story will be smoothed out later.
Kyle Ren preparing for battle
It was intriguing to me that on one hand it appeared that the Force was simply something people used but on the other, it also worked of its own volition, calling to Rey on the island, for example. Is it too much of a stretch to believe that it has a plan? Snoke's admission that it was he who connected Rey and Ren was disappointing because I want Ren to be good in a way I never wanted Darth Vader to be good - for that I just wanted Luke to be right, to redeem his father. Maybe it's Adam Driver's sincerity, or maybe it's because he was unmasked in The Force Awakens - he's been humanised, for me and for Rey, which allows her to invest in him and move the story forward.

What I'm going to say next is controversial, because it agrees with director Rian Johnson's seeming attempt to leave the past behind. I kind of wish there was a last Jedi and the Dark and Light fought no more. This would be following the original prophesy of balance that Qui Gon Jinn believed in. When Luke begins to train Rey he calls the force the balance between everything, but with constant battles between the Sith and the Jedi, there will be no balance. That's why I was so excited (and for other obvious reasons) in the scene where Rey and Kylo Ren are fighting together - the Dark Side fighting alongside the Light Side. Perhaps this is the plan for the last part of the trilogy, because Kylo Ren is still in conflict about which side he's on, and perhaps the pair will eventually foster the Grey Jedi. Despite Snoke claiming he had connected them, they still shared this connection at the end of the film, with Snoke dead. Does this mean the Force has a greater plan after all? Does it also desire balance?

But this kind of balance would destroy conflict, and where would Disney make its money then? Furthermore, I have to admit the plot of Rebels, Resistance versus Empire, First Order is getting a bit tired.
Luke Skywalker after Rey hands him his light saber
I enjoyed Mark Hamill's performance: he is clearly not the Luke Skywalker I knew, nor Hamill's. He has lost hope. He is a man simply waiting to die. It's his regret and failure in creating Kylo Ren that sent him into exile, as it was Yoda's failure to defeat Emperor Palpatine that sent him to Dagobah. I am glad he faced up to his failure and redeemed himself by accepting his failure and facing Ren before he joined the Force but I can't help but feel there should have been more to his story. Luke Skywalker deserved more than 20 minutes of sulking and a five-minute, though thrilling, battle with Kylo Ren. Also, I can't reconcile Luke's overall mood of defeat with the fact that The Force Awakens was focused on finding a map that led to him. Why leave a map if he truly wished to die alone? Maybe there was a change in the ultimate plan for him with the change in directorial vision.

At the end of the film, there is a scene where children are playing with an action figure of Luke Skywalker, and this does him some justice as a legend and inspiration who has sparked a new hope and imagination in what the world could be without the First Order, albeit whose purpose is elusive to me (much like Darth Maul was to the Jedi).
Rose and Finn
The film has earned accolades for its inclusion. There are noticeably more women, both in leadership positions and at the sidelines, and people of colour. I have to say it felt weird to see so many women in the film - I'm so used to seeing men everywhere I look in the Star Wars universe. Sometimes the placements seemed a bit forced, though, or perhaps that's just my programming. Many of the story arcs involve women showing up men in positions of knowledge, skill, and capability. Take: Poe, who is not only sidelined by Admiral Holdo and stunned by Leia for mutiny, but also forced to reconsider his original perception of a female leader; Finn, who talks over Rose at one moment only to have her force her way back into the conversation as the expert; and even Kylo Ren, as his offer to allow Rey to rule the galaxy by his side is rejected.

But...considering this is a film set in a galaxy, where are all the freakin' aliens!
Rey before meeting the Force
Many fans are disappointed that there is nothing special about Rey's parentage. In a galaxy that has been filled with Skywalkers destined for greatness, Rey's humble roots are a let-down. But I didn't mind this plot change. This is exactly what makes Rey special. You don't have to have a legacy to change the world. You can rule your own destiny and Rey has no one to determine her future but herself. Besides, who's to say she does not have a destiny separate to that of the Skywalkers or the Kenobis or anyone from the past? Maybe the Force has a plan after all. Or maybe Kylo Ren was just lying.

So what were my favourite parts of The Last Jedi? Well, Leia using the Force to escape death in space was pretty darn awesome. It's a pity this may be the only and last time we'll see her employ her skills with the Force, but it was quite a spectacular way to go and I'm pleased Carrie Fisher got to see her character's power. It was especially moving considering Fisher's death earlier this year.

Kylo metaphorically shedding his mask - and his past - was telling, especially as it came so near to the first of Kylo and Rey's one-on-ones. Then their battle against Elite Praetorian Guards after several scenes fraught with tension - seeing the pair fight back to back was incredible.

After that, Luke walking out of a crater of enemy fire completely unharmed, and then his final battle with Kylo Ren - it was wonderful to see Luke so confident and Kylo Ren so irate. I loved the return of puppet Yoda - long live puppetry - and then the salt foxes on Crait were beautiful (I liked them more than the ridiculous Porgs).

Finally, Admiral Holdo sending her carrier through Snoke's ship at light speed: the silence and stop frames were art.
Despite my misgivings, I feel overall it was a successful rendering of the Star Wars universe, albeit a breakaway from tradition. It was filled with stunning visuals, entertaining characters, left me and many fans with many questions about the nature of the Force and where the story may be headed, and tipped its hat to the legend of Star Wars while breaking new ground for fans. With regards to the latter, we must remember that The Empire Strikes Back was in the past slated as the worst of the original trilogy, but is now a favourite among many fans. I'm certain that this film will also become more endearing as it is watched over and over again, mysteries are solved, and characters develop further. This is what fans upset with the new direction the film takes are missing: Star Wars at its heart is not really about the Skywalkers or the Kenobis or the Resistance/Rebels or even the Jedi, but about the hope that good will prevail, that the spark of light will never die. After all, it is hope that carries resistance, and it is hope that inspires the boy on Canto Bight, hope that wakes the Force, and hope that imagines a galaxy of infinite possibilities. So, here's hoping that coming Star Wars films will learn from bloat and become slim and streamlined!

Credit for all images: Facebook/StarWarsAfrica

Further Reading:

Alt-Right Group Ruined 'The Last Jedi' Rotten Tomatoes Score Because It Was Too Feminist
Just How Seriously Should We Take This Star Wars: The Last Jedi Backlash?
Of Course There Was A Secret In That Big 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Cameo
Five Things You Probably Missed in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
10 burning 'Last Jedi' questions we need answered in 'Star Wars: Episode IX'

December 21, 2017

Favourites || Best Free Printables for Christmas

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My absolute favourite online indulgence this year has definitely been the existence of legions of beautiful, creative, and inspiring free printables. Most of my printable downloads are worksheets and activities for my daughter, which have been so useful as I've tested out homeschooling her, but there is an amazing pool of creative artists who share the most amazing designs - for free! For Christmas, you can find anything from gift tags and gift boxes to advent calendars and convenient checklists.

I haven't actually used a lot of the printables I've discovered, as Christmas somehow manages to sneak up on me every year, although this year I have managed to print out paper houses that will be the focal points of our tree this year. I have done some (I lie - a lot) of browsing, though, and these are my 10 favourite printables to make your Christmas prettier.

10. Merry and Bright Image Transfer Tree Decoration

If you're looking for a unique decoration, this easy one can certainly be customised to suit you, if you have a computer and printer.
From Shrimp Salad Circus

9. Calligraphy Gift Tags

These gift tags are certain to add some panache to your gifts.
From Lindsey Bee

8. Gift Boxes and Tags

Looking for a quick and easy gift wrapping idea for a small item? Then these are ideal, as they are easy to make and come with their very own tags, too!
From Freckle and Fair

7. Pillow Gift Boxes, and links to more styles

Small gifts can easily find a home in these sweet pillow boxes, or find the links to several other styles in the link below.
From Homemade Gifts Made Easy

6. Adult Colouring Pages

If you get some time to yourself this Christmas and need some colour therapy, these free doodling Christmas-themed pages will hit the spot.
From 1 + 1 + 1 = 1

5. Funny Face Christmas Crackers

Looking for a fresh option for traditional Christmas crackers? Look no further than these adorable DIYs!
From Mr Printables

4. Christmas Village

I love these paper houses because they are unique, though they won't really make a great tea candle holder. They are supposed to be for a mantle, and would make a sweet activity for a bored child, too.
From Thoughts From Alice

3. Christmas Activities Paper Chain

I thought this was a great idea! Perhaps it's a bit too close for Christmas, but I'm certain some of the activities can be repeated or left out entirely.
From Sunny Day Family

2. Gingerbread Scavenger Hunt

If you're in the mood for baking gingerbread men, make your family work for their biscuits with this fun scavenger hunt idea!
From Sunny Day Family

1. Gingerbread House Gift Box

I've put this gift box at number one because I've actually printed it out and made one myself. It combines two of my favourite things: colouring and folding paper. It's going on our tree, but it would make a lovely gift box that no one would be able to throw away.
From Bugaboocity

What are your favourite Christmas printable resources?

December 15, 2017

DIY || Christmas Biscuit-Filled Mason Jars

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I was asked to make some vegan biscuits for my husband's staff this year, as he wanted a more personal touch. I had a lot of fun with these, from coming up with a concept for the decor, purchasing the bottles and decorations, making the biscuits, and then decorating the bottles. I was busy with them for the whole day on Sunday, but I think the end result is wonderful. Below, you can find a list of supplies, the process used for decorating, as well as my favourite coconut biscuit recipe and a link to my printable Christmas tags!


- Around 12 coconut biscuits (or biscuits of your choice) for each jar. Remember when making them to think about the opening of your jar and ensure they'll fit!
- Eight 580ml, tall Consol jars with gold lids (I also used three pickling jars for larger gifts we filled with nuts)
- Two packs of red and white luxury tissue paper with Christmas patterns
- One 20m reel of red sparkly twine
- Sellotape
- Christmas gift tags (get my free printable here)
- Gold glitter glue
- Hole punch



Decorating your gifts:

- Print out the gift tags (here) and decorate the stars with gold glitter glue. Set aside for the glue to dry. Cut out and punch a hole in the top above the decorative scroll.
- Fill the bottles with the biscuits, trying to get them to sit flat and upright.
- Measure your bottle from the middle of the bottom to the middle of the top and cut the red sparkly string four times this length, plus a little extra. Cut eight of these lengths.

Hint: Wind the string around one jar before cutting the lengths to ensure you have the correct measurement.

christmas-mason-jars-biscuits-free-tag-printableFold this string in half and glue the half point on the lid of the jar. Turn the jar over, wrap the string around the bottom and cross, taping the four directional pieces in place. Turn the jar right way up and secure the top ends with tape.

- Measure around the jar just under the lid and cut eight strings to twice that length (for the knot and bow).

- Cut your tissue paper into squares that will fit over over the lid of the jar and a little way down the sides. Place the tissue paper over the lid and scrunch it down over the sides, securing it in place with the short length of string. Make a double knot to secure it in place.

- Pull one of the loose lengths through the back of the hole of a gift tag and tie in place with a ribbon.

And that's it! Simple and effective gifts! I would love to know what you think of this DIY and would love it if you shared you homemade gifts even more!

December 13, 2017

I Lay Awake Last Night: Should My Four-Year-Old Be Reading Already?

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I lay awake in bed last night, thrown into an anxious panic by this story about a four-year-old boy reading 100 books in a day. I'm lucky if my daughter wants to do the alphabet with me. As we parents are wont to do, I compared myself, and blamed it on myself. I haven't been pushing myself, or her, to focus very much on schooling. I felt like a terrible parent because I haven't made proper use of her young years and our time. I know a two-year-old who can apparently count to 14, and now there is this boy reading 100 books by himself, of his own volition!

All night my dreams were filled with crawling things on my pillow and all over the blankets, things keeping me back, things keeping my daughter back. When I woke this morning, I felt useless and pointless and simply a poor mother as I looked at my daughter's honey-coloured hair on the pillow beside me. I was not doing her intelligence justice, I thought. I was ruining her chances at success later in life, I cried. She's going to drop out of school because she can't read, I panicked.

I've been feeling under a lot of pressure lately, simply because of being a stay-at-home mom and all the responsibility that goes with it. I belong to several homeschooling groups and I feel quite left behind by it all. And even though my daughter and I are together all day, I feel like I don't spend enough time with her. Then you read about children the same age as your daughter doing something they're not doing, or hearing of children seemingly more advanced than your own, or hearing that early readers are more likely to enter a university and you're plunged into anxiety. It's ridiculous that in times like these we reach for Google to solve our anxiety problems. But that is exactly what I did. And it helped.

It turns out doing things that promote early literacy are more important than pushing your child to read. According to University of Michigan Professor of Education Dr Susan Neuman, there is no research that proves teaching your child to read early is either a good thing or a bad thing. She adds that the early push to get children to read, even from infancy, might be geared to the parents' needs more than anything else. And learning through play and conversations with parents is more effective at building the foundations of reading than showing flash cards to babies or wasting valuable play time at expensive early-age preparatory schools.

Most children only learn to read at age five or six.  In South Africa, children aren't even expected to be able to read in Grade R (age 6) yet; that's when they're only learning prewriting skills, routine, and social skills. I also have a gut-reaction when I hear about children doing things way before average - is it really the child, or were there Tiger Mother (or Father) involved, pushing them and hurrying them along for the prestige? Making notes of simple progress to compare to other children in the future? Why compare your child at all? (Says she, who just spent a sleepless night worrying)

But the most important things you as a parent can do before then is have conversations with your children using elaborative language, read to them as much as possible, and allow them to see how reading and writing are a part of daily life. I'm on par with these three things: my daughter is the only person I speak with all day long and I've been reading to her since she was a baby (sure, I read my horror novel out loud, but the point was that she heard language in action). She knows 12 sight words and can learn a new one in a week, recognises numbers and letters, speaks really well, reasons well (and is cheeky about it, too!) and even understands the basics of addition and subtraction - and right now I feel like I'm worrying about nothing. As usual. Especially since I know my child better than anyone else.

Further Reading:

Should My Young Child Already Be Reading?
What Your Child Should Know Age 4
How To Determine When Kids Should Start School

November 22, 2017

Can Animals Cry With Emotion?

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{Credit: By Mr. T. W. Wood [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons}
As children, we are raised on films and books starring anthropomorphised animals who are endowed with emotions and feelings that we can relate to as young developing people. But why is that when we enter the school system - learn about biology and science and psychology - we come to strip animals of this ability to feel and suffer from basic pain and emotion?

Even that statement is not particularly true, especially if we become pet lovers, because we adamantly believe our cats and dogs, rats and parrots - our pets - love us, miss us, and can feel when we hurt them and yet strip this ability for emotion and feeling from animals who are not pets, such as apes, elephants, lions and tigers, and animals that form part of our food system.

We are told by the scientific world that when we believe our cats are 'happy' when they purr, it is a projection of our emotions onto the animal and there is no scientific way to determine such happiness. Indeed, scientists even warn of anthropomophising animals too much by assigning human motivations to their actions - such as when a rhesus monkey in a zoo appeared to commit suicide by tying a rope into a noose and hanging himself in 1936 or when Peter the dolphin deliberately suffocated himself after being moved from a NASA-funded animal-human language project in the Virgin Islands and the human he fell in love with.

But the personal experiences of many people who work with animals cannot help but disagree. Veterinarian Jonathan Cracknell, who has travelled the world to treat animals traumatised by captive conditions, says one cannot help but get a 'gut feeling' about why animals behave in particular ways. He points to such examples as crows deliberately sliding down a snowy slope over and over again or monkeys taking a dip in water when it is hot outside as evidence that not all animal behaviour is geared towards some animalistic, instinctual motivation. There are dozens of examples online: this veal calf enjoying falling snowflakes, a baby elephant appearing to sob uncontrollably after being rejected by its mother, or a dog so sad at being returned to a shelter that it refused to leave its cell. Or what about the bellowing of mommy cows whose calves are taken away from them so we can drink their milk instead or a dolphin fighting to save her baby captured by catchers in Taiji?

Scientists love to point to the activation of reward centres in dogs' brains as the real reason they choose to spend time with their owners, but surely these pleasurable motivations can also be assigned to humans - why else would we choose to spend our time with a particular person or become addicted to alcohol? What is it that makes humans believe we are any more complex than the animals with whom we share this world?

What about an emotional response such as crying, largely regarded as something only humans can do? Can animals also cry with emotion? Many biologists say the tears we sometimes see in the eyes of distressed animals are nothing more than a biological reaction to stimuli and does not mean the animal is feeling unhappy. While some concede that we may never know whether the animal is indeed feeling sad, they warn that we should guard against believing animals experience emotion as we do. This is a paradoxical point of view because it allows for the existence of animals' emotions and yet denies that they have them at all. It still places humans at the top of the emotional pyramid, so to speak, because we are simply 'better than', 'more evolved than', 'more intelligent than' the animal other.

But should there be any prerequisites to having emotion? Do we have to have a big brain? Dolphins have a big brain, indeed bigger than ours.

Brain size comparisons {Credit: By CNX OpenStax [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

Do we have to have control over our instincts? Even carnivores do not kill whenever they want, and sometimes kill because they can (just like us).

Do we have to walk upright and speak a translatable language? Gorillas and chimpanzees can walk upright and can be taught sign language.

To me, it all seems that our anthropocentric belief systems are what is holding us back from believing we share a world with animals who feel and experience as richly as we do. We need to strip notions of superiority if we ever hope to become true stewards of this world and the creatures we share it with.

Further Reading:

The Dolphin Who Killed Himself Over a Broken Heart
Are Humans the Only Primates That Cry?
Do Animals Cry?
Why Are Humans the Only Animals That Cry?

November 3, 2017

Book Review || The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green happened to be sitting on the recent returns shelf at the library and I thought, 'Why not?' The novel is highly acclaimed and a New York Times Bestseller, and a film was made from it, so it must be good.

And that it certainly is, to a point. I laughed (well, sort of inwardly giggled with a smirk on my face), I cried. The characters have been given such tough luck in life that it is difficult not to like their immense optimism, especially Augustus Waters', and the strength it must take for them to make it through every day of pain. I liked that Hazel Grace tried so hard to be a silent sufferer. I liked that Isaac was more heartbroken at losing who he thought was the love of his life than his eyesight. I always enjoy the depth of character that comes from reading a novel instead of watching the film, so in this case I enjoyed the book much more than I did the film. In fact, I did more crying reading Hazel's innermost, private thoughts than I did watching an erstwhile depressed and downbeaten teen fall in love and suddenly have only happy feelings for her future.

That being said, something feels off to me in the way these teens speak to each other. Perhaps it is their nearness to Death that brings out their poetic genius and their witticisms, for I honestly don't remember being so pretentious as a teenager. Then again, as a teenager I never did do a lot of socialising or talking. I will have to ask my remaining friends if they ever felt this way about me, before someone calls me a liar. :) On the other hand, there is something endearingly childish about these teenagers - perhaps they are simply living their lives and having their say because they of all people know how short life is.

The Fault in Our Stars is actually a mirror of Peter van Houten's An Imperial Affliction (a made-up author and a made-up book). While Van Houten's novel literally ends in the middle of a sentence, these teens' lives could similarly end as quickly. Augustus' diagnosis shows that and the depth of Hazel and Augustus' sudden and deep love for each other may not be a fault in anyone's stars but just two people reaching out for true recognition in a world where everyone feels sorry for you on Facebook but don't really know who you are.

The message I took from the novel was that, obviously, life is short - whether or not you have cancer - and living what you have is infinitely better than living hoping for more all the time. Of course, one should also value your family and show them - something I'll have to work on this year.

Have you read the book or seen the film? Let me know what you think in the comments section!

October 26, 2017

My #MeToo Moment: Don't Let Your Daughters Say It

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I have been loathe to make any contribution to the #MeToo movement that has currently taken the world by storm. It's not that I have never experienced harassment but what I have experienced is nothing compared to what some women have faced throughout their lives. Because of this, I don't feel I deserve to or have a place in involving myself in something I have very little direct experience of.

But is my reluctance the same that has kept so many women quiet about their experiences for their entire lives? Celebrities left, right, and centre are coming forward alleging that 'Miramaximus' (Harvey Weinstein) harassed, assaulted, or raped them, some incidents going to the very beginning of their careers as actors. This avalanche of pain and trauma, which resulted in Weinstein being fired from his own company, is sparking other organisations into action, such as those who have controversial fashion photographer Terry Richardson on the books, and inspiring other accusations about long-term abuse, such as allegations against director James Toback.

What I cannot scratch out from under my skin is the idea that Weinstein's behaviour, Bill O'Reilly's behaviour, Terry Richardson's behaviour, Woody Allen's behaviour, Roman Polanski's behaviour, hell, even former presidents' behaviour and current presidents' behaviour, and that of so many men in power has been an open secret and everyone just let it go. Men in power let it go. Women in power let it go. Companies in power let it go. What is the power that these men hold over legions of people who knew (or at the very least suspected) the horror that women in the business had to undergo? What is behind the reluctance to do something to change it? Is it simply the Hollywood culture, borne from decades of sleazy, slimy, powerful men taking advantage of young girls with a dream?

I have been whistled at when walking on the streets. I have been told to smile. I've had my butt grabbed by a man in a superior position. A man offered to rub me down with lotion I had just purchased at the till. I have been asked for nude photos online. I have been told that a tattooed ring is not a real wedding ring. I have been accused of lying about having a boyfriend (before I was married) and a husband. I've had to laugh off jokes about women's bodies at an all-male workplace. And while I want to say I'm lucky, it feels a bit disingenuous, because my experiences may be small but they affected me and have shaped the way I react in current day situations. Like most women, I do smile when someone on the street asks me to. I laughed off butt grabs and rubdown offers, and smirked along with the guys about women's bodies. I smiled when my loyalty was called into question and ignored so many nudges. Why? Because I had to be nice and that is what I feel, and likely what I was told as a child, I should do to protect myself.

Self-protection is at the basis of everything we do. Sure, we have to make compromises and sometimes protect others more than ourselves, but self-preservation is part of our survival makeup. In the modern day, this has extended to retaining our jobs.

As Ruth Reader from FastCompany says,
In any outcome, there’s always the fear that the person you report will retaliate in some way. Your harasser has already proven themselves the kind of person who crosses personal boundaries. Will they spread rumors about you? Will they try and get you fired? Will they threaten you? If other coworkers find out, will they rush to your support or shun you? 
Then factor in the nagging part of your psyche that says, I can handle this situation without outside help. This self-preservation mechanism forces you to second guess whether you’re even being harassed in the first place under the assumption that if you can handle it, it must not be that bad. There is actually very little incentive to report, unless the harassment is so bad you’re unable to do your job, at which point you are more likely to look for another job rather than try to fix your current one. This self-interrogation is part of what prevents women from ever saying anything about their harassment.
In addition to all this, we have dozens of media horror stories about women trying to get their experiences out there about sexual harassment and the company they work for, and even their fellow employees, make an effort to either ignore the situation or make it as uncomfortable as possible. Add to this the fact that, as women, we are likely to be blamed, to be called hysterical, to be told maybe we believed we were raped (like Lindiwe Sisulu says), or told we can't take a joke or are simply too sensitive.
This self-preservation instinct is also possibly why no one says anything when they're witnessing harassment. An article in The Guardian says it so much more succinctly than I could:
There’s a relatively simple two-grid matrix we could use when it comes to ascertaining the ethics of all this: how much power do you have yourself, and how easily can you be discredited by exactly the same cultural contempt for women that spurred the harassment in the first place? As the writer, feminist and human rights activist Joan Smith reminds us: “The men who do this, do it because they have the power and wealth to get away with it. They deliberately pick on women who are less powerful than themselves.” If you had a lot of professional or cultural capital yourself, it is less likely that you would be sexually harassed...
... and ...
Male complicity has different sources, as [Prof Liz Kelly, director of the Child and Women Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University] describes: “It may come from a position of envy, wanting to be that powerful person and get away with it; it may be not wanting the focus to be turned on them – what’s wrong with them that they would object, are they gay? It becomes a masculinity challenge to say anything. And I think there are some men who have a vulnerability themselves, they may be from a minority and they feel like their hold on their position is quite tenuous. There are different ways in which men can become complicit, and not all of it is about thinking the behaviour is OK.”
What makes the situation worse is, of course, the complicity of other women: "One woman described this situation: she was in a circle of colleagues at a work Christmas party, and her boss reached across the circle and grabbed her breast. The thing that she focused on the most was not that, but the fact that everyone in the circle laughed. And the impact that had on her, of realising: ‘These are my colleagues, that was their response, how could I possibly report it?’ was greater than [that of] the act itself" (From the same Guardian piece). Or even female colleagues rooting for #TeamHarasser instead of believing the harassed.

I am not including these quotes to excuse or accuse but as part of my own thought processes behind my reluctance to comment and say #MeToo, which was cracked like a snow globe this morning. As we passed a security guard, I greeted him, but my daughter didn't. He said, 'Hey!' And before I thought about what I was doing, I told my daughter to greet him. I immediately regretted it, because I realised, how was that not a form of harassment? If my daughter does not want to greet a stranger or even a family member she is uncomfortable with, she should darn well not have to. Thus I am also complicit in condoning harassment, albeit a small instance, and even in defining her basic idea of consent. She will look at what I say and do and soon believe, as I do, that she has to greet strangers, be nice to strangers, giggle when they grab her butt, laugh when they make lewd comments about her body, stay silent when they climb on top of her.

If anything, my #MeToo moment is realising just how much I've been trained to be nice - you know, nice but not too nice - and just how much I'm training my daughter to do the same. I am failing in empowering her to fight against harassment, just as my parents did, and just as many parents are doing today out of habit. And damn me to hell if I allow that to happen.