Blog hop

A culture filled with bloggers thinks differently about politics or public affairs, if only because more have been forced through the discipline of showing in writing why A leads to B.

Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid


A number of years ago I was living alone in the big old house that I’d bought in England and I decided that it didn’t make sense to occupy all that space by myself. I wasn’t sure that I wanted someone to move in permanently so I searched for other solutions, and I found the perfect one in the form of the Digs List. Can you imagine anything more amazing? For a few weeks or a few months at a time, extraordinary people, mostly actors, came to share my house with me while they did their fantastic thing at the local theatres. And when they came home from the theatre I got to bask in some of their gorgeousness. And one of the most gorgeous of all was the amazing Vera Chok from, who kindly nominated me for this blog hop.

Vera is one of the most versatile, most prolific, most artistically ambitious (and I mean “ambitious” in the very best sense of the word) people that I’ve ever met. She acts, she writes, she sings, she plays the piano, she cooks, she dances. And she lives. She lives fantastically. She is a creator of beautiful things and a bringer-together of beautiful people. She is one of the reasons why I hope to live back in the UK again one day; if I’m there then I’ll be able to see some more of the amazing things she does.

But for the moment I am here, and I have to answer a few questions to meet the requirements of this blog hop. So here goes.

What are you working on?

At the moment I’m working on improving my ability to finish things. I’m very good at starting things. I’ve started a novel about the historical inhabitants of my house in Suffolk, England, inspired by its 168-year history of putting a roof over the head of some astonishing – and mostly single – women. I’ve started – and got some way towards finishing – a short story called The Laughter Shop. (I’m dying to know what happens to its main character so I must get on with that…). I’ve started a children’s book about a boy with a magic dictionary. Ooh, and just over a year ago, I started this blog, which I love for the fact that each post gives me a sense of completion even though the whole site will always be a work in progress. So I’m working on trying to take the wise writerly advice of the wise writer, Neil Gaiman, who said, “You have to finish things – that’s what you learn from. You learn by finishing things.” One day I’ll finish something and I’ll learn what he means.

I’m also working on trying to make my photography better. I’ve always been ever so slightly obsessed with taking photographs but now that my lovely man has furnished me with a good camera I have to try to take good photographs. So I’m learning on the job, the job being to document the lovely places I get to visit and trying to capture them as best I can. I’ve started selling some of my images as greetings cards and stuff on Redbubble, here.  (I’m told that they make great gifts!). I also want to make some pictures available to an online stock photo company so that they can be used, under license, by magazines, newspapers, bloggers and anyone else who needs images to add to their words. However the company that I’m interested in registering with requires that I provide them with ID which shows my nationality, residency visa and residential address. Now, given that I have an Australian passport, a Swiss residency visa, a permanent home in England, a temporary home in France and an address that I’m soon to move to Pakistan, this is proving more complicated that I’d have hoped! But it’s a project and it’s ongoing.

Ooh, and I’m working on a photobook  about my mother-in-law’s life so far which I’m hoping to present to her for a very special birthday she’s having later this year. (She wouldn’t thank me for telling you which one.)

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Hm, now that question kind of assumes that I know what the genre of my work actually is… In talking about “my work” here I guess I’m talking about my blog, and one thing I’ve been very keen to do with my blog is to avoid too much specificity. The blog is about my life as an expat, and given that I’ve been an expat for more years than I lived in my native country, that covers quite a few topics. I’ve written about feminism but I don’t want it to be a feminist blog. I’ve written about infertility but I don’t want it to be an infertility blog. I’ve written about personal stuff but I don’t want it to be a writing-as-personal-catharsis blog. Eugh, I really don’t want that.

I guess I could describe it as observational. I do and see stuff and describe what I’ve done and seen. To quote the fantastic Neil Gaiman again, “There will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you… but you are the only you.” I guess that’s how my work differs from others of its genre. It’s written by me.

Why do you create what you do?

You know that age-old question about what you’d save if your house was on fire? My answer has for a long time been my diaries. I don’t mean, “Dear Diary, Today I had another dull day at home” kind of diaries. I mean the tiny diaries that I’ve been keeping for many years now (I mean seriously tiny, so tiny that they drive my BFF to distraction, but I’ve always resisted her attempts to get me to write in bigger ones), which detail no more than where I’ve been on any given day, and with whom. I can spend hours looking through those diaries, reminiscing about times and places and people and events. They bring back so much that I’d otherwise forget.

I guess I’m writing this blog for the same reason. I’m planning on living a long, long life and having many adventures along the way. And just in case I don’t have anyone around to make me a photobook for my 90th birthday – ooh, sorry, mother-in-law, it slipped! – I’m making the book for myself as I go along. Only 47 years of blogging left until my blog reaches book form. Woohoo!

How does your creative process work?

At the moment I rather fear that it doesn’t! For me, as for many others I suspect, writing begets writing. (In fact I don’t just suspect that it works this way for others too. I just googled the expression “writing begets writing” and got 892,000 hits in 0.19 seconds). My problem at the moment is that taking photos doesn’t beget writing. It begets taking more photos. So I’m giving myself some space to concentrate on the photos (some of which you can see on my Flickr page here) and sometime soon – 2015 will be my year, I think – I shall find a happy balance between the two. And much writing and many photos will be begot.

Oh, and the other thing that I have to acknowledge about my creative process is that is that it works much, MUCH more efficiently if I have a deadline. In April, while I was doing the A to Z Challenge, I wrote 30 blog posts. Yep, that’s one a day, every day. And in the four months since April I’ve written precisely three posts, including this one. Someone give me a goddamn deadline already!


And now, to meet the other requirement of the blog hop, I get to tell you about a couple of lovely writer friends whose blogs I highly recommend you have a look at. Within weeks of arriving in Switzerland two years ago I found myself working as a reporter at a conference at the International Conference Centre in Geneva. And then I found myself chatting with Angie, the lovely Canadian reporter sitting next to me. And then I found that she’d become a great friend. And then I discovered that as well as writing, she also cooks and knits and sews and paints. Angie’s blog currently concentrates on the cooking but she’s thinking about expanding out to include her other creative pursuits too. Check her work out here at

My other nominee is someone I met at the place where I’ve met most of my favourite people in Switzerland – the Geneva International Book Club. The first time I heard Briony introduce herself to the group I knew she was smart and funny and I wanted her to keep attending. And she did – hooray! And then, joy of joys, she started writing a blog and the rest of the world could also appreciate how smart and funny she is, and also learn of the creative ways in which she’s making her life fun and memorable and worthwhile while simultaneously staving off her fearofthereaper. Be sure to check it out.

And now, dear people, my blog is hopped !

Thank you so much for reading.

Pictures and peacocks

Taking pictures is savouring life intensely, every hundredth of a second.

Marc Riboud


Hey, I just remembered something exciting – I have a blog!

It seems that completing the April A to Z Challenge must have taken it out of me. I haven’t written a single word since 30 April. I’ve barely even looked at my blog. I haven’t even responded to some of the lovely comments that people kindly left, congratulating me on making it to the end. And a whole lot of messages and emails that gorgeous friends have sent to me in the last number of months remain unanswered.

Sixty days have passed since I composed the final fullstop of the 30,000 words that I wrote for my Vagina Monologues-inspired challenge, and now I suddenly feel compelled to write again. That means that I’ve needed one day’s recovery for every 500 words that I wrote… I can hardly call myself a writer with those sorts of statistics following me around!

I’m offering one final stat, though, to explain the mitigating circumstances behind my absence from the world of writing. Since I last posted on my blog I’ve taken about 3,000 photographs. And I even quite like one or two of them. I’ve started to frequently update my Flickr page and also to follow and be inspired by some amazing photographers on that forum. (Do you have a Flickr page? Please let me know so I can follow you too!) And I’ve been reading some great photography books, like the brilliantly named (and brilliant) Read This If You Want To Take Great Photographs. I do. And I did. And I’m not taking great photographs yet but I’m working on it.

I’m going to ease back into this writing thing slowly… There are already 250 words on this page and I don’t have a day to spare for recovery! Instead I’ll show you some more pretty pictures of a peacock.

Here you go. Proud-looking fellow, isn’t he?

Fine feathered friend

And another one, with the object of his affections.

The object of his affections

Let’s see what Switzerland offers up for me to share with you tomorrow. I have high hopes.

Ooh, and just to let you know, I’m making my own greetings cards out of my photos these days. Let me know if you ever see anything here or on Flickr that you’d like to send to a loved one on a card and we’ll see what we can do.


There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway

A couple of years ago I was tired of the spectre of writing.  All my life I’d dreamed of being a writer, but now that I had the time to write the words weren’t forthcoming and I was sick of the constant niggling feeling that whatever I was doing, I should really have been writing instead. I thought at that time that if some fairy godmother or genie in a bottle had given me permission to never write again, I’d have been relieved.

I do not feel that way anymore.

Have you ever seen the movie Quills? Geoffrey Rush plays the scandalous Marquis de Sade, a (real-life) writer and revolutionary in 17th-century France whose libidinous acts landed him in prison, where he spent much of his life and did most of his writing. When, as part of his punishment, the Marquis de Sade is deprived of pen and paper, he takes to writing with wine on the bed sheets, or with his own blood and excrement on the walls.

The whole film is a treatise on the act and importance of writing. Apparently the tune that the Marquis de Sade constantly hums is the children’s song Au Clair de la Lune, the second line of which translates as “lend me your quill so I can write a word”. Apparently every line that was cut from the film’s script made it into the film in one way or another, either written on clothing or bed sheets or on the walls of de Sade’s prison cell. Not a word that was written was lost or wasted.

Not every writer achieves the Marquis de Sade’s notoriety. Not every writer is even published, and some successful writers are scathingly critical of the fact that in these days of blogging and self-publishing, every wannabe writer can find a voice. I don’t think Milan Kundera meant it in a positive way when he wrote, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

The irresistible proliferation of graphomania among politicians, taxi drivers, childbearers, lovers, murderers, thieves, prostitutes, officials, doctors, and patients shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down the streets and shout: ‘We are all writers!’

But sometimes the words that we write can make a difference. They can make a difference to those around us, or just to ourselves. Or, like the words that sprung from Eve Ensler’s pen when she sat down to write The Vagina Monologues, they can make a difference to millions around the world.

If a genie in a bottle were to grant me three wishes now, I would not wish never to have to write again, but rather that I will always have the right words to say what I need to say, and the tools with which to say them. I admire the Marquis de Sade’s determination, but I think I’d rather drink my wine and leave my blood flowing in my veins so that I might write another day.

Give me a quill or a computer. And leave the rest to me.

Desert Days – Life on an Eco Kibbutz

It isn’t always easy living simply but at Kibbutz Lotan in the Negev Desert in the south of Israel, the kibbutzniks and the Eco Volunteers who live amongst them are giving it their best shot.

If there’s anywhere in the world where the ethics of Care for People, Care for the Earth and all life and Fair Share should be put to most urgent use, it’s in this harsh desert environment in arguably the most politically complex region on the planet.

Driving through the arid Arava Valley, where daily evaporation exceeds annual rainfall, one can only imagine the challenges that must arise from trying to survive, sustainably or otherwise, in such unforgiving conditions. However in 1983, the same year as the term Ecotourism was popularised, the founding members of Kibbutz Lotan decided to do just that.

Lotan 023

Like every decision one makes in Israel, that of where to establish an egalitarian collective community was a political one. In keeping with the ethics which they still uphold to this day, the founders chose an area which is not contested in the ongoing land grab that defines the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And what they’ve learned through developing this prototype model for sustainable living has much to teach us all.

Upon our arrival at Lotan my friend and I were shown to the Ecotourism suite that would accommodate us for the night, and were surprised to see that we had our very own en suite bathroom, complete with shower and (dual) flushing toilet, and that there was an air-conditioning unit attached to the wall. So far, so not-very-eco-friendly…

We’d arrived late in the afternoon and our formal tour was not due to take place until the next morning, so we welcomed the invitation to take an independent look around some of the 143 acres that comprise the kibbutz. And it didn’t take long for some of the eco-puzzle pieces to start falling into place.

Walking through the grassed areas and seeing the carefully tended flowering plants that decorate the many community spaces around Lotan, it was very easy to forget that we were in the desert. Within a few minutes, though, after wandering happily past a White Gum that, as ever, brought back thoughts of my native Australia, we caught a glimpse of the sustainable homes that have become the hallmark of this eco community.

Lotan 012

My friend and I soon got chatting with a friendly-looking passerby, who introduced himself as Shilo and explained that he did his Green Apprenticeship at Lotan in November and has stayed on as an Eco Volunteer ever since.

During our impromptu tour around the area known within the community as the Bustan, (Orchard in Hebrew), Shilo explained that the kibbutz, while built on ideals of cooperation and equality, was not always an eco village; its original houses were conventional concrete structures, and its inhabitants’ main focus was on democratic Jewish renewal.

However, in their efforts to live according to the Jewish principle of Tikun Olam, which involves an ongoing process of transforming the world into an ever more perfect state, the group found that they were accumulating a significant wealth of knowledge which they could impart to other people who were interested in living more sustainably. So it was in the mid-1990s that the eco experience at Lotan began in earnest, and the community, now affiliated with the Global Ecovillage Network, has since gone from strength to strength.

Evidence of Lotan’s determination to reduce, reuse, rethink and recycle can be seen all over the kibbutz, perhaps most outstandingly in the Bustan, whose natural, sustainable geodesic domes were constructed by students on the Green Apprenticeship programme over a two-year period which began in 2005.

Lotan loan

(Thanks to Kibbutz Lotan for this photo.)

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

The domes are constructed from a series of interlocking irrigation pipes in hexagons and pentagons, insulated with straw bales and covered with three coats of mud, a construction method which stands up to rigorous testing for fire and earthquake resistance.

In the winter, the domes are passively heated by the desert sun, and the heat absorbed by their walls and floors stays within the structure during the often cold nights, meaning that no additional heating is required. And because the windows are carefully placed for the most effective ventilation, the air-conditioning units are only switched on for very brief periods during the long hot summers, when temperatures often reach 45°C during the day and stay at around 30°C overnight. In an ongoing experiment in which the Eco Volunteers measure daily temperatures inside the domes and carefully monitor the use of mechanical heating/cooling systems, the domes have been proven to use one fifth of the energy being consumed by the conventionally built concrete kibbutz dwellings in the winter, and just one eighth in the summer.

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During the five-month periods in which Green Apprentices like Shilo live in the Bustan, every day sees them practically applying the knowledge they’re acquiring about alternative building, organic gardening, creative recycling, alternative energy use and community living. In the central area of the Bustan there lies, among various other communal living areas, an outdoor alternative kitchen, which features a solar oven, a parabolic oven, a taboon or earth oven, and Shilo’s favourite, the rocket oven. Sunshine is in abundant supply here in the Arava Valley, and these cooking methods maximise this ever-present resource to its best effect. And I’m happy to report that the proof was in the…cookies that Shilo offers us, which had been slow-baked at 120°C in the solar oven, using reflective insulation and sun absorption.

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The last stop on Shilo’s Whistlestop Bustan Tour allowed my friend and I to try out the latest in must-have eco white goods – the pedal-powered washing machine. Just throw in your clothes and eco-friendly washing powder, and your washing will be shiny-white by the time your workout is done.

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After we said goodbye to Shilo and continued on our way, we stumbled upon Lotan’s Collection Centre, which was built with the assistance of Israel’s Ministry for the Environment in recognition of the kibbutz’s early efforts to recycle. Lotan was established during a time when Israelis were making active attempts to forget the necessary thrift of their forebears; while war, persecution and poverty had made compulsive reusers and recyclers of those who created the state of Israel, subsequent generations have revelled in the possibility of an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new mentality. So in a country whose inhabitants are now the second biggest creators of rubbish in the world, (relative to population size and second to the United States), the work being done by Lotan and other environmental groups is essential to future sustainability.

All of this was explained to us in greater detail the next morning, when we joined a small tour group being led by Lotan’s General Secretary, Mark Naveh, who studied ecology in Australia and sustainability education in England. As Mark walked us around the kibbutz, he explained some of the challenges involved in trying to live organically and sustainably in such an intense, extreme and challenging environment as the Negev.

Mark and his fellow kibbutzniks, he explained, are making use of all of their collective knowledge and experience in designing, building and running sustainable homes, businesses and communities. As well as the building methods and technologies mentioned earlier, the centre also has composting toilets, grey and black water purification systems, solar electricity generation and storage, and organic gardens. The kibbutz is not yet at zero waste, but has managed to reduce its general waste disposal by 70%. But the eco centre’s goal of achieving self-sufficiency using only organic methodologies is, Mark fears, some way off.

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While the community uses as little water as possible, it still relies on non-renewable groundwater to provide for its everyday needs, as the little rain that does fall tends to lead to flash-floods in unpredictable areas and therefore cannot be collected. There is no grazing land for the dairy cattle that are the economic backbone of the kibbutz, so 100% of their animal feed has to be bought in, and at this stage the centre’s organic gardens produce only a small percentage of the food required for the 200 people – kibbutzniks, renting residents and volunteers – to be found at Lotan on any given day.

The immense value of a community such as Lotan, however, is surely to be found in the efforts they are making to live as sustainably as possible, and also, perhaps most importantly, to educate the thousands of people who visit the centre each year to do the same. While my friend and I, together with an interested couple from England, were being shown around the centre, Mark’s colleague Leah Zigmond was busy teaching a group of young volunteers about organic gardening. There were also, we were told, people receiving holistic health treatments and others engaged in bird-watching, all of which enable people to enjoy themselves and their environment in a non-destructive way, as well as providing an income to allow the centre to continue its work.

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Soon before our reluctant departure from the kibbutz, while we sat sipping sweet Arabic tea in the vegetarian eco-café, Mark explained his perception of the centre’s role as being one of essential education – people must be prepared for what he expects is to come, in 15 or 20 years, when peak oil, water shortages and a possible global food crisis make localisation humanity’s only hope.

As a final question, I asked Mark if the centre was doing anything to mark Earth Day, which happened to fall on the day that I visited Lotan. “No, nothing special,” he said. “Every day here is Earth Day.”

UNISDR – Disaster Risk Reduction

In May 2013 I worked as a reporter at UNISDR’s 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction. My mission was to attend daily sessions and write up brief reports for use by UNISDR. Below is a handful of my reports.

Parliamentarians’ Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

In a meeting attended by MPs from 26 countries, it was agreed that as climate change and disaster risk reduction are profoundly human issues, parliamentarians, who are the only stakeholders constitutionally mandated to speak on behalf of the people, are uniquely placed to have an immediate impact on the lives of those who have elected them.

It is increasingly believed that community-based actions should be the starting point of disaster risk reduction. So by acting with and on behalf of their constituents, the world’s 45,000 parliamentarians can take the lessons learned at ground level and use them to create legislation, allocate resources and ensure that legislation is implemented.

There is an urgent need for such immediate action, with many countries seeing a changing pattern of disasters, with both frequency and impact on the rise. The rate of economic growth in some countries cannot keep pace with expenditure on disaster recovery, so money spent on prevention, resilience building and risk reduction must be seen as an investment rather than a cost.

To bring about the necessary coherence to achieve this, governance for risk reduction must be strengthened at local, national and regional levels so that committed individuals and groups can work together to apply science and knowledge to the creation of policy.

It is proven that education and planning are essential in preventing natural hazards from becoming natural disasters, especially in areas affected by overpopulation and urbanization. Parliamentarians are well placed to ensure that this ground-level action is taken, and that care is given to all aspects of planning, including education, health, agriculture and zoning.

Before the 1995 Kobe earthquake, the corporate sector in Japan did not wish to take responsibility for disaster risk prevention. Following that disaster, however, there was a paradigm shift in attitudes to corporate responsibility that the private sector in the rest of the world has followed with interest.

Private Sector Disaster Risk Reduction Consultation

Dr. Satoru Nishikawa has been successful in propagating the idea of Business Continuity Planning in Japan by using a positive rather than a regulatory approach, creating a win-win situation for businesses who participate in the development and implementation of disaster reduction and resilience strategies.  He has made it clear that businesses become attractive places in which to work and spend when they demonstrate corporate citizenship and take responsibility for the safety of their customers and employees.

Mr. Thomas Loster, chairman of the Munich-Re Foundation, agrees that the private sector must be involved in disaster risk reduction, and believes that if governments are able to encourage such participation then the activity will trickle down to customer level, creating much needed grassroots understanding and action.

Mr. Aras Papdopoulos, CEO of Titan America, also believes that the private sector should be encouraged to take a more active role in raising awareness of disaster risk. Companies should also be assured that when they invest in DRR, their investments will go towards the creation of resilient urban ecosystems in which business can continue to thrive.

EU Disaster Management – New Tools for Policy Making

During a conversation centring on the European Union’s new tools for policy making for disaster risk reduction (DRR), the room was reminded of the reasons for the importance of such policy making by Roger Bellers, Cooperation Officer for Disaster Risk Reduction and Resilience with the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection branch of the European Commission.

Resilience, Mr. Bellers believes, is not just a buzz word, but is a way of saving lives, and in a world in which disaster losses are increasing, we must create greater capacity for DRR, as well as targeting policies at the most vulnerable in order to improve resilience from the grassroots upwards.

In order to take a collective risk management approach, different regional and international stakeholders should consolidate the tools they use, such as guidelines, funding mechanisms, early response systems, crisis modifiers and safety net systems.

Such consolidation was discussed by Thomas de Lannoy, Policy Officer for DRR at the European Commission. While guidelines on risk assessment are being written independently by European member states, he said, they are then being communicated to the Commission and disseminated throughout the region. Examples of risk management and disaster proofing in areas such as transport, energy and climate infrastructure are therefore being utilized at a regional level.

Philippe Quevauviller, Policy Officer for Enterprise at the European Commission, discussed the importance of implementing bridges of cooperation to make sure that research findings and their application to disaster risk management are transferred to end users. The Disaster Risk Reduction National Platforms are an important tool for such dissemination.

Public Awareness and Education in Building Community Resilience

While one of the key messages of the 4th Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) has been that our efforts must be focused on vulnerable communities, few members of those communities have been able to visit CICG this week. However, one of the conference’s most poignant moments was when an 11-year-old Vietnamese boy with severe disabilities asked the panel about education accessibility during the side event on the Role of Public Awareness in Building Community Resilience.

According to Ms. Kirsten Holst, UNESCO Liaison Officer in Geneva, it is just such children on whom we must focus our attentions at local, national, regional and global levels, with education for all being a key priority. UNESCO is working on building a comprehensive approach to education for disaster risk reduction and sustainable development, so that communities across the world can enjoy a culture of safety and resilience.

The right to education and safety are also top level outcomes for Save the Children, said the organization’s Senior Advisor for Education and DRR, Ms. Marla Petal. When children and youth are given access to comprehensive DRR education, they become pivotal in the dissemination of knowledge throughout their communities.

Also on the panel, Mr. Mohammad Munir Chowdury said that the need for DRR professionals in his country, Bangladesh, has led to the establishment of diplomas and masters courses in the subject, and many thousands of people have already trained in the management of disasters such as floods, cyclones and droughts. Their motto, he said, is one which could well be applied across the world: “Know risk, no risk.”

What Binds Us? – Civil Society’s View on Building Resilient Communities

If Sharmila Aminath of the Maldivian Red Crescent could impress just two messages on the attendees of the 4th Global Platform on Disaster Risk Reduction, it would be these: that we must focus on vulnerable people, and that resilience is a life-long and on-going process.

Through working directly with vulnerable people in Maldivian communities, the Red Crescent has established grassroots definitions of the priorities of resilient communities, which include access to services, education, information, infrastructure and health facilities in an environment where economic risks and natural hazards are understood.

Action Aid Afghanistan has learnt similar lessons in its work with vulnerable communities, and believes that community groups need to be empowered to improve their own situation. Those most affected by disaster risk – the poor, women, children, the disabled and members of linguistic minorities – must be empowered. By addressing the underlying causes of vulnerability, such as lack of governance, social exclusion and lack of secured access to services, assets and natural resources, civil organizations can assist people in bettering their own circumstances.

From the perspective of the Catholic Relief Organization, the answer to the question of what binds us is a thirst for useful resources, which is why it has worked with various stakeholders in disaster risk reduction to produce the Towards Resilience Guide. The Guide seeks to address the problem of the inaccessibility of information to vulnerable groups, using simple language that makes it both comprehensible and translatable.

With so many organizations working towards the common goal of community resilience, many are recognizing the need for a cohesive approach. The Dutch alliance Partners for Resilience has brought together five NGOs to work on the building blocks of resilience, which they see as anticipation, response, adaptation and transformation. Their aim, shared by everyone working towards resilience, is for communities affected by disaster to be able not just to bounce back, but to bounce back better.

UN University: Comprehensive Climate Risk Management

Recent case studies by the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) have concluded that what matters most to those affected by loss and damage at a household level are certainty, livelihood and food security, and how these things are maintained has a direct bearing on disaster risk reduction.

While it is essential that international organizations be involved with disaster risk reduction and management, especially in fragile or failed states, every group that suffers loss and damage must also be involved in their prevention and mitigation, which means that national and regional efforts should be coordinated with community-based actions.

National Platforms for Disaster Risk Reduction are an excellent mechanism by which to achieve this coordination. While national governments are at the frontline of risk management and communities must endeavour to prevent and respond to loss and damage, National Platforms could play a greater role in bringing lessons learned at a national level to a local context, and act as a median point between traditional top-down and more inclusive bottom-up approaches, bringing policy coherence, coordination and strategy implementation to all levels.

The Knowledge Volunteers

When Carlo Lamprecht, former President of the Republic and Canton of Geneva, gave the keynote speech at The Knowledge Volunteers (TKV) conference on September 21, 2012, all present were reminded of the tremendous value of building intergenerational bridges to ensure digital inclusion and to share human values.

TKV was conceived a year ago by Fondazione Mondo Digitale (FMD) to encourage active ageing and intergenerational learning. At the conference, the seven partners, from the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Romania, Switzerland and the UK, each confirmed that those aims are being met every step along the way towards next year’s project completion.

In each country, young tutors are teaching those over 60 to use information communications technology. The older generation, referred to by participants in the TKV project as “Generation Plus”, are then encouraged to pass their knowledge on to their peers, so forming a large network of volunteers of all ages for the dissemination and sharing of knowledge.

As she welcomed all guests to the conference, Mirta Michilli, Director General of FMD, explained that the European Commission had funded TKV through its Lifelong Learning programme in an effort to build up a better society. “Especially in cities,” she said, “there are few opportunities for the generations to come together. As well as ensuring that older people are digitally included, this programme helps to prepare young people for the challenges of the 21st century by giving them the chance to use life skills and to face a professional environment.”

The knowledge exchange which is central to this programme perfectly matches the life skills and experiences of one generation with the practical abilities which seem to be easily acquired by another. As Carlo Lemprecht pointed out: “Use of computers and the internet seems to come naturally to our grandchildren, but we must remember that it was only 20 years ago that Tim Berners-Lee wrote the http code – the foundation of the World Wide Web – when working for CERN right here in Geneva. This cross-generational exchange builds bridges of both knowledge and human values.”

Members of Generation Plus whose working lives did not involve the use of information communication technologies, or ICTs, are often intimidated by computers and think that the technology is beyond their learning capacities. The TKV project overcomes this reluctance, however, by starting new learners with “the ABC of ICT”. This foundation course familiarises learners first with the essential hardware of the computer, such as the monitor, keyboard and mouse, and then with the fundamentals of its use. Step by step, the learners gain confidence in their interactions with the computer, until finally they are able to exploit their PCs for such activities as e-banking, e-shopping, booking travel and social networking.

At the conference, video testimonials were shown from project participants representing Generation Plus. One woman from Prague bought her first computer at age 70. “And now,” she said, “I can’t imagine life without it.”

A man, also from the Czech Republic, was forced by illness to take early retirement, and found himself feeling lost and alone when his wife was out at work. Having now received communications technology training through TKV, however, he says, “If I’m sick or can’t leave the apartment, the computer can help me to contact other people. I know there’s always someone out there to talk to.”

Also significant was the testimonial of the most senior member of Switzerland’s ICVolunteers team. 90-year-old Magda Boon-Dènes said she finds the internet a wonderful tool for looking up anything she might want to see, from a forgotten recipe to a video of Fred Astaire dancing.

The benefits to the young volunteers who are training the Generation Plus learners are no less significant than those that their older peers are enjoying. Mirta Michilli pointed out that the young volunteers are not only learning how to communicate their knowledge, but are also developing a sense of social responsibility.

François Ledoux of Intel Corporation, which sponsors the TKV project, praised the role of these and other volunteers in making our communities better places in which to live and work. “By donating their energy, time and professional skills,” he said,” “volunteers can establish a foundation of lifelong learning and social awareness that may not be achieved through standard educational practices.”

This was also stressed by Alfonso Molina, Scientific Director of FMD, who said that through volunteering we practice “the best dimensions of our humanity. Many of today’s young people, he said, “are not in employment, education or training, and social innovation is required to tackle the challenges with which they are confronted. At the same time, people are living longer, which means that the concept of ‘older’ is changing, and it is important to ensure that people are not digitally excluded once they reach retirement age.”

The TKV partners have enjoyed the on-going experience, over the past year, of transforming the theory of TKV into an actual working partnership between volunteers and learners, and have themselves learned a great deal as they tried to find solutions to the real social and practical problems which in some instances have threatened to derail their participation in the programme. In Greece, for example, the economic crisis has presented significant challenges to project partner 50Plus Hellas, but the enthusiasm of the young volunteers, teachers and learners has helped the course to carry on regardless.

“Nothing worked in Greece from July to September,” said Myrto-Maria Ranga, Project Manager at 50Plus Hellas, “but TKV has still been a tremendous success. We’ve had so many expressions of interest from members of Generation Plus that we’ve had to create a waiting list. Social inclusion is a human right and one of the goals of this project, and by working for and with older people, we are able to give a voice to a section of our society that could otherwise be marginalised.”

50Plus Hellas and other project partners found that it was important to involve public organisations in the programme from the start. “At the beginning,” Myrta said, it was difficult to persuade politicians of the potential of a project such as this one. Now, though, they understand the value of intergenerational communication, and are more willing to support our efforts.”

Project partners also learned the importance of flexibility in their approaches to the courses to accommodate the needs of the local participants. According to Raluca Icleanu of the Societatea Romana Pentru Educatie Permanenta (SREP) of Romania, “The structure of the courses must be based on the needs expressed by the target group. We make sure that we define course times and dates with our teachers and learners, taking into consideration where they come from and what time they finished school and work and so on. This ensures that our courses accommodate everyone’s needs, and we therefore have a very low dropout rate.”

The central role of communications technology in the 21st century was highlighted in the closing moments of the TKV conference, when ICV Executive Director Viola Krebs pointed out that all of the communication between the TKV partners had, until last week, taken place in a virtual environment. Viola invited all partners to sign a physical Memorandum of Understanding to commemorate the rare occasion of their meeting. The handshakes exchanged between the partners were a marked commitment to the continued success of this ambitious project.

IT lifelines for Africa

In areas of African nations where electricity supply is erratic and many people have never seen a computer, how does one meet the challenge of linking rural communities using information communications technologies (ICTs)? This was one of many subjects discussed during the ICTs for Africa conference at the International Conference Centre of Geneva on September 21, 2012.

Five years ago, Switzerland’s ICVolunteers (ICV), a Swiss-based non-profit organization, established E-TIC, a programme which aimed to empower local communities in West Africa through the meaningful use of ICTs. With solutions now coming from the field, the programme’s participants are becoming better equipped to improve the living and working conditions of people in different sectors of rural West African communities.

At the conference, Viola Krebs, Executive Director of ICVolunteers, pointed out that “the isolated nature of rural zones in countries such as Mali and Senegal means that a large majority of farmers, herders and fishermen, who are essential pillars of their countries’ agriculture-based economies, often do not have access to information that would help them to improve their living conditions.”

This is partly because much of the population is illiterate, and the people speak local languages, making the nationwide dissemination of information almost impossible.

These and other challenges have been confronted by everyone involved in the E-TIC programme, including Colonel Souleymane Ndiamé Guéye, Director of the National Civic Service and Agricultural Volunteers of Senegal, who phoned in to the conference from Dakar.

As part of the programme that Colonel Guéye is running, local men and women aged between 18 and 35 are being offered 21 days of training, one module of which is focused on ICTs, and has been run by the E-TIC program. Once they have completed the training, the volunteers are given the agricultural equipment they require to spend two years doing volunteer work on farms in their own local areas. Because these volunteers have, at very least, basic literacy skills and are trained in ICTs, they are able to act as local information relays, disseminating essential information to rural communities that do not otherwise have access to this information. Even just by providing information about weather forecasts, the volunteers can be instrumental in helping farmers to save crops and avoid natural disasters.

Moustapha Ndiaye, who ran ICT training courses for the Sahel InfoHubs project, reiterated the importance of such programmes. “Through our courses,” he said, “we’re giving young people the opportunity to be better integrated. Our students create websites for the 14 regions of Senegal, and the people that we train go on to train other students. In rural areas where few know how to use a computer, these young people are helping to support and develop their communities.”

In areas with inherent social problems, suggested Swithun Mutaasa, a cybervolunteer from Uganda, such courses can also give local people a positive focus that may previously have been lacking. “In our community,” he said, “people, especially men, have been engrained into negative behaviours like drinking, poaching and deforestation. Despite their low literacy levels, our people have a thirst for information, and these courses give them a platform for expression and allow them to generate small incomes in sustainable ways. This education in citizenship awareness is essential.” He further relayed how he had assisted the Bwindi National Park telecentre in rural Uganda.

An important outcome of information dissemination in rural communities is that it slows the rural exodus which is causing profound economic, social and cultural changes in developing countries. At the conference, Jose María Díaz Batanero of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) said that ICTs, which are now available around the world, represent a “true platform for progress. People with access to ICTs do not need to migrate to cities. They can stay in their own communities and still have a window onto the world. This can have an important impact on environmental protection and social development, which is something that will be further discussed in the 2013 follow-up Forum of the World Summit on Information Society.”

While projects like E-TIC are using localisation to minimise the exclusion of rural communities, other ICV projects are attempting to confront problems that have arisen as a result of creeping globalisation. One example of this is the Ethical Fashion Project, of which ICV is one of the project partners, together with the International Trade Centre (ITC), ECOs, University of Geneva and Helvetas. The part of the project being run by ICV and the University of Geneva was discussed at the conference by Filmon Abraha and Céline Castiglione.

After Ghana gained independence in 1957, they explained, the country was transformed through a programme of industrialisation, and its manufacturing industry was dominated by textiles. As an effect of neo-colonialism in the 1980s, however, there was an influx of Asian textile products, and textile companies in Ghana, unable to compete with China’s low-cost labour force, had no choice but to close down. This was in spite of the general perception that the cheap Chinese products are of considerably lower quality than the products that were being produced in small Ghanaian villages.

Research carried out by the Ethical Fashion Programme has shown that European consumers would be prepared to pay more for high quality clothes, and that there is a market for ethical fashion items in large department stores such as Manor. It is therefore trying to strengthen links between manufacturers in Ghana and sellers in Geneva to create a space for Ghanaian textiles. The challenges are considerable but Filmon and Celine are undaunted. “Europe is seen as the brain of the global textile industry,” they said at the conference, “China as the factory, and Africa only as a supplier for high-consumption societies with a throwaway lifestyle… Although we’re not yet able to provide comprehensive answers to this problem, we are trying to understand the expectations of Swiss consumers.”

Another important project that was discussed at the conference was that of the AgriGuide , a tool which provides information on food and cash crops management for small-holder farmers, herders, and fishermen in Senegal and Mali, to help them efficiently manage natural resources and increase income. The question of the use of pesticides, environmentally respectful practices and organic farming, as well as the proper use of relevant communication tools, was at the heart of the discussion.

Several touching testimonials to the importance of safe and sustainable farming practices came from Dr. Ousman Aly Pame, Mayor of Senegal’s Guédé-Chantier. “80 years ago when my grandmother was young,” Dr. Aly Pame explained, “the environment was green. My grandmother lived on an island with elephants and drank water from the rivers. People produced subsistence crops and did not use pesticides.

“Then in the 1970s, the Senegalese government signed an agricultural agreement with China, and technical advisers were sent to teach us how to use pesticides. All the trees were cut down so that rice fields could be planted. The toxic products being used on those fields began to reach the rivers, so the fish were poisoned and became inedible. Farmers were not made sufficiently aware of the danger of the products they were using, so accidents resulting in poisoning are common.

“Another problem is that while the farmers were once self-sufficient, they are now hugely indebted to banks, and in order to service their debts, they are forced to grow the crops prescribed by global demand rather than foods that they themselves can eat. As a result, they are locked between increasing yields and growing loans from the banks.”

This view was shared by Professor Lucas Luisoni of the Geneva School of Landscape, Engineering and Architecture for Higher Studies (Haute école du paysage, d’ingénierie et d’architecture de Genève), who said that “political choices and development policies do not work to the benefit of local populations.

“People think of food security in cities but rural areas are at risk. You need to give self-sufficiency to producers, and ICTs in rural areas must be able to render solutions to the producers’ needs.”

Professor Luisoni suggested that mobile phones may currently be the most significant ICT in rural African contexts. As half of the people in rural communities have access to a mobile phone, there is greater incentive for illiterate people to learn how to read and write, and the technology can be used to empower people to transmit and share knowledge.

Michael Riggs of the Food and Agriculture Organisation, who attended the conference by phone, agreed, but added that, “Opportunities for modern ICT tools cannot be taken advantage of without supportive policy. As governments do not always see the importance of telecommunications in the agricultural sector, we must ensure that policy is improved to create an enabling environment for the increased use of mobile technology for information dissemination in rural areas.”

Dr. Aly Pame’s suggestion, when asked about how communication could benefit rural communities, was that the AgriGuide should be more widely distributed – he thinks that every family should have a copy. He also said that because Senegal’s is an oral rather than a written culture and much of the population is illiterate, it is important that the information included in the AgriGuide be distributed in video format in addition to the current written format.

ICVolunteers’ representative in Dakar, Namor Diakhate, who Skyped in to the conference, agreed. He also added that, “It would be helpful if a communication liaison could take 30 minutes to explain the AgriGuide to people in rural communities, and to receive feedback from the farmers about their needs and how they can best be met.”

Fernando Terry, representing EcoTransferts, a consultancy agency which supports the creation of eco-projects, pointed out that any discussion regarding the future of agriculture must consider the increasingly urgent global necessity for effective transition into a green economy.
“At the moment,” he said, “there are policies in place to assist communities and countries to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels and decrease carbon outputs. This is positive, but the mere will to meet current targets is not sufficient – we need to train people to implement the policies. It should be recognised that a transition towards a green economy will bring both economic and environmental opportunities.”

It was acknowledged during the conference that as a result of the current global economic crisis, many agencies that previously funded development projects have been forced to reduce their contributions, and are limiting the areas in which they are prepared to participate. Professor Michael Oris of the University of Geneva, however, suggested that people should not underestimate the value of comparatively small local initiatives.

Mr Oris gave the example of a UN drinking-water initiative, in which water service companies in the Rhone-Alp region twinned with similar companies in African villages. “When engineers from each side visited one another,” he said, “a mutual understanding was created and people were more than happy to share their technical skills with one another. It came to be seen as a situation in which colleagues required assistance, and company boards were therefore willing to ensure that projects were able to progress. Programmes such as this one are inexpensive and help individuals and countries to develop a sense of mutual good will.”

It is also important, suggested Arame Diaw-Diop of the International Organization of La Francophonie (OIF), that organisations applying for the funding that is available are careful to follow the procedures laid out by the donor agency. “Francophone funds,” she said, “are available for future projects which support youth internship, the promotion of democratic processes, citizenship, digital intelligence and the broadcasting of the common good in Francophone countries. However we are only able to allocate funds to project partners who strictly adhere to our procedural requirements. We look forward to hearing from project partners who are prepared to work hand-in-hand with us and make a positive contribution to supported communities.”

In concluding the conference on ICTs for Africa, Nazir Sunderji, Senior Advisor to ICVolunteers, reminded the audience of the saying that “the Earth does not belong to us but has been lent to us by our children.” We have pretended, he said, that a limited resource is unlimited, but we must find ways of creating opportunities and meeting the costs involved with giving back to our children what we found.

Just the two of us – postscript

(A spoken word recording of this post can be found here.)

Sadness is but a wall between two gardens.

Khalil Gibran


Some years ago, when I was still working in my first and favourite subtitling job, my fellow shift workers and I found ourselves working on a Labour Day Bank Holiday. To mark the day as different from any other typically mundane Monday, a couple of us decided to use our break times practicing an altogether different skill to our usual subtitling one. We took off our headphones, got up from our desks and set up our little corner of the office as a nail salon. Then we invited our co-workers to swap their usual coffee breaks for a few minutes of manicure.

There were many lovely things about this experience but the best one was the most unexpected. While I filed, primed and painted their nails, my friends and fellow employees, both male and female, started opening up to me about stuff that they’d never discussed with me before. I still don’t know what the cause was – is there something in the chemicals in hairdressing and beauty salons that makes us chat with relative strangers about our lives? – but the effect was lovely. They left my pod with beautiful nails painted in the colour/s of their choice, and I stayed behind with the warmth of their stories – some happy, some sad, some funny, all, without exception, better for having been shared.

When I first decided, two long weeks ago, to share my story of infertility, I had no idea that I was setting myself up for a similarly heart-warming exchange. I thought when I started writing that I was doing it as an exercise in catharsis. I thought that by writing my story down and looking at it from a distance I’d be able to find some threads of sense in it that would make it easier for me to move on. Any thoughts that I had about sharing were focused on the desire to be open and honest, and were certainly not concentrated on the possibility of getting anything back.

My Dad, when he’d read Part Two of these posts, said he was concerned that there was a danger, in telling this story, that I would ostracise people with my grief. But instead of separation or the solitary contemplation that I’d anticipated, I’ve experienced a groundswell of warmth, support and solidarity that was wholly unexpected.

Some people have written to say, “Oh, really? Me too!” Some have shared stories far, far more harrowing than mine, and my heart goes out to them. Some have told me of the IVF experiences of their friends or family members. One friend sent me a heart-wrenching sequence of poetry that he’d written about his experience of the same subject, part of which has recently been published by the Poetry Society. Some have said that they’d never thought about the issue before and were glad to have it brought to their attention. Some said that they never wanted to have kids themselves but were thinking of me anyway. Some have sent virtual hugs and kisses, which are always rapidly snapped up by someone like me, who lives too far away from the source of most real ones to grab hold of them very often. All have been utterly appreciated and have made me feel a thousand times better, at this stage of the game, than I’d have thought possible.

And still I have pages and pages and pages of notes on this subject that I’ve not found a space for here, and I don’t really want to change my blog title from Notes from an eternal expat to Notes from Infertile Girl. (Although one lovely friend said that “Infertile Girl” sounds like a superhero so perhaps I should reconsider…). Maybe it’s just time to find another forum.

For the meantime, though, I’ll write down a few more thoughts for anyone who has the time to indulge me just a little bit further. (And please know that these are generalised observations of myself and our society, and are not specific reflections on anything that’s ever been said to me by my friends and family, all of whom have been immensely supportive.)


When you buy a ticket to visit the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, you’re arbitrarily assigned a classification of “white” or “non-white”. This classification determines which entrance you take into the museum. When M and I went there a few years ago, we bought our tickets together then were immediately separated. We felt estranged, isolated and apprehensive – exactly the emotions you’re supposed to feel as you enter the rather intimidating structure and empathise with those who suffered the segregation imposed on them by the apartheid system.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not for a second suggesting that the experience of finding yourself childless in a child-filled world can be compared to the suffering experienced by those living under oppressive regimes.

But it turns out that there is a degree of separation and misunderstanding between those with kids and those who would have liked to have them but can’t. Growing up, settling down and having kids is seen as the normal trajectory. So when you’re forced to skip one of those steps you suddenly find yourself outside of the norm. Abnormal. And the fact is that you can start to feel rather estranged and isolated.

There are all sorts of platitudes and stock phrases that we, as a culture, trot out in given circumstances to make other people (or maybe just ourselves) feel more comfortable in a range of conversations. I cringe when I think of some of the things that my younger self might have said to people in the past. Things like this:

  • “You’re engaged? Congratulations! So when are you getting married?”

Younger Michelle, perhaps they’d just like to be engaged for a while. Can’t they live in the now, rather than feeling forced to rush onto the next big event?

Maybe I could have just said, “Congratulations! The champagne’s on me. Here’s to a happy engagement!”

  • “Wow, you’re married now. How exciting! So when do you think you might have babies?”

Idiot, younger Mish!

1. Let them enjoy just being together. Life is long. Give them time!

2. Maybe they’re already pregnant and don’t want to make the announcement just yet. They’ll tell you when they’re ready.

3. They might not want to have kids. That’s their business.

4. They might already have been trying to have kids, so far without success. Don’t make them feel awkward about it.

  •  “You’ve had a few failed cycles of IVF? Well, keep trying. I know someone who got pregnant at 47 after her 8th treatment. You’ll get there in the end.”

Or maybe they won’t, younger me. The IVF industry is constructed on a very solid foundation of hope, but the awful fact is that the ground underneath that solid concrete is crumbling. The recently outgoing chair of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Lisa Jardine, used her departure to make a point that she’d felt unable to make strongly enough during her six years in the position. She said:

‘This is a sector that trades in hope, and the papers and women’s magazines are full of encouragement. Yet the success rates for IVF remain discouragingly low. The last figures we have show that for every cycle of IVF, fewer than a third of patients will emerge with a baby…That leaves two thirds of would-be mothers and fathers with the heartbreak of “failure”.’

Do read the article if you have time. It’s excellent.

I’m sorry if anyone reading this is still hanging their hopes on IVF. I hope with all my might that it works out for you, that you’re among the lucky ones.

But I also really think it should be more widely known that IVF doesn’t work for the vast majority of people forced to resort to it. Everyone who goes into IVF believes that they’ll come out the other end with a baby, but most don’t. Our knowledge has come such a very long way since Louise Brown was born in 1978 but there’s still a very great deal that we don’t know. I’ve had three ART specialists tell me now that getting pregnant, with or without IVF, is a matter of luck. Even a lucky person like me would be in the minority if she came up trumps in the lottery that is IVF.

  •  “You’ve had a few failed cycles of IVF? Never mind. Have you ever thought about just adopting?”

So, younger Michelle, you’ve said this to people and managed to leave the conversation without having your eyes gouged out? Amazing! Every person who’s been through years of fertility treatments has thought about adopting. But adoption itself, while often a wonderful outcome for the parents and children involved, is not a cure for infertility. And it’s an arduous, time-consuming and expensive process.

 M and I are 49 and 43 respectively and we move countries frequently. I think these facts make us mature, ready and responsible, and in a great position to bring children up in an exciting international environment in which they’ll rapidly become citizens of the world. But I fear that an adoption agency might use the same factors to judge us as both old and incapable of providing a stable environment for children. Adoption is not an easy solution.

  • “Maybe it’s just not meant to be.”

Mm-hm. Yep. Right. Erm…according to whom? Does that actually mean anything other than, “I’ve had enough of this subject now… Can we please move on?”


On another topic altogether… M has said recently that he’s going to stop taking photos of me. It’s a protest against the fact that on the rare occasion that he does take control of the camera, I invariably hate any resulting photos in which I’m the subject and threaten to delete them.

However there’s one picture of me that I’ve always liked, and that I’ve used as my profile picture on various websites for years. The picture was taken by my best friend’s eldest daughter when she was three, long before she became the grown-up nine-year-old big sister of two that she is now. Against her mother’s strictest instructions, she’d crept into the attic room at their place where I’d slept, woken me up and kept me company as I got ready.

When she took this photo we were playing sharks. The bed was the ocean and she was the scary many-toothed monster that was going to chomp me into little bits and spit me out again. In a desperate bid to get away from the boat-capsizing beast, I’d just dived in to the water, risking my life. The shark stopped to take one last photo of me before her final deadly attack.

It seems, when I look at this picture now, that I wasn’t really too distressed about the prospect of succumbing to my fate. It’s been a blast, I seem to be thinking, and now I’ll go out with a bang.

That is, I think, the way I have to approach this next unexpected stage in my life. I’d thought that I was going to be a mother and I’ve done everything I possibly could to make that happen. But it didn’t, and now, barring some miraculous future event, it probably never will.

But things aren’t looking so bad really. The ocean is blue, the horizon is out there and I’m swimming in the finest of company. The compass is set for adventure.

Hm. Maybe it was, after all, meant to be.

Mish in hat