Mistakes, perspective and personal growth coming together in my first children’s book
My charismatic mother was a nursery school teacher and at one stage of her life, I recall her saying how she would love to write a children’s book. Her passionate efforts didn’t make headway with the publishers, so she shelved that idea and got on with her busy life. She raised four boys and as a military family had her hands full with regular relocations, functions to attend and keeping the dynamics of our family healthy and loving.
I grew up on the slopes of the Simonsberg mountain, which forms part of the impressive Cape Fold Belt in the Western Cape, South Africa. I enjoyed a colourful youth, despite this being ‘full on apartheid time’, and things where more black and white so to speak. I, unlike many others, enjoyed the inspiring freedom of Africa’s open plains, dense bush and that sense of being spiritually connected to nature’s happy vibes. To top this, holidays were almost always spent at my mother’s home, a lush dairy farm in the Natal Midlands. During this blessed time, I often used to say to myself, I hope I never forget what kids think as so many adults around me seemed to have no idea of what made us kids tick. Rules and more rules …ruled the day; schools strict with plenty of canning for those that challenged the system, but it was an easy and fun childhood. I am so grateful for those years. Deep down I suppose, I want to give something back, feed something into others kids lives, to help them connect better with their little worlds, and find their happy place as they mature into the complexities of modern day living.
Sooner than I expected, I found myself being called Dr John and patients looking to me for some serious answers. I was so young, so inexperienced in life and yet addressing life and death issues on a daily basis. I was in the deep end but learning to swim fast. My life raced past with other people’s problems congesting my mind, and me not paying enough attention to mine. In some ways, I was happy with that, it is often easier to deal with other people’s shit than your own!
Like all of us, I had my own little puzzles, burdens, hurts and mysteries to solve, but I kept them filed away and far from reach. Fishing, drinking, working….sleep, eat, repeat …call it what you like, do anything, but please do not open those draws filled with personal questions and self-doubts. So many of us live our lives this way, life racing by, and we live, we progress, we make money, we look good sometimes but we eventually run out of fuel, get stuck, crash and only then are prompted to address those ‘ hard issues’ we lock up in the forgotten files of our deep lost minds.
Of all the places I have lived and worked, I loved Central Africa the most. Africans are friendly, modest and African nature offers so much. I ran a remote bush medical practice for almost ten years, what an enriching experience. Working around the world has its pros and cons, and eventually, the biggest downside for us as a family, was me having to work away from home a great deal. No one forced me to do this, of course, it just happened. This migrant worker lifestyle took a massive chunk of happiness out of who I was, and as middle age crept up on me I found myself unable to ignore my questions about life and who I was. I had generated a lifestyle, a homemade trap, which required a guaranteed income to keep us going the way we liked it, some in the ‘Oil Game’ refer to this as the ‘golden handcuffs’. I saw so many people work their lives away, separated from loved ones for way too long and ultimately falling into a lonely emptiness, cut off from their loved ones, unhappy, unfulfilled and floating. These uprooted and vulnerable folks easily lose perspective of their life purpose, and unwittingly enter the ‘danger zone’. Some slip, some stay good, but I know all of them suffer a great deal while trying to establish new roots and social networks to support their daily lives. Forbidden love, workaholism and loss of ‘family’ stability creep in and do their nasty business. After some time of this, I found myself down and out, unhappy, frustrated and unfulfilled. Fortunately, I had been blessed and knew life could offer so much more; I just needed to answer so many shelved emotions and life questions, but I had no idea where to start. How does a doctor seek help?
I got busy, I started gardening, building chairs from oak barrels, painting, running, cooking and eventually writing. I am not an expert at any of these things, but I found some inner peace when losing myself in a messy oil canvass trying to bring back the memories of Gabon, playing with colours and textures. I was having fun and sometimes I got a few things right…Writing is also very therapeutic, sometimes it works, other times I struggle, but over time I do find an overall sense of satisfaction in telling my story, perhaps that way I gradually unravel my own shit and possibly inspire a few others to do the same. It is not about seeking perfection, it is not about competing with anyone; it is about finding an inner smile as your creative activities open your mind, and unload baggage you unconsciously burdened yourself and other with all these years. It’s about seeing yourself from a different viewpoint, gaining perspective, seeing the bigger picture and having a chance to lighten up on yourself. I believe people can find freedom in the arts and it has very little to do with what you create. For me it is more about the process, that ‘being lost’ in whatever it is you are doing, focused on nothingness, being blurry and allowing your subconscious to work its way into some creation or another. As you open up your inner mind and channel all those self-doubts out, you will find your smile again, perhaps find more meaning in your life and connect better with those around you. As you find peace, others around you will feel the change and your relationships will improve. Life is amazing and especially so if you proactively seek to polish up the gems that have been seeded deep inside all of us.
I started to write my first children’s story to motivate my mother to finish hers, it started as a simple gest of ‘mama love’, but by chance landed up taking its place in my ‘arts and creativity’ self-treatment plan. All too soon the book evolved into a passionate love affair, one where I was suddenly able to achieve so much. Doing something for others can genuinely provide one with such meaningful pleasure; here is a link to some interesting ‘giving’ quotes.
You give to yourself by giving of yourself.” — Matt Kahn
I like talking to kids as if they are grown up, I recall liking that myself …I also wanted to stimulate them to see things differently and consider different perspectives, be less rigid, less black and white and above all ensure they understand early in life that ‘life is full of mistakes’ but life can still be good and even better when we get through those hard times. Suddenly I had an opportunity to do more than just write a book for my mother, but a real shot at influencing my young readers into believing more in themselves and experiencing life with happy hearts. I was all in but was treading new territory knowing precious little about formatting, illustrations and the maze of requirements to get published.
I started with a minuscule budget. I thought I would just get a decent cover for the book and landed up working with a wonderful artist to produce a 62-page book well over my intended initial budget. I am thrilled with the result, but I lost sight of my initial intentions reasonably early in the project. Like my paintings, my pottery, my oak barrel chairs….it is not perfect, not by any means, but it’s the best I could do at that time, and I made it….it feels good. I struggled with formatting, page bleeds and all sorts of terms, but eventually with increasing time pressure got the book and ebook onto Amazon and most importantly a printed copy delivered to my elderly mother in South Africa.
With two, five star reviews on Amazon and me dreaming all sorts of successes, I allowed myself to lose perspective of why I had written the book in the first place. As my budget scaled up, as my input increased, it became far more than a book for my mother and I loved every moment of it. With this in mind, you’ll appreciate I was starting to feel a bit too proud and self-satisfied in volumes that needed grounding, and that was coming sooner than I expected!
I was speaking to my eldest son, Tom, on messenger, as we often do, it’s great, face to face and we connect well. I love these calls. He had just received the proof copy and was telling me how much he loved it, he doesn’t really read much, but he had not put this book down and felt it was so full of interesting and unusual brain teasers. He then said’ hey Dad, I think there might be a mistake on page 52…’
‘ What?’ …I felt sick, I went cold, my shocked face raised concern from dear Tom, who immediately comforted me, repeatedly saying ‘ Dad don’t worry..’ it’s fine, the book is perfect and the illustrations are stunning…..I was mumbling, fumbling, falling and rambled away nonsensically. I repeatedly thanked him for highlighting this issue to me, I was so grateful to him, but I needed to stop the book immediately. Shame and failure crept in! I was down, it always amazes me how fast life can change. I had to sort this out before it all goes belly up, imagine writing a book about mistakes and forgiveness and then having a stupid mistake in the book. This was months of work, not just a weekend job. It was my best effort and yet it had a ridiculous mistake in it,…’ WTF!!!…. I was freaking out….when Tom said ‘ hey Dad, think about it,….isn’t it strange that you wrote a book like this and then you yourself cannot handle a little mistake well, stop beating yourself up…it is still a great book!’. ‘Yes thanks, Tom, but it is not supposed to have any mistakes’. I spent hours and hours checking and now this formatting issue has slipped in and I felt so flat. I agreed wholeheartedly with him, it was still a great little book, a fun and engaging story. It had been professionally edited, formatted and illustrated, it was a beautiful product of love and teamwork, but it had a mistake!!!! I took a few deep breaths, tried very hard to put it all into perspective and relax…but I struggled, ….I failed miserably. I immediately stopped the book on Amazon, that was the easy part. I struggled to switch off and lay most of the night wallowing in self-destructive emotions, the words failure kept surfacing and by morning time I was exhausted and grumpy.
Un-publishing a book on Amazon and then re-uploading a new version poses a whole new series of stresses and strains, but after a week and dozens of help emails I got it all up and running again….
The book is beautiful, it is fun, it is not perfect, but nothing is and that’s ok…it has superb illustrations. The readers should have an engaging experience — thinking about the characters dilemmas, solving problems and hopefully leaving them feeling refreshed and positive about relationships, despite the tests they are subjected to at times. I look back at this whole experience now and feel so grateful that everything gelled the way it did, and most of all the mistake on page 52. While we all seek perfection, we often miss the point and lose perspective. This little mistake helped me see the bigger picture…..’hey Dad, it is just a book, it’s a great story…you did a great job, the mistake is nothing at all…don't beat yourself up he said’ ….and it is so true, this life is full of mistakes, ….we need to learn to step back at times, see the big picture, and put things into perspective’. It doesn’t mean we need to accept mistakes in their entirety, but how we manage them and how we frame them determines so much about how we live and enjoy this short and precious life.
Thanks, Tom, love you son.
To read the book — go to https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L7HCKX7