Elephants and ice-cream

I’ve noticed that the meaner the world gets, the nicer I want to be. The crazier world politics becomes, the more simplicity I crave. And as we teeter on the brink of insanity, I’m spending more and more time trying not to lose sight of what really matters.

Ever wonder where your money goes when you donate to a charity, or sponsor someone to run a 10k, or buy a raffle ticket? All too often we never see the effect. We have vague notions, perhaps, of the difference our help may have made. Then again, perhaps we don’t care. Perhaps the giving is something we do automatically without wondering what next. Perhaps in our own little universe it’s not about ego or power or public recognition. Perhaps we don’t care about the applause or the back slaps or the congratulatory adulation. Perhaps we simply give to share and share to give.

Yet there’s a whole debate to be had about where to give, to whom to give, and why to give. I know I’ve had more than few conversations about it. I have an innate distrust of big charities and the money they spend on plush headquarters and fancy cars for their CEOs – but as was pointed out to me recently, if they want to attract big money, they need to have a big presence. On an intellectual level, I can see the validity of this. On an emotional level, I still have problems.

I prefer to support people I know involved in projects that are making a difference. Okay, so maybe these projects won’t bring about world peace, or make any sort of difference on a grand scale, but what they have in common is that they make a difference to someone.

My friend Zsuzsa B has adopted the village of Zabar in Eastern Hungary. At Christmas, I had a blast shopping for a 5-year-old girl, making her wish list a reality. Others did likewise and the kids in the village experienced the magic of discovering that wishes can come true. But it didn’t stop there.

These kids had never been to the theatre or to the zoo or eaten in a restaurant. Until recently, their universe was limited to their village and nearby towns. The capital, Budapest, the seat of their parliament, the home of their government, was some place they’d heard about but never seen. For them to have some hope of a better tomorrow, they need to see what’s out there, to broaden their horizons. And for this to happen, they need help.

A bus was hired. Arrangements were made. And 45 children from this remote part of the country embarked on a trip of a lifetime that included pantomime, elephants, and ice-cream. What an eye-opener it was for them. For those who helped make it happen, little else is needed by way of validation that to see the smiles on their faces. This video captures it all.

It is small initiatives like this one that make such a huge difference in the lives of these kids. And in these troubled times, we need to remind ourselves of what’s important and not lose sight of the necessity of doing our bit to make our world a better place.

The cost of not having kids

I was accused once of being rather selfish in my attitude to having children. An ex-boyfriend, who had held the ex prefix for a number of years, told me that it was selfish of me, a woman, not to have kids. He implied that it was my duty in life, my raison d’etre. And, what’s more, he said, it was unfathomable not to want them.

While I don’t ever remember making a conscious decision not to have children, it’s something that simply never happened. Had it happened, I’m sure I’d have been happy. But it didn’t. And there’s no corresponding unhappiness. It’s just the way it is.

I have memories of a conversation I had many years ago when, over a few pints one night, I asserted rather righteously that there were too many children in the world without parents to justify birthing any more. Why didn’t we, collectively, just look after the ones already born? It didn’t go down very well and one friend, who was adopted, took issue with it – and my selfishness. I never quite figured that one out.

But be it circumstance or be it a subconscious choice, the fact is that I am without issue – I have no children. And while I might occasionally envy a friend their precociously cute two-year-old, or their old-man seven-year-old, or their bright and savvy teenager, a life without issue suits me.

Of course, I’ve had the conversation – with myself and with others – about who is going to look after me when I’m old and infirm. The fleeting moment of panic that sets in, quickly dissipates when I remind myself there are plenty of old people who have kids and grandkids and yet live in homes and institutions anyway. I have it sorted, though. I have a few single friends of a similar vantage and vintage and we’ve agreed to pool our resources and set up house, should we ever find we can no longer manage on our own.

pensionBut recent rumblings in Hungary suggest that a life without issue might involve issues of a more monetary kind.

It’s a given that those paying taxes (i.e., those currently working for a wage) support those sectors of society that are retired and pensioned off. Of course, they also support those who are unable to work, for health, legal, or other reasons; but this isn’t what the focus is on. Apparently, there’s a school of thought that if you are a pensioner who doesn’t have children paying into the system that pays your pension, then you are, in effect, freeloading. And these people reckon that it would take two children to make this self-supporting pension plan viable (the baseline), with additional points being given for additional children and points being deducted for fewer or no children at all. The final tally would determine the amount of pension paid.

The holes in this grand scheme are gaping. What about those who can’t have children? Never marry? Or have children who die before they start work? Or have children who can’t find a job, or don’t want a job, or have a job abroad? What then?

Recently, these same people, the Demographic Roundtable (Népesedési Kerekasztal), a group of experts charged with finding a solution to Hungary’s declining birth rate and depleting state pension fund, have put this idea back on the table, albeit in a slightly improved form compared to what was mooted in 2012. But no matter how improved it is, the thought of men or women who remain childless for whatever reason being monetarily penalised for not having kids beggars belief.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 September 2014.

2013 Grateful 2

I live a life without issue, that is I have no children. I can’t ever remember wanting to have children but that said, I wouldn’t have objected had the good Lord seen fit to bless me with an offspring or two. But it wasn’t to be. As a child, I used to dream of fostering, of adopting – ever since I saw the documentary narrated by Henry Winkler: Who are the DeBolts and where did they get 19 kids?

I love my nephews. I have two. They regularly remind me that I cannot include patience amongst my many virtues. They amaze me with their logic, untarnished as it is by the shoulds and should nots they will inevitably adopt as their own. I am fascinated with other people’s kids and occasionally irritated by their poor behaviour. I find myself increasingly wondering when children started parenting the adults and when adults lost control.

There’s a saying that just about the time you start realising your parents were right, your kids start telling you you’re wrong. My parents were strict and I promised myself that I’d be a lot more lenient with my kids, were I to have any. But I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I’d have been even stricter. Perhaps its just as well my maternal gene is in abeyance.

That said though, Christmas is a kid’s holiday. It saddens me that it’s become less and less about Christ’s birthday, and more and more about Santa Claus… and getting stuff. It upsets me that big ticket items like iPads and sound systems have replaced the dolls and teddy bears of old. I’m lucky. I have practically everything I need and get a far greater kick out of giving than receiving. It’s the opening of the present that I like – once it’s opened, I’m not beyond rewrapping it and giving it to someone else, thus multiplying the pleasure. Want vs need – that’s what it all boils down to. Give me the stuff memories are made of any day over something I have to find a home for.

IMG_9306 (800x600) (800x600)But I digress. Back to kids. My mates in Zurich sold me on the trip when they told me about the singing Christmas tree. I couldn’t quite imagine what they were talking about and just had to go see in person. I challenge the most hardened Bah! Humbug! to do the same and then tell me that they still don’t like Christmas.

Just a few steps from Bahnhofstrasse, tucked away in a little Christmas market, with plenty of glühwein choirs take to the tree at 17.30 and 18.30 every weekday evening from late November. Initially hidden from the crowds, they suddenly pop out and start singing. Gobsmackingly cute.

The concept came from Bellhaven University in the USA where, in 1933, the first living tree was conceived. Since then, it has spread across the world to Canada, the Philippines, Switzerland, South Korea, and Sri Lanka. Back in 2007, the one at Knoxville, Tennessee, attracted 60 000 people to one event. They range in size from 18 to 48 feet (5.5 to 15 m) and can hold anything from 30 to 450 singers. What a simple, yet spectacular idea.

Amidst the fuss and frolics this Christmas, I’m reminded to take the time to be grateful to children – for their insight, their incisive humour, and their uncensored views of the world.

As the late John F Kennedy was fond of saying: Children are the world’s most valuable resource and its best hope for the future.

My favourite piece of advice for kids comes from American poet Shel Silverstein:

Listen to the mustn’ts, child. Listen to the don’ts. Listen to the shouldn’ts, the impossibles, the won’ts. Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me… Anything can happen, child. Anything can be.

There’s a lesson there for all of us.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52