Featured

Tricks with MIRRORS

Tricks with Mirrors

i

It’s no coincidence

this is a used

furniture warehouse.

I enter with you

and become a mirror.

Mirrors

are the perfect lovers,

that’s it, carry me up the stairs

by the edges, don’t drop me,

that would be bad luck,

throw me on the bed

reflecting side up,

fall into me,

it will be your own

mouth you hit, firm and glassy,

your own eyes you find you

are up against closed closed

ii

There is more to a mirror

than you looking at

your full-length body

flawless but reversed,

there is more than this dead blue

oblong eye turned outwards to you.

Think about the frame.

The frame is carved, it is important,

it exists, it does not reflect you,

it does not recede and recede, it has limits

and reflections of its own.

There’s a nail in the back

to hang it with; there are several nails,

think about the nails,

pay attention to the nail

marks in the wood,

they are important too.

iii

Don’t assume it is passive

or easy, this clarity

with which I give you yourself.

Consider what restraint it

takes: breath withheld, no anger

or joy disturbing the surface

of the ice.

You are suspended in me

beautiful and frozen, I

preserve you, in me you are safe.

It is not a trick either,

it is a craft:

mirrors are crafty.

iv

I wanted to stop this,

this life flattened against the wall,

mute and devoid of colour,

built of pure light,

this life of vision only, split

and remote, a lucid impasse.

I confess: this is not a mirror,

it is a door

I am trapped behind.

I wanted you to see me here,

say the releasing word, whatever

that may be, open the wall.

Instead you stand in front of me

combing your hair.

v

You don’t like these metaphors.

All right:

Perhaps I am not a mirror.

Perhaps I am a pool.

Think about pools.

Margaret Atwood

Someone once said to me, “There is no big picture, only your reality.” This concept took me a very long time to grasp. The fact that my reality differs from yours and that both are valid and true was very difficult for me to understand. I have often blurred the boundaries of separate realities – it is very easy for me to step into the shoes of another. However, the path to true connection lies in understanding this concept- entering another person’s reality and being there, while knowing that it is a strange land, different from yours.

My journey in understanding what it really means to connect with someone began in the death throes of my marriage. My ex-husband and I reached a point where we could listen to each other and comprehend the other. We are good friends now. It has taken nearly eleven years, but he is quite often my go-to person for advice. He can still make me laugh more than most people.

Margaret Atwood’s poem Tricks with Mirrors is one of my all-time favourite poems. It is a perfect description of an unconscious relationship. We are all mirrors of each other. I project on to you my bad and good qualities. You reflect them back at me. I think it is only when you realise this that you can even begin to start to have a true connection. One without mirrors.

I have had some very strange connections in my life. Unfortunately, these usually play out in connections of the romantic variety. I once described my love life (post-divorce) as A Series of Unfortunate Events. I guess that this is true for most people. Because why we fall in love is the largest, most terrifying mirror for us. Maybe it is, as Atwood writes, not a mirror but a pool. That pool can be quite dark and spooky at times. There they be monsters. But we know that in that pool lies our best chance of joy. A connection which is honest and true, loving and kind is what we all seek, always, I think.

I spent a long time seeking this connection in all the wrong places with all the wrong people. I have met some crafty mirrors and, if I am honest, I have been an even craftier mirror myself.  I am now at a place where I am in awe of the bravery, honesty, resilience and tenacity that it takes to be in an intimate relationship and stay there. I don’t know how this will play out in my life and I’m okay with that. There is enough joy in life to sustain me. I no longer am lonely. Of course, there is absolutely, a want and need to be loved and love and I hope that I experience that one day. I am through with being just a mirror though or having someone be a mirror for me. I want to understand the lay of the land in which I am invited to explore. That would be a privilege and an honour and an adventure.

There is something very cool about liking your own company. I have started taking myself on adventures, in memory of my beloved father. He always used to buy us ice creams (behind my mother’s back) and recently, I have been having an ice cream in a cone for him and with him when I take myself off for an adventure. The thing is – I no longer feel alone. I think I have finally got something. As he lay dying, my father asked me what I believed in and I answered, “I don’t believe connections between people ever die”. This has proved true for me, in life and death. Once you truly understand another person’s reality, it expands your own. They become a part of you. They never die.

Featured

Consume LESS

  • The global food system is deeply inequitable. There are about 842 million people hungry on the planet, while at the same time there are about 1.5 billion who are overweight or obese.
  • Approximately one third of the world’s food is wasted before it is consumed.
  • The way we’re producing our food is impacting our environment.
  • Recent studies suggest that the farmers of this world will have to produce 50% more food by 2050 in order to meet global population growth.[i]

I had decided to go to India in my conversations with Felipe in Corsica. I read the India travel book as I had read Stephen King’s The Shining many years before – holding the book far in front of me and closing it quickly when it got too scary. There were many warnings about women traveling alone in India as well as about an assortment of nasty diseases you could contract while traveling. Our friends in Oxford sent me an advertisement for volunteering on an Eco-centre in the Pathanamthitta district, run by Umesh and Janee Babu. It’s was called Viswadarsanam. Going there first felt less scary than launching myself into the unknown, so I booked my flight.

I was met at the airport in Thiruvananthapuram by Umesh Babu who had established the centre. Umesh had worked in sales and marketing for a pesticides company in Bangalore. It was this work that led him to realise the devastating effects of pesticides on the environment and made him decide to set up Viswadarsanam to educate the public on living a simpler life. Janee and Umesh provided a gentle landing in India for me. It was hot and I had arrived from freezing London. It took me awhile to acclimatise.  Umesh took me on a tour of the centre when I got there. He was an early advocate of eco-diversity and had planted a wide variety of trees and plants there (there were four different types of banana on the property). There was another volunteer at the centre, a quiet American, and he and I worked well together. The centre consisted of a big main house, where Umesh and Janee stayed, and the volunteer cottages, which were painted a deep red. We spent our days working quietly together – he worked, if I recall correctly, on a Donate button for the website and creating a Facebook page for the centre. I wrote a profile of Umesh for The Big Issue.

We snuck out one evening to watch Kathakali being performed at one of the Hindu temples nearby. Kathakali is a dance. Its traditional themes are religious legends and spiritual stories from the Hindu religion. We watched the boys and men (there were no women) donning their elaborate costumes and having their make-up done for the performance. They perform whether there is an audience or not. We were the only people in the temple that evening. I didn’t know the stories that they were telling, but it was very exciting to watch.

I stayed at the centre for two weeks. Janee took me shopping for suitable Punjabi clothes- I had two tops and pants made up and I wore them all the time I was in India. One night, I found Umesh sitting on a chair outside his house and stopped to chat to him. Umesh had diabetes and was going blind. He spoke to me a for a while: about where he had come from, what had led him to establish the centre and the problems that we were facing in the world. It could all be summed up in two words, he said: “Consume less.” The conversation then turned to me. “You are thirty-seven. You are nearing the age where you must decide where you are going and where you want to be. Soon, you are going to have to decide.” He and I sat and plotted my trip through India on the map in my travel book.

Umesh died after I got back to Johannesburg. He had started Viswadarsanam in 1987 to create awareness around the environmental catastrophe that we are facing now. He saw the climate change crisis coming a long time ago and did what he could to raise awareness in his part of the world. The words that resonate now, ten years later are “Consume less”.


[i] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/food-blog/10-things-need-to-know-global-food-system

Featured

Showing UP

Showing up is being brave, being present and doing the right thing, even when it’s hard to do. It is standing up for what you know to be right, although society may not agree. It is being present for the people who love you and who you love when you are tired, distracted or irritable.

There has been a lot of media attention paid to the femicide phenomenon in South Africa recently. The hashtag #menaretrash has been trending on Twitter.  Objectively, there is something very strange about a society that allows half its population to wage war on the other half. Which has got me thinking about showing up and what that means.

A lot of men don’t show up. True, not all men. But a lot. Showing up does not only mean refraining from raping and murdering women and children. It is also in the tiny choices that you make daily. Are you kind to your wife, do you treat her with the respect that she deserves? Do you watch pornography that demeans women, or have you ever visited a prostitute (where prostitution is criminalised in this country and many women turn to it, not out of choice, but out of desperation)? Have you listened while your male friends talk about women in a demeaning or disrespectful way? On a larger scale, have you run away and abandoned your family? Do you pay maintenance for the children you helped bring into the world even when it is difficult to do so?

But it goes further than this and I believe that this is something we all must face too: women fail to show up when we allow men to get away with these things. Most male children are raised by women. Why are women raising men who do these things?

How do we as women show up for each other when the chips are down? Do we bitch about other women behind their backs? Do we treat women with the same respect that you treat men? Do we stand up for victims of harassment at work? Do we have the same standards for men and women?

The world is messed up. Right now, a 16-year-old girl is becoming our voice in the fight against climate change. We are standing on the side-lines, some cheering her on and some trying to tear her down but most of us (myself included) are not showing up for the world in the way that it needs us to. Acceptance of this fact is the first step to changing it. Until we accept the reality, nothing will change.

Humans can choose how to behave. This makes us different from animals. You may have had a bad upbringing and life may not have been kind to you. But you have a choice about how you show up in the world and for the people in this world. I have made some shabby choices in my life. I have often chosen to run away instead of showing up for the people who loved me. The best thing about being human is the possibility and the ability to change the way we act.

I want a human revolution! To be honest, I think we all want one. And I believe that we can build a better, sane society, based on mutual respect. It will require effort and hard work, but we can achieve it. In order to that, we need to change the way we think, but, more importantly, we need to change how we act- how we show up. We need to stop acting in ways that are harmful to other people and we need to start speaking up and acting when we know that things are not right.

Or, we can continue cheering or jeering from the sidelines, complaining about is wrong in the world but not doing much to change it.

We can choose.

Featured

Follow the SIGNS

I had heard about Wwoofing when I was in France. Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms is an international programme linking volunteers to organic farms. Basically, you volunteer to work on an organic farm and in return you receive free board and lodging on the farm. My mission for December of 2008 was to find a French speaking country where I could Wwoof and practice my beginner’s French. I came across this description and invitation on the Wwoofing website:

In Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean Sea, Jean-Mathieu, Barbara and their friends Felipe and Paul, welcome you in the renovation of about twenty hectares of sweet chestnut trees. The farm aims at the renovation and protection of the traditional heritage of the various local variety of sweet chestnut, for the production of flour. We want to keep the values of the former modes of manufacturing, and especially the quality of completely natural products. We are committed to respect and to protect the environment. In addition we take care of a small breeding of pigs. Animals are carefully selected to protect the local race. They are intended for the production of traditional cooked pork meat. Situated at four hours walking to the summit of the mountain San Pedrone, the highlight of Castagniccia, and half an hour from the sea, the farm is surrounded with paths which connect the small characteristic villages. It is also near the long distance footpath “Mare a mare”. We clean the fields of sweet chestnut trees, collect fruits, dry them in the traditional way, peel them and finally sort them out before ending in flour. We have a typical and comfortable house. We would be happy to receive you from the beginning of September to the end of December. We speak English, Spanish, French, German and Corsican. For any information, contact us. We can receive from September to December, maybe later.

I sent them an email and booked my flights. I was going to stay there for the whole of December (I wanted to avoid Christmas and New Year in London).

I flew to Bastia where I was met by Felipe, a Columbian with a ponytail, who worked on the farm and hosted the Wwoofers. He had his two dogs in the car. We listened to loud Samba music all the way to Lutina – a tiny, ancient village on a hill. It only has about seven houses. I spent four weeks there – some of the happiest days of my life. The other volunteers were a little younger than I was, but were warm and interesting – they were from all over the world. Days were spent “bouger de bois” (moving the wood) which meant that we packed wood into trucks and sometimes went collecting wood in the forest nearby. We sorted chestnuts, too. We also watched the pigs being castrated- the Wwoofers huddled together in horror- and when we sat down to eat that night, we were shocked to realise that the pigs’ testicles had been prepared for the meal (we all ate them anyway). The other volunteers departed before Christmas, to return to their families and homes. I stayed on, with Felipe. One morning I woke up to find Lutina covered in snow. We moved wood that day, in the snow. I worked on my own singing “Climb Every Mountain” from the Sound of Music loudly to myself.

I remember a phone call from my older sister at that time. She suggested that I take the year off and travel more. I discussed this with Felipe and he was encouraging of the plan. He scoffed at me when I suggested I was too old to travel the world. He showed me a map of the world, showing me all the places I could go and he said, “Follow the signs”. I have never forgotten that.

I’m not sure how many of you have seen the movie, Signs. It is a 2002 movie, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. In it, Mel Gibson’s character explains that there are two kinds of people in this world- the kind that believes in signs or miracles and the kind that doesn’t. The former believe that they are not alone and that there is a guiding power out there. The latter believe that they are alone in this world and that there is no-one or nothing looking out for them. I fall into the former category, although the signs aren’t always that easy to read and I have been a pretty crap sign-reader, at certain times in my life. Nevertheless, I don’t believe in coincidences and I do believe that there is something else out there. I have given up trying to define what exactly that is. There are too many things that have happened in my life which can only be explained by a guiding force or power being present in this world. Signs can be people or events and sometimes you only realise that they were signs after they happen.

When I left Corsica, I embarked on a journey of following the signs. It took me to some strange places. But, looking back, there is a beautiful symmetry in the events that have transpired in my life.

The past, itself, can be a sign.

Featured

Travel LIGHT

My grandfather was Scottish. He arrived in South Africa when he was four. His father had been in South Africa for two years before that, making a home in South Africa for his family. I wish I had met my great grandfather. Apparently, he was a stone mason who sang opera. He was involved, in some way, in the building of the bridge over the Hartebeespoort dam. I have always valued my Scottish ancestry more than my British ancestry. I am ashamed to say that I believe this is largely due to the movie Braveheart and not based on much else. I also look Scottish. I have red curly hair and pale skin. When the Scottish people voted in the independence referendum, I was rooting for independence, knowing little about the actual pros and cons, but with high emotion, nevertheless.

I had not planned my Eat, Pray, Love trip very well. I had booked the French course in Villefranche but beyond that was a scary blank. One of my cousins in South Africa had said that she would go to Scotland with me in December and I thought that I might look for work in London the following year. But my cousin called me when I was in Villefranche and said she was not going to make it to Scotland in December. I didn’t know what to do next. I had also packed too many suitcases. I had a very large backpack, a big suitcase and a smaller suitcase, all full of clothes, as well as my laptop bag. When I left Villefranche, I caught the train across the channel to England and, while waiting in the customs queue, with my backpack on my back, I fell over backwards, and like a tortoise, couldn’t get up again without assistance.

Once in England I headed to Oxford where a dear friend of my mother lives. My mother has known her since their school days in Grahamstown. She and her husband took me on walks through Oxford and we visited Stonehenge while I was there. I love Oxford. I love its ancient buildings and history. I have always thought that I would like to live there. I also love my mother’s friend and her husband. She reminds me of my mother, in lots of ways. She said to me as I was leaving them, “Travel light. “I liked the philosophy behind those words. The problem was that in November of 2008, I had a lot of baggage, emotional and material. I was attached to some of it. It was mine.

I had decided to do the Scottish ancestry trip on my own. While I was visiting good family friends in London, they introduced me to a runaway girl, like me. She had also just walked out of a long-term relationship and was planning to live and work in Bali. It was an instant connection. What a magical soul! Her theme song, at that time, was The Bear Necessities from The Jungle Book.  She was a laugher- she laughed with her whole body. When I told her of my plans to go to Scotland, she volunteered to come with me.

It was freezing in Scotland. I had not experienced cold like that before. I was my own in Edinburgh for a day or two before my new best friend joined me there. I was doing a tour of the city (and what a beautiful city it is) when the cold became unbearable. I rushed to the nearest clothing store and bought thick socks, a hat and a scarf, but it was still icy.

My new best friend and I were in Scotland for ten days. We rambled through the countryside, mostly ranting about our recent break ups. But we did fun things too: we went to see stand-up comedy in Edinburgh, participated in a quiz night in Loch Lomond and watched archers, holding their bows and shooting at targets, in a field somewhere (I have no idea where we were). We ended up in a little fishing village called Pittenweem. The graveyard was full gravestones bearing the same surname as I. There were my ancestors, all lined up in neat rows.

We returned to London – she, to leave for Bali and I, to go to Corsica for the month of December. Our paths would cross again and again, as they do, when you make a new best friend.

Featured

Pas de panique

I arrived in Villefranche-sur-Mer in October 2008. It is a coastal town on the French Riviera, near Monaco. I was to study French for six weeks at L’ Institut de Français. I was put into the class of les debutantes – literally, the beginners (everything sounds better in French). Every day, we had to chant the day and the date “Aujourdhui est..” This was helpful for my addled brain. My class was made up of people from all over the world. Patrice was our teacher. A man in his late forties who was one of those people that is made to be a teacher. We would stumble through the words, but when we got something right – Patrice would be full of praise. Sometimes we would get into a fluster over the words at which Patrice would say “Pas de panique, pas de panique” – don’t panic. These words were like a mantra for me- I was so full of anxiety and fear. I attached huge importance to them. And, to a large extent, they have formed a part of a sketchy philosophy that I have developed in my life. Pas de panique. There is very, very little that you control in this life and world. So, no need to panic. Be cool.

I developed a massive crush on one of the teachers- Julien. He was very good looking – he had a ponytail and he was, well, French. Every morning he had a class where anyone could go and watch the news in French and then talk about it. I dutifully went every morning, not understanding a single word he said, but ogling him, nevertheless. I was not the only one who thought he was magnifique. He had many fans. The school organised outings for us in the evenings and I remember one evening we all met in the village for dinner. Julien came and sat next to me. And I panicked. In a very haughty voice I asked him, “How old are you?”. He answered, “Thirty-five”. I reeled away from him, feeling like Vivien Leigh in the Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. We did not speak again until I left the school when he gave me a hug and said “À bientôt, j’espere” (see you soon, I hope). I was in ecstasy.

My brain was slowly starting to work again. The classes were fun! We laughed at our mistakes. On the weekends I would catch a train to nearby towns and go exploring. I felt myself coming back into the world again- after years of being absent – I was astounded to discover that Nicolas Sarcozy was the French President, for example. I’d kind of missed that. On my birthday, the day I turned thirty-seven, I went to watch the news that Barack Obama had become President of the United States. Everyone was so happy that day. It felt like the world was going to change. Hope over fear. It felt like the mood in South Africa in 1994. But maybe it was just me – I was feeling full of hope for the first time in a long while.

One of my dear friends gave me the Dr Seuss poem “Oh the places you will go!” when I left South Africa. For those of you who don’t know it – I would recommend you read it now. It is a very wise poem. I have used it in my travels and in my life a lot. My time in Villefrance-sur-Mer was one of the happiest of my life. It felt like going back to Grade One. I was feeling footsy and brainy. It opened the world up to me in a way that I had never seen it before. There I was, on my own, learning a new language and making new friends. The world was bigger than South Africa. There were places to see!

There was another thing that Patrice used to say. Whenever we would argue with him because something didn’t make sense in the grammar or pronunciation, he would say, “Acceptez ça” – accept it. I would say this to myself, repeatedly. Accept this – you are here. You are divorced. Acceptez ça. Another thing I added to my life philosophy. Acceptance, real acceptance, brings joy and peace. Sometimes it seems impossible to do.

Featured

You can’t ESCAPE yourself

My cousin, who had just been through a divorce herself, said this to me eleven years ago. I had been talking to her about my plans to travel the world. At the time I thought what she said was ridiculous. Escape myself? I was only being an adventurous 35-year-old. Long before she said this to me, she had recommended that I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I had read it and a lot had resonated with me, mainly the description of a divorce being like having a really bad car accident every single day for about two years.

To be honest – I didn’t actually know what to do after my divorce. I was successful at work and I poured myself into that. I remember going into work on the weekends and just sitting in my office, doing nothing, because I didn’t know what else to do. I continued driving around and around the block before I went home because I didn’t want to go home. I had no children to keep me preoccupied- most of my friends at that time did. I spent a lot of time going to children’s birthday parties.

I was very sad, very much a broken spirit. A week before my divorce was processed, an old friend of mine was in a horrific car accident. I was in touch with her mother – she was in Intensive Care- very badly hurt. On the day I went into court for the divorce proceedings – she died. It has always felt strangely significant that she died on that same day. I remember she and my ex-husband literally holding me up, one on either side of me -when my father was in Intensive Care. She was a joyful soul – we had been friends since school. We used to plot and plan how we would change the world. We went on long road trips together and we laughed a lot – she was very funny. She loved sunflowers. She loved the way their faces followed the sun. A beautiful, special soul.

When I was a child, I used to “run away” under the dining room table. I would take supplies and sit there until someone came to find me, which they always did. This time I decided to run a lot further. A friend of my sister had suggested a French Immersion Course in France. It felt like as good an option as any. I had read every self-help book that existed at that time. I had also consulted a wide range of spiritual healers – some charlatans, some maybe not. Nothing could take away the despair I felt; how utterly miserable I was. The world felt to me to be full of pain. South Africa was in turmoil again. Thabo Mbeki was about to be ousted and all corruption charges dropped against Jacob Zuma who was all set to become President of South Africa.

Running away from yourself is not easy. Believe me, I have tried in all sorts of ways. The problem is that wherever you go, there you are – I am spouting clichés, but all are true. Nevertheless, I packed three very large suitcases. I packed up the house, resigned, sold my car and left.

I wasn’t even being very original – Elizabeth Gilbert had written the definitive book. But while her journey is a search for everything, mine could be described as a rapid retreat from everything that mattered. My family, my work, my friends. My destination was Villefranche in the south of France. I signed up at L’Institut de Francais to learn French. Everyone was very positive about my decision. But, I think, they were at their wits end about how to help me.

It isn’t possible to be joyful when you despise yourself. And I did really hate myself for a long time. It is only when you meet yourself with open and compassionate arms that you can truly love other people or the world or anything. And experience joy. Because my world was joyless. I felt like I was trapped in a Groundhog Day replay, where every day was the same and nothing made sense. By the time I reached Villefranche, I had lost track of what day of the week it was.

You can’t escape yourself. You never can. I was to learn this and keep on learning it until I got it.

Featured

That she BEAR children

According to the World Health Organisation, of the estimated 211 million pregnancies that occur each year, about 46 million end in induced abortion. That’s a huge number. That does not include the babies that are given up for adoption or who are killed after birth.

I am old enough now that people have stopped asking me when I am going to have children. But that was a constant question when I was younger and especially when I was married. It was expected that I have children which irritated me enormously at the time. Like it was a woman’s destiny or something.

I have a confession: I have never been particularly broody. I have broody moments which are fleeting- they seem to last for maybe half a day and then they go. Not that I don’t like children- I like them very much. I have three nieces and a nephew who I love. I hope they like me back. I love spending time with them and hearing about them. Maybe I was just scared to bear children – the thought of something growing in your body is completely bizarre to me, like something out of Alien. And, of course, there was the birth scene in Gone With The Wind which was enough to put anyone off childbirth. I always thought that if I did want children, I would adopt them. It felt kind of strange to want your own children when there are so many unwanted children in the world.

This Be The Verse

Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats in coats,

Who half the time were soppy stern

And half at one another’s throats

Man hands down misery to man.

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

That is an all-time favourite poem of mine. It was said to me in Thailand by a man who is a father. He said it to me, sadly and humorously, while I cried. It kind of sums up my thinking on the matter of children. You might think it strange, considering the happy childhood that I did have. But it has taken me all my 46 years to figure out who I am and what I want in life. A lot of that time has been spent dealing with my childhood wounds. It has included a lot of time sitting and thinking quietly and a lot of time on my own. Time that I would not have had if I’d had children.

My oldest sister likes to quote a friend who says that having children is “all joy and no fun”. And perhaps I have missed out on some joy in my choice. Still, I think that the world would be a better place if more people made the choice I made. Less hunger, less poverty, less misery. That may be controversial – I know a lot of you have children and they are lovely.

Here are some of the reasons I like being child free:

  • I am determinedly un-busy in my day to day life. I have a lot of time on my hands. Time that would have been spent in carpools or cooking for children or helping them with their homework. I treasure the time I have to do other things.
  • I have a lot less stress in my life than those with children. The pressure to feed, clothe, educate and generally support other human beings, while commendable, is not mine.
  • My mother once asked my grandmother when you stop worrying about your children. She replied, “When you climb into your grave.” Although, we often laugh about this – it is true. Most parents spend an enormous amount of time worrying about their children and that never stops.

Maybe I will regret my choice when I am old and have no one to look after me.  I have threatened my nephew with having to look after me when I am older. He looked terrified.

But, just maybe, I took the road less traveled. And that has made all the difference.

Featured

The GARDIANS of the Camargue

I had never heard of French cowboys before I visited the Camargue in south-east France. It was one of the last happy trips that my ex -husband and I had together. We joined my family on a barge and traveled on the canals in Provence in the European summer of 2003. This was before my sisters had children – my middle sister was pregnant with her first child. We commandeered the barge, shopped in local stores along the way and cooked for ourselves. It is very funny going back to your family unit when you are an adult. I, for one, thought that I was all grown up and over my childhood wounds. But it didn’t take long before I was three years old again, crying, and being told by my mother not to fight with my sisters. I had a rather scary incident with a bicycle. I found out, that holiday, that I had never learned to ride a bicycle properly. I got on the bike, lost control of the peddles (I’m not sure how) and went hurtling towards a large dam – my brother-in law and my ex-husband running after me shouting “Brake, brake!”. We ate a lot that holiday. Delicious baguettes and mouldy cheese washed down with French, red wine. My pregnant sister and I nicked grapes from a local vineyard and escaped, running and laughing, all the way back to the barge.

But the highlight of that trip was the Gardians of the Camargue.

The Gardians of the Camargue are part of a Brotherhood which was formed in the 1500s. They are the protectors of the wild, Camargue region which is famous for its white horses, bulls and flamingos. In this part of France, they have bull fights, but the bulls are not killed. The Gardians look like cowboys, with their panama hats and waistcoats. I should say that cowboys look like them as the Gardians have been around for longer.

The Camargue is one of the most beautiful areas of the world that I have ever travelled to. It is 300,000,00 acres of perfectly, preserved marshland filled with groups of magnificent pink flamingos and wild, white horses which run in herds in the water. One of the closest towns is Arles, where Van Gogh lived and painted for a while. Many of his paintings are of the surrounding countryside and the town itself. Arles is an ancient city with a Roman amphitheatre and wide, cobbled streets. We stayed in a little bed and breakfast in Arles and visited the Camargue in day trips.

There are many festivals in summer which is when we visited. We attended a festival at Sainte- Maries- de- la- Mare. This is the town where the two Mary’s, who witnessed the empty tomb of Jesus Christ, are supposed to have arrived after setting sail from Egypt to escape persecution. They arrived with their black servant, Sara – who is, interestingly, the Saint of the French gypsies or Roma. It is believed that it is they who brought Christianity to France.

We joined a crowd of excited people who had lined up on a street to wait for and cheer the Gardians as they rode. The atmosphere was electric. There is something very special about being part of a group of (good) people waiting and watching. And then, there they were, riding on their white horses, wearing their hats and waistcoats, to shouting crowds. I was one of the loudest shouters in the crowd. They were magnificent. It was thrilling. My mother turned to my ex-husband, pointed at me, and said “Look at her face!” which must have been red with excitement. I have a poster of that festival on my wall in my apartment. It is a constant reminder of that day and that time.

The Gardians of the Camargue are a dying breed. Economic and social pressures are making it harder for them to maintain their lifestyle. There are, apparently, only 40 of them left. But I like the whole thought of them. I like that they were called to protect that astounding area in France. I like the way they dress, the way the people adore them, that they have a calling. In this crazy, brutal world, the Gardians of the Camargue, ride. That is a good thing.

Featured

Ah, but your LAND is beautiful

I need to write about South Africa. But I feel strangely unqualified to do so, even though I have spent forty-five of my forty-six years living here. My experience of South Africa is vastly different to the rest of the population’s. South Africa has recently been ranked by the World Bank as the most unequal country in the world. We have the fourth highest crime rate in the world. We are one of the least happy countries in the world. This is due to many things but, mainly, a system of colonisation and, later, Apartheid which entrenched inequality based on the colour of one’s skin. This resulted in the majority of South Africans experiencing discrimination and violence, daily.

I grew up in the deep Apartheid days. There were bomb detectors at the entrance of every shopping mall. There were prayer evenings when we used to go and pray for South Africa and say the prayer Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. We were headed for a civil war in those days- most people knew that. Many of the boys I dated were conscripted to the South African army, where, if they were lucky, they had an administrative job and, if they were unlucky, they were sent to the Angolan border where many atrocities took place. I know men who have never recovered from what they saw there.

I went to a whites only school in primary school and a, predominantly, white, private school in high school. Did I benefit from Apartheid? Without any doubt the answer is yes. I had better education and better living conditions than the majority of South Africans. My parents raised us to believe that the apartheid system was morally reprehensible. They did what they could do to protest the system. And yet, I benefited and continue to benefit from Apartheid because I am white.

I probably will never leave South Africa. I tried to leave, back in 2008, just before Jacob Zuma became President. I was burned out and full of despair about my country. But South Africa is my home. It’s in my blood. I feel a passion for this country and its people that constantly surprises me. One of my best friends at school told a story about her father: She had been crying about South Africa, after one of the prayer evenings at St Luke’s church in Norwood. Her father said to her, “There are enough good people in this country to save it.” I believe that, strongly. South Africans are a lot nicer than their politicians, who, for the most part, are a strange bunch.

On Sunday, I went to a community dialogue near Bezuidenhout Valley. The topic of the dialogue was “What makes South Africa great?” There were people of all races and from all walks of life there. We agreed on the following:

South Africans have a great sense of humour – give us load shedding, violent crime, corruption, discrimination or e-tolls and we will find some way to laugh about it.

South Africans are tolerant- Not all, certainly. Spend an afternoon on Twitter and you will see the worst side of South African intolerance. Generally, though, we are polite to each other and try to help each other.

South Africa is beautiful- we have some of the most breath-taking landscapes in the world.

South Africans are activists- we take to the streets when we are not happy with our government or other issues and we always have done so.

South Africans are friendly- I picked up a friend from overseas at the airport once. The ticket guard greeted me with “How are you my darling?” My friend said, “Do you know her?”. I didn’t.

Above all else, I believe in the dream of my country. The dream of a country, torn apart by racism, coming together and standing united. I believe, with my whole heart, that we can.  In the words of Alan Paton, in Cry, The Beloved Country, “But I have learned that kindness and love can pay for pain and suffering.” We can get this right; we can make individual differences in our areas of influence. We can choose not to perpetuate past mistakes. We can learn about kindness and love.

Whether we will, or not, remains to be seen. We have our work cut out for us that’s for sure. Stranger things have happened though. I’m betting on us.

Featured

When days are DARK…

Teenage girls fight with their friends. I think. Maybe it was just me and my friends. Terrible fights. Mostly scribbled on notes which were passed around in class. I can’t remember what one fight was about. But it was never-ending. My diaries from those days are a long list of who was not speaking to me and who I was not speaking to. When we weren’t fighting with each other, we were sending each other notes with hearts and xxxs. Pretty strange when I think about it now.

Nevertheless, I still have friends from those years. We don’t fight a lot these days, but still send each other hearts and xxxs, now on WhatsApp. Friendship is a funny thing. We have friends from very young ages, so it must be instinctual. But we don’t pick our friends based on who is good in a fight or who is good at hunting. Rather, we choose people who we like. And why we like them is a mystery, really. I mean, not that they are not very nice people, but why one and not the other?

I was very lucky to have built-in friends, in the form of cousins. My cousins have proved to be lifelong partners in crime. I have a younger cousin, four years younger than I, who I liked to dress up. I have many photographs of her: dressed as a bride, a witch and a pro-tennis player. That same little cousin flew to Thailand to see me when I was travelling there. We spent a manic time touring the islands and a bit of Cambodia. I say manic because that’s the best way to describe it. We laughed, then cried, sent up fire balloons in the air and crashed scooters (a number of times). It was a thoroughly good visit. She said to me, before she left – “listen to your own wise self.” That has stuck with me over the years and I think of those words often when I am faced with a difficult choice.

There is a saying that goes “When days are dark, friends are few”. This has not been true for me. When my father was dying, my friends were at the hospital with me. They carried me through my divorce. I have a friend who joined Facebook (against her highest principles) in order to find me when I was alone and scared overseas. That same friend held my face in her two hands and told me that everything was going to be ok and that she loved me unconditionally, when I had first left my ex-husband and was living by myself.

Another friend introduced me to Bitmoji, at the age of 45. She advised me on how to set mine up and now we send each other Bitmoji’s of ourselves. We do this a lot. We laugh about our lives too. No matter how bad things have become, she is always there, to empathise and giggle with. One of my best memories is of us driving around Scarborough in the Western Cape together, getting lost and laughing.

A word on male friends. When I saw When Harry Met Sally I agreed with Harry. Men and women couldn’t be friends because the “sex part always gets in the way”. In my life post-divorce, I have changed my mind. I have two male friends who I consider to be two of my best friends. When I am acting crazy over a guy – my one male friend urges me to “be cool”. It never fails to bring me back to my senses. He takes my calls at strange hours while I cry on the other end of the phone, because I have been dumped or ignored or a guy has just been plain mean to me.

I may have have been unlucky in love, but I have been incredibly lucky in friendship. They’re nice – friends. Easy, uncomplicated (nowadays) and full of mutual appreciation. A fan club of my very own.

C.S Lewis said that “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.” My friendships have been full of joy, mostly, and a lot of hearts and xxxs.

Featured

Ring the BELLS that still can ring

“Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”

Leonard Cohen

I went to go to and see Bright Eyes when I was very young, and I became obsessed with Shirley Temple. In fact, I think I thought I was Shirley Temple for a while. There was a slight resemblance. I, too, had blonde curls and was a bit chubby. I had a Shirley Temple record and would sing along with Shirley. I remember singing, holding an umbrella, to I Love to Walk in The Rain, on the front porch, in the glaring South African sun. At my private, predominantly white, all girl, high school, I performed in musicals where the girls played boys and mostly everyone sang soprano.

On my matric holiday, at St Michaels in KwaZulu Natal, I discovered Leonard Cohen. That was it for me. I never looked back. He sang me through a lot of my life. Our wedding song was, prophetically, Dance Me to the End of Love. He died three years ago. Last December, my family and I had a karaoke night. My two nieces, my sister and her husband and I all took turns to stand on the plinth in the courtyard outside and belt out songs. It was such fun, probably the most fun I had had all holiday. I sang Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. A hymn to my lifelong friend.

I still like sad songs. The sadder the better. The other evening, I sent two of the songs I was listening to, on Spotify, to a friend of mine. He replied, to my surprise, with “Are you alright?”.

Singing and songs have been a constant in my life. My eldest sister and I used to sing a song from Chess- I Know Him So Well- while we washed the dishes. My ex-husband and I always sang to Johnny Cash, on long car trips. We sang to Danny Boy and Folsom Prison, loudly and sometimes operatically. We had camped around Europe when I was twenty-three and he was twenty-five. It was in Marianplatz, in Munich, where we first heard the Mongolian deep throat singers. The low, warbly singing mesmerised us.

I first left my husband when I was thirty-two and we were divorced when I had just turned thirty-five. The years between were joyless, to say the least. Divorce is tough. And I don’t know why it is so tough. I had been through my father’s death, but nothing had prepared me for the daily onslaught of self-questioning, misery and depression of those years. It is the dying of a dream and the end of possibility. There was not a lot of singing at that time. I used to drive around and around the block, in the suburb where we lived, because I did not want to go home. I do and don’t know why my marriage ended. We let it go and our relationship died. It ended. Maybe it would always have ended. I don’t know.

At the company where I was working at the time, a group of employees approached me and asked me if I would sponsor them to start a choir. They were mainly administrative clerks- I don’t think that their jobs were very stimulating. I loved the idea of the company choir from the start. I used to watch them rehearse in the downstairs parking lot.

We decked them out in magnificent choir outfits, and I arranged that they perform at a concert with other choirs. I went to watch them perform. They had stiff competition. The other choirs were very accomplished and had performed in front of audiences before. Have you ever seen a choir in South Africa? They don’t just sing, they move too- stamping feet, swaying rhythmically and clapping hands.

Our choir got on the stage to perform. I was very nervous. I remember standing on the stairs of the auditorium to take pictures of them. When they began to sing, and they were good, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy. There is no other word for it. It remains to this day one of the best memories of my life and one of the best things I have been a part of.

Singing is one of those things that human beings do that have no real purpose. But all do it. It is important, like art is important, because it makes us human. We sing when we’re sad and when we are happy.

This is a reminder to me: Remember songs. Remember to sing.

Featured

The Princess AND the Tower

My older sisters were instrumental in the killing of one of my imaginary friends. I had two imaginary friends when I was around three or four. Their names were Waldo and Scone. I have no idea where I got these names from (Scone may have come from my grandmother who baked scones). Scone had a motorbike and I can’t really remember much else about him. One day, my sisters were teasing me about Waldo and Scone. Teasing is something they were good at. I spent a lot of time crying as a result of their teasing (and so, they made up a song about how much I cried.) Anyway, I digress.

On the day that that they were teasing me about my imaginary friends – I walked out of the room, to return about a minute later to announce that Scone was dead. He had died on his motorbike in a nasty accident. My sisters thought this was hilarious.

Oh, how I adored those two sisters of mine. I couldn’t get enough of them and their abuse, even though they made me cry. To me they were all in the world that was super cool. And I longed to join them in their games which were very advanced and adult. I’m not going to detail every aspect of their terrorisation of me, but what I can say is that there were moments of respite when they were kind to me. I never knew when this was going to happen, but it was always awesome when they were. I was endlessly forgiving of them, copied them and wanted to be with them all the time. In fact, my nursery school report records that I was a bit of a loner and preferred spending time with my middle sister. To outsiders, they were fiercely protective of me, and still are. It was only they who could be mean to me. They can make me laugh like no one in the world. They can also make me furious. We still fight terribly. I still adore them.

What a strange and complicated relationship is sisterhood. My mother, who had two sisters of her own, always said that it was the most honest relationship you would ever have with someone. Her sisters slept at the hospital, when my father was sick, never leaving her side. They have cared for her when she was sick. I love watching them giggle together, like girls, when they are together.  

It was my middle sister that flew to India to join me when I was travelling alone after my divorce. We spent ten days laughing, swimming and talking. We drank Lassis and bought Punjabi dresses and took very funny selfies. One of the best memories I have is of her being driven up to our hotel in a white Ambassador when she arrived in India. I have a picture of her smiling, in that car, at that moment, in my apartment.

My oldest niece discovered the movie Frozen when she was very young. It is still one of her favourite movies. Frozen tells the story of Anna and Elsa who are sisters. Elsa is cursed at a young age and is told that only true love will break the curse. Elsa shuts herself off in an ice tower of her own making. It is Anna that saves her. It is True Sister Love that saves her.

I grew up believing in handsome princes rescuing princesses in towers, from witches and all bad things. I believed, as many small girls did and do, that true love would save me. And then I built a tower of my own and was stuck there for a good long while. My tower was high, terrifying and very lonely. It was my sisters who risked our relationship to rescue me. They fought bravely for me. They held me, talked to me, shouted at me and loved me. Throughout my whole life, there they have been. Persecuting me, guiding me (whether I wanted guidance or not) and supporting me.

Isn’t that the truth about all love anyway? You take the good with the bad. Scone may be gone, but I have my sisters and their steadfast, imperfect love. And I am grateful.

Featured

How’s your LOVE life?

My father’s first cousin was an eccentric redhead who lived in Bathurst, a small town in the Eastern Cape. The Pig and Whistle was his local pub and, I fear, he spent rather a lot of time there. My earliest memories of him were of him shouting at all of us “How’s your love life?” This was a difficult question because our love lives were complicated, even then. It is slightly weird to remember that, even at our young ages, romantic love featured as an issue in our lives.

Firstly, my older sister had boyfriends. A lot of boyfriends. I think we made her life miserable by our intense fascination with these boys. I know I did. Once, a boy called our house to speak to her and I shouted, “Its either John or Paul or Mark”. We teased her mercilessly – sang songs about love to her and made up poems. Her love life was endlessly interesting to us.

My earliest memory of my interest in boys was at nursery school- a bunch of girls and I charging after a small boy so that we could kiss him. When we had finally caught him, we pinned him to the ground and took turns to kiss him. I still remember his traumatised face. There was another boy, also at nursery school, who I quite fancied. Our mothers had arranged a play date for us and I was to go to home with them in their car. But I chickened out. I caught a lift home with our normal lift scheme and was lambasted by my mother for being rude when I got home.

I never quite got the hang of romantic love. When I was about eleven, I received a Valentine’s Day card from someone in my class. The card depicted dew on a leaf, artistically drawn. I finally tracked down who the boy was. His initials were D.E.W. Instead of appreciating the astounding creativity and plain sweetness of the gesture and, heady with new feelings of sexual power, I am ashamed to say that I was very mean to him. I’m sure that he ended up wishing that he had never sent me the card in the first place.

My father had a standard question for us whenever we came back from a date. It was, “Does he make you laugh?” I think that was because my mother and he laughed so much together. They found each other very funny. They had jokes that only they understood. I remember my mother telling my father about her day and him, listening quietly, and laughing.

Another Country, a movie starring Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and a very young Cary Elwes was a movie that played on MNet in the 1980s. It is based on the student life, at Eton, of Guy Burgess, a British spy.  I saw it in my early teens – my middle sister and I recorded it- and we watched it over and over again – primarily to admire the Eton boys.

And, when I was fourteen, at our holiday house near the sea, I met a beautiful boy who looked like one of them. He was seventeen, a friend of my older cousin. I remember calling a school friend at home and saying, “I’ve met a guy who looks like someone from Another Country.” In the December holidays, when I was seventeen, I decided to pursue him, which proved to be more difficult than I had thought it would be. I spread the word that I liked him and spent an enormous amount of time getting ready each night to go out to the local disco at the hotel where I would see him. But he remained frustratingly elusive. He was an angry young man, fascinatingly cynical, with a great sense of humour. We kissed on New Year’s Eve that year. He was at university in Cape Town and I was in Johannesburg and so we wrote letters to each other throughout the years that we were apart. Remember writing and receiving letters? My middle sister vetted every single letter that I ever sent him ruthlessly censoring the romantic drivel that I wrote. And he and I spent time together every December.

That was joy. That was love. He made me laugh a lot- we laughed a lot together. We were best friends.

I was to marry that beautiful boy and lose him.

Featured

Murder MOST foul

Every December, my family used to drive to a seaside village in the Eastern Cape. We would spend a good three or four weeks there, in a house that my grandparents had bought before I was born. The house was large and a bit run-down, furnished with old chairs and tables and old-fashioned picture frames and mirrors. My grandparents had the main bedroom, with, quaintly, two single beds. Most of my cousins were from the Eastern Cape. My second cousins were farmers near Bathurst. We shared the house with three of my first cousins over the December holidays. My other three first cousins had a house near our own. We were all similar ages.

There was an ongoing game of Murder at the house. The game went on all holiday. Everyone drew a card. The Ace of Spades was the murderer and the King of Hearts, the detective. When the cards were drawn there was much excitement. We longed to draw the murderer card and feared drawing it all at the same time. The Murder game went on until the detective discovered the murderer and then new cards were drawn. Only the murderer could lie to the detective during the investigations. When the murderer had claimed his or her first victim, the victim had to wait for one minute before they screamed. The detective would then call everyone into the lounge and begin his or her investigation. The all-time best murder was when my little cousin killed my dear uncle in the outside shower.

Those were happy days. We trapped crabs in sand moats, roasted marshmallows and went fishing and crabbing. One of my uncles had a boat, in which he could fit nine small children, and he often took us up the river.

We had epic road trips down to the sea. There were five of us (six, including a large brown Labrador) packed into an old green Datsun. The, then, thirteen-hour drive was an adventure in itself. We would wake at four and pack the car and get on the road. On at least two occasions, we didn’t get out of the driveway because my father had locked his keys in the car. He always wanted to see how far we could drive with as little petrol as possible. So, we ran out of petrol frequently. My father would have to hitchhike to the nearest town to procure petrol. We were left behind, in the car, with the Labrador, in the sweltering heat. Once, we had to stop in Ventersburg to obtain a tetanus injection for my sister who had been bitten by a Maltese poodle the day before. Each stop for the toilet was a “pitstop” and my father would time it, hoping to beat his previous time. My cousins, in the Eastern Cape were endlessly amused by our misfortunes and eagerly awaited to hear what tragedy had befallen us on the trip down.

My mother would pack padkos – always the same- white rolls, pork sausages, boiled eggs, lettuce and tomatoes. We would begin eating as soon as we were on the road. My two sisters and I (and the dog) were squeezed on to the back seat and squabbles about space broke out frequently. My father, who was driving, would keep one hand on the wheel and with the other arm would swipe at us to make us stop. We sang a lot of the way. Old songs, that my parents had taught us.

The drive took us through Grahamstown where my parents had first met. We heard the story every time we drove into Grahamstown. My mother, 17, wearing a shirtwaister, had been walking to her lectures when my father was having his morning tea outside his res. “I was eating a melon and ginger sandwich, when I saw your mother.” We knew the story off by heart.

I wonder, now, if we knew that what we were experiencing was joy. Or whether we merely accepted each day as it came, knowing that that there was nothing to fear, and that the next day would be the same and the next. I think it is the latter. It is pain that teaches us about joy and gratitude. And no pain had touched us, not then.