Tricks with MIRRORS

Tricks with Mirrors


It’s no coincidence

this is a used

furniture warehouse.

I enter with you

and become a mirror.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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 what is wrong in the world but not doing much to change it.

We can choose.


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.


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.


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.


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.