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.


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.