The ache for home

Dedicated to my friend Benito, who understands what it is to love a place as one loves a person.

“The ache for home lives in all of us. The safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” – Maya Angelou

It is late Sunday morning. I am listening to Pearl Jam, black coffee by my side (it is flat broke time of the month for me – given the choice between cigarettes and milk, I choose cigarettes, like the addict I am); outside my back door birds are splashing in my very own birdbath. It is already too hot to go outside, yet in my flat it is cool, and somehow relatively neat too. I am not feeling particularly fulfilled, or even content – the events of Friday somehow unlocked hordes of nasty little mannetjies now twisting their fingers joyfully into my brain. Yet I am home, in my own tiny little kingdom, and though my mood does not match this knowledge yet, it can be enough – I declare it enough – that I am here.

So my third post in three days, after three weeks of silence (let no one ever accuse me of being too balanced), and I thought I’d finally write about home (as you might have noticed from my repetitive use of the word). One of the most evocative words, isn’t it? I think only love and all of its derivatives surpasses the amount of songs written about home. And idioms. And poems. And quotes – I just spent about an hour reading these, feeling oddly nostalgic as only the idea of home can make one feel, perhaps because we are as rarely truly home as we are truly and wholly satisfied – being still and feeling whole in that stillness is rare enough that it is almost discomfiting finding oneself in one of these moments.

People say (this is a quote I encountered in many forms and shapes, attributed to many different people) that home is perhaps more a person than it is a place. If that is indeed true, then in my case I believe that this person is myself. I am only truly home when I am surrounded by myself, where there is no need to explain myself, where I can walk around naked because it is hot without worrying that someone might spot me, where I can sing “Skinny love” at the top of my lungs, where I can smoke a cigarette in the bath (gross, I know. Exactly – I don’t need to explain this habit to myself), where I can eat breakfast at three in the afternoon. Where I can be wholly idiosyncratic without worrying about how my oddities are perceived by others. A place where I am lonely, sometimes, because there’s only me there, but I know that I cannot be home anywhere else if I am not home with myself. “A home filled with nothing but yourself. It’s heavy, that lightness.” – Margaret Atwood

But home is also more than that. Home is the place you find your soul can relax inexplicably. Where your surroundings resonate. I believe home is the place you come to for the first time ever and yet recognise.

When I first moved to Stellenbosch, a bit more than two years ago, I came home, to my very own space, more entirely than ever before. I had never been here before. I knew no-one. I was excruciatingly lonely at first. I found the people here strangely enclosed within themselves, locked within their friendship circles, comfortable in their experiences. I still don’t see myself as a local. Yet the mountains, and the vineyards, and the coffee shops, and the little streets, and the odd feeling that I am at the juncture between Europe and Africa – all of these things rushed out and embraced me. All of my previous experiences came together – living in France, as a little girl, living on a farm in Natal, living in other student towns – and became encased in one little town daring me not to recognise it, daring me not to embrace it as the sum-total of my life so far. My chickens came home to roost, so to speak.

I have loved very many places throughout my life, and will yet love many more. Like the people I have loved, I carry these within me. Thollon, in The Alps, where I would stare up at the cliffs and the slopes covered in pine trees and dream about living on my own in the woods. Where I tried to build numerous tree houses and often ran away from home with my mom’s full support – she would pack me a picnic basket and I would set off for the day, returning self-assured and triumphant, half-written stories in my head and a bag full of pretty stones over my shoulder. Gansbaai, where I scaled neighbours’ walls endlessly (most of them only came to stay for the holidays), stared balefully at the sea when it was stormy, strung shells together in endless dream catchers, and first started keeping a diary. Stanford, where we had a pet pig who loved raisins and having her stomach scratched more than anything else in the world. Vryheid, Natal, where I got my much-longed for horse and my Labrador, who is still alive – there I was a teenager walking or riding kilometres every day, with my dog running ahead, staring my fill at green fields and thorn trees and dongas.

Ladismith, in the Klein Karoo, which until now I have loved more than anywhere else: sitting at a lookout point, looking out over the town and glinting dams, at the field which is rich in its scarceness, at the tiny flowers and insects populating its soil blissfully unaware of my gaze. One’s eye never forgets the odd meeting of breath-taking views and minute dense life of the Klein Karoo, the barrenness of fields grazed raw by ostriches next to green rows and rows of apricot trees.

Bloemfontein, with its bone-chilling winters and warm people, its flat stretches of nothingness, its farmers and students and townspeople – here my eye learned to search for beauty, for it was not as  easy to see as I had been accustomed. Which was good preparation for Potchefstroom, where I spent my student years and which, though I think of it fondly as my alma mater, I never managed to find beautiful. But here I came to love its people, here I spent hours on end between classes drinking coffee and looking at all those walking past me, here I sat in Lover’s Lane staring up at oaks wiser and more beautiful than any I had ever known.

And then I came here. I came into my own, you might say. But loving a place, even this place, is never complete because some parts of oneself are always elsewhere. In the towns I have visited fleetingly and experienced intensely – Amsterdam, Brussels, Durban, Hoepertingen, Cape Town, Graskop, Kleinmond, Senekal -, in the people scattered elsewhere whose lives are precious to me. Perhaps of all the things I have come to understand, this is what has remained with me the most: the price of travel, of being enriched by people and places all over, is to always long for a place which no longer exists exactly as one experienced it.

I spent my holiday refreshed by another place I dearly love, outside Swellendam, where my parents live surrounded by vineyards and citrus trees, where the Breede River flows fat with fish, eagles always hovering overhead. And I carry it in my heart, now that I am back, and though I revel in my own routine and my own music again, the very fullness of being with my family has cast the joy of being home again in a slightly more nostalgic light. The richness of being there has not impoverished my experience of being back, but it has made it more poignant, somehow more painful. Another place to miss, even while I revel in my being here. Like loving people, loving places means scattering pieces of yourself loosely, freely, where you cannot control what happens to them. It means allowing your heart to hurt for a place because you have left something of yourself there. It means coming to terms with your own incoherence, your own incompleteness. It means accepting that you are becoming less whole, even as you are becoming more so.

Because love cannot always fly without resting,

Our lives return to the wall, to the rocks of the sea:

Our kisses head back home where they belong.” – Pablo Neruda

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On red wine and not being taken seriously – notes on a theme

Something happened to me last night which has shocked me rather more than I thought it would, lingering perhaps a bit like a well-made perfume which only truly impresses itself on one’s consciousness after a time of hanging unidentified in the air – except that there was nothing sweet about this. A small occurrence, really, yet it made me think and with the thinking has grown my need to talk about it. To deconstruct it, as it be.

A friend came to visit me last night, bearing with him a bottle of impeccable red wine. It was late, past ten p.m., when he arrived, but it was Friday night after all and I didn’t mind the company. In fact, I enjoy his more than most – ours is a new friendship, but nonetheless uplifting in the sense that it feels like a meeting of kindred minds. We talk a lot. A lot. And I have enjoyed telling my stories to new ears, hearing new takes on them, and being told stories from a perspective that I am not used to but which, yet, feels familiar.

The only snag is that we have different plans for our friendship. I desire and cherish good uplifting thought-provoking connections almost more than anything else in life.  So does he, but in a rather more literal sense of the word. From our first meeting I have made it clear that I, being rather in love with someone else, am not available for anything more than a meeting of the minds, so to speak. He has, albeit grudgingly, accepted this. Since then we have dined out together, shared various conversations. The subject of his competitor has popped up regularly, but I have remained clear on my stance. He didn’t quite stop trying, but I felt I could deal with it – the friendship was worth the occasional rebuff (and I do not cold-shoulder easily or without distress too), if that meant he would eventually come to terms with what I was saying and become a lasting friend.

Last night was no exception to the pattern we were starting to build. We sat and spoke, at length, about family history, about connecting, about a variety of things. In between he would interject with varieties on an “I want to kiss you” theme. My way of handling this was, consistently, to laugh and say “well, it’s not happening, so we may as well continue talking/have more wine/change the topic”. I tried to keep it light but after almost the entire bottle of wine (which I hadn’t thought would be too much, between two people), talk took a more serious ‘you-and -I’ turn. My arguments were less well-formulated. He was more insistent. We were well on our way to becoming properly tipsy. I thought I was holding my ground steadily, in spite of lack of good arguments. Yet, to tell the truth, I was starting to feel a bit beleaguered, a bit like Jesus, if you’d excuse my hyperbolic metaphor, beset with good arguments and temptations while in the desert in a weakened state. Not that I was tempted – I wasn’t. Yet my reasons not to simply give in and kiss him were becoming rather vague, especially when he pointed out that that could be the end of it, if we didn’t feel any chemistry.

The point is, I didn’t want to kiss him. I have kissed my fair share of random people, so it’s not as if I could take the moral high ground, but I didn’t want to kiss him. I would feel as if I had cheated, not on anyone else, but on myself, on my own intentions, on my own not-wanting to. Nowadays I hold my kisses as almost sacred (except, if I am to be honest, for a night or two of stupidity). I don’t want someone’s face so close to me if I can’t look at it with the tenderness that comes from knowing someone and cherishing who and what he is. Yes, chemistry is all good and well, but I want tenderness along with that. And this I could not give him, and this I would have felt awkward receiving, because my heart is elsewhere.

So I held out, but the arguments became more insistent. Then, of course, the inevitable happened – he put down his glass and leaned towards me. I was stuck in a corner of the couch, retreating further and further into it, holding my wine with no place to put it, repeating over and over again ‘Stop it, stop it!”, hiding my head this way and that. He just kept coming closer. I was alarmed but I also couldn’t help but laugh, which I always do in these situations because they are so odd, really. I turned my head away. He turned it back. I didn’t want to slap him, half to spare my wine, but mostly because it would have lastingly soured a generally good evening. Finally he managed to sort-of plant a kiss and I bit his lip. He sat back, shocked. I felt immediately bad and rushed to apologise: “Are you okay? I didn’t mean to bite so hard.”

He was fine. In fact, he was undeterred. He tried again, and again. Finally I lost my temper and told him so, which made him sit back for a second, before relinquishing his wine and declaring that he was going home. Immediately my anger fled and I was apologetic again. “Are you angry at me?” I asked. Yes, he was. I tried to reason with him – I had not been anything but consistent in my refusal. “Being consistent,” he said, “is not always a good thing if you hide behind it.” I remembered telling my mom the very same thing earlier that day, which felt rather uncanny. We walked out – he tried kissing me one last time, I pushed him away firmly. After that I tried to lighten the mood but he walked off looking both angry and dejected, and I went to bed with an unquiet mind, feeling vaguely guilty yet not sure why. Not sure what had happened, really.

I slept very badly. I kept dreaming confused dreams, conjuring up the person I really do like, but picturing him as an insistent, somewhat drunk, guy leaning towards me at inopportune times, coaxing a kiss out of me like one coaxes a ball from a dog’s mouth. I woke up feeling, despite my best intentions, rather down. Last night’s conversations had sown a seed of doubt in my mind – suddenly I was wondering whether I was being silly, wasting my time wanting someone who could have done something about it long ago, while here this opportunity was waiting, with someone who not only really likes me, sees me, but announces his intentions without a hint of doubt.

But then – thankfully – I got angry too. I became angry and I have not stopped being angry yet. I am angry because I feel guilty, while I did nothing wrong. I am angry at my friend because he managed to undermine my peace of mind, the peace I generally follow and which, behind everything, was the reason I did not want to kiss him (I would have felt at unpeace with myself). I am angry because he scoffed at my arguments, because he managed to make me look small-minded and silly for losing out on the opportunity of being with a force of nature such as him. I am angry because he depicted me as someone who is lying to herself, as someone denying her own desires in search of familiarity. I am angry because he did not hear me, no matter how much he thought he did. I am angry because my word was not respected, because my intelligence and my taste were not respected. I am angry because he did not heed my refusal, because he tried to override my arguments, because he forced an intimacy on me I did not want to have. I tasted him on my lip, afterwards (there was some blood. I bit hard). I did not want that. I wanted a friendship and he did not believe me, because I am sweet, because I allowed him to come visit me at night perhaps, because we did indeed connect and have stirring conversations. And I’m angry because good wine went to waste – if he had told me he wasn’t going to finish it I would have poured more for myself, for crying out loud!

I am angry because somehow my first reaction was not to be angry but rather to apologise, to placate, to wonder what I did wrong. There is something wrong with this, with this looking inward as if I am the cause, the temptation who must beat herself up for being a temptation. I am angry because I tried to let him down gently, as I have done repeatedly before without learning my lesson, and he took my friendly refusal as a sign that I was easily won over. He took my reacting to him on a mental level as a sign of my reacting to him physically too, and I should have been more blunt about it not being so, instead of hiding behind the fact that I like someone else. Therefore I am angry with myself too, for being a coward, and I am angry at him because I don’t think I deserve to be angry at myself and yet he made me be.

Attraction, romance, relationships – they are all basically unfair, as my friend said repeatedly last night. It feels to the person who is attracted to another that surely the attraction must be returned – what would be the point of feeling this great surge of feelings if the other person does not return them? Surely energy must sustain itself, surely this electric atmosphere cannot be imagined or felt by one party alone? And yet it often is.

I remember once loving someone very much who didn’t love me back. I felt I truly saw him; I knew him as one knows some people, instinctively, with great tenderness of recognition. Yet he did not feel comfortable in my love, he felt restricted by it, he felt annoyed, he felt I was asking too much. He misunderstood my heart and my intention completely, I thought. That bewildered me. How could I see someone so clearly (and, in my opinion, what we want in relationships is to be truly seen), so keenly, without being seen back? What was the point of my seeing him if he didn’t see me back?

I don’t know what the point was. I know I grew because of it, and the learning was valuable, but I still do not understand how it is possible to love someone so entirely – or to be attracted to someone, or to like them fiercely, or whatever – without it being returned. Perhaps it is so that we can learn that life is not the sum of our intentions, or a neatly balanced calculation where we always get back what we give. Perhaps it is so that we can learn vulnerability. Perhaps it is so that we can learn to protect our hearts, on the other hand. Perhaps it is so that we can learn to make decisions based on more than our perceptions alone. And perhaps there is no reason, and it simply is what it is. We cannot make people want us.

This morning I got a text message from another man whom I met recently and got along with famously. This one I told, too, that I was only interested in friendship and that I did not want to waste his time. He told me “Great! That’s exactly what I want too!” Well, good then. Except that he asked me to dinner today (I am going on Monday. I am packing my boxing gloves), and called me “most beautiful girl” as a greeting, waxing lyrical about how excited he was about our dinner. I feel distrustful. I feel he thinks that he is going to win me over. Who cares about my petty protests, after all? Obviously I will eventually be swayed before his superior charm and intelligence.

I am starting to feel somewhat like a stuck record player, like an ice-cream truck rolling all day to a single tune, as this post starts reminding me more and more of things I have previously blogged about. Let it be a recurring theme, then. The theme? That I, as a sweet/young/I-don’t-know-what woman, am not to be trusted with my own opinions. Yes, my intelligence may be acknowledged, but my desires and my arguments – obviously these are less reliable. I don’t know what I want. I am free for the taking by the most convincing arguer, by the most suave, or intelligent, or ardent, man. And should I refuse that man, well then obviously I am rather more stupid than I look; in fact, I am probably just in denial.

Women do not

Here it is then, my first post for 2015 – not quite what I thought I’d write, I was hoping for a more enlightened brain-child, since it was such a long time coming, but the muse spoke and I did not argue (much). I do apologise for the lengthy silence – I was off trying to fit all sorts of living into my life. I am back, albeit rather hungover (and not only in the physical sense of the word), broke, and harried. In other words, nothing’s changed much.

John Lennon (apparently) said that life is what happens when we’re making other plans, and I for one am not keen to question his wisdom (although I must point out the irony in the fact that death is kinda what happened to him while he was making other plans – as I assume it will for all of us).   This post is what happened while I was making more grandiose plans (I was going to write about the true meaning of the word “home”), and I hope that it may bring you at least some small sense of recognition, unless of course you truly are the perfect woman. In that case, or in the case of high sensitivity, perhaps go read something else. This post is full of rather gross topics such as the intricacies of pooing and sex (not at the same time, I hope), and yes, it was in fact rather awkward for me to post it on my blog. But I really needed to get it off my chest, having increasingly run into the odd assumptions I and others have cultivated about ourselves and our roles.

To be exact: I have been working on supposedly easy things such as not armpit-hair shaming others, going to the toilet when others know what I’m doing in there, dealing with sweaty palms, semi-quitting makeup – and it has been surprisingly hard. There seems to be two ways of being, if you’re a woman: 1. shave, deodorise and perfume, mouthwash and floss and brush, shampoo and condition, pluck eyebrows, cutex toenails, scrub and lotion and buff and use toner and put on makeup and wax the bikini-line and drink lots of water and exercise, and don’t get anything else done ever. 2. Don’t do these things, but constantly feel behind and apologetic, especially should you ever find yourself in a compromising situation (what’s worse than getting frisky with someone and then remembering you haven’t shaved your legs?), and basically unwomanly. So here’s my list of stuff I know I’m supposed to not be doing but am having some trouble not-doing all at once.

– A woman does not allow her armpit-hair to grow past, at most, three days’ worth. Also not her leg-hair, and if she has a hint of a moustache she waxes it, and if she has to wear a bikini she ensures that no stray curlies peek through. Even if that means having her asshole waxed – I don’t know about other people, but that’s the one area I tend to forget about, which then bites me in the ass when I find that my bikini is doing some ass-biting of its own. Also, am I the only one who worries about asshole-fluff during sex from behind? I always spend an inordinate amount of time wondering whether it is ruining the view.

– Women do not sweat, they perspire (to quote a teacher who once, albeit tongue-in-cheek, told our class this). In other words: they do sweat when they are working out (which of course they faithfully do), but in that case it’s simply an attractive sheen, or a cute little trickle seductively sliding down some ample cleavage. There is no such thing as armpit sweat (just in case there might be, we shave). There is especially no such thing as crotch-sweat, and sweaty palms belong wholly to the teenage-boy universe. This poses a slight problem to me, as I have an overeager thyroid which overeagerly delivers water to my hands and feet. I have spent entire relationships avoiding ever holding my boyfriend’s hand or taking off my shoes. I have even repeatedly tried hands-free sex. This, as you might imagine, is not the funnest sex you might find, unless (I would assume) you’re bound to the bedpost, which I was not. My job also involves holding (and sharing) a microphone, which can become rather embarrassing when I have to hand it over to my unsuspecting colleague. And ordinary stuff like playing the piano or writing with an inky pen becomes a waking nightmare.

– Women do not have ingrown toenails, ingrown hairs (especially on their bikini-line), blackheads, or (god forbid) boils. If they do, they may only talk about these in hushed tones with female friends, profusely apologising for the disgusting topic beforehand, and only to ask advice about getting rid of these magnificently unfeminine problems (periods, birth control, orgasms – all of these we may discuss, but not boils). Men shall not ever be informed of the problem. If a woman has a pimple on her butt, she shall sit down resolutely whenever needs be and ignore the fact that said pimple is caught between a rock and a hard place. Beauty is pain. No guts, no glory; and my favourite: fake it till you make it (this also seems to apply to orgasms, but that’s a whole post of its own).

– Women do not stink. If they ever do stink, it’s of sex, which is forgivable as long as the scent of man is the leading note. Sweat, of course, is unforgivable, especially when it’s that acrid sweating-under-dozens-of-sweaters-because-it’s-actually-winter smell. Smelly feet, if possible, are worse. Bad breath is understandable, but may only occur first thing in the morning, and must be gotten out of the way as soon as possible. And any other substance a woman secretes must be gotten rid of as discreetly as possible, before it can leave any olfactory hint of its existence. Even if that means buying those terrifying feminine wipe thingies that people freshen up with, even if it means perfumed tampons and pads and, I don’t know, douches.

– This brings me to one of the most pervasive “women do nots” in my own life: women do not shit (and it goes without saying that women do not fart). My one friend used to be so appalled by the realisation that women do actually need to do more than pee, that he and I started referring to it as “making butterflies”  whenever the topic arose, mostly as a joke, but also to spare his sensitivities. The truth is ugly, my friend. But we have found ways to mask it, as almost all of my female friends can attest to. (I am aware that not only women suffer from shy colons. I am not disregarding men’s often equally excruciating problem with this, but one must admit that it is amplified under the pressures of having to be feminine.)

Here are some of the solutions I have employed in order to not remind anyone of what I am doing in the bathroom:

1. Spray deodorant (instead of toilet spray, that gives the game away) beforehand, also under through the door so it creates a “seal” for any other smells to remain where they are.

2. Use lots and lots of layers of toilet paper, thereby breaking the fall of any deposits, and, as it be, cushioning the noise. Flushing the toilet at the exact moment you let rip also helps, especially if you have eaten something odd and are expecting some stray sound effects (this does require exquisite timing, though).

3. Wait until everybody is definitely fast asleep to tiptoe to the bathroom. If you have waited a few days, even better: you won’t even need to set your alarm for 3 a.m., your intestines will keep you awake until then, or wake you up just as you drift off into toilet-filled dreams.

4. Wait until you’re at the mall, or the movies. Then go, and when you come back, complain about the endless rows. Everybody knows going to a public ladies’ room takes ages. Someone might suspect something, but they can’t prove it.

5. This is my favourite, and it is guaranteed to work: don’t go to the toilet. Just don’t. If you really need to pee, but you’re afraid your rectum might grab the opportunity, pee in tiny doses. Trickle…wait….trickle….wait…trickle. Else, just hold it in. Yes, this might also involve having to hold in farts that become progressively worse as the day lengthens, but that’s all in a day’s work. You are either feminine, or you shit. There is no both.

If complying to the above things seems to take up a lot of time, despair not. Other women throughout the ages have managed to do so. In fact, nowadays women manage to have kids, have careers, have relationships, stay well-read and up to date on life, even blog, and sometimes sleep, all while looking incandescently manicured and very lightly perspirey.  It is my firm belief that the need to shit will eventually disappear into thin air if we keep at it long enough. This is what I tell myself, in any case. No, it doesn’t make me feel any better, quite the opposite, but thanks for asking. But ask me again in ten years’ time – I might have found a solution, or even better, stopped caring, who knows. This is what I’m really hoping for: that there is an option 3, namely to stop caring. In my case, don’t hold your breath, though.

I’m still here

I don’t normally like writing too much about personal stuff – I might (over)share about some experiences, but usually that’s in the process of ranting about some or other Big Topic. Wake me up in the middle of the night, and, once I’ve stopped spraying you with the anti-mosquito stuff I keep on my bedside table (I believe it’s a very effective weapon, though I’ve never actually tried it on a person. Bewaaaaare, thieves), I’ll have a lengthy opinion about whatever matter might be tickling your brain cells. I am armed with a seething curiosity, a few scattered experiences, and some infinitely small titbits of knowledge – usually I find these to be enough to keep me typing away furiously about my topic of the day, be it body shaming or the dangers of not being able to separate doing good deeds from religion (both of which I intend to write about. Soon).

But today I am tired. Actually, I have been tired for a while. I feel rather frayed at the edges, and my general cheer is finding it harder than usual to make a comeback. For lack of a better word I am calling it “over-involvement fatigue”: I am tired of all the clamouring voices insinuating themselves into my brain as I try to sleep; I am tired of the never-ending battle against sexism and racism and ignorance and lethargy I see all the time, oftentimes in fact taking place inside myself; I am tired of the internet and facebook and gmail and all the news sites I subscribe to, tired of trying to keep up, tired of Putin and Ebola.

Closer to home, I am tired of worrying about my younger brother who managed to get himself fired yesterday, who loses half his possessions and gives away the rest (he gave his good leather shoes to a homeless person. My mom phoned, she wants them back to hand them down to my other younger brother, and he fucking gave them away. How does one cope with the anger and love this awakens at the same time?), and who is always broke yet manages to drink like a sailor on a…well, sailor’s budget. When the (18-year old) little bugger moved to my town at the start of the year I became a mother overnight. And I feel ill-equipped, to say the least. The fierceness of the concern coiling and uncoiling in my belly is completely foreign to me. I need to read a parenting book somewhere, something like “How to get boys to become responsible men without mothering them and also without lying awake at night wondering whether they’re dying in a ditch somewhere”.

And so tonight I am not writing about a Big Topic. I am going to write about my year, because I could bear some reminding of the good things and some putting-into-perspective of the bad things.

It’s been a tough year. I moved house four times. My brother lived with me in my bachelor’s flat(s) for four achingly long months. My first place’s kitchen burnt down while I was gone (through, I feel the need to add, no fault of my own). I was, in as polite a manner as possible, eventually evicted because of it, and as a result suffered a significant financial blow, though this time very much through my own bad planning and weak impulse control. Having finally regained some momentum by the end of this year, my new flat got broken into and I lost some very valuable things again.

A very drawn-out, up-and-down, intense (from my side, anyway) relationship ended for me at the beginning of the year. This was followed by all sorts of romantic fumblings, culminating in my decision, in May, to be resolutely single until further notice. This, I might add, was probably the best decision I made this year. Nonetheless, not the most pleasant build-up to that decision.

I didn’t quit smoking – in fact, at our year-end function all the employees were given a certificate with a nickname on. Mine was #Iquitsmoking. We all had a good laugh, but seriously, I really thought reading Allen Carr would do the trick. (Currently I am trying meditation to that end, so let’s see how that works out.) I also didn’t become fit, or organised, or a better multi-tasker.

It has been a tough year, yet it has also been a breathtakingly beautiful year. Perhaps my favourite year so far, oddly. I cannot keep count of the amount of times I have walked up my street barely able to believe the beauty of the mountains in front of me, and of the flower baskets hanging from each street lamp, and of all the oak trees coming to life with tiny green leaves, seemingly overnight. The fire forced me to move to a much nicer place in a nicer area, I cultivated my own garden for the very first time, I got my own small veranda.

More importantly, there have been wonderful people in my life. In June I went to visit a friend in Namibia and he took me on a tour through the northern parts of the country – we spent days debating every possible meaningful aspect of life, drinking a lot of beer (cheers, Stefan!), and photographing some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. I came back armed with funny stories of flat tyres and with a rested soul.

I have made new friends, and strengthened old friendships – much of my year was spent in a bar, attempting (and failing) to play pool, talking about both serious and less serious things, or cooking for friends, or playing board games, or drinking copious cups of coffee in good company. I also became an aunt – to an adorable little red-headed boy whom I am meeting in two days for the first time.

I started a blog, and I have, more or less, kept at it. I have read thousands of inspiring and thought-provoking posts by other bloggers, unexpectedly immersing myself into this fascinating community where everybody loves what I love: writing and sharing. I wrote – both for my blog and for my own lonely computer – slightly more diligently than before, though not at all yet as much as I would like to.

What I like most about this year, though, is that I started liking myself more. Not that I have ever disliked myself (except perhaps as a teenager), but the voices constantly reminding me of my shortcomings have never been far away. They still aren’t. They aren’t far for anybody, I guess. Yet I have made more peace with them. I dislike that I am scatter-brained and overly intense and that I cry about everything. Yet I am also starting to look fondly at these things, as I hope others who know me do. And I like that I love fiercely, even though it is exhausting. I like that I cook really great food (when I cook. Which depends on how many pots and pans I need to wash first). I like that I can manage to keep a garden alive. I like that I am less bothered about being dignified, that I tried Ethiopian dance moves even though I looked like a swaying stick doing them, and that I admitted to my colleagues I don’t know how to pronounce “hyperbole”.

I look forward to growing older, if this is what growing older means: feeling fondness towards myself. I look forward to becoming wiser. I also look forward to quitting smoking and learning Xhosa and bicycling more often and learning to play the ukulele, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For now: I had a good year. At worst, a growth-full year. I have loved and been loved. I washed my dishes tonight. I am tired and broke, but I’m still here.

I’m still here.

It will be morning/As ek in die oggend

Today I wrote an English poem. Now, while that might not seem particularly remarkable to you, it was my first attempt in eight years. I’m more comfortable writing these in Afrikaans, my mother tongue – while I speak both fluently, it feels to me that English is the language of my mind, and Afrikaans that of my heart.

Also, languages have personalities, I think, a certain flavour to them. Afrikaans is earthy, English ephemeral. English of the air, Afrikaans of the body. (This just my perception, of course.)

However, in the interest of personal development, and also for curiosity’s sake, I took a thought and wrote a poem about it in both languages. They are not translations of each other – I was curious about seeing what would surface, what would be different about each. I know that many of my readers do not understand Afrikaans, I apologise for the inconvenience. I hope you enjoy the English bit, though.

(I also apologise for the double spacing. It annoys the hell out of me but I can’t seem to find a spot on my ‘edit post’ to change that. If you know of any, do please let me know!)

It will be morning,

when I come to you:

the day will have sprung, wet

from the innards of a quiet sleep, like a calf

on new-birthed legs. It will be morning

when I come to you, yet

let us not forsake the night at once.

Let us not forget the tendrils of its breath;

its glistening flanks, its slow tongue,

and the tenderness of its wolflike embrace.

Let it be morning,

yet let us take the night with us.

As ek in die oggend na jou toe kom

dan is alles nuut; en ja kyk:

dit is goed.

Maar laat ons nie die nag verlaat nie;

nie so heeltemal

opeens nie.

Laat ons oplaas

die slierte van sy asem in ons hande hou,

die teerheid van sy skuiltes,

die lyne van sy duister lyf.

Soos ‘n wolf

laat sy stiltes altyd in ons skadu bly.

The gifts that kept on giving: a celebratory list of books I read in 2014 – part 2

Continuing my previous post, here are the next three books that shook me up this year.

5. In favour of the sensitive man and other essays, by Anaïs Nin

Every time I read Anaïs Nin (her complete set of diaries is on my ‘I have to buy this before I die’ list) I feel wistful, because she wrote the words I wanted to write. Every unformed thought in my mind she has already put in lyrical prose. Every quote by her resonates. This book, a collection of articles and pieces she wrote over the years, is no different. Reading it, I kept wanting to exclaim “where have you been all my life?!” Like The Women’s Room, her words still apply today; both her passion and her wry way of looking at life break the heart a little bit, the way the heart breaks when it recognises truth.

It was the principle of creative will that I admired and learned from musicians like Eric Satie, who defied starvation and used his compositions to protect his piano from the dampness of his little room in a suburb in Paris. Even Einstein, who disbelieved Newton’s unified field theory, died believing what is being proved now. I give that as an instance of faith, and faith is what I want to talk about. What kept me writing, when for twenty years I was received by complete silence, is that faith in the necessity to be the artist – and no matter what happens even if there is no one listening (…) I mean that we must gain our strength and our values from self-growth and self-discovery. Against all odds, against all handicaps, against the chamber of horrors we call history, man has continued to dream and to depict its opposite. That is what we have to do. We do not escape into philosophy, psychology and art – we go there to restore our shattered selves into whole ones.

and related to the above quote, but elsewhere (I love the way all of her quotes are so cohesive):

Even in the darkest periods of social history, outer events would be changed if we had a center. It is only in the private world that we can learn to alchemize the ugly, the terrible, the horrors of war, the evils and cruelties of man, into a new kind of human being. I do not say turn away or escape. We cannot turn away from social history, because it is necessary to maintain our responsibilities to society, but we need to create a center of strength and resistance to disappointment and failures in outward events. Today I am working for causes which I consider worthwhile, but that is in the world of action, and the world from which we draw our wisdom, our lucidities, our power to act, our courage, is in this other world which is not an escape but a laboratory of the soul.

It feels to me that Nin’s words are tremendously important. To live from this ‘laboratory of the soul’, to create from this place, and to give to the outer world from a fullness within – this resonates.

6. Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Probably my favourite book of poetry ever, I didn’t so much read as reread it this year. Yet there is always something new in Whitman’s poetry, some part where I didn’t previously grasp the profundity – like any good poet, I guess, his words mean so very much that one could spend a lifetime digging around in them. Quoting him is a challenge – what do I leave out?

[17]

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,

If they are not yours as much as they are mine they are nothing or next to nothing,

If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,

If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,

If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,

This is the common air that bathes the globe.

and

[31]

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,

And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,

And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,

And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,

And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,

And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,

And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,

And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.

Finally, my very favourite line ever:

Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,

I and this mystery, here we stand.

7. The bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thornton Wilder

Like Whitman’s poems, this is a book I keep coming back to. It is short, and written simply, but it tells a powerful story – in fact, it tells all the stories that make life what it is. It is about being human, about dying, about loss, about friendship, about grief, about love in all its forms. If you read just one book from my list, read this one, even if only for this ending:

Even now’, she thought, ‘almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita but myself. Camila alone remembers her Uncle Pio and her son; this woman, her mother. But soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’

A few other books that I loved and that have shaken me up deserve a mention – I wish I could quote all of them:

Brave new world, by Aldous Huxley

The god of small things, by Arundhati Roy

Love in the time of cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The history of love, by Nicole Krauss

The casual vacancy, by J.K. Rowling

Of my entire year, of all the things that have stood out for me, the words of these authors have perhaps become ingrained more than anything else. I hope that you have read equally good books this year – and please do comment with some titles! I love singing a good book’s praises, and I love reading new ones.

The gifts that kept on giving: a celebratory list of books I read in 2014 – part 1

A good book chills the bone and warms the heart, grabs by the throat, excites the mind and inflames the spirit. Words well-written are a gift, a thing of incandescent beauty, a joy and a sustenance forever (with warm gratitude to Keats who first, and inimitably, sang beauty’s praises).

All books are wonderful in their own right, simply because the author poured him/herself out into them, because we are being given a glimpse of someone’s inner workings and their unique perspective is being shared with us. Yet there are some books that are so vibrant, so poignant, so tender, that, had they been human, I would have desperately wanted to move in with them, string them down, bind them to me (thank God they aren’t); had they been houses I would have lived in them.

Marilyn French perfectly describes the dissociation we often experience between a significant event and our emotions at this event, which are seldom on par with their cause:

in life one almost never has an emotion appropriate to an event. Either you don’t know the event is occurring, or you don’t know its significance. We celebrate births and weddings; we mourn deaths and divorces; yet what are we celebrating, what mourning? Rituals mark feelings, but feelings and events do not coincide. Feelings are large and spread over a lifetime. I will dance the polka with you and stamp my feet with vigor, celebrating every energy I have ever felt. But those energies were moments, not codifiable, not certifiable, not able to be fixed: you may be seduced into thinking my celebration is for you. Anyway, that is a thing art does for us: it allows us to fix our emotions on events at the moment they occur, it permits a union of heart and mind and tongue and tear. Whereas in life, from moment to moment, one can’t tell an onion from a piece of dry toast. *

Christmas and New Year are such rituals, moments we have created within which we allow ourselves, even expect from ourselves, to feel the emotions of the entire year. Gratitude, love, awe – the whole range of warm fuzzies (and often some gremlins too). We need rituals to be able to label our experiences, to formally acknowledge them, to acknowledge ourselves and our lives. To take stock. And so, too, do we need art, because good art expresses us to ourselves, it gifts us with our own emotions, it both universalises and personifies the entire vast experience of living. And so, on this day of gratefulness I felt the urge to share the books, the art in them, that have lit my way and kindled my mind this year. The gifts that have kept on giving, oftentimes long past the final breath of their authors.

1. The women’s room, by Marilyn French

The quintessential feminist novel from the 1970’s, ‘The women’s room’ surprised me because of how relevant it still felt (perhaps not a good thing), how timely to both my own life and to those of many of the women and men I know. Covering the life of one woman over a few decades, it is written with irony and anger and great tenderness. I underlined. I folded corners so as to re-read. I quoted on Facebook. Some parts I read aloud because they needed to be heard: a pages-long tirade on romantic love done so frighteningly well that I wondered whether to laugh or be terrified; a wistful description of a utopian world in which all humans would love each other. The entire book is immensely quotable, so much so that I am at a loss about what to leave out. A few choice bits:

Other girls went to bars, other girls danced. The difference was that she had appeared to be alone. That a woman was not marked as the property of some male made her a bitch in heat to be attacked by any male, or even by all of them at once. That a woman could not go out in public and enjoy herself dancing without worrying what every male in the place was thinking or even worse, what they might do, seemed to her an injustice so extreme that she could not swallow it. She was a woman and that alone was enough to deprive her of freedom, no matter how much the history books pretended that women’s suffrage had ended in equality, or that women’s feet had been bound only in an ancient and outmoded and foreign place like China. She was constitutionally unfree. She could not go out alone at night. She could not in a moment of loneliness go out to a local tavern to have a drink in company.

This especially struck me as heart-breaking because I know this still to be true today. Women might, in name, enjoy the same rights as men in the workplace and at home, but with something as simple as going to a bar, old, limiting ideas still determine our actions and impressions.

On a less angry note, here’s another (lovely) bit:

Taking care of Chris, problem that it was, somehow kept me human. And if we all did that, all took care of each other, if that became, oh, not just a requirement but a custom, something people just did unless they really didn’t want to…I have this scene in my head. I see a rose garden tended by an elderly man who tends to be grouchy. And some children coming to see him, visiting him once in a while, as he tends the roses. And he always shoos them at first, growls at them, but he’s been there so long they’re not afraid of him, they stand around and talk to him and one day, one spring day after a couple of years, he starts to teach them how to tend roses and even puts the clipper in one child’s hands and helps them to clip off the dead or dying sprouts. Well.’ She spread her hands out, and laughed a little. ‘You have to let me be a fool. Somebody has to do the dreaming.’

2. Night train to Lisbon, by Pascal Mercier

Relentlessly self-questioning, both poignant and deeply philosophical – I initially struggled with this novel. And then I fell in love with its words, with the way their rhythm and melancholy bind the whole text together. Very little happens in the story beyond the account of one man’s journey, both inwards and outwards. Yet that journey is worth a read, and a re-read. This is the kind of book that wants savouring, slow savouring, for its words to permeate, to start inhabiting the mind fully. I will let the quotes speak for themselves.

It is a mistake to believe the decisive moments of a life when its direction changes for ever must be marked by sentimental loud and shrill dramatics, manifested by violent inner urges. This is a sentimental fairy tale invented by drunken journalists, flashbulb happy film-makers and readers of the tabloids. In truth, the dramatic moments of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably low-key. It has so little in common with the bang, the flash, or the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it happens, the experience is often not even noticed. When it unfolds its revolutionary effect, and ensures that a life is revealed in a brand-new light, with a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silences resides its special nobility.

and

When we talk about ourselves, about others, or simply about things, we want – it could be said – to reveal ourselves through our words: we want to show what we think and feel. We let others have a glimpse into our soul (We give them a piece of our mind, as they say in English)(…)In this understanding of the case, we’re the sovereign directors, the self-appointed dramaturge as far as exposing our self is concerned. But maybe this is utterly false? A self-deception? For not only do we reveal ourselves with our words, we also betray ourselves. We give away a lot more than we had intended to reveal and sometimes it’s the exact opposite. And others can interpret our words as symptoms of something we ourselves may not even be aware of.

3. Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This novel, which I read after watching Adichie’s TED-talk (well worth a watch) cast a piercing light on race, language, identity – and it does so with such gentle irony that it is all the more powerful for it. I have read very little African literature before and I felt rather humbled by my lack of knowledge, yet the novel never intimidated – I was enthralled, I was blown away, I was pierced to the core. In the following quote, the novel’s main character (a Nigerian woman living in the USA) tells her experience of Obama’s election as president – somehow I found this deeply moving and very representative of the rest of the novel, though I expect it will lose some of its power by being removed from context (I apologise for the length but I find it hard to leave any bit out).

On the eve of Election Day, Ifemelu lay sleepless in bed.

You awake?” Blaine asked her.

Yes.”

They held each other in the dark, saying nothing, their breathing regular until finally they drifted into a state of half sleep and half wakefulness. In the morning, they went to the high school, Blaine wanted to be one of the first to vote. Ifemelu watched the people already there, in line, waiting for the door to open, and she willed them all to vote for Obama. It felt to her like a bereavement, that she could not vote. Her application for citizenship had been approved but the oath-taking was still weeks away. She spent a restless morning, checking all the news sites, and when Blaine came back from class he asked her to take a break, breathe deeply, eat the risotto he had made(…)Michael came with a bottle of presecco. “I wish my mama was alive to see this day no matter what happens,” he said. Paula and Pee and Nathan arrived together, and soon they were all seated, on the couch and the dining chairs, eyes on the television, sipping tea and Blaine’s virgin cocktails and repeating the same things they had said before. ‘If he wins Indiana and Pennsylvania, then that’s it. It’s looking good in Florida. The news from Iowa is conflicting.’(…)

Blaine was sitting straight and still, staring at the television, and then came the deep voice of Keith Olbermann, whom Ifemelu had watched so obsessively on MSNBC in the past months, the voice of a searing, sparkling liberal rage; now that voice was saying “Barack Obama is projected to be the next president of the United States of America.”

Blaine was crying, holding Araminta, who was crying, and then holding Ifemelu, squeezing her too tight, and Pee was hugging Michael(…)and the living room became an altar of disbelieving joy.

Her phone beeped with a text from Dike.

I can’t believe it. My president is black like me.’ She read the text a few times, her eyes filling with tears.

On television, Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and their two young daughters were walking onto a stage(…) Barack Obama’s voice rose and fell, his face solemn, and around him the large and resplendent crowd of the hopeful. Ifemelu watched, mesmerised. And there was, at that moment, nothing that was more beautiful to her than America.

4. The Choice of Hercules, by A.C.Grayling

A thoughtful look at two seemingly opposing ideals: living the Good Life, and living a good (i.e. virtuous) life. Grayling brings these two together in concise yet thorough manner, with chapters discussing aspects such as ethics, drugs, sexuality, human rights, and wars. Eventually he concludes, and one cannot help but conclude along with him, that the two above ideals are in reality inseparable. It is not possible to live a pleasurable, happy life in which one’s fellow man is being trodden down. And living a good life – one of striving towards the common good – is the only way to ensure future pleasure, the only way to legitimise and ensure one’s own happiness.

It is hard (not impossible, but hard) for there to be good individual lives in social arrangements that are bad, where people are oppressed, denied, deprived, limited, frustrated, coerced, and stunted. The worse the degree of these things, the harder it is for individuals to forge good lives. The real point of politics is to build circumstances in which good individual lives can flourish (…)

and

But the focus remains with real people, individuals in relationships with each other, all seeking and meriting a chance to realise the good. Under other names or none, consciously or not, that is what all of us do. And since that is so, it is worth repeating – again and again – the point that the life best worth living is the informed life, the considered life, the responsible life, the chosen life, in which sound the notes that together, in harmony, make for fulfilment in the active sense of well-being and well-doing that Aristotle nominated as the mark of moral success. It might be a Herculean labour at times to achieve this success; but the choice any would-be Hercules of the good life should make, is at least to try: for it is the endeavour itself which is the greatest part of the good.

For the next three books, see my next post – I was a bit scared of overloading my poor cell-phone uploader with a ten-pages long thing. Also, I am terrified of being the worst kind of evangelist: a boring one. Whatever the case may be, evangelise I shall.

* I’m not adding page numbers or any further information such as publishers, as this will simply be too time-consuming and start resembling an academic paper.