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


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.