How to negotiate encounters with beggars (without hating yourself afterwards)

Two days ago I was standing outside the Stellenbosch mall waiting for some friends who were inside, when I spotted Moksie. She was heading towards me by way of every other person standing around, making uproarious small talk all around, managing to score four cigarettes and several coins by the time she reached me. “Hallo liefie!” she said to me, holding onto my arm as she extricated a thorn or something from her foot. Someone had stolen her shoes while she was taking an innocent nap next to the road, she told me, highly offended. “Don’t you have a R5 in there for old Moksie?” she then asked. Smart marketing trick, I thought – we learned all about that at university: you prepare the customer for a preposterous offer, then drop something on them which looks like a pretty good deal in comparison (for instance: you talk about the fancy Encyclopedia you’re selling. As the customer is bracing himself to refuse, you offer a cheap version instead, taking all the wind out his sails). In this case I was preparing to tell her I wasn’t about to buy shoes for her when she sprang this benign request on me instead.

I dug around in my handbag, because somehow refusing Moksie is really hard when it’s already been a long day. “I don’t think I have any loose coins,” I warned her, still digging. “Oh well in that case I’ll accept a note too,” she offered charitably. Of course I found coins at the bottom of my bag, after which she promptly abandoned me for the next pedestrians, blowing me a kiss as she left.

Moksie is Stellenbosch’s local bergie, the epitome of all that is frustrating and sometimes endearing about hazarding a trip to town, perhaps the most colourful character of many here. She has her own facebook page, even, (though it seems to have been recently deleted – I can find traces of it but not the actual profile. She is on youtube though) as she proudly told me today when I saw her again and she introduced herself for the millionth time (somehow I always want to be offended – how can she not remember me? Then I realise I am not nearly as memorable as she is). She was wearing pretty blue sandals adorned with flowers, today, and a short plaited skirt, and lipstick rather artfully applied. Before coming into the backpackers where I was nursing a G&T and a cigarette (it also doubles as internet café – since I don’t have a laptop anymore, that’s where I go to update my blog) she looked around challengingly. “Where is that boss of yours?” she asked the barman. “The last time he told me I’m not allowed to come here anymore. I’ll show him!”

The barman only laughed. He didn’t have the energy or motivation to chase her away either. She left on own accord after borrowing my lighter, greeting a couple who were walking past hand in hand: “Lekker sunburn you’re going to get today!” They laughed and she walked on jauntily across the road, to where all the tourists were.

Now, while the funny encounters like those with Moksie, are relatively easy to negotiate (which is a problem in itself, since it tends to make the issue seem less serious), it is less easy to do so with others. Today, for instance, Moksie was by far not the only beggar I encountered. On walking home two people called out: “Meisie!”, wearing the smile I have come to associate with a long-winded story culminating in a request for a donation. In both cases I did my usual pre-emptive “Sorry, no!”, coupled with a half-smile of my own to make the refusal less rude, and walked a little faster. Then, when I came home, I saw a couple I am by now very familiar with standing by the gates, waiting for a car to drive through so that they could go in and walk from door to door in the apartment complex, telling a suitably tragic tale to anyone unfortunate enough to open.

I walked a little faster, looking down, hoping to avoid them. No such luck. It was the man who approached me, holding a little boy on his shoulders. I soon interrupted him, saying I was familiar with their story but that I wasn’t giving any money today. He accepted this, initially, but then carried on: “We are saving for a Wendy house to live in, we are sleeping outside. Just a donation to our fund?” His little boy was sniffling, I avoided looking at him when I said no again. “Merry Christmas!” the man called out as I walked away. Great. Merry fucking festive season, all – don’t mind us penniless friendly folks walking around with shoulders bowed from your rejection, we’ll be fine. It’s not that cold outside.

I can’t save the world, I know. I am barely saving myself, unearthing the secrets to saving money and trying (and failing) to stick to my budget bit by bit. Neither can anyone else – in any case, not by giving money to every person who would like some. During this festive season, it seems the number of people clamouring for a piece of one’s wallet have become more. And the contrast has become more stark – me, snug in my little flat, soon to visit my family and eat luxurious Christmas dinners and have copious cups of good coffee with my mom in the garden, and them, spectators to everyone’s manic Christmas shopping (I hate “them vs. us” comparisons, but there you have it). The last thing you want now is having to juggle guilt, good intentions, and the knowledge that you are making the problem worse by giving money away at random. Therefore, I thought I’d try my hand at a “how to”.

Don’t:

  • Allow yourself to become defensive. You become defensive when you feel threatened or guilty, neither of which are emotions you want to experience.

  • Use false excuses for not giving money. I have done quite a bit of fundraising before, and believe me, no one is fooled by the “I don’t have any money” spiel. It just leaves you feeling cowardly, like that girl in the club who has to invent a boyfriend to fend off unwanted advances because she can’t quite get herself to say “stop hitting on me already”.

  • Say “get a job”. The person talking to you might very well be incapable of holding a job, but it’s equally possible he/she really couldn’t get one. We live in a job-starved world, after all. Whatever the case, you don’t know their stories, their circumstances. Show some respect for the fact that others have had lives of which you understand very little.

  • Say “you’ll only buy alcohol”. That might not at all be true. And if it is, again: you don’t know their circumstances. Give, or don’t, but either way, don’t attack.

  • Say “you probably earn more than me, begging like this”. That’s like telling an orphan “at least you don’t have parents telling you what to do” or your single friend (who really wants a boyfriend) “you can be so grateful you’re not married. My husband drives me nuts.” Enough with the privileged moaning already.

  • Agonise and overthink. Don’t allow yourself to become a bleeding heart – that only clouds your judgment. Yet I would hazard to say: rather become a bleeding heart than someone who has become so blinded to humanity that you start fooling yourself into thinking you deserve to be where you are, and they where they are. I have said this before, I am saying it again: we did not all start on equal footing. Yes, you work hard for what you have, yet the life you have you did not create all by yourself. Others have invested in you, luck has nudged you along. Acknowledge that.

  • Give grudgingly. If you give, give because you want to, not because you were coerced into it.

  • Be fooled because it’s a kid asking/there’s a kid clutching the adult’s hand. You’re not the first person to have figured out how to manipulate others.

  • Listen out half an hour’s tale of woe before refusing to give money. You’re wasting everyone’s time that way. When you know you’re going to say no, say it, and walk away.

  • Compare yourself to others. If you have a friend who stops and gives money to every beggar, don’t feel bad because you don’t.

Do:

  • Be friendly (but don’t gush). Acknowledge the person’s humanity by, if you have time, asking a name, and saying something like “George, I hope everything turns out well for you.” Just because you didn’t give money doesn’t mean you need to shut off all emotion.

  • Use lines (if they are true) like: “I support the night shelter. If you want, I can phone them and organise a place for you to stay tonight/ I prefer giving my money to organisations that can help you”.

  • Use humour (where applicable). This works especially for the funny kind of beggars, the ones who don’t lay a sad story at your door but rather approach you almost flippantly (like Moksie). I once dug up an old sock from my handbag (no, I don’t know what it was doing there) and offered that; we both had a laugh at least.

  • Say no comfortably. If you don’t want to, that’s all you need to say. Don’t be drawn into a long negotiation or a battle of wills.

  • Appeal to their decency, and they will probably be decent. I have often told someone who kept on and on asking: “I respect you, now please respect me back. I already said no. Take my word for it.” This has, rather surprisingly, worked almost every time.

  • Buy food instead of giving money. Say: “My budget is R15. What do you want?” In my experience, the usual choices are bread and peanut butter. I once offered to buy a man cigarettes; he chose sardines instead – his priorities are better than mine.

  • Become involved somewhere. Knowing you are making a difference somewhere, investing in improvement, be it at a dog shelter or simply by donating to Doctors Without Border, will lessen the confusion and guilt. If you want the help to be more specific, google the local homeless shelter/children’s home/NGO – chances are they could use any help you can give.

  • If you have unnecessary stuff lying around your house – clothes, magazines, cosmetics – go and donate these somewhere. Cleaning out that closet is always a relief anyway.

  • Be kinder than you have to be. Life is better when you’re kind.

  • Accept the fact that you are sometimes going to be accosted by a beggar when you’re already in a bad mood/in a hurry/tired, and that it’s not going to improve your mood, and that you’re probably going to end up feeling awful whether you gave money or not. Life is full of shitty moments. Yours is not the exception.

About halfway through writing this blog, I had a break and went on facebook. At the top of my news feed was a post by Amanda Palmer that really made my day. I feel like I want to quote her last words, so here goes (for more context, read her post. And she is also really worth a follow on facebook, if you don’t already): “mostly I really only help the people I know. you can’t help everybody. it can drive a person crazy… erik came to me to the hotel desk when I was checking them in and asked why I was doing this, why I was helping them. and here’s the answer: because I could.”

That’s the long and the short of it: help because you can. Not because you’re feeling guilty or worn-out. And when you can’t help, don’t. 

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The aftermath, or: what I saw once I was rid of my laptop

In the wake of the break-in at my flat I did a lot of thinking. And a lot of seeing, too. Suddenly strands of everyday life came flying at me – facebook updates, news headlines, overheard conversations – and settled in a knot at the base of my skull. Like a headache, not to be thought of too much lest it unleash its full fury. Like heartbreak, not to be prodded lest the floodgates open irreversibly.

Here is what I saw: people adjusting, uncomfortably, to the realities of less-than ideal circumstances in a less-than ideal country. Recently there were mass complaints on facebook about Eskom and its delightfully spontaneous load-shedding – people were angry, people were sarcastic, and occasionally some revelled in the chance to have candlelit dinners. We were indignant at Eskom’s flippant “it could be worse, look at Angola/Nigeria/[insert African country], and at Zuma’s “this is all Apartheid’s fault”. Yet we carried on, and I even found myself, caught at night in town during an unexpected blackout, revelling in the surreal companionship of walking half-blind among dozens of other pedestrians, at the humour of seeing disappointed students streaming from silent clubs, of being caught in an odd hush as we all went our ways while cars filed past, occasionally honking at other motorists abusing the lack of traffic lights.

When our very own Rolene Strauss became Miss World, facebook lit up with patriotic status updates like “Proudly South African! We have the most beautiful women”. Such an arbitrary, man-made thing, a beauty contest, and yet we revelled in it; it awoke an almost relieved kind of joy, an excuse to, for once, be glad and proud of the same thing. To roughly quote a facebook friend’s update: “I’m not normally a fan of beauty contests, but I think South Africa needed this. Proud!”

And yet there was ugliness too. Some people (none of whom I know, but quoted here) questioned Strauss’s representativeness as a South African, what with her being white and all. Some said she wasn’t really an African at all. Some asked whether she could even speak an indigenous language (answer: yes she can. Afrikaans. That’s an indigenous language, people). To be honest, I too somehow feel it a sign of our outdated beauty ideals that, in the midst of such spectacularly beautiful and varied South African women, the tall thin white girl still wins the national and then the international prize. Our definition of beauty is so narrow, so limiting, that it is no wonder women whose bodies deviate from this ideal (read: everyone) struggle to accept themselves.

Nonetheless, attacking Strauss’s identity, calling her Africanness in question, felt like a wholly unnecessary and spiteful dredging up of issues I had naïvely thought we were past by now. It awoke a fury in me I barely recognized, the way furies sometimes rise up when a nerve has been hit, because I too am white, and yet I am wholly and wholeheartedly of Africa, in love with this continent and this country and its landscapes and its peoples, though my perspective and my experiences are limited. Calling my identity in question leaves me bereft of words. And it also prods at my slumbering awareness of the fact that I do not understand yet, not at all, the complexities and layers of anger which envelop my fellow countrymen, angers that are often justified but which I, nonetheless, do not fully comprehend or can more than vaguely empathise with.

Closer to home (literally) was my own recent encounter with crime. It was not my first experience, nor my worst or scariest, yet there was something so personal about my living space being so exposed, so stripped, that for a while it felt as if my home had been raped. What was interesting was how others immediately understood this, whether from instinct or experience. One of my friends’ first words to me were: “To me, the worst part was that exposure of my privacy, someone just forcefully getting into my space like that.” She was talking, of course, of the break-in she herself had recently experienced.

Everyone told me their stories, not in attempt at one-upping me, but in a sympathetic “you are not alone” kind of way. It seems I do not know a single person who has not at the very least been the victim of random cellphone theft, or of being gently held at knife-point and relieved of a wallet, or of finding a car window smashed and the car radio missing. I remember a few years back, my university roommate telling me, with that calm fatalism which covers great shock, how her father had been repeatedly stabbed by housebreakers – he survived, barely. She had shrugged, in the telling, and said: “they were hungry. Hunger makes you do terrible things.”

And so, uncomfortably, we carry on. We tell our stories, we sympathise, we rant and rave sometimes against everything corrupt and mismanaged in this country, and then we set our shoulders and adapt. We mockingly share right-wing bloggers and illogical hatred-spouters’, from both sides of the spectrum, newest idiocies on facebook, tearing their arguments apart in derisive fashion. Because to mock is easier than to allow the outrage at their words come to full painful realisation in one’s mind (to think that Steve Hofmeyr might somehow think he speaks for me! And the horror of being lumped together, in any arbitrary manner, with the likes of Dan Roodt.)

Power cuts, crime, the continuous dredging up of history by politicians who do not know the meaning of the phrase “accepting (even an ounce of) responsibility”, uncomfortably racist comments made by vague acquaintances – and sometimes, more pain-inducingly, by relatives -, poverty and homelessness minutes from our front doors: we grudgingly accept these things because to act on the fact that they are unacceptable would leave few options. Sometimes I stare in shock at all the fallacies we somehow weather and feel it to be wrong. Yet there is also something almost beautiful in the way in which we negotiate daily exposure to a wide range of potentially explosively emotional situations, sometimes with grace and sometimes not, and carve out an existence nonetheless. It takes a considerable amount of wilful ignoring of facts, and sometimes that’s wrong because ignorance propagates complacency, yet I must admit that living with each nerve exposed and sensitive to injustice is simply impossible.

A week ago I wrote the following in my diary (I was feeling a bit despondent): “Being a South African is like being part of a seriously dysfunctional family. You soon lose whatever perspective you might have thought you had, so much so that discontent and fierce love grow together in your soul to form an idiosyncratic, oxygen-starved, slightly rabid plant. You are quick to anger, quick to feel insulted even by fellow members of this family, as generations of slights and offences come to the surface like bobbing menacing skulls in water at the slightest stirring. You seesaw between illogical patriotism and frustration. You mock those who emigrated and then consider doing so yourself. Reading the news is a minefield – in one reading you might go from violent anger at Zuma and Hofmeyr and the newest headline-hitting rapist, to tearful sympathy towards whoever was stabbed, raped, or slung humiliating racist comments at. You side with one sibling, then with another. You’re not quite sure who your parents are, but you know one thing: they fucked you up.”

I am scared. I am scared because I love this place so fiercely, I want to invest my life here, yet for every sign of progress there are other disheartening events. I am scared because I don’t know how to be. I do not want to walk around in blissful ignorance of the fact that, though I have been the victim of crime, I am immeasurably lucky when compared to so many other South Africans. Yet I also do not want to wallow in pessimism. How should I live, knowing that my own flawed idealism cannot stand against the realities of life? I continue to alternate between hope and frustration, allowing my doubts to overtake me sometimes, then setting them aside for times of shutter-eyed optimism. I hope I am carving out a life which is, at the very least, honest in its good intentions. Yet I don’t know whether good intentions can weather reality.

Where your treasure is, or: the day my flat got broken into

I wrote a blog post – took me a whole afternoon. It was about prayer and Father Christmas and religion. I really liked it – I even managed to keep it short(ish). I was excited about putting it on my blog and getting a reaction, who knows, from the entire four people who manage to struggle through my long posts.

Then my laptop was stolen and my unborn brainchild along with it. It was on a Saturday evening, you see, and not even I (as a rule) spend my every entire weekend mulling over my own musty thoughts. On that particular day I baked a bread, attended a lunch party, came back, read a book, and then, feeling restless, my quiet flat an anti-climax after the busy day, I went for a walk. It was one of those balmy evenings, just after sunset, the day still warm enough for one to walk around sleeveless, people sitting in their gardens and their dogs barking at me as I passed. I walked barefoot over a rugby field, the grass tickled, my feet felt new-born. At the start of a nearby hiking trail I sat down on some steps, watching the full moon rise and the evening melt into the kind of night where nothing can go wrong.

This has nothing to do with what happened after, and yet I feel it important, so I am telling it. I went back to my flat. My neighbours were having a party; I felt vaguely envious hearing their laughter and seeing glimpses, through the hedge, of people sitting around the fire. I was contemplating having a bubble bath when a friend texted me – she was right across the road, with a few friends, and it would be fun if I could join. I left my cellphone on its charger, laptop open and charging too. I looked around, grabbed something warm, my cigarettes, and my keys. I locked only the security gate with its small lock, keeping the doors themselves open, as I always do, to let the summer air in. People have warned me about this repeatedly, but I have always laughed it off, saying “if people want to break in, they’ll do it anyway”. Besides, I’m careful. Usually. I lock my laptop away in a drawer and hide the key. I rarely have much cash and when I do, I carry it in a random pocket somewhere, or in my bra. My cellphone is old. I used to roll my eyes and say “what would people steal in my house?” and gesture around in grandiose self-deprecating fashion (I still do that. Now, however, it is true). My broken microwave? My ancient laptop? Surely not my PC, which looks like something from the stone ages.

Well, it turns out, my laptop is worth stealing. So is my second-hand phone. And my fake leather jacket. And the delightful handbag my mom bought me in France. And my John Lennon sunglasses, and my bathrobe (yes, really) and my milk. And a variety of other things. In monetary value, the things taken were laughably worthless. How odd, really, that to me it still felt momentarily as if I had been stripped naked when I realised the things I had left openly, trustingly, were no longer there.

I walked back to my flat barely an hour after I had left it. The night was still warm and I was smiling – I was just grabbing my things and then we were going out, I was looking forward to an evening with some of my favourite people, somewhere noisy and smoke-filled. Then I came around the corner and saw a belt lying askew on my veranda. At first I thought it was a snake (funny thing, a frame of reference. A housebreak I did not expect, but a snake, that would be less odd); then I looked up and I saw that my gate was wide open, curtains askance. My brother, waiting for me inside, grinning at his prank? Yet he would not know how to break a lock. I stepped inside carefully. My laptop was no longer on my bed. There were clothes strewn all over the floor, over them a white fluid (which I would later find out was milk). I called out “hello?” and realised I was shaking so much even my neck felt unhinged. I didn’t even put the lights on, I just stared and then walked back to my friends, to get the men – I was scared someone might still be hiding in my bathroom.

In the large scale of things the break-in was a tiny bump in the road, not worth even a mention in a world filled with travesties such as schoolchildren being gunned down and cyber-terrorism and police violence and Ebola running rampant. I knew that immediately, and I also knew that there had always been a possibility this would happen, even through my instant disbelief. I had wilfully chosen to live my life in a manner that leaves me open to becoming a target. My excuse was always that I refused to live afraid, to budge an inch more than necessary from the way I want to live simply because of the possibility of crime.

Yet I blamed myself. I laughed, after I stopped shaking, and told my friends “earthly things” (and mostly I meant it) and went out and had G&Ts (that other people had to pay for) and told random people about the break-in a half-shocked, half-laughing manner, and cancelled my bank cards and my cellphone and slept over elsewhere, ignoring the underwear strewn across the room and my drawers all half open and the milk, that odd hasty signature, all over my floor and my clothes. But I blamed myself, because I knew others would. We hear about break-ins, we read about rapes and kidnappings and my brother was mugged twice – all of these things in my balmy, privileged little town filled with tourists, all of us at least half wilfully ignoring the poverty and the unemployment around us, ignoring the precariousness of building a life in a town, in a world, of which the very foundation is injustice and inequality. And so I blamed myself, unwillingly, because I left my house half-open, because I left my laptop in full sight, because I lived as though I was above it all, unattached and untouchable.

So during the next few days, every time I told that story, I would say “I know it’s my fault, I left my doors open and my stuff visible”, even though I didn’t quite believe myself, even though something in me protested against my words. It was a pre-emptive strike, saying these things and giving the accompanying naïve, self-mocking shrug, so that no one could point a finger at me and say “why weren’t you more careful?” And then, sympathetically, because I had admitted my error, people would say: “but even so, that’s awful. You worked for those things, and someone else just took them. That is completely unfair.” Upon which I would shrug and say “Life is unfair.”

Which it is. And I was okay with that, and I am still, at least theoretically. The body, though, has its own kind of indignation, and it makes itself felt upon experiencing something which feels so fundamentally, completely wrong. It searches for any emotion, any outlet, and marches different reactions through the mind, all at bewildering speed. Blistering anger. Tearfulness. Vague nausea. A complete inability to greet the builders who populate my complex (they might be the ones who did it. I shall therefore shoot daggers with my eyes and march past). Insomnia. Repeated checking of locks. Living even more recklessly, as a “fuck you”. Bad humour. Retail therapy. Revenge daydreams.

As a child already, barely out of nappies, my sense of justice would rear its head at any slight and I would loudly complain “That’s unfair!” From a very young age (for I hear all children say this), this is what children clamour for: justice. We all know, instinctively, what it is, and we expect it (though perhaps slightly skewed in our favour).

I thought about the break-in long and hard, and I no longer blame myself. Because I might live in a country where not double-locking your doors is stupid, but I didn’t steal my own things. I chose to live as if life is fair, and life laughed at my idealism, yet my idealism, though perhaps a little wrinkled, lives on. I might live in a world where everything is askew and nothing is just, yet I will believe in justice still and I will continue living in expectance thereof (though next time I’ll hide my laptop better. There is a balance to be had, perhaps, somewhere a juggling: believe in justice. Expect injustice.)

Oddly, losing my possessions was not the worst or the scariest part. What I was most afraid of was losing others’ respect, of being viewed with derision at my own stupidity. That was the hardest part of the break-in, to me, strangely: the shame. But I am working at shrugging it off, because what I believed I still believe: life is unfair. But I have the right to expect fairness, if not from life itself, then at least from mankind.

More than a feeling – the search for self-love

DSC_0031This is what my average workday looks like: I wake up instantly hating alarm clocks and mornings in general, while calculating how many times I can afford to hit the snooze button and still be on time (which depends on whether I am going to wash my hair and whether I am willing to skip breakfast in favour of grabbing a sandwich somewhere between classes). I eventually get up, check my messages and quite possibly facebook (who has posted wedding pictures or had a baby while I slept?). I then stand and stare at my cupboard and consider the pros and cons of doing my laundry when I get back from work. I put on shoddy makeup and lope off to work with my hair still wet, wondering what I look like and also grateful I can’t see myself. I say thank you to cars that halt long enough for me to cross the road, hoping I am friendly enough (someone once screamed at me “you didn’t even say thank you!” from their car, even though I was at a zebra crossing. I can now never cross a road without feeling self-conscious.)

At work I grab a coffee and sneak in a cigarette outside the cafeteria building in the weak morning sun, while wondering if my colleagues think I’m being unsociable for preferring smoking to exchanging morning pleasantries with them. I head off to class with my half-cup of coffee dripping periodically on my cleanish pants, dragging my interpreting equipment behind me, thinking rather smugly about the biceps this must eventually result in. I greet the lecturer somewhat bashfully, get his or her signature on my forms and in the process drop half my papers on the floor. We exchange some inane small talk about the weather and the general awfulness of having to be at work at eight. I greet the students somewhat less bashfully, wondering about them – to be honest, wondering what they think about me. Wondering, too, what the lecturer thinks about me. I wonder if I’m too awkward. Too standoffish. Too forward. Too messy. If my makeup is spotty. How some of the students manage to look so radiant so early in the morning. If people can see my tattoo and whether or not that’s a good thing. When last I plucked my eyebrows. Whether my hair is still wet and whether my fringe is falling to the side the way it should. Whether I smell like smoke. Whether that’s unprofessional.

I proceed to interpret a variety of classes for the next few hours. I would like to say that while interpreting, at least, thoughts of myself do not feature, but that’s not even close to being true. Interpreting, in my experience, is an action which demands a great level of self-awareness and which can also easily lead to acute self-consciousness. I worry that people (non-interpretation users) can hear me mumbling. I wonder whether I make sense. I worry that I am breathing too loudly on the mic. I wonder if I really sound Australian when I speak English. I wonder if I like that.

To be fair, while I interpret most of my worries are about the students – are they getting the message? Are they coping? Is it at least okay for them to hear my voice, instead of the lecturer’s? Other people and myself become so entangled in my mind, it’s incredibly complicated to extricate the one from the other. Ever thought about how one never does a good deed without thoughts of oneself featuring rather heavily too? I am in the business of providing a service. I cannot remove myself from the equation. This causes an almost painful awareness of my own importance while also an embarrassing awareness of the fact that I am placing too much emphasis on myself. I would like to be entirely free from myself but I never am. To the students I am a disembodied voice, a person they barely register unless I am making a mistake. Yet to myself I am everything.

After work, or during my empty hours between classes, I hang around on campus. Sometimes I sit somewhere in a corner, smoking, writing down random thoughts or texting, intermittently looking at the trees and the mountains that loom over me both friendly and aloof (mountains, next to language and music, are the most beautiful thing ever created. And also, they’re so gloriously unselfconscious). I look at the students walking around. And always, in my almost every thought, incessantly, tiringly, fragments of myself peek out. I wish my legs were as pretty as that girl’s. Did that guy just check me out? Oh no, here comes the beggar who always sits with me for half an hour. I don’t want to be rude but I also don’t want to chat with him today (cue the mini existential crisis). I wonder if those people think I’m odd sitting here by myself, staring at the trees. I’m bored. I’m tired. Should I have another coffee? I should read more about what’s happening in Ukraine while I’m sitting here doing nothing – not reading about it means not caring about anything besides my own small world. It also means I’m not informed enough and other people can talk about stuff I know nothing about. But if I read news just to look informed, does that not miss the whole point? (Cue another mini existential crisis).

Or I while away the hours with friends, drinking coffee while moving strategically away from or into the sun, depending on the weather. I smoke self-consciously (I am probably the world’s most apologetic smoker, though that doesn’t stop me from puffing away frantically). I talk and enjoy myself and laugh and drown myself in more coffee. And always, always, grinning at me around the edges of conversation, I find myself. Self-referential jokes. Being sympathetic to other people’s stories and then wondering whether my sympathy appears fake or too little or over-empathetic. Wondering whether I laugh too much, or complain too much. Interjecting a story with my opinion and then feeling rude. Being quiet and wondering whether I look glum. Wondering whether people can see my leg-hair stubble when I stretch out my legs. Wishing I had prettier legs (that thought happens a lot). Wondering whether anyone is noticing I am today wearing the loveliest earrings in the whole wide world.

Don’t get me wrong – I am neither acutely self-conscious nor more self-obsessed than anybody else (I think). Most of these thoughts of myself are only fleeting (though constant), not at all as glaring as I have now depicted them. I don’t sit around counting how many times I’ve thought of myself in the past hour. I don’t sit around feeling excruciatingly awkward or shy. Yet I am always on my mind. And I think these thoughts are what happens to anybody, everybody, all the time. I think true spontaneity (in the sense that no thought of oneself is involved in the action) is rare, and the moment that spontaneity is past it is replaced by awareness of having been spontaneous, which nullifies the moment to a certain extent. We are caught in the trap that is ourselves, our own bodies that we can never escape from, our need to be liked, to be respected. I want to be kind, but at least half of that wanting is because I want other people and myself to perceive me as kind. I want to be interesting. I want to be smart. To be thought beautiful (it embarrasses me how often I think of that, but I do).The list is endless. Basically I want to be worthy. I want to be worthy of affection, of respect, of love.

I once spent the whole afternoon changing love songs titles from “you” to “me” – I called it ‘honest titles’. My favourite is “Love the way I lie”, though “Someone like me” is also pretty high on the list. Some titles don’t even need changing, like “Give me love” and “Call me maybe”.  In light of that, another honest title: I am everywhere to me (Michelle Branch – oh, high school!). I cannot escape this being everywhere. Yet I have found that there are two ways of going about living with this incessant self, poking, prodding, seeking constant attention and affection. I think that it is very easy to live a life which is dominated by fear. “Was I rude?” “Do they still like me?” “Do I look odd?” “Am I too self-obsessed?” “Are other peoples’ minds equally awful?” “I wish I were as spontaneous/gentle/bad-ass/smart/wise as her/him” – all of these thoughts are basically grounded in fear of being found lacking. Needing something exposes one to the very real possibility of not obtaining this thing – needing acceptance exposes one to the possibility of not obtaining this acceptance, or of not retaining it. Therefore fear is a constant shadow, always looking for a way in, ready to take over.

And it loves the spotlight. Solely looking at my fears does not chase them away. I can tell myself countless times to stop being afraid of rejection, or of being alone, or of being ugly, but fear just grins at me and wiggles itself ever more snugly into my mind. Punishing myself for thinking of myself only leads to more thoughts of myself, and they become nastier and nastier thoughts. I end up being this highly self-conscious self-monitoring being, constantly doubting my every word, constantly berating myself, waking up sweaty from nightmares of being exposed as the selfish being that I am or of being rejected by those I love the most.

The only way to counter fear is to give it no place in my mind, by replacing it with love. And this has to be both a decision and a constant action, a constant re-steering of the ship, a gentle adjustment in focus. I find that once I start actively practising love, towards both myself and others, thoughts of myself fade into context, they become nothing other than reminders of the fact that I am human.

It starts by refusing to be ashamed. I shall not be ashamed that the most important person in my life, as seen from the frequency of my thoughts, is myself. I shall not be ashamed that even my love of others is inextricably linked to my need for them. I shall not be ashamed that I cannot do one good thing, not one single good deed, without benefiting from it as well (even if only from the self-satisfaction that follows). I shall not be ashamed that I need others to like me, to an excruciating extent. Sometimes I wish I could escape my own mind, but I cannot, and therefore I will not be ashamed of my own neediness, because being ashamed of this is denying my own worth, it is denying the validity of my emotions, of my needs.

And then I can start appreciating. I can look at kindness and intelligence and pretty legs with appreciation, and I can look at weaknesses with grace. This also applies to myself – I can look at my impatience and my absent-mindedness and at the inappropriate comments that keep slipping out my mouth, and at the godawful shoddy cutex on my toes that I suddenly became aware of, and my tired face, and accept this. And it feels really really nice, because all of a sudden there is all of this space where fear used to be, and it can be filled up with nice things like being genuinely interested in others, and developing an awkward kind of comfortableness with my own hangups, and patiently growing my sense of humour.

It’s easier practising love towards others – I’m not sure why yet, though maybe it’s because I can’t read others’ minds. So that’s what I do – I practise it. Consciously. I remind myself of the fact that they are as weak as I am (and while my own weakness makes me cross, others’ makes me feel kind. Probably because it makes me look better, but still, small victories.) I appreciate what they have that I don’t, and I appreciate what we have in common. And what’s nice is that you can’t really love others without loving yourself, so in loving others, loving myself ends up slipping up on me unawares.

It’s so much fun how just allowing myself to be in awe of the world (because this in fact goes much wider than just loving people) ends up making me happy. Of course, then I come home and catch myself wondering what all these myriads of people think of me in turn. At the very least I sit contemplating my day, rerunning conversations and compliments I both gave and received, until eventually I catch myself and feel stupid for needing to confirm myself so very often. But then I laugh it off, because this is me being human. And I won’t let the fact that I need love prevent me from loving. I won’t let the fact that I am weak and flawed and needy prevent me from reaching out. In the end, how I act changes my thoughts subtly, and they end up changing how I feel. I can keep re-steering and refining my actions and my thoughts, and in this constant back-and-forth between love and fear (as fear does not, as far as I know, ever die a quiet death), I am carving out a life of which I am not ashamed.

In defence of the one-night stand

(Warning: if you actually really know me and you don’t want information about my sex life (because you fear you’re always going to be looking at me differently afterwards or something), or if you are absolutely against promiscuity, do not read this. These are my opinions and though I lay claim to them comfortably, I’m not setting out to anger or shock anyone.)

So the other day I read a blog (which I cannot for the life of me find again) which quoted a survey (and I hesitate to call it that) done on Reddit (which I did at least find, after some intensive digging). The question asked was addressed to the “men of Reddit” and set out to determine what the difference is between a girl they’d hook up with and one they’d date.

Some of the answers were pretty well thought-through; in fact initially I was considering being rather impressed with the state of enlightenment I was encountering. A few guys felt there is no difference between the above two – they’d date a girl they’d sleep with; a few more said they’d hook up with a girl if they like her well enough but there are fundamental differences making dating impossible (for instance, she lives in another city, or they have different dreams or goals). The majority said the main difference comes down to appearance vs. appearance and more: is she’s pretty enough but there isn’t any real fascination personality-wise, they’d hook up but not consider her as a potential girlfriend. That’s fine too. Obviously it would be silly to walk around considering dating everyone, we are allowed our own specific and sometimes peculiar tastes; on the other hand (thank goodness) we don’t have to limit our sex life to sleeping only with those we’d consider making a long-term commitment to – except if we want to do so. One guy said the difference is that he’d hook up with a porn star, while he’d date a porn star who owns a liquor store. I kinda get that – my own version of this is that I’d hook up with a sexy guy with a British accent; while I’d probably date him if he has a bookshop and a degree too.

There is nothing wrong with differentiating between the people we’d merely sleep with once or twice, and the people we want to sit in bed and have morning coffees with for the foreseeable future. As long as both persons involved have the same understanding of the extent of investment involved, there is a level of mutual “objectification”, to label it as such, which is completely fine. No-one need apologise for momentarily entertaining themselves with a pretty body, if the owner of the pretty body is okay with it.

But then there were the answers that were so stupid that it basically made the whole survey stink. I’m but quoting a few here (typos ‘n all), but I think the point comes out loud and clear:

“I really don’t wanna come off like a misogynist, but I respect a woman more if she doesn’t just put out straight away. It’s down to trust and I don’t think I could trust a girl who would just sleep with me the first time we meet to not do the same with others. […]Date material on the other hand, insofar as my subjective notion of it applies, is a girl who is creative, intelligent, fun, sweet, interesting, etc .” (To this I wanted to reply: ‘are you implying the girls you’d merely sleep with aren’t creative, intelligent, fun, sweet OR interesting? Bloody hell. Where do you dig a girl up with so few redeeming qualities? I’m sorry to say, but you do sound like a misogynist.’)

“How much respect I have for her as a person. Seems harsh, but I honestly only feel that undeniable desire to date a girl who thinks and acts in ways I respect. Her thoughts and opinoins on the world, how she carries herself and interacts with other people, and the connection I feel for who she is.”

“I respect the girls I want to date. If there’s no respect within the first hour, its a hookup.”

To these three men (and to the myriad others who basically repeated the same point), another commenter’s statement is probably the best reply:

“If I’m willing to sleep with her, why the hell would I hold it against her that she’s willing to sleep with me? That’s stupid and a bit sexist.”

To expand on what this last person said: such a complete lack of reasoning skills was applied in giving those answers that it is rather frightening. What really struck me is not only the fact that these answers actually popped up at alarming regularity, but that they were quoted in the blog (the one I couldn’t find again) as valid points of view, as far as I could tell. This way of thinking about women and about sex seems to be so prevalent, in spite of our supposed sexual enlightenment, that people saying this shit get quoted and requoted without a second thought.

So, the point is: if you don’t respect a woman who is willing to sleep with you on the spur of the moment, does that mean you also don’t respect yourself when you hook up with her? If the answer is “no” (i.e. you do in fact respect yourself), then I urge you to reconsider that answer. I mean, sleeping with someone you don’t respect, and whose action of sleeping with you is in fact the partial cause of that disrespect, seems like the actions of someone who doesn’t respect him/herself much. In fact, this looks like the actions of someone who doesn’t seem to consider him/herself much of a catch. If, on the other hand, the answer to above question was “yes” (i.e. you indeed don’t have respect for yourself either), then please attend a meditating course or read a self-help book or watch Oprah until you respect yourself. Self-respect is the basis of all meaningful human interaction – and second but equal in importance is respect for others. In fact, I think these two are pretty inseparable.

Having a one-night stand is not an act of disrespect towards yourself or towards anybody else. Neither is it anti-feministic for a woman to enthusiastically jump into bed with someone without first demanding a written commitment. She is not turning herself into a mere sex-object any more than the man is, because she is not solely the sum of her sexual acts. Also, the reasons for jumping into bed with someone need not be in any way noble, as long as the action takes place by mutual consent.

Let me tell you (a part of) my story. I have had quite a lot of random hook-ups. Many of these were with friends or men I knew quite well, actually, who made a random move on me and usually took me completely by surprise (I think most women have experienced this). These I did not find particularly pleasant, and while I don’t regret my actions, I see them as being, at best, an unpleasant part of my own learning curve towards actually practising my professed self-respect. For very long I felt completely ashamed of these hook-ups, because I knew I had done them (no pun intended) despite my own not-wanting to, and it felt as if I had betrayed myself.

In my defence, it can get very confusing when a man you trust looks at you with “you totally want me”-eyes, or with confusion when you reject his advances, or with pleading even, acting as if you had in fact been stoking the flames of lust all along. All of a sudden I would start doubting my own actions – had I in fact been leading him on? Was I flirting? Also, and this is perhaps an even weightier factor: is our friendship (and the rest of the evening) going to be eternally awkward if I say no now?

So here were some of my reasons for those hook-ups: “I don’t want to be a cock-tease”, “He gave me a massage/spent lots of money on me, so I should probably pay him back”, “Poor guy”, “If I say no he’s going to be so embarrassed he’ll never speak to me again”, “If I do it this one time we’ll get the tension out of the way and he’ll stop hitting on me”, “Well, you never know, it might be fun” and “Saying no is getting bloody exhausting”. Get the gist? This is sex I was coerced into – and believe me, I am not the only woman this has happened to. Neither is it just a woman thing – I know many, many men to whom this has happened as well.

(Another variety of this is finding yourself in a relationship of sorts because the other person thought the fact that you had sex was a very meaningful event, and there was never a not-awful moment to tell them you hadn’t meant to let it get that far. This would happen much less, I think, if we stopped overloading sex with meaning it wasn’t meant to carry. Then we’d be able to talk about our intentions without running such a massive risk of causing a nuclear war. I know I’d much prefer it if men don’t bring me flowers and send me copious romantic messages when they simply want to get me in bed: just tell me you want to sleep with me already! It’s much cheaper that way, and then we’re on the same page. Women should stop equalling having sex with giving their hearts away, and men should stop equalling having sex with resorting to all sorts of devious actions to get the woman to fall in love.)

Anyway – so one day I woke up feeling exhausted and as if I’d forgotten about my own needs and tastes, had totally compromised on everything I believed in; to the extent that I became celibate for a while, which, apart from the fact that it gave me some much-needed time to sort through my issues, also gave me a handy line with which to reject undesired advances. I enjoyed this celibacy so much that I have recently reinstated it – the next time I have sex it’ll be with someone I like a lot. As in, a lot. But that’s beside the point, because I’m writing about one-night stands now, not about celibacy. And while I am currently celibate, I am still very much in favour of one-night stands as a way of celebrating oneself, of reinstating one’s own desires, of enjoying oneself and someone else in a judgement-free manner.

So. What I want to do is contrast the above awkward guilt-fuelled hook-ups with actual one-night stands. By ‘one-night stand’ I mean the action of having spur-of-the-moment sex with someone you met recently, with whom you do not subsequently have a relationship. I have had one-night stands for an equally wide variety of reasons as the above hook ups. These include: “I really really want to have sex with a random person tonight because I just went through a breakup/just failed a test/just failed at life, and he’ll do”, “I’m curious”, “I’m bored”, “He’s the hottest guy I’m ever going to sleep with in my entire life”, “He has a sexy Russian accent”, “He is making me laugh so much I want to get naked with him”, and “This would make a really good story”.

See the difference? These aren’t all very wise reasons by any means. I mean, sleeping with someone because your heart just got broken, or because you’re bored, can be really dumb. Also, there is no way sleeping with someone just because they’re hot is not objectification. But the men I have slept with because they’re hot have not minded at all. In all of the above cases, this was something we both chose to do, knowing full well the limits and the implications thereof. Most of the time it was pleasurable, and when it wasn’t, it at least made for a hilarious story. And most importantly: I CHOSE. I wanted to. I flirted outrageously/was flirted with outrageously; I did exactly what I wanted. There is no way that is not empowering. In fact, I have had a one-night stand that I would seriously describe as having actually been healing: after having gone through a series of half-baked relationships, there is nothing quite like a sexy stranger looking at you with complete and utter appreciation, talking about embarrassing moments with you while looking at the stars, and subsequently turning you to jelly in his tent. Also, there is nothing like waking up the next morning, giving each other a friendly hug, and re-joining your own friends in your own tent, where coffee awaits.

I have slept with men who have since indicated that they have lost respect for me because I put out so early. Some have disappeared promptly after having scored (here I’m not talking about the one-night stands, because honestly, disappearing after a one-night stand is basic courtesy). Well, that’s fine. Obviously we understand sex differently. Obviously, without them realising it, they still subscribe to the Madonna/whore-idea, in which the woman you want to have swinging from your chandelier is not the woman you want to marry. If their liking me depends on my chastity, then I would prefer for them to run away as fast and as far as possible in any case. I like myself. I value myself. Whoever I decide to sleep with has indeed gotten lucky. If a man (or anyone) sees this decision as being degrading to myself, then he does not appreciate either me or himself. Then he is welcome to seek warmth elsewhere.

Here are my own sex-commandments: I shall not use sex as a way of getting a man to like me or to be friends with me, neither will I use it to get him to make a commitment to me. I shall never have sex when I don’t want to, or when the other person doesn’t want to (obvs). And while sex can at times be incredibly meaningful and even symbolic, I shall never elevate it to a status it doesn’t deserve: it shall never represent all of me, it shall never define me, and it shall never be my whole story.

Under the spell of beauty

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Two things are often more beautiful than reality: the looking forward to something, and the memory of it. One thing is more poignant than joy: nostalgia, in all of its forms.

Imagine this situation: you are walking through a park. It’s spring. Countless trees are blossoming; the grass is so green it hurts your eyes. There is a breeze, but it’s light enough to carry only soft scents with no accompanying shiver. The sky is adamantly, disconcertingly blue. You feel both very light and too heavy for your environs. You are filled with an odd joy that is at once wonder and pain, and beneath it, an understanding that this moment will one day in the near future become more than the sum of its parts: you will look back on this park and remember it with a stab of joy and – especially – belonging which you had not attained while walking through it.

Because walking through this beauty, you know that in fact you are not quite part of it. To others, catching a glimpse of your smile as you look around, it might seem so, but you know better. You are forever isolated slightly from the beauty around you by your humanness, by the thoughts of rent and body and food and human slights and time and lists filling your mind. You cannot let go at will, not entirely, because letting go would mean losing all sense of self, and self-awareness is the human condition, a condition at once wonderful and limiting.

This awareness is what enables you to see the breathtaking glory of your environment. Think about it: the birds flitting about are not aware of the fact that they are beautiful. They are digging for worms and carrying on territorial wars and preening in search of mates and building nests. They do not stop and think: ‘I am creating beauty.’ Neither do the squirrels. Neither does the grass, or even the blossoms, or the gnarly branches on that isolated oak tree standing in woebegone wisdom, though to look at it one would think that it could surely not be unaware of its own majesty.

Now imagine that you walk past a couple sitting on a park bench. They are completely caught up in each other’s eyes, loosely holding hands, laughing at something. You can see in the way they sit, in the way their voices intertwine, in the way one of them quickly leans forward for a kiss, that they are barely aware of their surroundings. Perhaps the spring in its splendour contributes to their joy, but they hardly know it. Certainly they do not notice you noticing them.

Or imagine you walk past a little boy digging in the dirt. He has hair standing on end to the one side, tongue sticking out in concentration, hands already grubby and face drawn into an absorbed frown. You look at his scuffed legs and his dirty pants-seat and at the way he is entirely caught up in the moment, unaware of the picture he is creating.

What do you feel? Chances are, you emotions are mixed. You feel appreciation. You feel joy for their sake. You also feel an unnamed emotion, which, for lack of a better word, we will simply call ‘feeling touched’. And then, admittedly, there are slightly less pleasant emotions. You want to be part of this beautiful tableau – one might even call it jealousy. You think back to your childhood and wonder why you were so eager to grow up. You think back to someone you love or loved and wish they were here, and you wish love were always as simple and uncomplicated as that couple makes it seem. For a moment, you think that perhaps it could indeed be this simple. You feel nostalgic for hordes of unnamed experiences, both in the past and in the hoped-for future. If you’re like me, you walk away daydreaming about all the wonderful things you still plan on doing, adding “sitting on a park bench with someone I love” to the list. Like a friend of mine once told the girl he liked: “You make me miss something I’ve never had before.”

We are like Dickensian children standing barefoot in the snow, peeking into other people’s houses where they have a large Christmas tree put up, lights strung from it, sitting around eating oranges and Christmas cake and laughing. We envy them and we feel the cold, suddenly, much more sharply because it is being compared to the scene in front of us. Yet that detracts nothing from the beauty we are keenly aware of experiencing.

And yet we have been given a gift, walking through that park, which those birds and that couple and that boy did not know at that very moment. We were the ones who saw unselfconscious beauty. They felt contentment. They felt happiness. But only afterward – while rushing to work, while in the midst of an argument or at night feeling lonely, or all grown-up in twenty years’ time – will they look back and feel what we felt when we looked at them. Only then will they appreciate the beauty they created whilst completely unaware of doing so.

Looking at other people’s happiness – others’ beauty – can be difficult. It’s hard to admit, but it’s true. We are filled with conflicting emotions when we see others happy, as when we listen to beautiful music and are left feeling both wondrously romantic and oddly lonely; like when we read great books and are filled with equal amounts of wonder and the desire to immediately emulate this author by writing copious poems (which we read afterwards and immediately erase in embarrassment).

This is what beauty does (and seeing happiness is seeing beauty): it creates within us a river threatening to gush from its banks, a need to create and to cause beauty as well, a longing to somehow become part of the beauty we see. When we see something which moves us, we want to recreate it. We long to be inside it, instead of outside it. And so we are at odds with ourselves, because we know that this longing in itself is the source of beauty, the driving force behind it, but we cannot be satisfied with it alone – the very longing would disappear were we to be satisfied with it. Desire is the driving force behind creativity. Longing and frustration are the birthplace of fulfilment. They co-exist in a constant give and take, a swinging back and forth between wanting and having.

And so it seems we cannot have both our cake and eat it. But we can take turns eating it and pondering on it in awed appreciation, whether before or after the actual eating. And there is balance in that; there is an odd kind of fairness to it. Because we also know, whether we want to embrace this knowledge or not, that joy is at its best when placed against contrasts. We know that gratitude comes from the knowledge that this moment cannot carry on forever. In Andrew Solomon’s heartrendingly familiar words: “I tend to find the ecstasy hidden in ordinary joys, because I did not expect those joys to be ordinary to me.”

The best we can do is to try to practice awareness: when in the moment of joy, still being gratefully aware of its sublimeness. And in the same manner we could practise letting go of our self-consciousness when standing outside the edges of happiness, allowing no thoughts of ourselves to penetrate the will to participate fully in what we see.

And when we fail at this – which we will –, when we are once again struck by our desires and our dissatisfaction and our own not-having; or when we live through a beautiful moment only to catch ourselves wondering, later, why we did not appreciate it fully, we can let it be. We can use the impetus of longing to create and, in time, to appreciate. And we can allow enjoyment to be uncomplicated. And perhaps we can learn to accept our humanness, this condition which leaves us always either achingly aware outside of a small circle of beauty, or achingly unaware inside of it, or – usually – both.

Grace upon grace

Today I went flying in a small airplane over the Boland and the ocean, and the joy of it sits still within my throat and in my eyes, not yet diluted by time, unprocessed, like the memory of a meal so recent and so formidable that the body can hardly comprehend the wonder of it.

The experience was so completely separated from any expectations or dreams I might have had (except for the time when I was eight and dreamed of becoming a pilot) that it was like waking up to a bookshelf filled with new books, or to a breathtaking new view, or walking into a surprise birthday party: completely incandescently wonderful. I did not spend years hoping for this day (the way one might hope for, say, a graduation or a wedding, hoarding secret magazine cutouts in preparation of this perfect occasion) and so there was none of the bated breath which accompanies long-held expectation (except when we took off, but that might have been my chest dropping into my stomach), the fear of hoping for too much, the inevitable anticlimactic disappointment as the day draws to an end. I did not rehearse every eventuality beforehand, or jump up and down at a long-held dream being finally fulfilled, did not even truly wonder what would happen should the pilot have a heart attack (until he brought that up in mid-flight, after which I looked at all the incomprehensible buttons in front of me – not to mention the 2000 feet between earth and myself – with decided apprehension).

And in fact we only spent about 25 minutes in the air. Yet it was utterly and completely wonderful, not because it exceeded my wildest expectations, but perhaps rather because I had almost none. They were completely isolated, those 25 minutes, with just the most humbling expanse of blue sea below, just the trees coming scarily closer upon landing, just the roaring of the engines. I felt part of everything, and yet part of nothing, tourist to my own experience, watching myself watching with both awe and detachment.

Afterwards I spent basically the whole afternoon wondering what I did to deserve this. I know, perhaps a small flight over the ocean isn’t all that incredible in the large scale of things, but to me it was so unexpected and beautiful that I needed to understand how I could possibly have earned it. I paid nothing; I gave nothing in return except some inconsequential small talk. The friend who took me was a stranger until quite recently, someone from a completely different walk of life who somehow took a liking to me after meeting on a work-related matter. I analyzed my personality and my conversational skills at length, because I still struggle to believe in anything being free, but honestly, I haven’t told a funny joke in years and also, I’m not exactly sex on legs. I still have zits, for crying out loud. There was nothing – I honestly contributed nothing, not even an invitation in return.

Basically, I just received a memory which I did nothing at all to deserve, had not hinted for (I hope), had not even thought of wanting, had not imagined my life as empty without. I just sat and watched the earth drop away beneath me and absorbed the view assaulting my eyes. I just received, without having worked for it, without having earned it. And I am truly grateful, in a way in which one cannot be grateful for something earned by own sweat and tears, because I had no notion of having deserved this.

That, to me, is grace. “The sun shines on both the good and the evil” (or the deserving and the undeserving). Not everything we receive on earth is a direct result of our actions, a transaction-like give and take, or a just reward for years of toil (unless you believe in an obscure kind of karma). Sometimes beauty is free, Yeats’ “lonely impulse of delight” sometimes comes with no strings attached, and there need be no further reason for the gift than the bare fact that life is unpredictable, and that sometimes unpredictability is lovely.

In essence, this also means that life is unfair. Fairness, after all, is getting exactly what you paid for, exactly what you worked for. 2 + 2 = 4. But grace is unfair. Because yes, unfairness isn’t only always bad, and sometimes when we complain we forget about that. Grace is getting more than what you deserve, and I know that I for one have gotten much more than I deserve, and this flight has been only one small piece of evidence attesting to that.

For instance: I was born intelligent (or, to be exact, with attributes which are recognized as intelligent in the context within which I live). I was born (or tweaked, afterwards) fully physically functional. I was born skinny and I have remained so, though not as a result of any self-discipline whatsoever. I was born from interesting and educated parents. I was born white. Many of these things are completely arbitrary, meaning that not alone did I not earn them in any way, but the bare fact that they count in my favour is only because of the time and place within which I was born (being white and skinny being chief of these). These things have been advantageous to me, and I recognize that this is actually unfair. I might as well have been born female in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan. I might – very easily, I should add – have been born to a family which did not have the opportunity to provide me with the operations that enabled me to walk normally today. I might have been born to illiterate parents.  I can lay no claim to what I have, I have no bragging rights over my talents, because I received them when my slate was still clean of both good or bad.

And that’s also the potential problem with the concept of grace. Because if I have something I didn’t deserve, if I am (shudder) “blessed”, does that mean some great capricious being – or just genetic randomness – sat in the sky doling out gifts to random receivers, skipping over someone else to give me more than I deserve?

I don’t know. Here I feel tempted to say that I have also been on the receiving end of the nastier side of unfairness, so that evens it out, but equaling my small misfortunes to those of many others is rather self-obsessed and also not at all accurate. But I do feel that having something should not inevitably lead to feeling guilty because not everyone has it. Rather, it should lead to awareness. I should be grateful. I should live my life with eyes wide open, leaving any sense of entitlement where it belongs (six feet under), never forsaking my sense of wonder, because without it all the grace of the world would be wasted on me. And so I am clinging onto the joy which made me proclaim my luckiness to an empty flat, just an hour ago.

However, being aware of grace also means that I should realise that I am not, in fact, a “self-made woman”. Someone told me recently that “everyone is responsible for his/her own success”, which I think is only partially true. Perhaps we are all responsible for our own happiness, yes, but the above quotation smacks, to me, of smug self-righteousness. It says “I worked for what I have, so can you”, and behind that phrase lies the thought that “I earned what I have. I deserve it. If you don’t have it, it’s because you don’t deserve it.” But none of us got solely what we deserve. We were all born, as far as I can tell, equally blameless. And yet some of us got more than others did, right from the start, and later too. Not recognizing that overlooks the complexity of life; it discredits everyone who has changed our lives in meaningful ways throughout its course, and it gives way too much credit to oneself.

There is a lot of value in hard work. There is value in sayings such as “you create your own luck”. But the pleasures gained from reaping the fruits of one’s labour should never be accompanied by complacency, and by what is in fact arrogance. It should never be an excuse to turn a blind eye to the fact that one has benefited from life’s seemingly random unfairness, but that others may not have. Grace should not be guilt-inducing, but neither should it ever be taken for granted.

This might be a change of subject, but bear with me if you will: I am turning 25 in a few days. As I tend to do upon such occasions (and a quarter of a century sounds especially weighty to me), this has led to me being rather introspective. I have not become nearly the person I thought I would when I was 15. I don’t feel much like an adult yet, in fact – paying my rent every month is still something I congratulate myself for doing. I don’t quite know what I want to be when I grow up. I don’t drink cocktails with Sex and the City-like friends and I haven’t magically become neat and organized and aloof and magnetic and wonderful. Also, I don’t play the cello to crowds of awestruck onlookers; I don’t have magically beautiful calves to accompany those imaginary skyscraper heels, and I haven’t published scores of bestselling novels.

But I am really, really happy. I have been the recipient of more grace than I could ever fathom. And I really like my life. I like what I’ve achieved and I like what I’ve received and I like what I’ve experienced throughout this wonderfully random and unexpected journey which has been my life so far. I also don’t know for how much longer I’ll live – it could be until tomorrow, or it could be half a century more – but I’m okay with that, because there has already been enough life in my life, so far, to, well, last a lifetime. And I am thoroughly grateful for that.

The same friend who took me flying asked me afterwards if I’d attained everything I’d aimed to reach by the age of 25. That was actually pretty hard to answer, because of course I didn’t, but also, I did. I wouldn’t change anything. In fact, I told him I’m okay with dying right now if I have to. He was a bit startled by that, and upon closer inspection what I said does sound both flippant and morbid. I’m just at the starting gates of life, and it sounds like I’m proclaiming “I have arrived!” But apart from being hesitant to have my family inherit my credit card debt, it’s actually true – not that I have arrived, but that I am satisfied. I know that if I die today, my last thoughts won’t be “but I still wanted to do that, and that, and that!”. In fact, I was recently in a situation where I fleetingly thought I was going to die, and my thoughts immediately scrambled themselves into readiness. And what I felt, as I was preparing myself, was gratefulness. (Also, I felt grateful just after that, when I realised I wasn’t dead – so there’s that.)

I flew (or rather, I was flown) in a small plane today. It was not something I earned, and it was so much more enjoyable for that. Tomorrow I might die in a kitchen fire, or I could get cancer, and I’m not being blasé about it because I’d really rather not have those things happening to me, but if so, I’ll still have flown in a plane today. Today I sat staring at layers of rocks piled onto each other, like thick onion peels, from mountains jutting precariously over the ocean. I saw tiny yachts below me. In the distance there was a ring of clouds over the water and I knew that it was raining there, 50 kilometers out. There was almost no wind at all and for a while we just glided along silently, all noise save for an occasional radio announcement dampened by our headsets, with only the smallest of white foams far below to indicate movement. The world was very small, and yet it was very wide.

I know that I am very small; in fact I am inconsequential. Soon I’ll die and little of what I have said and done will remain. But I would like to believe that my gratefulness will somehow join a great cloud of gratefulness floating around, buoying the world up, and that I, in turn, have given cause for gratefulness somewhere. And if there was no gratefulness, if no one remembers me eventually once I die, then that too will be all right, because in giving there is no earning.

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(And just because it’s really beautiful, here’s some Yeats:

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death.

 

Also, my intentions for the rest of my lifetime (hey, if there’s ever a time to rub your resolutions all over people’s faces, isn’t it on your birthday?):

“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it joyfully; for there is no work or device or wisdom in the grave where you are going,

I returned and saw under the sun that –

 

The race is not to the swift,

Nor the battle to the strong,

Nor bread to the wise,

Nor riches to men of understanding,

Nor favour to men of skill;

But time and chance happen to them all.” – Ecclesiastes 9: 10-11).