“I am medium brown” – on drunken conversations and trying to be colour blind

It is a Thursday night at Seamus’s* (and my brother’s) flat. (Seamus, to quickly give some background, is a good friend of mine. He and I share a taste for inappropriate jokes, a love for playing 30 Seconds, and a talent for somehow initiating the oddest and dodgiest of conversations. He is also, as one might gather, my brother’s housemate.) I, along with about ten others, have been invited to an unofficial housewarming at their place. Chairs and a very tatty old couch have been dragged outside, where some meat is being prepared on the fire; from inside music is playing (mostly stuff that reminds me of high school and earlier. You know, Blink and Live and the occasional Radiohead). It is almost midnight, the warm day has ceded to a rather cool night, and I am feeling cosy and tired and nostalgic in that way one feels at these kinds of parties. The yard is looking pretty catastrophic: overturned wine glasses (and some shards from earlier accidents), empty cigarette packets, cigarette butts that weren’t thrown in the fire, a discarded pair of sunglasses, chips packets, and an empty bottle of brandy.

Seamus, Jude (another friend) and I have been abandoned by my brother and the rest of the party – as was wont to happen, they decided to go dancing somewhere and we, being ever so slightly older, saw no reason to leave a perfectly nice house-party for that. So here we are, rather contentedly playing 30 Seconds, all three in various stages of inebriation: Seamus still getting progressively drunker, periodically refilling his brandy (though one wouldn’t easily notice it, he is the same when drunk as when sober), Jude done drinking and yawning more and more unsubtly, and I hovering somewhere between tipsy and sober as I alternate between Appletizer and white wine. The party is winding down.

But my phone keeps ringing. Apparently my brother was texting a friend from it, inviting him here, only to promptly forget all about it when the bright idea to go out came to him. The guy on the other side of the phone (a Desmond) is rather incoherent as he insists on joining “the party” (what party? Even the fire is out). I hand the phone to Seamus – they are colleagues. He can give directions if needs be.

Desmond my man!” Seamus says, falling into an almost natural joviality, coupled with a suddenly heavily accented, simplified English, which indicates that he is talking to a black person. I can never understand why this accent is at all necessary, it sounds incredibly condescending, yet I catch myself using it too. Foreigners (especially Russians – try speaking normal English to people who sound like a bad 007 movie) get it from us too: we might be speaking perfectly normal if slightly accented English (neither Seamus nor I are first-language English speakers either), only to switch over to this kind of rolling ‘R’, overpronounced, and ungrammatical nonsense upon encountering a tourist, as if talking to a mentally impaired person.

Seamus is gesticulating wildly, now and then handing the phone over to Jude, as they try to explain to Desmond how to get here. Apparently not an easy task, because Desmond phones back at least ten times over the course of the next hour. Each time he is somewhere else – halfway out of town, or at some petrol station in a dodgy part of town, or at a nearby park (the complex where Seamus lives is called Prince Park. Apparently that led to some confusion). I am starting to feel very bad about all of this – this poor guy is moving heaven and earth to get here (not owning a car, he is being driven by some longsuffering friend), and here we are: three people, barely awake, mumblingly playing board games. “Tell him the rest have already gone away!” I mouth at Seamus, who is on the phone again. He ignores me. I light a cigarette and ignore him back.

Eventually, after my phone has died from lack of batteries and we are finishing up the game, the security guard comes to the door. “There is a man here for you,” he announces rather doubtfully.

Desmond is going to hit on you,” Seamus warns as he gets up to fetch him. I laugh. I’m mostly the only girl whenever I hang out with my brother’s friends, they have all at some stage made a token pass at me. Being warned about it, however, puts me slightly on edge – being flirted with has never been worth a mention in the past. Maybe Desmond’s flirting is of a more harassing nature. I’m not very keen on this addition, I realise. We would need to give up on our game in favour of a real conversation; I would have to ask the mandatory “get to know you” questions instead of lounging about with people I already know. Above all I’m not very excited about seeing the poor guy’s reaction when he realises the party he was so excited about is long dead.

Uproarious laughter indicates Seamus and Desmond’s arrival. There are two other men with them too, I see, feeling even less enthusiastic. I like Desmond on first impulse – he has that level look and smile I associate with a good conversationalist, someone quick to jump to understanding and opinion alike. His friends I am less sure about. Jake, skinny and looking rather young, looks disinterested, we hardly exchange words throughout the night. The third guy, Titus, is the only one to be noticeably drunk (though they all are, I realise as Desmond pulls an almost empty bottle of brandy from a plastic bag. As are we, more or less, I guess). Titus is somewhat older than the rest, perhaps a bit more uncouth, to euphemise, though very friendly. He sits down next to me and I steel myself for an evening of wild nodding and gesticulating.

Ah, man!” Desmond says. “We were all up and down in town, man! Why do you say “turn left” when you mean “turn right”?”

Everybody laughs, except for Jude who is by now almost completely asleep on the couch, emanating only a sleepy giggle every now and then.

It’s not my fault you’re so bad at directions!” Seamus defends. “You were probably almost at Franschoek at one stage!”

I was almost everywhere,” Desmond agrees. “And that park!” More laughter.

You should have spoken to the driver,” Titus volunteers. He speaks incredibly loudly, causing me to look nervously at the sleepy houses next to us, slapping his knees for extra emphasis, prodding me on the knee too whenever I don’t participate enough.

I know everything about this town, you know,” he tells me. “I was a builder here for ten years. I know every street.” Desmond and Jake nod in agreement. “He should have talked to me on the phone.” I make agreeing noises.

Ask him to build anything, he can do it,” Desmond tells us. “Ask him to build these flats, he can do it.”

Titus’s gaze roams over the houses stacked against each other neatly, all identical, all silent. Perhaps he is looking at the paint on each, because when he talks again it’s on a wholly different topic.

I don’t understand why we say ‘white people’,” he says to us. I perk up. Now this is the kind of conversation I don’t mind having. “Have you ever seen a white person?” he asks, pointing at my arm.

No,” I laugh.

No! Exactly! These houses are white. People are not white! Nobody is white.”

Seamus might be very close to white,” I joke. My attempt is lost on him as he carries on. “And black! I am not black. Do I look black to you?”

I shake my head. “Your hat is black. You’re not really black at all,” I contribute. What a banal thing to say, I think. I try again. “I think the reason why we use these distinctions is because we haven’t found an alternative that works yet.”

You look very fucking black to me, my brother,” Seamus volunteers. Everybody laughs again.

What colour would you say you are?” I ask.

My ancestors were light brown.”

But you? What colour are you, then?”

I am medium brown,” he says, inspecting his arm. This time general hilarity ensues. Even compared to Desmond and Jake, his fellow Zimbabweans, Titus is very dark. Someone makes a joke about not being able to distinguish him from the background. I ask: “Okay, but if you are medium brown, what am I? Light orange?” Or dark beige? I imagine a world where we are all given our own colour title, like Dulux paint cards. I would be “faded turmeric”. Seamus would be “mild pink”, Titus perhaps “kingwood cocoa”.

The government is stupid. So we have to tick these boxes, ‘what colour are you’, but they are so lazy, they only use five-letter words. “Black”. “White”. What about Indians and Chines and Coloured?” Titus adds.

There are boxes for them too, I want to say, but I haven’t got the energy to try and make myself heard over the general confusion of conversations taking place all at once by now. Desmond is telling a story about how they use Seamus to pick up girls – apparently black girls like white guys – (also, Desmond hasn’t hit on me at all so far), Jake is trying to play a hip-hop tune on the guitar, Titus is telling anyone who wants to listen about the government. Seamus is talking about where to possibly buy more brandy at this time of night. I allow myself to drift in and out of conversations, wishing I were in bed.

When I excuse myself to go to the bathroom I stand looking in the mirror unnecessarily long, wondering why I am so intensely bored. There is an air of good humour to the night, yet conversations seem to die out after a few sentences, the same topics are being flogged to death over and over again, everyone laughs too loudly. Am I being racist? Would I have participated more had they been white? This is what I do, what I always do: I question my actions and the assumptions underlying them unendingly, always ending up feeling dissatisfied and frustrated from all the uselessly forced self-monitoring.

I go back, trying even harder, constantly running into my self-made race-consciousness, constantly running into my own awkwardness. Somewhere there is a division – our frames of references, even our English, is so different that attempting a conversation feels hardly worth the effort. Perhaps I’m not racist, perhaps I’m classist, I wonder. After all, I have no problem conversing endlessly with the verbose black students who populate campus. Or do I?

A guard calls Seamus away (by now we have been warned about the noise levels twice). He has to verify something at the gate. Before leaving he asks me, in Afrikaans: “Are you okay? I don’t want to leave you alone.”

I nod emphatically, feeling guilty for probably looking as glum as I feel. “I’m fine,” I say. “Just a bit sleepy. I’ll wake up now, and hold the fort.”

I’ll be close by, you can just shout if you need me. I don’t think they’ll try anything,” he reassures me. I am flabbergasted. I meant I was tired of talking, Seamus meant that he doesn’t trust them alone with me. Yet I have been poked and prodded at numerous times by a variety of drunk white boys in his presence, to little concern of his, while these three are sitting calmly, taking swigs from the brandy and talking, now, about cellphone batteries and Titus’s wife who is looking for him. “Don’t be silly,” I scoff, and try extra hard to participate in the conversation while Seamus is gone. At the end of the night I give each a handshake, fumbling over the signature gripping back and forth and thumb clapping I can never manage with ease.

Later that night I tell Seamus I hadn’t really enjoyed Desmond and his friend’s visit, I had been too tired to really hold a conversation. I want to confide in him my worries, to ask him whether he thinks it’s harder to have a meaningful conversation with a black person, and why that could be.

Me neither,” he adds conspiratorially, before I can talk, though. “I thought it would only be Desmond coming. It felt weird, I was rather worried, especially when I left you alone. You never know what could happen.”

I don’t even bother bringing up my thoughts on the subject, then. We are miscommunicating as totally as Titus and I had earlier. So much for calling them “brother” and “my man”, I think. So much for good-natured jokes, for back-slapping and getting drunk together. There is a gulf between us, perhaps between black and white, perhaps between perceived higher and lower classes, perhaps between a combination of these, that I do not completely understand and cannot even attempt to overcome by myself, not even with the best of intentions. I feel naïve and hopelessly condescending in my attempts.

Seamus is friends with black people. Were I to accuse him of racism he would scoff at me. He is only being careful, he would say. Probably he is. Yet what I feel is that he only wants them in small quantified doses. So do I, I realise. Never too much, too loud, too different. Give me a black person who thinks like me, talks like me, reasons like me. Put me somewhere I am at ease and I can comfortably pretend that I am colour blind. Yet, confronted with what is different, unquantified, unknown, I clam up in bewildered fashion, angry at my own inability to move past myself and yet powerless to know how to overcome it. I am completely and blissfully ensconced in my tiny world and my friendships with people more or less like me and my books and my left-wing arguments untried by reality.

* For the sake of privacy I have changed the names of those involved in the conversations mentioned.

** Please comment on my previous post (here) if you have a blog you think I might like. I am looking for new blogs to follow and posted about it, to little reaction, however. If it’s easier, just ‘like’ the previous post and I will go check out your site. Thank you!

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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. 

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.

On connecting, not caring too much, and being weird

The fun thing about not belonging to a place is that it leaves you free to do whatever you want. What do other people’s opinions matter if you don’t much relate to them in any case, or if you view yourself as being, for some or other reason, not part of the group?

I have moved house more than 25 times in my life, and have changed towns at least half that amount. I would very much like to think that this has led to some or other wisdom about mankind, that is has given me insight and adaptability – perhaps it has, in fact, but the biggest, rather doubtful, gift it has bestowed on me has been my penchant to take most things very unseriously, usually at most unsuitable times – especially myself.

To feel like you belong in a group you need to identify with it, and for that, in my experience, you need either a shared past or shared experiences. This is something which I never quite feel fully, although at times I have indeed had that to a certain extent – for instance, my three years of being in one high school did produce a small amount of good friends whose opinions did indeed matter very much. Other than for them, though, I could simply not understand why my actions had to be subject to some internal monitor supposedly warning me when I was about to do something which did not fit the status quo in some or other manner. Not having grown up with the others also lent me an almost surreal feeling of detachment, of watching the norms and unspoken rules dominating everyone’s behaviour with complete lack of understanding, like watching a movie in Chinese with barely understandable subtitles.

The same was true, to a certain extent, at university in Potchefstroom. In fact, I think this is the disadvantage to traveling a lot that people rarely tell you about: your horisons might have been broadened, yes, but it leaves you seeing things others don’t; it leaves you feeling almost schizophrenic because of this clairvoyance which, regardless of whether you wish it to or not, causes you to laugh at little goblins no one else sees, to gasp at atrocities no one else realises. At the end of the day, what is considered to be normal is determined by the rather arbitrary rulemakings of the time and place. Fall outside of that, and it is natural to be seen as odd – after all, if there were no measures (and measures must necessarily be fashioned by the time) there would be no order. We need some kind of judgment-maker by which to shape our lives.

In Potch, at least, I made many friends who might have found me to be slightly off the beaten track but enjoyed me nonetheless. There, for the first time of my life, I also became subject to the occasional horrible awareness of what I was doing wrong, every time I was doing it wrong (or just afterwards) and that has been much, much worse than not caring. For instance, not being sure of the common references everybody else was making, or not being sure of what the limits to decent behaviour were, led to many a faux pas, such as making an inappropriate dirty joke, or mistaking people talking about things for permission to actually DO these things – in general, basically falling over my own feet at the joy of being funny or accepted and in the process enduring many an awkward silence and throat-clearing.

I shrugged the embarrassment off, but in reality each of these moments has stayed with me in excruciating detail, as insistent and nauseating as remorse. At times this has been so bad that after a night of heavy drinking (and therefore of inappropriateness the magnitude of which I cannot begin to describe) I would spend the next two days in a fever of activity, or plunge myself into two books at once, to avoid having to think for even a single moment about everything I felt stupid about.

Of course, to a certain extent, everybody does that. Everybody says and does things they are embarrassed about. To me this simply felt much more serious than it probably was because I was so unsure of what the rules were, I never knew exactly the level to which I had transgressed, I was speaking an unknown language and I strongly suspected that for every mistake in grammar that I was aware of I had made many many more which people were kind enough not to point out to me. This was not helped at all by the fact that: 1. I am impulsive by nature, and very sharp-tongued, therefore often allowing words to slip past the lazy guard at my mouth, and, 2. I could never quite understand why certain things are not allowed and therefore could not quite bring myself to conform to them.

(I asked someone if he is gay the other day. I didn’t think this weird, we were talking about the pros and cons of homosexuality and he was hanging out with two other outspoken gays. However, this seems to be a very big no-no if you don’t know each other intimately and that person has not stepped forward with the information by him/herself.)

Allow me to provide an example: pretty much everybody talks about sex in relatively general terms. In smaller groups we even tell more private stuff, such as discussing specific antics, techniques, telling funny stories to uproarious laughter. Somehow this once led to me being excruciatingly honest with people (one of whom I’d only met that very night) who perhaps did not want to know about the Russian I once slept with and the resultant three months of angst fueled by the possibility that I might have picked up something scary from him. Somehow I thought this would be a good story to tell, a case in point where the point was the value of condomising (though, if I remember correctly, I was the only one to bring up that specific point) while we were vaguely on the topic of sex in general. I only realised later that the silence which had shortly thereafter descended upon the group might have been due to the giant conversational shit I had just deposited on the table. Write what you know, they say (hence this blog), but perhaps do not speak it.

In conversation I have always wanted honesty. I have craved it at times to the extent that I prefer saying the most agonizingly embarrassing things over running the risk of having been dishonest, even inadvertently so. After all, what greater joy is there than to be actually seen, in all of one’s messy imperfection? And what greater joy, especially, than thereby telling others: “yes, me too. I am flawed too. I do that stupid thing too. I can relate.” And yet I have had to learn that regaling every possible human being with every single thought that enters my mind, my heart emblazoned on my well-worn sleeve, is perhaps not so much perceived as honesty as for a cry for attention. Which, in all honesty, it just might be, though I prefer to rather think of myself as being a charming and very self-accepting though somewhat inappropriate storyteller.

Leaving that aside (it could make for a few more blog posts, though), here’s what I learnt, and what I am practicing with great eagerness and mixed success now that I am in Stellenbosch:

-I’m not all that important. All of those incredibly embarrassing moments that keep me awake at night or writing feverishly into my diary are soon forgotten by others, replaced at best by a vague impression of me being a bit odd.

– I can choose the people whose opinions I care about, and bugger the rest – it is simply too exhausting to try and act normal all of the time in front of everybody. If the group is smaller, and the people in it are significant to me, the damage (because I will still say and do highly inappropriate things) is less. Plus, these are people whom I chose, i.e. people who share more or less the same opinions that I do, and if not, at least accept me as the person that I am. At the very worst, they laugh at me for being weird and make sure not to invite me to a party where I’ll be likely to put them to shame.

– I should drink less. Seriously, since I started planning better and becoming more aware of all the Jӓgermeisters I’ve been chugging down, my party to embarrassment ratio has become at least twice as small. The thing is, I still do stupid things, but at least I remember them fully and am not left wondering whether perhaps it was even worse than I can recall. Furthermore, I find blaming my personality rather than blaming my alcohol-levels to be, in my case, a huge relief, oddly enough. And then there is also the very real benefit of not having flashbacks while dry-heaving into an overworked toilet.

– Humour goes a long way. Laughing at myself leads to other people laughing at me too, usually turning a rather laden silence into hilarity. That in itself is fun. Also, nothing is too sacred if you can laugh about it.

– Related to the above point, something which has helped me a lot is to carefully cultivate a carefree persona. This person that other think I am (and which, to be fair, I probably am, except for the times I’m not) is random, slightly wild, not too bothered by conventions, and unpredictable. The moment you have a certain public image, people are much more willing to let you get away with things. Maybe that’s why Bill Clinton didn’t fall nearly as far from grace as, say, Obama might were he to be caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

This persona, however, can also be slightly limiting in the sense that people expect certain behaviour from you and deviations are rarely allowed. People like stability. They like being able to predict what will come next. As my one friend pointed out the other day, we are pattern-seeking animals. Refusing to provide a pattern might initially excite people, but in the end it leaves them cold. Another example on my favourite topic, namely sex (it’s not really my favourite topic but my friends probably think it is, them being so pattern-seeking and all): because I am very open about it, people assume I am willing to engage in all sorts of friendly activities with them too. I have had many a good friend completely flabbergasted by my lack of willingness to engage in some hanky-panky, after apparently having spent hours wooing me with talk of sex (which I assumed to be an honest conversation). That’s annoying. It’s also guilt-inducing, leading to all sorts of self-questioning and bringing me back to my original problem – did I overstep some transparent line and somehow thereby indicate my interest in something I was not at all interested in? All very confusing, this.

This has been a very convoluted post so far, meant to tell the story of a simple not at all very interesting thing that befell me yesterday. I had gone to pick up my brand spanking new second-hand laptop from a friend, which did not fit into my backpack and which I therefore carried around sticking out from it to about halfway, and went to the shops directly afterwards. Keep in mind that I was wearing my odd Indian slippers again (my feet have become very picky about footwear since I introduced them to these), a hat because my hair did not want to lie down, and I was inappropriately swaddled in clothes, having misjudged the weather. I didn’t think this too groundbreaking.

Perhaps debating the pros and cons of tuna salad versus pesto pasta out loud was weird (but come on, doesn’t everybody think aloud sometimes?), or perhaps it was when I walked down the paying aisle with a mountain of fast foods (I had to buy something for my brother too) balanced precariously in my hands, not having thought of taking a trolley. In any case, by the time I dropped my burger quite spectacularly on the floor quite a few people were looking and the guy who offered to help seemed quite grateful I didn’t say yes (my burger was fine. It had only flipped around in the plastic encasing). Upon paying, I asked the lady at the till to open my iced tea because she looked stronger than I did, and that thing was a bitch to open. This made her laugh and exchange a few words with a colleague (I am learning Xhosa. Soon. As in, within the next year), and basically by the time I walked out it felt as if everyone was looking at me.

I am very much aware of the fact that this usually happens when I go shopping, since I have a tendency to strike up conversations with any employee and exchange banalities which in my mind might make enough of a difference to change someone’s day from being boring to interesting or at least to more human. I’m not sure whether, in today’s case, the attention I received was due to my dropping stuff and being generally odd, or due to the fact that I didn’t seem to care about the fact that I looked odd.

Whatever the case, this is what I realised afterwards, walking home with my laptop still perched on my neck like a shiny pet vulture, dragging a caseload of pesto pastas: I genuinely don’t care. In fact, making everybody laugh is becoming a bit addictive. Leaving normality behind and being blissfully weird has been the most liberating experience ever. I am learning not to take myself so seriously. I am also learning that other people, though at times freaked out by this, like me this way. Striking up random conversations with strangers has been much more rewarding than I could ever have imagined, has led to friendships and even boyfriends in a case or two (though the resulting heartache might make that slightly less appealing). Trying to be socially appropriate is important within a certain time and place, but alternating this with moments of complete abandon and hilarity leads to finding islands of meaning and humanity in places that seem bereft of these.

Make yourself the experiment, is what I think. Move outside your self-imposed boundaries and see what pops out. Connecting with others is well worth the effort, though to that I must add a caveat: do not become so weird as to be completely unrelatable. I don’t quite yet know how to achieve this delicate balance, all the while also being myself (“to thine own self be true”- oh mythical words we have so repeatedly been hammered over the head with!) but so far aiming at this balance, and in the process learning not to over-identify with every single group to the point of trying to be exactly like them, has at the very least left me with more memories and tiny moments of joy than I could possibly mention.

On being privy to my own privilege

I got a bit sidetracked during my previous post, intending to write in a bird’s-eye-view manner about privilege and eventually getting caught up in something that has been taking up quite a bit of head space for me during the past few months, namely the problem Stellenbosch (and South Africa; and the whole world, to a certain extent – but my knowledge is limited to my own tiny field of experience) seems to be having with a terrifying gap between the rich and the poor which is expressed, among other things, by the sheer amount of beggars and street people populating the town.

I have no idea what to do about the above problem. I feel rather dwarved by it, actually, by the scope of human suffering and human experiences of which I bear little knowledge and even less wisdom. I navigate every encounter based on how I feel that specific day, whether that be irritated, generous, or simply in a hurry. Sometimes I am shocked by the arbitrariness of my own actions – I once got angry at a beggar because he didn’t seem to be showing enough humility/embarassment over begging and just stood around going to the least possible amount of trouble to get money out of me. Other times I get annoyed by the long backstories and wringing hands accompanying a simple request for money. I don’t know what my expectations of beggars are, but apparently there’s some or other etiquette involved of which I am subconsiously aware and according to which I decide whether or not to give money. That’s scary. I scare myself.

But privilege is also much more than that. Privilege is having the luxury of not having to think for too long of too intensely about who we are, where we come from, and, especially, what we have. Privilege is being able to navigate the streets of one’s town while blissfully unconsciously conscious of having money, of having supportive parents, of being young and having all of life ahead, of having big dreams that have not yet been mowed down by the sheer unfairness of life. Simply existing without struggling too much to continue doing so is a privilege, and its very nature is expressed in the fact that we are unaware of it.

Last Tuesday I went to see a Koos Kombuis show. There we were, about a hundred of us standing with beers and cigarettes in our hands, crowding each other for a peek at the famous bandana-wielding singer, while he seemed – well, rather ordinary. Older than photos of him; less awe-inspiring than his poems, which always leave me with a sense of wonder at his wonderfully tender sarcasm. And that’s how it should be, really, I thought – he doesn’t have bells and whistles and smoke and fireworks, he’s just a man on a stage, waiting for his snapped guitar string to be replaced, looking at us with what I imagined to be a world-weary look. I kept wondering how many times he’d sat singing that exact same repertoire, in front of exactly the same excited though detached crowd, and what it felt like.

Because there we were, waving lighters in the air, singing at the top of our lungs ‘Johnny issie dood nie, hy’s net uitgepass’, making his words our own, claiming a piece of history for ourselves that we have never witnessed. That claiming, that unhesitating stepping into what we assume to be our heritage, that is both wonderful and fear-inducing, I thought.

The creative process is odd. You make something, nourish and prune it relentlessly, confront your fears and self-doubts, and scrape all your courage together to put it out there. Some people hate you for this attempt, they scorn your words and your art and your message, and yet sometimes it grows in popularity, until one day your brainchild has become common property. A generation later, the ideas you have campaigned for have become facts, you are no longer an activist but a showman, your words have taken wing and flown off to the hearts and guitars of every would-be hipster. And in the process, these words have taken on new meanings, have been appropriated by every individual to fit his or her understanding, have become no longer just one message but something which resonates with all for reasons as varied as mankind itself. An acquaintance told me on Tuesday: “I don’t really know all of his lyrics, but I love Koos Kombuis. I grew up listening to ‘Kytie Kytie’ and watching him just makes me feel warm and patriotic.”

Both wonderful and fear-inducing, yes. What joy to be able to profit from the art originating from the revolutionaries of our parents’ generation without guilt or blemish or much consideration, what joy to speak Afrikaans (when we feel like it) and claim its heritage as our own without much embarassment; and yet, how fear-inducing to think that we can claim these lyrics for ourselves so easily, as if we know them, as if we know the artist’s brain, as if we understood what it meant for him to have written them.

A friend of mine told me the other day that his biggest hope is for his grandchildren to be able to take for granted what we fight for today. To take a world without unfairness and sexism and racism for granted. I don’t think that day will ever come, because humans are lazy – the moment we forget about injustice, we propagate it once more. And yet, is this not privilege? Being here today, the shadow of segregation and inequality and lack of free speech being gradually blotted out by our relentless growth towards consumership and capitalism; towards a blissful, questionless sinking into lack of awareness. Privilege means the freedom to take life relatively for granted. And yet the price of that freedom is apathy.