Expecting the Unexpected


The Karoo is an open and honest place, consisting of outstretched plains and a massive sky spun across its desert-like landscape. In a way it looks like a straightforward, uncomplicated country that doesn’t hide much. Drenched in sun and soulfulness for a large part of the year and, stretching itself like a never-ending runway, an empty palm promising nothing but space and time to dream, the Karoo does, however, has its own unique way of taking visitors by surprise.

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Allowing the seasons and the weather to fill its vast expanses, it’s easy to be absorbed by the rhythm of the seemingly noiseless but pulsating, vibrating, beating heart of the landscape. As you continue your apparently plain-sailing journey  you might just pass a mountain – blue and hazy in the distance but earthy and tortoise-shell textured up close – drive by a clump of aloe vera succulents or prickly pear trees and, suddenly,  find a place unexpected and appearing as out of nowhere.

Nieu-Bethesda is one of these surprising places: a few kilometres outside of Graaff-Reinet, as you turn off the N9 and follow the road swirling into and through hills and cone-shaped rock formations like massive beehives, you will find, folded inside the flanks of the Sneeuberge like a sophisticated secret, a village of wonders.

This place, with its untarred roads and complete lack of streetlights, provides enough space for stuff that dreams are made of and endless possibilities. At night, the stars are clearly scintillating in the sky above a town devoid of lights. From this village’s dust and quietude magic reinventions appear constantly. This is one of those spots where people make do with their dreams, make viable their visions; where conjuring ideas into a concrete reality is a necessity. A hamlet that provides a blank canvas to tie many to and bring about more of themselves.

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It happens in various ways, of course. People spin their own stories, their own shapes, be it in clay, or paint, or food, or drink, or running B & Bs with beautiful names that reflect the different aspects of the town: Zonnenstrahl (Ray of Sunshine), Meerkat, Aandster (Evening Star), Klein Geluk (Small Happiness), the Brewery Loft, the Outsider, the Water Tower (originally a water tower, then a Buddhist meditation room, now a place to rest and dream), Starry Nights, The Cow Jumps Over The Moon and the Bethesda Tower (https://www.safarinow.com/destinations/nieu-bethesda/hub.aspx).

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In The Brewery and Two Goats Deli’s yard on the outskirts of town, a bed swings noiselessly from chains between trees. An outdoor bath stands close by, facing the hills towards Kompasberg.

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Here the bees are alive and well and happily buzz around visitors. A perfect place in which to forget about the loss of biodiversity and the destruction of habitats; to sway for a while within the unique cadence of a place untouched by life’s frenetic haste.

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In the backyard of the Owl House, (http://www.places.co.za/html/owl_house.html), Helen Martin’s cement statues – a fantastical, stationary exodus – bears witness to a pilgrimage. A personal, inward journey of pain, of longing for purpose, of forever reaching for the light which here she made concrete and universal in her own way. Surrounding the sculptural crowd on their way to Mecca (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road_to_Mecca_(play), a fanfare of words and letters are twisted in the wire fence and are uttered in the sounds of the wind that resonates its way, like a voice forever searching, through the narrow throats of beer bottles like glass flutes. A small universe of things seemingly unsaid but sculpted in forms and shapes as meaningful as the words snaking through the wire hedges. Inside the Owl House light and colour and shadows and a regular dose of sunshine dance in a daily wake on shy, shuffling feet through the house and fall in shafts, like stardust, through the rooms of Helen’s home.

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Outside local people sell copies of her owls – eyes wide like all-knowing children – and mermaids with mosaic fish tails and the children greet strangers as they pass, dancing and playing in the patterns the strangers’ footprints leave in the dirt roads.

As you enter the town, the imposing Dutch Reformed church towers above everything and everyone. White, huge, baked and bleached and white-boned in a bold and blazing sun, it seems to guard the small village. Strict and pertinent, it keeps a close eye on the goings on, its bell resting like a silent promise in the clock tower.

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In the third floor, top room of The Tower, in the community art centre’s backyard, an immaculate round bed fills the space, covered with a ‘love quilt’ made at the project. As one reaches the top floor, spiralling upwards, you expect a fairy tale princess at the window and a grinning prince trying to scale the wall outside but it’s only Athol Fugard’s donkeys one can see, happily munching on grass and afternoon brightness next door at the Waenhuis (https://en-gb.facebook.com/KarooWaenhuis).

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In the entrance of the Waenhuis the escaped princess awaits visitors: frozen in the brown, bronzed, arm-less torso of a mannequin, she seems ready to cast a spell on visitors as they enter. A southern hemisphere Venus de Milo, dressed in a leafy skirt, a pink feather headband and pearls around her neck. Because, if you are lucky enough to be visiting here at the end of July, you might be celebrating Christmas in July, 1920’s with a Touch of Pink (2017’s theme). In the Waenhuis every corner has a story to tell.

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O’ Keeffe and Kahlo spring to mind as sudden splashes of colour and the definite, deceptively simple lines of natural materials, of wax and wood and bone serve as a viewfinder, as a reminder; a link to the landscape surrounding but also pervading the people and their art. And as a visitor, the echo of equanimity, as if cut from the hidden depths of desert cloth, will call you back time and time again.

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Because, as you will find out, the Karoo is a magical place: seemingly arid but wonderfully resourceful and rich. Next to the dusty streets of Nieu-Bethesda, the water from a spring on a plateau above the village flows through the old stone water furrows. Don’t be surprised if you see a pink feather boa – Priscilla Queen of the Desert-esque – floating autonomously over scrub and bush or dangling carefree from a quince hedge; if you are invited to come and shop at the Honesty Stoep or if you come across Roesemaat (Rust’s Mate) an old, rusty shell of a car. Here the passing of time is celebrated, nearly everything gets recycled or decorated and celebrated.

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Exploring the Karoo is a journey of delicious discovery. It allows you to dance with your dreams in the dust, serenade with the stars, let your imagination run havoc: to shake life’s turbulence from you. Here you can discover a place where worlds happily trespass upon each other: the old and the new; the past and the present and maybe even glimpses of a hopeful, more tranquil, possible future.

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Journeying to the Heart of Holland

There are times when you reach a destination for the first time while a strong sense of déjà vu pervades your arrival. You feel welcomed as if you’ve returned after a long journey. And so, naturally, you keep on returning.

And so it is for me when strolling through the cities of Holland and its countryside. Probably as different an experience as can be from wandering through my country of birth, South Africa. The weather is dissimilar; the fauna and flora worlds apart and, although the skies are two different sides to the same spherical story, the contrasts are unmistakable.

But having said all of that, there is, after all, some common ground. Whenever I hear the Dutch people, I catch a murmuring echo resonating from the tip of Africa all the way to Europe and suddenly 5 792 miles and two continents seem to be bound by an invisible, reverberating thread. Because less than 400 years ago the Cape of Storms/the Cape of Good Hope became a group of Dutch settlers’ new home and two continents fused within the identity of a new people. During the tumultuous, stormy centuries that were to follow (with perhaps, at times, hope and the Southern Cross a few of the only steadfast anchors they had to hold on to) the Dutch language changed into Afrikaans. Its origins still present in the deepest recesses of people’s hearts and in the everyday sounds of their tongues. And this binds us.

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Every so often it is through the medium of language that an idea is formed, where a dream sometimes has its modest beginnings. Studying European languages in South Africa was a baptism of wonder and enchantment. As students we were lured into another world of grey skies and the mysterious appeal of a sense of snow (says Smilla), of otherness essentially. Europe, as a place alien yet faintly recognisable and vividly described, started as an idea of a world seen through the eyes of European writers and also South African, Afrikaans-speaking exiles, like Andre P. Brink and Breytenbach who spent many years in Europe while missing Africa. They conjured up images and snapshots of a world beyond the waters. We saw everything through the magic mirror of their words.IMG_6467

They made some of us, naïve and dreamy and idealistic, believe in the existence of muses and love immemorial; tales of dark, European cities which cave into the narrow mazes of underground tunnels inhabited by wayward, literary revolutionaries-in-hiding; a dakkamer (attic room) in a European city, the perfect place in which to station your old-fashioned, silver typewriter – strong with the tenacity of an old kanniedood Singer sewing machine – and write these stories as they start to play out their plots in the streets below while you hammer away at them deep into the night. A dream of a place where anything is possible; where the harsh edges of reality are somewhat muted by shadows in narrow, cobblestoned alleyways and drizzly rain against the windowpanes of pancake houses and pubs.

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And so it was when I arrived. I found that Holland’s gritty romanticism does indeed play hide and seek within the dark, dusty corners of pannenkoekenhuizen and the musty underbellies of barges and houseboats that float motionlessly on murky canals; water patios bright with flowers and an occasional deckchair or two next to a buoyant garden. Many times I’ve dreamt of living like this: in tune with the slight current of the canal, half hidden inside a barge, while being only a step away from the tumult and solid heart of the city. For a country (I remember thinking the first time I walked along the canals) that consists, after all, of so much reclaimed land and lies for the most part below sea level, it cannot be swaying unawares of the rhythm and pull of the ocean’s invisible tide: a bearer of equilibrium and balance.

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Later I would explore other towns filled with waterways. As we travelled along these and underneath their low bridges – temporarily disturbing their perfect 360 degree reflections and watching them close up again into perfect circles as the ripples subside – I learned that voices intermittently become muffled and of secondary importance. Because along these grachten (canals), sometimes, stories are told in other ways. While wading past kademuren (quay walls) by boat, the waterspuwers (water spouts) and sculptures mounted on these walls, tell their own tales: a musician playing a wind instrument – cheeks bulging and moustache spreading like hairy wings across the lower part of his face; a woman embracing a unicorn as if in flight; a round-cheeked angel keeping the watch – chin in hand – while sitting on a chamber pot – its buttocks as round as its dimpled cheeks; two drinkebroers (drunk friends) having a great time by the wet feet of the brewery above.

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Although one is aware of an ever-changing sense of innovation that is constantly celebrated in Dutch cities, the people always commemorate their stories and their history: they surround themselves with the narratives and allegories that make up their world. The names of artists are everywhere, branding cities with authenticity. The words of my old literary friends constantly surround me here: I never refrain from picking them up as they lie printed at the edges of my thoughts, like eager footnotes; their philosophies lead me by the hand as I stroll through their milieu. In Vondelpark, Vondel reminded me of what he wrote way back in the Golden Age of the17th century: ‘Heel de wereld is rond Amsterdam gebouwd’. (‘All the world is built around Amsterdam’).

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I nodded in silent agreement as I watched the city’s inhabitants and its numerous visitors sway in simple harmony through Amsterdam on bicycles and trams speeding around the angular corners of the city; soaked up the buzz lingering for many hours in the famous shopping streets, like Kalver and P.C. Hooftstraat, and the smells and tastes of cannabis and bakeries and koffie verkeerd and chocolate muffins and cinnamon and powdered sugar and haring (herring) and kroketten (croquettes).

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Never do I tire from pulling the words of the Dutch masters from the margins of my memory, as I wander past the city’s houses with their slightly reclining facades and those gables, like the iced toppings of wedding cakes, leaning against sober cathedrals and sleek modern structures, with the narrowest house in the world squashed in between its proud counterparts. It’s Gerrit Komrij that jump onto my shoulder like a friendly ghost when I come to a sudden standstill in gardens and courtyards, half hidden and perfectly groomed like peaceful suburban hideouts: ‘Dichten is een beetje de muziek in je hoofd houden. De betekenis volgt wel.’

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And it is in these small gems, like the streets off of the main squares where I like to come and walk time and time again. In these stegies (alleyways), like de 9 Straatjes in the Amsterdam Canal belt, small, monumental, vintage shops and traditional bakeries wait patiently around corners – seemingly understated but always full of treasures. Here the pretty canal houses and water seem quiet and hardly any traffic disturbs the calm atmosphere so you can hold still the poetry of the city in your mind for a little while until the meaning unravels: sweet and delectable and wholly pleasurable. Like the deep pots of syrup waiting on tables – dark, thick and seemingly bottomless – the crannies of Holland are filled with whispers of painters and poets; the world of the old forever haunting the present.

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And dotted around the city, obscure-sounding but delightful museums make their appearances. Places like the Nationaal Brilmuseum, (The National Museum of Spectacles), Tassen Museum (Museum of Bags & Purses), Pijpenkabinet (Pipe Museum) and Woonboot Museum (Houseboat Museum). Not as popular as the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum but probably more discreet and definitely quirky, they wait to capture the imagination of their visitors.

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Palpably there is little sign of untamed Africa and its tough aloe veras and prickly pear trees. In the mornings during Springtime in Holland, when you leave the green and daffodil-ed surroundings of suburbs, you might find yourself waiting patiently in a traffic jam caused by the slow ambling of geese waddling across the street.

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In small places, like Cruquis and Aalsmeer, bright splashes of flowers, cover fields in banners of yellow and pink and purple and orange, like fallen rainbows during tulip season and polder landscapes (lowlands) stretch away from roads throughout the country. They are a tough bunch: the Dutch. For centuries they’d curbed water and turned swamps into tillable, arable soil. And then, when centuries ago, they set foot in Africa they hid underneath lap kappies and leather hats, while learning to embrace the sun in the southern sky.

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As children growing up in Africa we used to count the windmills, their metal feet firmly planted in the dry soil of the Karoo, as they flew past along the motorway. In Holland you can count windmills. Peacefully planted in soggy polders, they dot landscapes like silent watchmen waiting for the wind to catch their sails. There are many variants: some grinds grain, others saw wood, many keep the polders dry. And their names read like a set of colourful characters, ready to spin a yarn and fill a stage: De Blom (The Flower), De Otter (The Otter), De Oude Knegt (The Old Servant), De Leeuw (The Lion), De Zwaan (The Swan), De Hoop (Hope), De Philisteinse Molen (The Philistine Mill), De Eenhoorn (The Unicorn), De Veer (The Feather), De Woudaap (The Forest Monkey), De Kat (The Cat). ‘De wereld is een schouwtoneel, Elk speelt zijn rol en krijgt zijn deel.’ (‘The world is a theatre. Each plays his role and gets his part.’), Vondel said and so I always try to get inside one of these characters if they happen to be in working order. Once inside it feels as if you have fallen into the groaning belly of a giant animal. The loud sounds of rhythmical wooden crushing – like the gnashing together of huge teeth – and the perfect timing of its machinery fill the mill. The inner clockwork of these working mills a sure sign that it’s alive and well. Finding yourself inside its beating heart, the heavy beams protectively enclosed around you while you climb up and down its narrow stepladders from one breathing chamber to the next, is quite a mesmerising experience.

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This is a country where once a week, in towns like Alkmaar, 30 000 kg of waxed round cheeses, like captured moons, are stacked and transported on big, wooden sledges in pretty town squares, making porters and dealers spring into action, performing cheesy rituals.

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And yes, this is a seriously cheesy place! Cheese literally everywhere. You can eat cheese sandwiches from small, wooden sledges and cheese trolleys; yellow wooden crates are found everywhere attached to bicycles for transporting cheese throughout the meandering little streets; these round cheeses, like golden balls from fairy tales and creamy pac-mans, stacked on top of each other are painted above doorways and on the walls of shops. All of these other-worldly goings-on take place while the sound, emanating from a draaiorreltjie (street organ), spills onto the street from underneath the magical touch of small, metal fingers carefully stroking the stacks of papers, one after the other.

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In this country you can go shopping for ballet clogs; a high-heeled, bright red pair; even roller skate and ice skating variants and pastel pink ones with wooden wings attached to them. A country in which the length of the sharp tips of these wooden shoes  (carved by husbands-to-be for their brides) were an indication, once upon a time, of how passionate the love was between a married couple.

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It smacks of childhood, when life seemed endlessly captivating:  a kitsch affair (in hindsight) and comfortable, like a tea cosy over a warm pot of tea in your grandmother’s kitchen. When reality was as foreign a concept as change: a shapeless ghost tucked away like an urban myth. And yes, I love it: the fairy-tale quality of it all; the whimsiness and eccentric, zany idiosyncrasy; the people’s steadfast belief in tradition.

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As Breytenbach said: ‘’n Gemeenskap sonder ’n gevoel vir geskiedenis, sonder die stabiliteit van tradisie, die mens met ’n ahistoriese identiteit wat net leef vir die onmiddellike van die huidige moment – as bo­gaande menslik moontlik is, dan beteken dit dat ons die dood van die geheue vier, en erger, dié van alle hoop.’ (‘A community without a sense of history, without the stability of tradition, the human being with an ahistorical identity that only lives for the immediate of the present moment – if this is humanly possible, then it means that we are celebrating the death of the memory, and worse, the memory of all hope’).

And then, of course, will there ever be a European city without its square? Those open spaces where people breathe deeper and look up at the sky and talk more openly. No matter which shape and size: these triangular, circular, oval-shaped hearts of the old towns are what draw people in. Surrounded by singels, the towns and cities dilate and contract around these squares, gradually guiding pedestrians to its bosom. Sometimes these cores are criss-crossed by lines of small, red flags like fluttering robin red breasts and always flanked by cafés with beautiful names like De Blauwe Engel (The Blue Angel), Crêpe Affaire, De Zwarte Ruiter (The Black Horseman).

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If you wait long enough the bells from the church will chime through the market square claiming ownership of the sweeping space spread in between bright red and black and white hour-glass shaped patterned shutters; intricately detailed spires all pointing upwards; weather vanes, at times flying tiny flags and outdoor terrasjes (cafés). A perfect place to while away the afternoon eating pancakes covered in cherries or stacked with slagroom (cream), poffertjes or a koffie compleet with two chocolate bonbons, a glass of liquer and a small slice of  tart.

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Is it Holland’s contrast to Africa, yet the sense of familiarity I feel when stepping onto Dutch soil, that draws me there time and time again? Could it perhaps be a subconscious longing for the other half of the ancestral coin that makes it so? Or could it be that the country was just as I had hoped for it to be; just as I had dreamt it? Right from the beginning.

At first I trod lightly, trying not to disturb and give life to a faint suspicion that things might not be as I’d imagined them. Because usually that is how life is: it gives you less of what you’ve hoped for.

But I found the country lenient and gracious and forbearing. Maybe we recognised something in each other: a certain affinity as I was tourist, and yet, not completely so. And it allowed me my dream. Because whereas Africa is brutally honest in its devastating brilliance, Holland has, up to now, shown itself to me as quaint and picturesque, even in its most pragmatic state.

As Willem Frederik Hermans said,‘Ik denk dikwijls dat er eigenlijk niet veel verschil is tussen leven en dromen. Het verschil is maar schijnbaar, doordat we, als we wakker zijn, alles veel te bevooroordeeld bekijken om te zien dat het leven ook een droom is.’ (‘I often think that there is not really much difference between life and dreams. The difference is only apparent because, when we wake up, we look at everything too biased to see that life is also a dream.’)

It started with words and a piecing together of a place so completely foreign, yet faintly familiar. When at last I found it, it matched perfectly the Holland of my heart. And so, these days, I don’t ponder too much. I simply enjoy the perfect combination of water, half-light and history whenever I manage to get there as, after all: ‘Het was integendeel het hele mysterie van alles wat zo aantrekkelijk was. U zou er niet teveel bestelling op moeten leggen. Als u dat gedaan heeft, zou er onherroepelijk iets verloren gaan (…) Hij voelde zich thuis in zijn sentimentele chaos. Om het te plakken moest je volwassen zijn, maar dan was je tegelijkertijd geëtiketteerd, klaar en in feite al een beetje dood.’ (‘It was, on the contrary, the very mystery of everything that was so attractive. You should not want to impose too much order on it. If you did, something would be lost irrevocably (…) He felt at home in his sentimental chaos. To chart it you had to be an adult, but then you were at once labelled, finished, and in effect already a little dead.’) – Cees Nooteboom

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Stepping Out In Someone Else’s Shoes

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Our shoes take us places. We harness our feet, that age-old mode of transport so easily forgotten about in a world where time is money and so each of us advance through our days, firmly bound inside our own footgear.

Shoes are important, of course and people love them for various reasons. The purpose of shoes is enabling us, after all, to get on our divergent ways, allowing for the various activities we engage in. And, therefore, for many, it’s mainly for the protection and comfort shoes give that they are valued.

Others love shoes for their aesthetic value. The beauty of a shoe’s shape and colour and design a work of art as important as any other. Even at the end of a pair of shoes’ life of service, worn and falling apart at the seams, every crease and loose stitching exudes lived-through life stories and experiences.

While reading up on the history of shoes, I found many interesting historical shoe facts. Apparently six-inch-high heels were worn by the upper classes in 17th Century Europe. To hold the person wearing the heels upright, two servants, one on either side, were needed. Taking this fact into account, it does seem like women’s shoe-wearing abilities had evolved over the years, maybe to our own detriment. Making sure you can walk properly in heels before going out is a prerequisite for wearing these. Nobody wants to teeter along the pavement, looking like a giraffe with sever backache. Funnily enough though, it seems like the world has also made attempts to adapt to footwear as in the 18th Century legislation was supposedly designed to create paved walkways within cities to allow women to wear less practical shoes with higher heels.

Another delightful fact that caught my attention was that boots for ladies became quite fashionable after a pair of boots was designed for Queen Victoria in 1840. Boots off to the queen, is what I say! How I love my boots: they hold me in their steady grip throughout busy days, flitting between various means of public transport.

And what place better to do shoe gawking than on public transport: rows of travellers’ shoes lined up like books on a shelf. For every mile walked and every chapter of life lived by any other person has its own story; holds its own unique perspective. All those shoes like tales ready to be told, if only they’d be still for a little while longer and not rush off at the first indication of the next stop, the next destination approaching.

Cinderella too was trying to beat the clock and lost her glass slipper in the wake of a flustered flee from time. For her, like for Sex and the City’s modern-day heroine, Carrie, things seemed to have worked out just fine in the end. It was many episodes and series and a movie later, when Mr Big declared his love to Carrie at last and crowned her foot with a Manolo Blahnik to, in typical business-like lingo, “close the deal.” But then again: who knows how long the happy couple stayed a perfect fit. Happily-ever-afters are only that: a promise with no trail of evidence to follow up on. If Cinderella or Carrie knew of the shoe ceremony in the Middle Ages during which a father passed his authority over his daughter to her husband, they might not have been so overjoyed at closing the deal with a shoe. At these medieval weddings the groom handed the bride a shoe that she put on to show she was then his subject…

Even from early childhood we are fed stories (a few including frightening visions) of shoes and their wearers. Some fairy tales tell of how the antagonists, as well as the protagonists, came to bitter endings: Snow White’s stepmother was forced to dance to death in a pair of glowing-hot iron shoes. The result of her cruelty and vanity. The little girl in her red dancing shoes had to get her feet amputated and replaced by wooden feet as a consequence of having become too enamored by her new, red shoes and idolizing them (who else can associate with this love for and fixation with shoes? I, for one, certainly can). Cinderella’s Ugly Stepsisters had to make do with no prince, stayed ugly, ignorant and ridiculous forever after.

Perhaps these scary, dark ramifications resonate with something deeply resident within the sediment of our subconscious right down to the soles of our feet. There lies the knowing of the catastrophic consequences that might follow if getting too wrapped up in one’s own agenda; getting too enveloped in one’s own shoes. Or, just as bad, trying to get into someone else’s shoes because of purely selfish motives. Let the futile actions of Cinderella’s spoiled Stepsisters serve as a warning to us all: one cut off her big toe, the other a bit of her heel in true greedy, selfish, hell-bent-on-getting-whatever-we-want style. And all of that pain and effort for nothing.

To willingly walk for a mile, or even only for a meter or two (a start is better than nothing) in someone else’s shoes, in another’s footsteps, to experience what their journey is like for them, is probably one of the most challenging things in life. Because we are, after all, so sewn up in our own separate skins that attempting to connect with another closely, stepping into their shoes and crawling into their skin for a while, generally seems nigh impossible.

Years ago I hiked the Machu Picchu trail up the Andes Mountains and a memory from that trip still stands out clearly in my mind. Even clearer than the amazing stony staircase that led us up and down mountain sides like a never-ending route to a giant’s castle in the clouds, do I remember the feet of the porters who were scrambling up the mountain in front of me. These men were incredible. You didn’t have a lot of time to watch them. Before you know it they’d be out of sight and so would the large bags of camping equipment, provisions and hikers’ backpacks that they’d carry on their backs. They’d scramble at a fast pace, much faster than any of us, up the mountainside. No horses, mules or llamas were assisting them. And this they did in open-toed sandals (hojotas) made from recycled tyres. It was clear that their feet knew the mountain and the mountain knew them.

They were the complete opposite of us tourists, cladded in hiking boots with specially designed gripping soles and proper ankle support. I dread to think what might’ve happened if porters and visitors were to swap shoes: same journey; different shoes; completely different experience altogether.

When my niece was a toddler she used to position her tiny tootsies into any pair of shoes she could get her toes on. She would shuffle forward, be it in an old pair of tattered flip-flops or strappy high heeled sandals, determined to conquer the shoes and make it her own. Still, to this very day, that same daring spirit had not left her although she had learned that shoes her own size are safer and more appropriate. Yet some days, I have to admit, I miss that little girl who wanted to learn about the world from another’s standpoint no matter what.

The dream experts say that dreams about shoes indicate certain paths we are traversing in our lives. If you are wearing tight shoes, it means that the road you are travelling on is hard and full of sorrow. And apparently dreams about dirty, worn shoes are meant to encourage the dreamer to examine his or spiritual walk, or inspire the dreamer to undertake a walk of faith.

Last weekend (21.01.17) had been a bit like a dream, a surreal, historical, global event: thousands of people, united in a walk of faith, treading together in crowds through city streets all around the globe. Their beliefs and hopes and sentiments echoed in the sound of thousands of marching feet and banners and posters, carried above their heads for all the world to see. Throngs of individuals moving forward in one direction, walking on behalf of self but also on behalf of others in a march against a culture of self-absorption. Undaunted and purposeful. People from various walks of life but singular in purpose became a reminder to me personally, and maybe to all of us, that we should guard against becoming too comfortable in our own shoes. A warning, just for in case we run the risk (as did the girl in the fairy tale of The Red Shoes), of getting so attached to our own shoes that, in the end, ‘it seemed, (their shoes had) grown on to (their) feet (as they) could not unclasp them’ (Hans Christian Anderson, 1835).

I guess the challenge lies in trying not to get so attached to our own dramas, so embroiled in our own intricate and complex lives, that we are unable to connect with the lives of the people around us. Maybe it’s a good idea to, every so often, try on someone else’s shoes. I think it’s called empathy.

 

 

“Empathy is the ability to step outside of your own bubble and into the bubbles of other people. (…) Empathy is the ability that allows us the perception of things around us, outside of ourselves.”

– C. JoyBell C.

 

The Glory of the Ride

We all know Ralph Waldo Emerson’s saying: “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Over the years this quote has become somewhat of a cliché and variations of it have also surfaced.

My personal favourite being Edward Monkton’s description of his chilled-out Zen Dog:

“He knows not where he’s going,

For the ocean will decide,

It’s not the destination,

It’s the glory of the ride”.

Be that as it may, cliché or not, it is difficult to negate the truth this phrase holds.

As we stand on the brink of 2016, many of us survey the past year and wonder at how the end of it has come around so quickly. Inadvertently, most of us think of the journey that has led us to this point in time. And a journey it has definitely been. As we worked our way throughout the year, casually discarding every calendar month, life became populated with a variety of countless experiences. The expedition of life sometimes tough but never dull.

But is the end of the year, those last few seconds we count down with nervous expectation (of what exactly?) really so different than the next few seconds that will await us beyond midnight? Is twelve o’clock on New Year’s Eve seen as a destination? Or does the ride simply continue?

Sometimes the stuff that stays with us is not the so-called culminating moments, of say a New Year’s celebration, but made up of the many joys we encounter on our daily wanderings.

As a child, whenever we were going to take on a long journey (‘die langpad’), my parents used to stock the old Volkswagen station wagon with enough ‘padkos’ to last us for many stops along the way. We would munch on and work our way through home-made sandwiches, boiled eggs and Oros on white, concrete picnic tables and benches high above valleys, on the edge of mountains looking out towards the big African sky that, at times, became part of the ocean – white sand dunes like shifting gods next to the waves singing their praises; other times the sky would fold around the hills of the almost empty landscape; we’d sip on freshly squeezed pineapple juice bought at ‘padstalle’ next to the national road and we’d marvel and laugh at indignant-looking ostriches found along the way and fleet-footed monkeys, baboons and slow tortoises that would cross the roads at varying speeds; at times the car would be stopped in the middle of the flat Karoo desert only to inhale the silence, hoping that that quick stop over will cultivate a garden of inner peace to return to whenever ‘destinations’ ran the risk of becoming too frantic. There we were: flanked by the light green station wagon – it’s roof-rack a sturdy companion above the doors flung open like impractical wings when emptied of its passengers – and the glory the journey had in store for us.

And while my sister and I were trapped in the back of the moving car, our energy a palpable presence and too much for the little space our vehicle provided, we devised games to pass the time: we counted windmills as they kept appearing, like lonely landscape robots, wheeling past the windows from afar; we trained our eyes to read cars’ number plates (while trying to keep motion sickness at bay) and played consecutive number plate spotting; we annoyed each other endlessly. Because in those days there were no gadgets to distract us from the glory of the ride. Only the world whipping past us like an old-fashioned zoetrope.

When I really think about those journeys on all of those national roads crisscrossing the country, I can’t always remember our final stops but the way there (wherever ‘there’ might have been) and the variety of stop offs along the way still flash over the screen of my memory.

Like every single moment, caught on the many pages of a flipbook, the recollections of the past 365 days that made up 2016 will whiz along one after the other in our mind’s eye on this day of the Year Almost Past.

And as the Old Year bring us to a so-called ‘new destination’, the beginning of 2017, may our resolution (yes, perhaps we need only one in order to make all the others possible) be to truly enjoy the rest of the journey, put down the gadgets as much as possible and feast our senses on and be part of the plentiful scenes that will surround us as the jaunt continues.

Travelling into Winter

It is that-time-of-the-year once again: flu-jab time; our-world-wrapped-in-frost time and a see-through-layer-of-ice-that-coats-the-air time.

Where just the other day Autumn leaves were blown about like scattered leaflets – post-its filled with notes and memories of clear Fall days – now these same leaves, like fine boned skeletons, clutch at our feet and ankles and suck onto soles in a slippery slush. It feels like only a little while ago that the fiery leaves of Autumn swirled inside and came to land like small, outstretched hands on floors. But now, suddenly, muddy puddles stain thresholds and in doorways coats and hats and scarves assemble, huddled together in drooping human shapes waiting motionless for someone to breathe life into their limp forms.

And so it is with a start that us earthlings realise that that-time-of-the-year had once again caught us almost unawares…

According to Greek mythology, this-time-of-the-year was born out of desperation and intense sadness. Hades, that infamous god of the underworld and all things dead and gloomy, kidnapped Persephone to be his wife. When Zeus ordered Hades to return Persephone to Demeter, her mother and the goddess of the Earth, Hades tricked Persephone into eating the food of the dead. The outcome was a difficult one: Zeus decreed that Persephone would have to spend nine months with Demeter and three months with Hades. Demeter became extremely depressed during Persephone’s continuous absence, so depressed that her sorrow caused a global upset: Winter. A cycle to be continued over and over again for as long as the Earth would spin on its axis.

A myth it is, but I am not surprised at all that one goddess’s mournfulness and woe (the intensity of her sadness much the same as the vehemence of a woman scorned) could cause such a universal commotion.

Nevertheless, as the Northern Hemisphere tilts away from the Sun and the Earth progresses through its slow-travelling loop around the warmth of the Sun, Winter and its elements shove us indoors every year while outside It reigns supreme. While It rears its powerful tail – as if having lain dormant for months under the crust of the Earth – slashing the world into ribbons of short, grey days and long nights, the world seems to shrink.

Like the lenses of a camera closing in ever so slightly, the demarcated edges of the procession of time seem to close in on itself. Somewhat blurred become the day and the night. And inside this optical view, we are drawn together around warmth – be it a fire, a candle, the heat of another’s body, the charity of others that spark warmth like a flame. Like moths we move ever closer together, enfolded not only by layers of clothing, but also flanked by the comfort of others. And even those who like crouching on their own ever closer to a fire, enter once again the warmth of their inner sanctuaries. As Ruth Stout said, “There is a privacy about it which no other season gives you…. In spring, summer and fall people sort of have an open season on each other; only in the winter, in the country, can you have longer, quiet stretches when you can savor belonging to yourself.”

Those of us who have lived in Europe for a long time, but were raised on long Southern Hemisphere Summers and short Winters and who had long run out of Vitamin D reserves, wade through this season cold to the bone. We watch with wondrous alarm how our breath crystallises like vaporous winter shadows and genies escaping from bodies like lamps gone cold as we rub our gloved hands together in chilly consternation.

As the desolation and dolefulness of a mother’s cry from a long time ago echo through this frosty season, its days are drenched in misty half-light. Its edges dipped in ink bleeding into the day. Workdays start and end in its darkness and few hours of light become a narrow window shining from its dim frame. Winter leaves its fingerprints in icy layers on surfaces during early mornings and late nights.

And yet: time and time again we abandon the food of the dead, eaten by Persephone all those centuries ago: we rebel against the cold, still heart of the underworld and its bleakness; stark, bare branches like thriller scarecrows chasing away the birds and their nests; its inhospitable nature and relentless breath, biting and raw like that of the Buran wind, the Williwaw and the Mistral.

The merciless elements make us aware of our own gasping breath; fingertips numb with recognition; cheeks the colour of tomato soup and occasional pink, blooming Winter morning skies; noses cubed icicles inhaling a world so fresh as if it’s been re-born; the chill that comes to rest inside our bones with blood pumping with even more rapidity through the multiple veined life lines underneath skin, dry and chapped like paper from ancient volumes. We get to know our own fragility and the light and warmth of togetherness. Closeness with others and also with selves.

People get together and jazz up Winter with lights and bonfires and markets and frozen smiles and mulled wine and wreaths and poinsettias and ice skates that cut through its ruthlessness like the tenable, redeemable thread of hope.

Because even underneath the ferocity of Winter, of course, something always lies in waiting: for one it was the return of a daughter; for others, the warmth of the sun on chapped winter hands; for some the simple joy of only wearing one layer of clothing – light like the birds that once again fill the sky – the end of hibernation; the hope that lies inside the human spirit that not even the underworld or a goddesses’ gloom can put out; a travelling on and an ever returning.

 

 

‘My dear,

In the midst of hate, I found there was, within me, an invincible love.

In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile.

In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm.

I realized, through it all, that…

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.

 

Truly yours,

Albert Camus’

Die Pad Huistoe

Deur al die dae en jare wat ek al in die buiteland rondswerf bly Afrikaans maar my kompas en kaart. En wanneer ek so oënskynlik vol selfvertroue, maar in der waarheid somtyds verdwaald, tussen ander lande beweeg buite die grense van tong en taal, keer ek dikwels na binne. Dan blaai ek deur die binneste woordeboek van die taal van my moeder, my eerste taal, en vind ek weer my stem.

Veilig gebêre in die skatkis van my hart, in die grot van my mond wat, soos die liggaam, nie vinnig vergeet nie, skuil my stem en my woorde en my storie. Hierdie taal is ‘n dubbele agent: terwyl ek Engels praat in lande ver van die Suidpunt van Afrika, kruip die subtitels onophoudelik oor die skerm van my hart. Min weet die luisteraar dat daar ‘n spel van oëverblindery aan die gang is. Want in my binnekant weerklink die woorde in Afrikaans. Na binne sing ek eintlik altyd die wysie wat ek ken, die melodie van my hart.

En hierdie taal van my is my ewige metgesel: vir haar hoef ek nie ‘n duur vliegtuigkaartjie te koop nie; Sy het nie ‘n paspoort of ‘n visa nodig nie; alhoewel Sy by tye die raserigste reisgenoot kan wees en dan weer, ander tye, tjoepstil versonke in haar eie gedagtes my sitplek deel. Getrou aan haar ambivalente geaardheid is Sy partykeer die ligste tas wat onsigbaar deur sekuriteit gly, maar Sy kan ook by tye die swaarste tas op die voerband wees: vol geprop met volumes en omnibusse vol herinneringe. Maar haar woorde gee sin aan die nou, die gisters en die môres. Ek sleep haar nie soos ‘n skaduwee agter my aan nie. Glad nie. Sy is eerder ‘n paar vlerke wat my nou en dan ‘n ekstra hupstoot in die regte rigting gee.

En wanneer ek Andre P. Brink oorsee in Engels lees, voel ek soms soos ‘n verraaier, soek my kop en my tong – asof vasgevang in ‘n stille, persoonlike rebellie – sonder ophou na die oorspronklike Afrikaans wat wegkruipertjie speel tussen die lyne. Want Afrikaans is die doepa vir my tong en die pleister vir my hart. Die taal waarin soveel van ons skinder en troos en bid en vloek. Gestroop van politiek en bevooroordelings, is dit eenvoudig die brug na die hart, die pad huistoe.

En so, elke keer wanneer ek aanland in Suid-Afrika, wag ek vir daardie eerste Afrikaanse groet op eie bodem. En wanneer ek dit hoor, maak ek vir ‘n oomblik my oë toe. Om die grond van my moerland onder my voete te voel en daardie geleidelike ontknoping van die tong te ervaar: ‘n onomwonde ontsluiting van my storie, keer-op-keer en altyd in Afrikaans.

Searching for Islands

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Islands are beautiful places. Seemingly autonomous, they lie like jewels in our oceans, glorious in their independence and unattachment. And like magnets they have always drawn people to them.

In childhood we are tempted to explore their secrets; the possibility of hidden treasure having lain in wait for decades and maybe even centuries in the bowels of the island; or the likelihood of islands harbouring strange tribes or animals rarely seen before; a place of adventure, mysteries and otherness. Be that as it may, in the same way these magical places enabled us to every so often escape from reality, still, as adults, we book flights and set sail to these smaller islands, mainly to find rest and respite from the daily grind. We flee to them; to these places removed.

Some islands are bits of the old continents, part of the land shelf that rise above the surrounding water, like rebellious children who stubbornly broke away and strayed to find their own destiny in the vast expanse of the ocean. Others grew straight from the oceanic crust – true water children. And others, formed from once living creatures, stand proudly anchored in the underwater rainbows of coral reefs.

Having grown up not far from the coast, weekends and holidays spent at the beach are some of my happiest memories. Throughout my childhood many things became synonymous to being at the beach: fun; sun; a steady diet of barbecue and ice creams; a dip in the ocean equalling a bath (if we could at all get away with it); no demands; not many rules; running free; crazy, salt-encrusted hair that no hairbrush could untangle; not a lot of clothing. And ultimately all these conditions signified one thing: freedom.

At night time the sound of the crashing of the waves at high tide or the gentle turning over of small water tunnels lapping at the sand were my nocturnal friends. And during the day, if we weren’t covered in sand or leaping in the water, I was amongst the rocks. Sometimes catching small fish in rock pools in my net. But always searching. For mostly one rare item. Between the crevices and nooks and crannies of my kingdom of rocks they would lie in wait: pumpkin-shaped shells – the fragile skeleton of sea urchins – which we simply called little pumpkins (‘pampoentjies’). They were rare finds and I never got tired of marvelling at their perfectly-shaped, green (sometimes tinged with pink), delicate, round bodies and the symmetrical lines that stretched like beads from the small gap in the top to the bigger opening at the bottom. At the end of the holiday I would string them together from big to small and they would hang in front of windows, looking out.

As the world unfolds into every-widening chinks and alcoves as one grows older, one starts chasing other things. I continued searching. For islands. Because I guess that is what we do: we revert back to our own paradise, hoping to find, time and again, that place where we were happiest: the origin of our own personal freedom; a sanctuary where we can be ourselves in our most natural state. And what better place, I have always thought, than a relatively small piece of land 360 degrees surrounded by the sea.

Whenever I am lucky enough to find myself on an island, I am always startled by its beauty and varying degrees of isolation, by the individuality of every single one of these isles. Be it a tiny piece of remoteness in the Caribbean Sea where only iguanas are allowed to live, craning their necks for hours seemingly motionless towards the sun on rocks all day; or a place small enough to get around by golf carts; or an island in the Mediterranean Sea where, according to legend, its religious structures were thought to have been built by mythical beings. They all lie nestled within the ocean as if they’ve used the geological forces to their advantage to acquire each their own unique, remote quality.

And, as we are all caught within the spiral of time and history inevitably repeats itself, like many moons ago, we have fun all the same: we absorb the sun that scatters its rays into thousands of blindingly white stars on the surface of the ocean; I follow a steady diet of seafood and wine and ice cream; we acutely experience the pleasure of no demands and no need for layers of clothing; we run free; I still enjoy crazy, salt-encrusted hair that no hairbrush can untangle. And still all these conditions signify one thing: freedom, the chance not to be industrious but just to be.

From the sandy edges of islands even the mainland looks soft and hazy on the horizon, its sharp, strict edges softened and just far enough to be safely out of immediate reach. As, sometimes we need to be rid of externals, of looking like and acting in a certain way; from time to time all we need is to experience a different world and be aware only of one’s own breathing. To find, once again, equilibrium within the palm of the currents; our insides brought into perfect equanimity with the steady pull and fluctuation of the rhythm of the tides.

Rarely have I found a pumpkin shell on my many journeys during my adult life. I guess one needs to accept that certain things belong to a different time. They were most probably nature’s reward for my determination and devotion, my light-footed scampering from rock to rock all day long. That they did serve a purpose is undeniable though: to this day I slip every island – the recollection of each a quiet devotion – onto the string of my memory and I carry them inside myself, unspoiled, like a strand of prayer beads.

Even though the physical state of islands too, like the lifespan of us humans, are intrinsically impermanent, most of them are not quite as transient. And therefore I find comfort in the fact that after we’re gone from the earth, most of the islands will still be there: looking out.

A Fictional Journey – Passing Through (The Stuff of Life)

You will always find my Aunt in front of the window, in the presence of her London Plane tree, wrapped inside her memories (only good ones). And with her I too feel happy.

For my Aunt the hardships do not exist anymore. When I’m with her even I forget about the difficulties, the supposed ‘stuff of life’ that the world carries on their shoulders and daily complain about through loud, honking horns and protests and demands, tunneling endlessly through the system’s churning engine. When I look down upon the pavement and the passersby through her window I can almost see the force of the invisible yoke that keeps them close to the ground. Scurrying past with their bodies bent forwards against the weight of the dying day, they seem only to be aware of the change in weather by noticing the first signs of winter accumulate in a slippery layer of frost under their busy feet; scuffling forwards over dusty-coloured weeds and making their way over cracks in the pavements as the warm season descends; the sky a spherical paper weight pressing down on them.

Even before some memories started fading for her, my Aunt was someone who moved with the seasons. Her life was completely in tune with that of the farm she lived on and with for 65 years.

‘When there is only silence around you, you learn to listen to the weather, to watch nature closely. It starts guiding you. It becomes your inner voice. Ask your Mother next time you see her. She knows it as well as I do.’

Never do I remind her that my Mother had passed away four years ago, only just a year after she got my Aunt settled in suburban London.

They were twins. Almost identical in appearance, in mannerisms.  Mirrored in each other, my mother used to tell me how she had no need for calendars. In the face of her twin she could read the lines that time left, the scars and signposts of a shared childhood. The rings of years past echoed through her and her sister in much the same way.

When my Aunt was moved to London she did so with an air of dignity and grace and quiet acceptance.

‘Life is all about adapting, acclimatising to the changing seasons,’ she told me, studying and then wiping her palm over the worry lines on my forehead, as we helped her to move in.

Aunt’s single bedroom, third storey flat looks out towards the shop facades on the opposite side of the High Street. Like a canopy overhanging the busy High Street, her tall London Plane taps against her window when the cold wind blows; it often droops down heavy with rain; bows its crest glistening with ice in winter; catches the first rays of sunlight and changes its seasonal face without fail.

A backdrop to her life, the Plane seems to anchor her past to the changing, never-ending spiral of time, while simultaneously rooting her in the present. So many times my Aunt, ever content in front of the window, would remind me of a boat harboured in a bay, calmly swaying ever so slightly on an ingoing and outgoing tide. And enfolded in its branches, its silken leaves, its ever-changing faces, the Plane would seem to hold in place the sky above the rooftops.

The weather never an inconvenience, my Aunt would declare herself as ‘Right as rain!’ on rainy evenings, as I irritably try not to trudge mud and a soaked umbrella into her tiny living room.

Reflected in the window, on evenings like these, her face would sometimes be indistinguishable from the creamy bark of the Plane, the raindrops mixing a camouflaged palette on the wet pane.

It is more than a use of pathetic fallacy. There is an honesty, a plain truth in the way in which my Aunt had found her place in the world, within the swirling ebb and flow of life and how she verbalises it

As the daily London grime is rinsed away by the rain, the Plane’s tough, leathery, sycamore-like leaves are left a hopeful, rich green in summer time, turning into the bright hues of orange and yellow before tumbling to the ground in autumn. Forever preparing for a new season, naturally and effortlessly determined.

Already elevated physically and mentally above street-level my Aunt has no need or desire, like me – always questioning, always searching – to look down.

‘When you’re down there, it’s always better to look up,’ she told me one day when I was yet again peering down at the ever-flowing line of human traffic down below.

I turned around, surprised, massaging my sudden aching neck from all that craning to get a better view of the world I was part of every day. She was looking through the window herself and as I turned back, the sky – held within the mottled, speckled branches of the London Plane – was on fire: a huge lava lamp dripping with the colours of molten glass. Amazed and slightly puzzled, I didn’t know how I missed such a beautiful sight.

When I – forever analysing, endlessly researching – asked my aunt if she knew that her tree was a hybrid between the Oriental Plane and American Plane, she only smiled. Maybe she had no more need of concrete facts, I thought. Perhaps she instinctively knew when she’s met another kindred spirit.

There are times, especially during the first and last hazy light of dusk and dawn, that she would sweep her fingers lightly from right to left over the window pane – a dreamy, gentle motion. The home carers don’t understand. They think she’s confused but I know that she’s paging through the chapters of her life. Skipping over the blank pages where once the sad chapters of her life starkly lay. But now these events don’t bother her because somehow they’ve disappeared from the pages of her memory. Passed and forgotten, they had turned into thin, slightly see-through rice paper, temporarily shadowing the good times seen through the silk screen of the hard times worn thin.

The window cleaners, who clean the building’s windows without fail once every two months, are some of her closest friends. She feeds them sandwiches and cups of tea through the big sash window. Although they are only supposed to use their ladders occasionally, they always take a few minutes to rest on them in front of her open window, shielded from too many prying eyes by the maple-like leaves of the London Plane, shaped like five pointed stars. Her in her armchair and them with their scrubbers, squeegees and microfibre cloths, perched on their ladders on the other side of the windowsill, chattering like old friends, bringing her bits of news from the outside world.

‘The swallows,’ she calls them. ‘They’ve travelled so far to come and see me.’

And as my corporate life seems to swallow my days and my nights, I find myself reading up even more about the London Plane tree. On the train, on the bus, during small windows of time and light like my 15 minute lunch breaks. As I read, I can feel myself breathing deeply. I learn that the London Plane flourishes in London due to its hardy characteristics, that it requires little root space and can survive in most soils.

Looking up at the tree, having anchored itself deep below the foundations of the cement pavement, I can sense its confidence. Completely sure of itself and self-sufficient, it stands holding its own in the merciless breath of a sleepless city, reinventing itself to be carried away on the rhythm of passing time.

And upstairs, in the dappled light falling through the Plane’s branches, expanded into a canopy-like structure like the outstretched palm of a hand, I know that my Aunt is sitting rooted in her chair, the different shades of day and evening washing over her line-less face. As if her wise acceptance, her moving with the tide and not against it, left her physically unscathed.

Apparently, I read, none of the London Planes is known to have died of old age. Ageless they seem to have guarded London’s suburban population. And I start forcing myself to look at things in a different way. I try to look up more; to appreciate the bits of nature that pushes its way into the urban domain and I try to breathe through work days too where we are all raging against the machine with forced, corporate smiles and dishonest, seemingly polite, e-mail templates while the daily grind is threatening to mill us into grey particles of fine ash.

And I try to listen more closely. My Aunt has always told me many stories. Never repeating one of them. On many difficult days it is from the transformative nature of her stories that I keep within myself that I draw my strength. Never has my Aunt’s demeanour been terribly demonstrative or dramatic but there is always laughter in her eyes, the enjoyment of her memories beaming through her. Sometimes when she tells her tales, I can hear the carers moving extra quietly through the kitchen as they strain to hear, a respectful silencing of their actions.

In her life she had to train herself to bend nature to her will. Running a farm has never been an easy task.

‘But there is no need for ruthless farming. You can always give back what you have received. Like in any relationship it’s about give and take and maintaining that balance. In the end, one needs to be able to live with oneself.’

My favourite story is how once, when they were children, her and my mother covered up the scarecrows so the crows could have their fill. No more does she speak of the punishment that followed.

‘In their neat, black suits they would peck at the seeds as if they were gathering precious secrets. After they’ve had their fill, your Mum and I would follow their footprints, the imprints of their sharp beaks, like marks left by freshly sharpened pencils, in the soil. I imagined that they left a thank you letter to the farmer. Although, needless to say, there was no meeting of minds between farmer and crow.’

It is a Friday and the first Corporate Mindfulness Day we’ve ever had at work.  All gathered around the big table in the boardroom, I make sure that I get the chair closest to the window. The tired faces of my colleagues look up expectantly at the guru who looks calm and ready to deliver to all the secret of finding the Holy Grail of survival and happiness within the workplace, some magical formula to keep at bay the stuff of life, how to inhabit your happy place wherever and whenever.

As his calm voice starts to chant of living in the moment my gaze wanders towards the slightly opened window.

The London Plane is unusual, I remember, in that it can flourish despite pollarding. Its branches need no pruning. Self-sufficiently it regenerates itself, containing its good looks and vitality by shaking itself free of pollutants as the patterned bark breaks away in large flakes.

Outside I can see the first leaves starting to fall, preparing for a cold winter. It’s like yesterday that the city started preparing itself for the big frost.

Suddenly, as if looking through my Aunt’s eyes, I can see the London Plane’s flowers develop into their clustery spiky fruits, like little ball-shaped baubles, that slowly break up over winter to release their seeds.  And I can see the new green leaves of spring already pushing through. And it makes me feel inexplicably happy.

Storms

Daar is soveel dele van my land van herkoms wat ek bitterlik sleg ken en sommige streke, eintlik glad nie. Maar wanneer ‘n mens dwarsbeen oor twee kontinente leef, gaan dit op die ou end oor die mense. Waar jou mense ookal is, dit is daar waar jou reise keer op keer opeindig.

Augustus laas jaar gaan kuier ek vir ‘n goeie vriendin in die Oranje-Vrystaat. Ons is albei Oos-Kapenaars. In die Oos-Kaap is dit nog koud en reënerig, maar ek gooi gou die baadjie af wanneer ek in die Vrystaat arriveer. Bloemfontein se lug is droog; die gerug van ‘n stofstorm lê en wag om elke draai; agter elke bos bewe ‘n lugspieëling in die hitte.

Met die Vrystaat is ek nie te goed bekend nie. Ek was al ‘n paar keer daar, maar dit was vir ‘n vinnige deurry en ‘n vlugtige troue en hierdie keer wag daar ‘n ou bekende. Ons het mekaar lank laas gesien en ons gesels. Onophoudelik, want die stories raak nie op nie. Daar is niks om weg te steek nie en so baie om te vertel en te bespreek. En sommer vinnig voel dinge nie meer so onbekend nie.

In hierdie deel van die land bring temperature groter uiterstes as langs die kus. Vroegoggend al kom lê die begin van ‘n warm, droë dag oor die huise se dakke. Wanneer jy ontbyt eet, kielie die helder hoëvelddag se warm asem al klaar in ‘n mens se neusvleuels. Dit is meer as ‘n voorspelling. Dis ‘n definitiewe belofte. In die Vrystaat draai die weer nie doekies om nie.  Hier slurp die lug die vog uit jou vel. Sonder om onverskoning te vra. Maar terselftertyd kom lê die eerlikheid van die landskap en sy klimaat tussen ons woorde.

Hier, in die hart van die Vrystaat se sentrale plato, is die grasvelde oortrek met ryp in die winter, maar dit is die sukkulente en karooagtige plantegroei wat my heeltyd in die gesig staar. Daaraan is ons albei gewoond. Alhoewel ons driekwart kusmense is (soutwater pols soos bloed deur ons are), is ons ook ten minste ‘n kwart karoo (die helder, oop lyne van die karoo, geaksentueer deur ‘n oneindige blou hemel, loop reg deur ons). Dit is warm in Bloemfontein. Baie warm vir Augustusmaand. En droog. Maar ek is bly, want elke keer as ek in Suid-Afrika aanland smag my liggaam na enige vorm van hitte na soveel jare in Engeland met gereelde sifreën wat vir dae kan aanhou.

Ons lag baie. ‘n Hele halwe jaar se intriges om te deel. Ons praat oor baie dinge wat my nog lank sal bybly. Stof tot nadenke, soos die ou mense altyd gesê het. En praat van stof! Ek sien geen stofstorms terwyl ek daar is nie, maar tussendeur die kuier kan ek hulle voel woel onder my voetsole, hulle kom vat soos ‘n voorgevoel aan die porieë regoor my vel. Hier moet jy die heel dag room smeer.

In die dorre landskap – vol klipriwwe, grasveld en boswêreld – is dit moeilik vir geheime om skuiltes te kry om in weg te kruip. Water verdor vinnig in die warm lug wat soos n tregter die vog opslurp, maar die son brand en die hitte skaaf stories en die landskap tot sonwit geraamtes wat nie sommer sal verdor nie. In die nag gaan my vriendin se sproeiers skelm aan in die tuin vir ‘n paar minute, waterbeperkings ten spyt.

Selfs die duiwe se gekoer klink helderder deur die oggendskemering. Daar is ‘n eerlike opeising wat in die oop lug hang. ‘n Vreesloosheid wat dinge tot op die been oopkloof en die verbleikte beendere van ‘n situasie vinnig blootlê: die basiese feite, die bare bones van ons elke dag se doen en late, so dikwels onbelangrik vir vreemdelinge maar van belang tussen vriende. Want wanneer ‘n mens mekaar ken, verstaan ‘n mens ook beter die landskap van ‘n ander se hart.

Een vroeg-amper-skemer-aand ry ons op met Naval Hill: die enigste wildreservaat in die wêreld wat hom in die middel van ‘n stad bevind. Hier is geen toegangsfooi nodig nie. Enige een is welkom, selfs met ‘n leë beursie. ‘n Agt meter hoë standbeeld van Mandela strek sy arm uit oor die stad wat daar onder in ‘n ligbruin newel lê en wag vir die nag.

‘n Standbeeld van ‘n groot, wit perd herinner aan die Anglo Boere-Oorlog. Maar volgens die Sothos is die standbeeld ‘n historiese afbeelding van Koning Moshoeshoe se beste perd. Blykbaar, so gaan die storie, beweeg die perd een tree vorentoe elke keer as iemand mekaar daar bo op die heuwel soen. Die standbeeld, met ‘n ongebonde panoramiese uitsig oor die stad, is oop vir interpretasie. En moontlikhede.

Wanneer ek die dolerietkoppies aan die buitewyke van Bloemfontein daar doer ver sien kop uitsteek, verbaas ek my weer eens aan die feit dat die naam van die stad verwys na ‘n fontein met blomme. Oorspronklik ‘n waterplek van die Boesmans, eens ‘n natuurlike oase, nou die geregtelike hoofstad van die provinsie.

En ek dink aan my land en sy mense: die ewige toutrek tussen verskillende opinies; vele storielyne; die skaamtelose opeising van ‘n geskiedenis wat nooit vir almal dieselfde sal lyk nie; die determinasie waarmee mense hier in die suidpunt van Afrika voortbeur en aanhou en uithou, taai soos die taaibosse, lawaaierig soos heuningbier of ‘karri’ (waarvandaan die kareeboom sy naam gekry het) maar tog, op die ou end, helend soos die blare van die blinkblaar-wag-‘n-bietjie boom.

Om ‘n plek te leer ken, moet jy sy mense verstaan.

Oppad terug na Engeland in die vliegtuig voel ek vasgevang in die warm, droë lug waarin ‘n mens vir ure dor en verlate en ankerloos rondskommel. Dis ‘n gedwonge, kunsmatige situasie, so sittende en slapende hoog bo die aarde. Hier kan ‘n mens ook nie wegkruipertjie speel nie, maar ‘n mens probeer. Ten alle koste. Dis ‘n ongemaklike situasie. ‘n Teësinnige sit-en-slaap saam met vreemdelinge en die kloustrofobie-ure so saam verwyl.  Elkeen is uiteraard slegs daar om neer te stryk by hul finale destinasie. Die gravitasie waarvan ons mere mortals so afhanklik is, skielik opgehef. Geen versperrings. Jy kan nie jou snork of jou oopmond-slaap wegsteek nie. Hier is almal een in hul reis. Soos in een groot ongemaklike krismisbed word ons meegevoer en uitgedroog en dan uiteindelik uitgespoeg na ons neergestryk het. ‘n Spul bokkoms wat na die landing styf en moerig uit die metaalvoël steier.

Ons sms mekaar wanneer ek aanland: ‘Sien jou in Desember. Vir see en C. Louis Leipoldt se somer en son en saffiere.’

Die sandduine en die branders waai en bruis maar altyd binne-in ‘n mens wie naby die see grootgeword het.

‘n Paar weke later is ek haastig oppad huis toe. Onder my sambreel, terwyl ek saam met die koue en die Engelse reën straataf spoel, kry ek ‘n whatsap: ‘Die stofstorm het ons vandag getref. Rooi soos die oog van Mars. Kan nie wag vir see en saffiere!

Maar ek weet ons sal almal op die ou end oorleef, want sy was nie alleen toe die storm sy finale aftog geblaas het nie en ek, ek was oppad huis toe waar ‘n man met ‘n Britse aksent en ‘n warm hart wag.

Wanneer ‘n mens by jou mense is, kan die storms maar kom.

Travelling from Tidiness

Not long ago I was given an interesting book as a present: The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I say interesting because when people give you a present it usually is a fairly good indication of how they see you, what they think fits your personality and what, according to them, you need and will make you happy. In this case, Marie Kondo’s book is essentially a self-help book written to persuade people of the magical effect tidying up will have on their lives. Although I enjoyed the book, I could have written three quarters of the book myself as I have always been a bit of a tidy-freak when it comes to my immediate environment.  And everyone who knows me well would agree.

 

We laugh about my OCD traits, how I know whenever something had been moved a fraction from its usual place but that’s all fine as aesthetic surroundings had always been important to me. Luckily though, one trait does not define an individual’s complete personality. We are, after all, never only just made up of one thing and from the ‘chaos’ and creativity of humans’ minds, many times a reflection of life in all its glorious tumult and excitement, people bring forth formidable truths in varieties of beautiful forms.

 

As Terence McKenna said, “The creative act is a letting down of the net of human imagination into the ocean of chaos on which we are suspended, and the attempt to bring out of it ideas.”

 

I guess all of us are continuously trying to ‘tidy up’ and straighten things out in different ways. It’s inevitable. As with many things in life, one often has to finish off something in order to start another; to clean your net so you can find the idea you’re looking for. I guess at times we need to temporarily suspend ourselves on a platform of our own making before easing ourselves back into the storm. Maybe, after having created one’s own diving board, you can catapult yourself from there headlong into life’s tempests.

 

 

The more I thought of and read about the act of tidying up, the more I started seeing examples of it all around me in the lives of others: a friend asked me to come around and help her to unpack the books and DVDs that were still in boxes after having moved into her flat quite a while ago; a cousin moved to Spain and cleared out everything that did not bring her joy; another friend reduced his earthly possessions to its bare minimum before he could really throw himself into a new business venture; another friend felt the need to clear out her office and sort out her paperwork in order to set her sights on a possible new career as she found herself standing at a crossroads in her life; a cousin of mine used to make us all laugh before a night out with his words, ‘Let’s keep it tidy, all of you.’

 

It seems like no matter how much we like indulging in the messy fun of the proverbial ‘night before’, to move forward it does seem like some sense of neatness or clarity or understanding has to be arrived at, before one can move on to ‘the morning-after-the-night-before’ stage. And many times people start by detoxing their space, which made me think about the difference between lifelong tidy-uppers and once-in-a-blue-moon tidy-uppers. Were they really that different? Might their intentions be the same? Are they purging their environment as a coping mechanism? An unconscious desire to have some kind of control, no matter how mundane, as life offers no other guarantee than that the journey will be full of surprises?

 

 

Be that as it may, even researchers have found that a cluttered environment, as opposed to an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment, restricts your ability to focus and limits the brain’s ability to process information.

 

As a preschooler, I still remember enjoying the freedom of daily roaming a big house, huge garden and my friend’s backyard – in the middle of it a tall tree housing a magical tree house – that bordered onto mine. The parameters of my kingdom felt limitless. I was the master of my world, the captain of my own ship, I set my daily routine and allocated a specific place to every toy in my room – beautifully they’d line the shelf at just the right angle to catch the light.  But suddenly, and involuntarily, there came a day that I was marched off to Kindergarten where I had to slot into someone else’s idea of routine, all of us hemmed in by the wider aim of crowd control.

 

No longer could I tame the monsters of mess and institution with my armour of aesthetic ideas and free will. There we all were: caught. I felt wedged between the little devils – my destructive peers – and the deep, unfathomable, blue sea – a teacher that dictated every few minutes of my day and who apparently thought she knew best. If it wasn’t the imminent destruction I faced in the continuous disarray of the home corner where the dolls were strewn around the floor (Who can play when they can’t move without stepping on a rubber limb? I wanted to know but there was no time to ask), it was the formidable voice of the teacher who brought an end to unfinished pictures and games only just started with her next command that had to be obeyed. Nothing seemed to reach full circle in there and, although I would laugh at the antics of my friends and would manage to sometimes reach the swings before anyone could jump in the seat first, I never stopped longing for the freedom of marching to the beat of my own drum. The lack of harmonious feng shui energy was nowhere more noticeable than in Kindergarten and my 5-year old chakras were fluttering in frustration and annoyance.

 

 

But life continued and in all the years of living under my parents’ roof, my father would always make the same comment every time he opened any door behind which any of my possessions were stored: ‘You would have been perfect in the army.’

 

Who knows: the neat edges of starched sheets and clean lines of uniforms ironed into sleek submission would most probably have appealed to me but the regime of marching to another’s drill commands did not sound like so much fun. Not that the army had any lasting effect on my father: I gave up trying to persuade him to keep his wardrobe tidy. They are a laidback bunch, my family members. For years my parents had all their photographs stored in plastic bags until, one holiday in my 35th year, I decided to order them all into photo albums.

 

 

But, as we all do, I adapted: resigned myself to the fact that others’ disorganisation is inevitable, quickly learned to love the pandemonium of life. And realized that in order to combat the effects of life’s physical disorder, one has to reduce one’s kingdom and consequently embrace life outside its boundaries. Living in shared housing with roommates meant that half a meter around my bed was my deck; the rest was ever-changing, rough, at times exhilarating, seas where rules were debated by many and the presence of ugly ornaments and mess and dirt inevitably ensued.

 

Adapting to others’ worlds, blending with the contours of shared environments and enjoying it is a skill but, for most, being able to retreat to one’s own space where reason awaits, is crucial. This is where planning your next move from is made possible. I guess you empower yourself to step out of the frame of your own canvas into the clutter of life. Because life is a combination of ugliness and beauty, cruelty and compassion. It’s an uncontrollable mess of adventure we embrace all the time with a knowing that somewhere, behind a closed door, there is a moment of peace, of (in my case) symmetrically arranged perfume bottles and bookshelves filled with upright spines: a physical space that defines who we are; a place where there is some kind of order to things.

 

 

Fate does seem to have quite an interesting sense of humour: years later I find myself teaching 4-year olds. The day is filled with déjà vus from childhood. I train my students to do short bursts of intense, thirty second intervals of military-style straightening up of the classroom. Consequently, I have short glimpses in my mind’s eye of neatly arranged toys on shelves from long ago that nobody else was allowed to dust except me. These small doses of aesthetic therapy soothe my soul in between the ever-cascading onslaught of waves of commotion that sweep daily through the classroom.

 

Once, in the long stretch of my teaching career, my class wins the Tidiness Cup. I don’t know if I should give a beaming smile or a disgruntled, embarrassed nod of the head to show my acceptance of the tiny cup, big enough for a hardboiled egg to fit in.

 

It still amazes me now when I see how much small children love coming to school. Light-footed with joy they’ll skip through the doors in the morning. But every now and then a little aggrieved, knowing face would peer around the door, hesitant to enter. And this always manages to trigger the same memory:

 

I would lower the thin needle down carefully into its grooved pathway so it starts to dance, light like a ballerina, in a perfect spiral, over the surface of the record’s face – perfectly round and black like an eclipsed liquorice moon. In this way the vinyl and its needle would, like a deft and magical duet, conjure up the music and the sounds from the depths of its inner workings. For hours I would dance circles around the coffee table until my friend would call me to come and play in the tree house.

 

Funnily enough, not much has changed. I still love to do just that. And when duty calls I feel the old annoyance. Not just yet, I want to say. Let me be for a little while longer. After all, who wants to dance to another’s tune when you have created your own perfect backdrop to the world?  Unlike Marie Kondo who has created a business out of helping others to tidy and move on, I have never made it my business to create others’ view points.

 

In the end, tidy or not, each of us has to find our own jetty from which to sail.

 

 

BOOK mentioned:

 

Marie Kondo. 2014. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Ten Speed Press Berkeley.