Poem by John O’Donohue:
Such fickle weather, the sun chasing clouds across the valley (not scientific you say?) and my lush green bushes of basil scenting the herb garden but wilting for lack of rain. An in-between week, this hiatus between old and new years.
Well, the craziness had to sneak in somewhere. A drunken and aggressive (crazy) neighbour has taken to shooting at African ibises in the Norfolk pines behind our place. He is teaching his son to shoot birds with a compressed air gun, bellowing and incoherent, a nightmare. Several of us rang the police who have (hopefully) confiscated the air gun and warned him. Everyone except him knows he has a drink problem. Everyone tries to avoid him and the cloud of sodden angry fogginess he exudes like a nasty odour. But this too is reality, the shadow of violence and untreated illness amidst the sunshine and neighbourliness.
Tonight we are having a birthday supper with my former art teacher, imperious, difficult and lovable. Last year she was 83 and this year she is 79. She is painting a vast canvas in oils of waterbirds on a lake fringed with reeds, taking the details from an old photograph, working with a magnifying glass and a rod to hold her forearm steady, convinced as ever of her own genius despite the wavering lines and blobs of paint in the wrong places.
She has not forgiven me for dropping out of her art classes. The truth is that she is not a teacher, despairs of students who don’t get it right first time. She would prefer to work with natural-born geniuses. Despite her disapproval, I am very fond of her and endure her barbs and sarcasm each year with good grace. In fact I rather hope I have her vitality and determination when I am 79 or 83. We will cook supper for her and try to intercede in her feud with the sister who spends each Christmas with her even though they have never been able to get along.
‘We are completely different types,’ explains the art teacher. ‘I have the soul of an artist and she is rational, logical and a philistine.’ They are, of course, as alike as two peas in a pod and both highly creative as well as rational and logical when it suits them.
So I shall be making salads of roasted red peppers and a platter of Caprese with sliced summer-sweet tomatoes leafed with basil and fresh buffalo mozzarella. The art teacher doesn’t eat anything yellow and her sister will not eat food beginning with the letter C, so the Caprese salad will be nameless.
And as I potter around in the kitchen and listen to the magnificent arcs and falls of Bach’s music, I am grieving a sudden loss. All across the Internet there are circles within circles of blog communities: those of us who write or paint, those of us who live in Africa, those of us scattered into the diaspora, those of us dreaming of a better world, those of us healing from addiction or trauma. Bloglands united by love and sharing. Yesterday I heard that the lovely and gifted Tessa Edwards of The Aerial Armadillo had died after a long battle with cancer. I knew Tessa through mutual friends and came on her blog by accident only to find she was seriously ill, a reticent gracious artist who was also a chronically homesick African. She worked through her art and organizational gifts to raise funds for Aids orphans in Africa, ecological projects, humanitarian concerns. As one friend wrote in tribute: ‘Tessa was more of a bodisatva- a working moving loving meditation to better the lives of others, enjoying her own time here to the max — brief but jam-‘packed!’
When I read Tessa’s blog and look at her art, I remember again that creativity, like gratitude and hopefulness and compassion, are life choices: those intentions, responses and disciplines that orient us towards growth and depth.
Hamba kahle, Tessa, travel in peace.
“It is never easy to keep reaching for dreams. Strength and courage can sometimes be lonely friends, but those who do reach, walk in stardust.”
Surfaced from post-Christmas torpor and lethargy, mince-pie fatigue, etc and realised we are going out for supper on 30 December and entertaining (yes, again) on New Year’s Eve.
‘Let’s go vegetarian with a festive stuffed Moroccan butternut,’ I suggested to the housemate. Thinking about pomegranate granita and tossed wild rocket in a simple vinaigrette.
“Let’s so not,’ came the reply. Parties attract carnivores.
So there is a leg of lamb, pork fillet and possibly rump steak to be defrosted and marinaded. Quail to be stuffed with couscous or polenta. Maturing Brie and Camembert cheeses, figs to be wrapped, peaches ripening, A deep dish in the freezer of homemade vanilla ice cream using fresh sticky vanilla pods from Madagascar. The friends, jovial and indefatigable party anumals, are bringing pretzels and salted almonds, trifles with whipped cream, more baked hams and salamis, panforte with candied quinces. The sturdy Stollen nobody fancied at Christmas.
At some point, all this will have to be scaled down to what a lively group of overfed adults are actually likely to eat. I like to plan eight-course meals, aided and abetted by the housemate, but in reality we only need salad and good breads.
And if the weather is good we shall build a large fire and sit outdoors under the stars. But the weather is 100% humidity with 45% chance of rain. As if anyone takes metereological percentages seriously. It is damp and oppressive, with black rain clouds that never rain. This weather reminds me of my childhood home on the Mozambique border and cycling to school under flamboyant trees hoping not to get caught in a rainstorm. I still get homesick for Zimbabwe, what I think of as the ’real’ tropical Africa. Shona women selling ripe mangos, maize cobs, live chickens at the busstops, good-humoured queues waiting for the bus and laughing, telling stories, donkeys or mules pulling carts of yams along red dirt roads, open-air hair salons in the shade of the flamboyant or jacaranda trees – everywhere you go in rural Africa there are men, women and children sitting patiently on kitchen chairs or stools while their hair is razored, snipped or braided. Nobody ever writes about how wonderful communal life is in so many places out here. The warmth and simpicity and selflessness.
The end of another year of sobriety. Odd to note that I have no idea what my guests will choose to drink on New Year’s Eve. None are alcoholic and most drink very seldom. They might have champagne toast at midnight or some wine with their meal. There will be mineral water and icy gingerbeer or homemade lemonade, fruit juices. While alcoholism doesn’t go away, the preoccupation with alcohol fades and all those blessed days of reprieve do add up to a year worth remembering.
From Chapter 6 in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous:
And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone, even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.
Washed-out halo of moon in the morning sky. Bright and breezy morning here in the Overberg, got up early to water the kitchen garden. Today is known locally as Boxing Day or Goodwill Day and there are church bells ringing because it is also Sunday. A blissful day with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
Had an email from a divorced woman friend full of rage and bitterness. Such a hard place to find oneself in at Christmas when all around you are playing at happy families. I kept thinking of James Baldwin’s perceptive insight:
“I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.”
Another friend on holiday in Thailand sent me a quotation on relationship. She is staying in a quiet village and meditating each morning up at the local monastery temple, going for long walks around green and watery rice paddies, carrying out a review of her life to date.
As this year draws to an end I find myself doing something similar as I work on drafting out chapters and cutting back herbs. Where to now? More of the same or something different? What needs to change? Rather like mulling over the daily inventory on a larger scale, waiting for answers to emerge.
One might say that looking for love at all is looking for it in the wrong places, because behind that there is the idea that we can do something to make love happen or create it or somehow through a serious search, discover it or lure it out of hiding. This very activity of looking with a result in mind is somehow off the mark. In this there is something a bit too controlled or contrived; too much of “me”; that “me” that is the source of separation. ―Doug Phillips
Intermittently cloudy and bright Christmas morning here, wondering whether to sit outside or indoors. A morning of hugs and greetings and phone calls, gifts of chocolate, pecan biscuits, homemade jars of raspberry jam, last year’s almonds and walnuts from local trees.
We had some newly sober women around for supper last night, sat out around a small fire and chatted, enjoyed the cool of the evening. They were shellshocked to be having Christmas meals with no alcohol around. No sneaking sherry in the kitchen. No empty winebottles on the table. No ruining everyone’s Xmas. All I could say in a vague unhelpful sort of way was that it does get easier, but I could see the sense of lostness. Been there too.
Hopefully they feel brilliantly clearheaded this morning and ready for another sober day. Sobriety always makes sense in retrospect. Nobody ever regrets not getting fall-down drunk and wrecked yesterday. Somebody said to me in a meeting a while back: if you can’t stay in the day, remind yourself what a good sober yesterday feels like the morning after.
And my own secret aid to peaceful interactions and balance at this time of year is the Serenity Prayer. Sometimes soothing and reassuring, and sometimes like a dash of cold water in the face. When the going gets tough, this is what makes the difference, a sobering reality check.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
My neighbour cannot find red onions for a new salad recipe and is at her wits’ end. Two local farmers had a drunken brawl in the pub last night and woke up unable to recall what happened — both have hired security guards to protect them. The security guards find this uproarious and have told everyone in the village about the fracas. All my sober friends are helping one another stay sober. A local woman gave birth unexpectedly in a roadside barn while travelling to a gynae appointment. She is going to call the baby Noel.
Summer rain is falling, a warm deluge of very welcome rain. An escaped African Grey parrot was found perched in a papaya tree and recaptured, much to its relief. Up on main road, there are over-crammed mini-buses and taxis heading off to the Amatola Mountains, Xhosa farm labourers heading home for the yearly reunion with families and their heartland.
My small brown dog has overturned the minature Christmas tree and is sitting on it surrounded by flickering lights and a forlorn African Drummer Boy in felt. No greetings cards from overseas have arrived yet, so it looks as if we don’t have any Christmassy friends. I did receive a snailmail letter from a friend in Wisconsin posted in October. A large ham is simmering in a pot on the stove and the fragrance of cloves, bay leaves and peppercorns is most enticing. My next road but one neighbour Thinus has given me a painting of horses grazing in a field with their manes and tails floating upright. Artistic licence.
Life, friends. You can live it, or miss it.
Went out to listen to Xhosa children singing carols, angelic voices hitting top C on a swelteringly hot night. pure magic.
Less Christmassy, but a song here from the Soweto Gospel Choir that is very dear to many of us, Amazing Grace.
And what a magnificent red moon that was in northern skies – out here we didn’t get to see the eclipse but the videos gave me some idea.
The brother-in-law of a friend popped in on his way up to Keurbooms near Plettenberg Bay. He is very fond of me and said coyly that he had a gift for me. Flowers, I thought happily. Or a book.
‘Yo,’ he said. ‘Here are three fresh ox tongues for you.’
Mary: ‘Gosh. Thanks very much.’
So the ox tongues are now pickling in brine.
Recipe for pickling brine in crisis situations
4 litres water
12 black peppercorns, coarsely crushed
12 juniper berries, coarsely crushed
small bunch thyme
3 fresh bay leaves
6g saltpetre (I go for less at times but better safe than sorry)
735g sea salt
500g soft dark brown sugar
Nothing gets wasted out here in the heart of the country. And I am going to make a mustard sauce, perhaps with capers. The fridge is crammed with buckets of ox tongue, which does not give that magical Nigella-type glamorous Christmassy gilt and silver and iced cupcakes atmosphere, but there are many out here who don’t have anything except maize porridge (stywepap) to eat and I am grateful for a full fridge at any time.
Couldn’t sleep last night thinking about those overcrowded psychiatric wards I saw yesterday, the stained bed linen and blocked toilets, no sign of nursing staff. In any social crisis, it is always the most vulnerable and powerless who get forgotten or shelved aside. Heartbreaking.
And the tree-lined village is overrun with bad-tempered holidaymakers with nasty sunburn. They fled the snow-bound airports and gloomy cities of the north in order to escape to sunshine and golden beaches only to find they could not escape themselves. Discontent is a persistent shadow to shake off. A red-faced mosquito-bit American man in a Hawaiin shirt with a parrot motif said to me this morning in the small understocked cafe: ‘God, how I loathe the Third World!’
‘Merry Christmas,’ I replied mildly. Africa isn’t for sissies.
Went for a walk very early this morning and we saw klipspringers in the fynbos, small buck leaping and pronking in the sunlight.
This afternoon I’m off to visit a woman alcoholic in a locked psychiatric ward who was doing very well at two months sober, but jittery, and so her doctor prescribed an addictive sedative. She didn’t think to mention she was a recovering alcoholic and had a truly spectacular relapse. There is so much suffering at this time of year, my stomach knots with tension and pity.
My sweet-faced little white dog has bad breath and smelly anal glands, so she is off to the vet. How happy that vet is to see us yet again! He has put up a great white Christmas tree with sparkling lights and glittery poodle fairies and there are plushy new (washable) sofas in the waiting room, shelves of Yuletide gifts for the Special Cat or Dog in Your Life. His business is booming. At one stage he was afraid he might have to become a cattle or horse vet in this remote country location, spending unhappy days pushing his forearm into the nether regions of dispeptic cows, but fortunately he has clients with small healthy dogs that require inordinate amounts of expensive attention. Life is good.
In the evenings the constellations of the Southern Cross swim about like star fish in a deep pool. A lunar eclipse is due to coincide with the full moon on Tuesday night. The windows of village homes glow with candles on sills and lacy webs of silver baubles.
There’s nothing but the Blackness there
Graceful as the grace to see
I send my eye beams sailing out
They bring back Grace to me
Difficult moments with drunken and abusive posters on sobriety forums. Let me not count the ways in which the unsober can wreck Christmas for others… A woefully ignorant country doctor has prescribed generous helpings of Valium for a newly sober woman friend and she is now glazed and impervious to everything. Not good.
Along the quieter roads here there are glimpses of waterlilies on farm dams, white and green gloriousness. There are drifts of deep red canna lilies and blue agapanthus, pale green watermelons piled high at the roadside stalls, The landscape dances in the noon heat.
Each day I hold my breath amidst the threat of chaos and remind myself that this is a hard season; then I breathe out and carry on. The house is filled with flowers and ceramic bowls of peaches, greeting cards and looped tinselly red and green ribbons. Sugared ginger biscuits in jars, dishes of pecan and macademia nuts, wrapped toffees in glass bowls for visiting children. Lasagna, mince pies, homemade ice cream in the freezer.
Sooner or later the light breaks through.