The great sober pleasure of waking each morning in time to watch the dawn. The full moon only beginning to fade as the sun comes up on the far horizon. White clouds billowing up from the north like steam in a dark sky.
After a pot of tea and desultory meditation, I sit in the bath and note how the skin on the back of my hands is ageing. But if I squint at the hands through half-closed eyes in the steamy vapours, they look as they did when I was 33. In my private enclosed mind I seem to stay forever 33, although I don’t mind ageing at all so long as the process isn’t accompanied by pain or disfigurement. Thinking of my friend PS who came around yesterday and held herself bolt upright, moved about tentatively and with great care not to jar her painful back. Her face as open and cheerful as ever, but in the last year she has develioped a nervous habit of blinking, as if she had become short-sighted or sensitive to light. Sometimes I wonder if she comes to visit me as a pretext for spending time with my dogs who greet her with much affection and compete to get onto her lap as I bring in the tea things. She has a pack of large rescued dogs herself and has bought a trailer so she can drive through the countryside with dogs barking madly behind her old rust-experiment of a car.
The night before last, we had intruders in the back garden again, stealing the avocados and trying the padlocks on the garage. Disturbed by the dogs barking and lights going on inside the house, so they left and ran off down the road. No point in calling the police unless they smash windows or try to get in. Lou asked in comments yesterday if I ever feel in any danger. Well, Lou, the danger is constant. But it is not the kind of lurking violence where fears could be soothed by buying a gun or buying more padlocks. This is one of the most violent countries in the world and the assaults and rape and murders are too numerous to mention. I can’t think of anyone living here who has not been attacked or has not lost family members. If I shot an intruder dead, his brothers or fellow gang members would begin a vendetta to kill everyone in the household. And if I shot somebody dead, the knowledge that there was a gun in the house would lead to increased burglaries because everyone here wants a gun. The price of a weapon is less than the cost of a bicycle and every now and again I wake to the noise of automatic gunfire from AK47s. Out here we understand a great deal about escalating spirals of violence and why guns are not a solution at all, not even a short-term answer. The police don’t respond to calls late at night and there are no ambulance services out here. There isn’t much to steal, so hopefully the burglaries will ease off when the bad weather sets in. And like everyone else out here, I have lived with danger for many years, have faced and dealt with my fears and anger as far as is humanly possible. Those who suffer the worst and most relentless violence are young black women in the informal settlements and the battered women’s shelter here is always full to overflowing with a long waiting list.
We live with danger. International drug cartels create havoc in poorer communities, youngsters recruited for mercenary work in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya come back hooked on war games and the power of violence, refugees stream into a climate of xenophobia. We live with plagues: Aids, multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, malaria, the threat of Ebola virus, wild variant influenzas, cholera, typhoid and brutal sudden deatb is everyday, nothing out of the ordinary. I don’t write much about this side of my life because many of my readers live in relatively affluent and protected places in the First World and assume I too could live there. Posts about fear and violence sometimes trigger off a naive paranoia or compensatory religiosity in readers. People write and assure me that they too could die at any moment or that the violence out here has nothing to do with neo-globalism or a history of colonialism, that it is just human nature and the same everywhere. But it is not.
Another definition of the word ‘sober’ has to do with seriousness, gravity, looking at life with a clear and unsparing eye. Sober, we see reality as it is and that reality carries with it the inevitability of our own death. One of the many reasons I had for sobering up was that I should not come to die before I had lived. And I did not want to live a life given over to fear and hatred or pettiness.
A quotation from the blogger Jean Morris:
Acceptance doesn’t mean having no problem with violence, pain, cruelty or injustice, not doing anything to oppose or alleviate them. It means accepting that they’re already here, right now, in this moment, and there’s nothing we can do to change that; that denial achieves nothing, so we’d better practice facing up to what is and doing the best we can with it. Facing up: the hardest lesson, especially if you’re, like me, a classic example of what psychologists would call an ‘avoidant’ personality (my very earliest memories are of shutting down, pretending: I’m not here, this isn’t happening).
Learning, through Buddhist practice, that bad feelings aren’t going to kill me, they only feel as if they are, that the only way out is through them, has been a deeper lesson than I’ve culled from any intellectual learning or from psychotherapy, a slow lesson, and one I’ve only learned… oh, perhaps one percent of. But still, astonishingly deep. For one reason and another, I haven’t done much formal sitting meditation or hung out much with Buddhists recently. But the lesson, this deep change in one percent of me, feels irreversible.