The japonica or quince is flowering cherry-red all along the ditch. Sweet brightness. When it thaws a little I shall go out and fill pots with soil, loosen pot-bound roots, replant a few succulents. Manual work is so helpful at times of great anxiety, to be able to work with one’s hands out in fresh air.
Had a letter from a friend in Canada and I sat studying her handwriting for a while, the generous sloping curves, the girlish way she loops her e s. Once, back in my 20s, I knew the handwriting of all my friends. That was the Era of Snailmail, the last gasp of the age of posted correspondence. We sent one another birthday cards, Christmas greetings, letters of condolence, long gossipy letters, love letters, news of graduations and travels, postcards from foreign countries. We waited for weeks or sometimes months for the post to arrive. We kept one another’s letters in bundles tied with ribbon, or tucked into brown manila envelopes, torn envelopes and refolded letters stuffed into old suitcases or brass-bound trunks, the overflowing drawers of dressing tables. The letters crumpled and yellowed, but we could still take them out and read them with nostalgia and affection. So unforgettable, so precious as keepsakes. So unlike the hasty immediate conversations and spontaneity of Internet emails, erased without a second thought because there will be more later, another post tomorrow, more gratification, more entertainment, more future than past.
I still have the rounded schoolgirl hand of those days, my handwriting has not changed or aged. When I was little and living out on a forest reserve, I was taught to draw numbers, tracing 3 the wrong way round, a bobbly 8, and made to print out the alphabet with a porcupine quill dipped in a bottle of blue or dark green Quink ink.
No, I don’t know why. We had Biro pens in the house — my father had several Parker fountain pens, and there were pencils and coloured crayons. But long ago in the 1940s, my mother had been taught to write by dipping porcupine quills and feathered quills into an inkwell of heavy silver, and perhaps she wanted us to share something of that experience. She remembered the dark rosewood dining-room table in the thatched rondavel of a pioneer farmstead, how the furniture smelled of sweet almond oil and a chalky dust sprinkled on the cement floors to repel ants (carcinogenic as all hell, I imagine). She would be locked in the dining room and left alone to learn her letters, sitting there writing about the dog barking and the cat on the mat, while the sun beat down on the veld outside and the long afternoon wore on. She would be hungry and thirsty, desperate for a pee, by the time she was let out. Her sisters and brothers were away at boarding school and she was made to learn on her own because — well, because that is how children were taught out in the colonies in those days. After an early supper before the sun went down at 6pm, she would be taken into the more formal living room with the blinds drawn, the furniture covered in grey dustsheets and heavy karosses on the floor. She would sit there practising the piano until called to go to bed.
And that is how my mother who had once been a concert pianist taught us too, her own children, decades later — we were given quills and lined exercise books, volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, sum books full of graph paper, erasers, pencil sharpeners and an Oxford English dictionary that dated back to 1879. If we had not finished our schoolwork assignments, memorised our times table and completed all the set sums by the end of the day, we would be sent off to bed without supper. Once a week we would be taken into the shaded living room and would sit on stools listening to the crackling static of the mahogany radiogram as a broadcast came over from Schools on the Air, the BBC World Service outreach to children in remote parts of the Empire. I thrived on this solitary regime of writing and self-education, read voraciously and wrote endless made-up stories in my exercise books, pored over the Encyclopedia Britannica of the long-gone 1950s. My sisters did not thrive on this lonely schooling and remained uneducated and wild, hating books and the boredom of learning.
When I went to ‘proper’ school in town, the teachers were appalled that myself and my sisters had been brought up in what seemed absurdly like a Victorian schoolroom, nothing modern or appropriate at all. I had to do a crash course in calculus and learn cursive handwriting all over again instead of my twirly copperplate. Learning about history or geography while sitting in a class surrounded by other students and with a teacher hanging over one’s shoulder was very strange to me. My handwriting slowly changed too from the curly loops and flourishes I had taught myself from examples in the books given to me, into something plainer and more legible, the same handwriting I have now. Only my stories remained my own, daydreams and nightmares and wishes making their way into improbable fictions that sometimes won prizes and sometimes made teachers uncomfortable. I had not yet learned to write for others, I still enjoyed the bliss of writing only for myself, following tides in the bloodstream of the imagination, the uncensored dance of the mind.
My handwriting is still very similar to my mother’s handwriting when she was sober enough to write letters, and I wonder who taught her to surrender the deep looping and royal flourishes that pleased us both so much back then. And I wish i had a letter from her tucked away into a suitcase, so that I might read with hindsight and compassionate love, learn something of who she was and might have become.
Reading the poetry of David Whyte:
Everything Is Waiting For You
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.