Little contradictions everwhere

At  a festive lunch in a bistro-style cafe over the mountains, looking at old white limewashed buildings, shady oak trees and above us the mountains mauve in a heat haze. Our happy convivial table ordering bowls of mussels with crisp golden frites on the side, grilled linefish, French beans with nibbed almonds, roasted  baby tomatoes on the vine, smoky aubergine puree on toasted crostini, dark red radicchio with sliced fennel and orange segments… tall glasses of lime & soda, just-squeezed fruit juices, iced mineral water… ending with heart-shaped cream cheeses wrapped in vine leaves, ripe figs and peaches… Noticing the waitron was irritable and not listening, her hair lank, eyes red and hostile, impatient to get away, making mistakes.


It’s hard, this time of year. And the other diners were wary of interacting with her. Nobody wants confrontations, not the family with the  sulking teen daughter, not the couple yawning and looking past one another across the  table, not the solitary tourist checking his mobile phone for messages.

What I noticed too was how lightly  most people eat and drink now, jugs of water and lemon, pots of  rooibos tea, no plunging into sticky sugary desserts or hefty steaks, no cocktails or second helpings. It’s different of course, the festive season in the southern hemisphere with soaring temperatures and most of those on holiday ready for  mountain hikes, surfing, walks through forests and swimming in private pools. Or the need to conserve stamina for shopping in city malls, beach resorts, aboard cruise liners, in international airports. The paradox of a country that seems outwardly luxurious and  depends on the cheap labour of the desperately poor, the discontented, those who will never inherit or own property or drive cars or earn enough to go on holiday. The waitron in her  chic black and white apron, hard lines of a discontented 45=year-old, standing smoking in a side street, possibly about to resign her job. Her story one I shall never know, though I can guess at how hard that life might be. Leaning against the faux-industrial brick wall, squinting through smoke into the glare of early afternoon, sullen, not caring who saw her.


And I had come to look at art, something I wish I could do more often, browse bookshops, galleries, hear live music under trees. The art curated and expensively framed, not very good, overpriced, predictable with  ‘exotic African’ themes, a pride of lions under badly drawn trees, elongated giraffe sculptures in glossy brown and mustard, no people just the landscape and the beauty, no poverty, no reality check. Stuff tourists like, images that  suit  foreigners who want the invented  Africa where Nelson Mandela talks about love and forgiveness rather than the struggle for justice.


Then I saw a small watercolour of an old Strandveld cottage near wind-blown reeds, the light captured exactly, a delicate and even surreal mood in that composition, beyond representational. Simplicity itself, the  home of a fisherman painted by his daughter on newsprint, something honest and rendered so lovingly. Worth all the standing around, the real thing. An image that stays with me, a contradiction to all the stereotypes and fantasies.

Acorns popping and hammering down on tin roofs, eagles  lazily twirling high above on eddies of cooler air, tourists sunburned and busying themselves with instant videos, snap shots, selfies. The sun casting only the briefest and blackest of shadows, smell of hot lavender from small gardens, shutters closed for siesta time, the penetrating nostalgic music of jazz trombones and flutes following us back to the car. The skies so impossibly blue, this lazy gorgeous holiday season blowing smoke in our eyes even as the history of slavery and apartheid leans in to remind us it’s not over yet, not yet past.



Midweek pause

Excruciating bout of backache after I unwisely bent down at an odd angle while scooping buckets of icy water from a fast flowing furrow under fig trees. Sudden recall of an elderly woman I knew in childhood and once found leaning against an old flamboyant tree, out of breath, a little white in the face. “I keep forgetting I’m old,” she said to me, someone who had always climbed trees and  skipped rather than walked on beaches; lithe, independent and then hobbled by age. She was white-haired but  with beetle-black brows, 83 years old which seemed to me a venerable sort of age and I admired her for  being undignified (our headmistress routinely advised us to “walk, don’t run”). We don’t grow old on the inside and that is a miraculous thing, even when our bodies suffer from  reckless youthful moves.


Appalled again by news of the massacre of  at least 130 schoolchildren in Peshawar by the Taliban. This has been a really bad year for escalating violence and bigotry. And in the New Year, we will have to face wildcat strikes, rioting and burning tyres on highways in protest against the  predicted fuel hikes and increased prices. So much of life here seems to be about lurching from crisis to crisis.


Hopefulness though, that fraction of light squeezing through. In Julia Kristeva’s latest novel, Teresa, My Love, a fictional psychoanalyst named Sylvia Leclercq looks at the paradoxes of a medieval Catholic saint and Jewish converso, Teresa of Avila.


“What’s left of that universe of faith and love, what’s left of the windmills?” Sylvia Leclercq asks. “Chimeras, TV soap operas for avid women and their partners. Or God’s madmen, the suicide bombers, who pretend not to realize that he (the Almighty, the Master, the One and Only, the True, the Beyond) has mutated into pure spectacle, and twist their alleged faith into murderous nihilism.” Teresa’s life and her writings could be one antidote to this malaise, because, according to Sylvia/Ms. Kristeva, she “ventures as far as possible along the route that beckons the person who doesn’t give up on believing, the person who talks as a way of sharing, and who loves in order to act.”


Green tea and disprin for the backache, lines that offer a way  to stay forever young. The person who doesn’t give up on believing [hoping for justice and peace], the person who talks as a way of sharing, and who loves in order to act.


This too, via whiskeyriver:


“It is a strange and wonderful fact to be here, walking around in a body, to have a whole world within you and a world at your fingertips outside you. It is an immense privilege, and it is incredible that humans manage to forget the miracle of being here. Rilke said, ‘Being here is so much,’ and it is uncanny how social reality can deaden and numb us so that the mystical wonder of our lives goes totally unnoticed. We are here. We are wildly and dangerously free. The more lonely side of being here is our separation in the world. When you live in a body, you are separate from every other object and person. Many of our attempts to pray, to love and to create are secret attempts at transfiguring that separation in order to build bridges outwards so that others can reach us and we can reach them.”
– John O’Donohue




Only the lonely

This is a time of year when loneliness is almost palpable. People hear those jaunty sea-shanty carols and  see glittery lights in shop windows, families shopping together; and pause to remember long-dead parents, lost family members, former marriages filled with promise, the  small children now grown up and gone out into the world. How we miss the loved ones who are no longer here,  the big family (including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, Uncle Geoffrey in THAT hat) all together laughing and beaming around the table when we ourselves were very young.


And there are other kinds of loneliness, the  anguish of clinical depression, the shame of  a hidden addiction, the phobias and anxieties that keep some of us housebound. Having nowhere to go, not able to summon up energy to be with others, dreading a time of year when everyone else seems to be happy and capable of enjoyment. Those who are limited by disabilities, visually impaired, a lack of mobility, cut off by deafness. Those grieving.

An article in the Guardian notes:

Loneliness has been linked to the development of a number of serious chronic health conditions, including depression, high blood pressure and dementia. We know that people who experience loneliness are more likely to smoke and drink too much, and less likely to exercise and adhere to a medication regime. Loneliness is therefore correlated with poor health, and causes some of the behaviours that can harm our mental and physical health.


As if just feeling lonely is not bad enough in itself.


As I was watching the horrifying ordeal of  the hostages held in the Lindt Cafe in Sydney unfold yesterday, I felt once again how extreme life=threatening situations can reset all our priorities and remind us what really matters, to be there for  one another and how courage or kindness matters in even the most desperate situations. We cannot  always save one another’s lives but we  can act with decency and restraint rather than giving in to hysteria and hatred. And I saw again that it is possible to show togetherness and some kind of solidarity with those in trouble, their families and friends, a disrupted city putting the pieces back together again after  tragedy.


How do we recover connectedness? I thought to myself, eating buttered toast with dogs underfoot and thinking about reaching out to solitary neighbours, people in the local old age home, a friend surrounded by  family but secretly eaten  up with unbearable secrets, the lonely who are lonely not just at Christmas. But that isn’t enough, personal solutions are rarely enough.  No easy answers in a society in which, as George Monbiot says, we have “surrendered our freedoms and prospects of contentment to a compulsive, atomising, joyless hedonism”. Hard words but that is another perspective on a festive season emptied of  any deeper meaning or togetherness.