Woke early and when I went into the kitchen the back lawn was silver with dew, birds flying from the tree to tree, the sun not yet over the mountaintops.
My neighbour came by and asked me to come and admire his massed plantings of clivias (apricot-red trumpet flowering perennials named after Lady Clive of India) at precisely 3pm this afternoon. He was going up the road to send a seedless young pomegranate and a Turkish fig through to a friend who is a botanist at Kirstenbosch.
This is the annual clivia visit — each spring we sit together in the wood-panelled dining room and have tea out of his Limoges china (dreadful stewed tea) and then we walk up and down the rows of clivias. The naturalist William Burchell was the first explorer to find clivias growing wild near the Great Fish River of the Eastern Cape in 1815. The seeds were sent to Kew. Now clivias are hybridised all over the world and pots of the red or pale yellow Clivia miniata surround Chairman Mao’s embalmed body in Tianenmen Square in China.
I hope I don’t give my fussy bachelor of a neighbour my lingering flu. He is one of those bachelors who takes excessively good care of himself and his life is organised around his hobbies and comforts. His eating habits have not changed since the 1940s and he cooks the food his mother made for him as a small boy in the Vyeboom Valley: pumpkin purees sweetened with sugar, spinach bredies or casseroles flavoured with the wild suring or sorrel, potatoes boiled with green beans, sweet potato done in the oven with cinnamon, butternut or sweetcorn fritters, melktert and koeksusters. The country cooking of Afrikaner families in the 19th century. He has a small transistor radio next to his bed and the age of the Internet has not impinged on him.
Other neighbours arrive in the early morning sunshine to take rooted cuttings from my mauve-flowering verbena and a small white-flowering pelargonium. My plants are unusual and over the years I have collected them from all around the Karoo and the foothillls of the Swartberg mountains.
I’m flattened and tired from the flu and the struggle of recent months, wish the joie de vivre would come back, some of the pleasure I used to take in my life. But the main thing is to stay sober and keep going. The depression will pass and then I can take stock. The gratitude is there but muted. I wish I could get to meetings or even sit over coffee face-to-face with an AA member.
Now I shall go out and cut bunches of purple French lavender for the bathroom, make myself another cup of coffee and email a woman in Hereford who ‘sort of’ wants to get sober and doesn’t understand why she ‘sort of’ can’t manage it. Ready to go to any lengths….
Woken by sunshine sliding in through a crack in the curtain. After i finish this post I am going out to repot a small curry bush, grey and smelling like freshly made tandoori paste. It overpowers all the herbs around it and has some insignificant dirty yellow flowers late in summer, but for me it is such a part of the South African back yard that I can’t create herb gardens without it. I’m not sure if it is the same botanical species as Hypericum revolutum, or related to the helichrysums, and it resembles santolina. The smell of curry with turmeric and ground coriander is very strong. My neighbour Jackie thinks it is an ugly old thing that smells terrible.
Another long day of writing and editing, hoping it goes better than yesterday. The research takes ages even though I enjoy researching topics and checking copy for obscure errors. My imagination still gets in the way of accuracy but the accuracy always works better in the long run. Facts carry their own element of conviction.Whenever I read these ‘hic’ agony memoirs by recovering drug addicts or alcoholics, the skipping of detail or replacing everyday fact with gothic irks me. If you want to write about your childhood, you need to recall with some precision what your parents were wearing and what was playing on the radio and how they spoke a couple of decades ago, or it just sounds made-up. One of the worst reads in this regard is Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club (some great poetic writing all the same) in which the historical detail is just wrong. The dates, the locales, the pop-culture are skewed.
I was thinking last night that the second year of sobriety is all about just getting on with living sober. The pink cloud has faded away and there is the same old reality and the same person full of those familiar character defects. In my case I don’t have meetings, but I do have the literature and online forums and the blogging community. Sobriety is slowly becoming a mindful habit, the way drinking every day was a mindless habit. You just keep doing it and following the Steps, watching out for the old resentments and reactivity and the recurrent selfishness. There is no quick-fix stuff, that was what the numbing effect of alcohol delivered and we all know what hppened after that! There is no completing the Steps and forgetting about them because just understanding the process of the Steps is lifelong and involves constant corrective action and involvement in service. I may not be able to talk to sponsees face-to-face or afford the phone calls but I can write encouraging emails. I can show others that to just keep trudging along is possible. Once I wouldn’t have believed it possible to stay away from drink for 48 hours at a stretch. And the very ordinariness of a sober life is something good and to be cherished.
Gardening makes me happy. I get black dirt under my fingernails and a crick in my lower back and I am no expert, but many of the plants I put in grow and flourish and almost anywhere I have lived has bay trees left behind, apricot trees, olives, bushes of cistus, lavender and rosemary left to the mercies of the next owner. Indigenous beauties of plumbago, tecomaria, the tree fuschia, confetti bushes, restio grasses. I don’t regret planting trees or shrubs and then having to leave them behind when I move on. It is my paltry offering to a world in need of greening.
So my tomatoes and basil and little silver thyme are all in the right places and watered. I have my old blue enamel pot with sliced baby leeks simmering on the stove and I have spent hours trying to write, getting a little further than I got yesterday.
Oddly, as I chopped leeks nd minced garlic, I found myself thinking about my Scottish grandparents, William from Linlithgow and Jean Hamilton (her maiden name) from Lanark and wishing I had known them. But my grandfather died in a car accident in France as a young man, an amateur golfer, and his widow went back to raise her three children in Edinburgh. I don’t know if she remarried. I don’t know why my father chose never to contact her again after leaving home and emigrating to Africa.
Of course I wonder if she was alcoholic. I wonder too about that fatal car accident near Hyeres and if my paternal grandfather was drunk behind the wheel. Alcoholism seems to have a strong genetic run in my family. The Scottish Jekyll and Hyde split like a defect reaching back generations. I have a small heretical theory that Calvinism emerged as a puritanical control mechanism for alcoholic Scots, those drunk men contemplating the thistle.
But today I am just an ordinary sober gardener, tucking my new herbs into old half-barrels and eyeing the cloudy skies to figure out if it is likely to rain tonight. Somebody I thought was lost in alcoholism and back out there drifting through bars and bottlestores and lost weekends emailed me and I feel very happy to know she is still trying to get sober. So long as we keep trying, there is hope.
One of those prosaic days. Yesterday was fun: sitting in the old farmhouse transformed into the Cuban African restaurant Buena Vists Social Club, all blues and ochres and the famous portrait of Che Guevara, old photos of downtown Havana, Spanish chandeliers, fires lit to warm the diners and too many jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese.
Driving home, dense mist on Sir Lowry’s Pass, we stopped at a plant nursery and I saw a bonsai wisteria smothered in deep blue panicles of blossom, the panicles almost larger than the tiny creeper. Bought silver thyme (a girl can never get enough thyme so long as there is Mediterranean cooking to be done!) and a tray of ‘Roma’ tomato seedlings. I want bushes of ripe tomatoes, juicy and ready to eat by Christmas. Companion-planted with basil, the makings of classic Italian pasta dishes right at hand.
So I shall be gardening this morning, enjoying the spring blossom and trying to detach the ripe yellow lemons from the top of my lemon tree.
Taking each day as it comes. This afternoon, a bout of editing work. This evening supper wth friends. Leaving the past and the future to serendipity. Just dealing with what is happening now, what I can do to hold the balance steady now, live as fully as I can on this particular day. Sober and grateful and keeping the focus on the here and now.