Being South African, Now

When I started this blogging experiment, I thought that I would write a lot about being South African. I haven’t – perhaps because being alive outside of South Africa this last while has become all-consuming. These past few days though… let’s just say my Masters dissertation has suffered. I have not been able to take my eyes off the live results of the polls. Who knew municipal elections could be so exciting? Now feels like a good time to start blogging about South Africa.

First, a confession: I am usually a DA voter (South Africans living abroad cannot vote in municipal elections, but the DA would have been my vote). (Sorry to be a white South African stereotype). Mostly I vote for them because they feel like the lesser of several evils, but that is neither here nor there. I want to clear the air and say that my stupendous excitement for how these elections have turned out is much more than an excitement for the successful performance of a party that (hypothetically) got my vote.

Yes, I am elated with these elections because they show that, despite the shambles that the past years feel like they’ve been, democracy in South Africa is working. It’s fucking working! And South Africans are using it to make change. If that isn’t a reason to dance for a joy and ululate (in a country which understands neither of these things), I don’t know what is. You see, being away from home has made me follow these elections more closely than I would have were I home – and so I spent Wednesday reading about South Africans walking kilometers to voting stations, and waiting amicably in lines, and posting ‘thumbsies’ of their marked fingers. I clicked through pictures of mums voting with small children in tow, and people smiling as they voted in their PJs and winter woolies. There were definitely more hiccups than usual on voting day, but it seemed that mostly South Africans showed up at the polls after a bloody terrible year… and celebrated being there.

And then the results started coming in.

For the first time since 1994, something different has happened in the results this year. And, everyone seems (relatively) chill with it. Ok, Luthuli House apparently cancelled their celebrations – but no one (touch wood lest I speak too soon) has cried foul or made shady moves in the direction of a municipal coup. Something significantly different happened in the polls for the first time since democracy was born in South Africa… and it seems like our democracy can weather that change. Forgive me for being a nerdy politics student, but that is a huge deal. That must be what my parents felt like when they realised that just because I’d moved out and moved continents didn’t mean I was going to forget to feed and wash myself like a reasonable grown human.

I think the change we’ve seen in the results this year is good (and again, not just because I am a DA voter). More diverse governance in our democracy will mean parties have to work harder to stand out, to earn our votes the next time around. It will mean more accountability, and less one-sided debate in local governance. (Perhaps we should send the ANC, DA & EFF a memo from the collective South African populace saying that parties who co-operate best in coalitions will get our votes in 2019? [Insert tongue-in-cheek-voice]) Perhaps this change will mean that the ANC gets the message that it is widely seen to have sickeningly lost its way. I hope that these elections will mean all of these things.

Hope is what watching these elections from afar has given me. That kind of hope that fills your heart until it feels like it cannot fit inside the skeletal confines of your chest anymore, that feels like champagne bubbles in your blood. The kind of hope that makes you want to weep with the gratitude of having it, because in such a harrowing, desolate time to be human, to be South African, we have got this one thing right. We can all go vote, and we can all vote differently (to each other and to the past)… and the gears of our country keep on turning. Thank God.

I am always proud to be South African, but I am especially proud now. From within the midst of a country reeling with the implications of an isolationist, angry vote (Brexit), I watched South Africans cheerfully and tenaciously (for the most part) use an electoral system that works to vote for something different. I know it’s just a municipal election, I know it wasn’t perfect, and I know what happens next is far from certain, but that act, that act seems colossal. It seems as colossal as hope.

Dear August

“A good friend is a connection to life – a tie to the past, a road to the future, the key to sanity in a totally insane world.” Anon

For the friends, new and old, who have carried me through this year – thank you abundantly.

Dear August,

I see you coming. You’ll tear around the corner of July at speed with your imagined whiffs of spring and earliest inklings of Christmas, like schoolboys in a corridor chase. You’ll whack into whoever is innocently around the bend, and there will be exclamations and surprise. But they won’t be mine.

You see August, we met this time last year. You smacked into me then, with a heartful of endings and goodbyes (you left the beginnings to September). Here you are again, with more goodbyes for me to say.

The funniest thing is, those goodbyes I had to say when you rolled around last year, well, you’re bringing them all back to me as hellos this year. And the goodbyes you’re making me say this year – last year I never knew they’d be here to say at all. What makes all these hellos and goodbyes sepia, bitter-sweet, is all the stuff they sandwich between them.

Even though nothing really happens when you’re around, August, I think you know all about this sandwich-filling, nostalgia-making stuff. You get to see it all reviewed, you see. Take October – October knows all about those early stages of friendship, when you say yes to everything so that you feel you’re alive with the people who are here, now. But October doesn’t know about December’s Christmas parcels that have cards hand-written from home, or January’s first snow, or the feeling of getting comfortable in friendships, the ones where you can cry and wear no bra and talk about farting and sex (thankfully April and May and June’s lips are sealed!) And none of those months know homeward-yearning the way July does. These months know only their own happenings – but because you make me say goodbye to all the stuff that has been and gone, you get to see it all remembered, all taken out and wistfully held up to the light. This makes you wise, August, because it means you know all that is precious that unfolds in a year.

You know, I hate these goodbyes you bring me. I hated them last year, and I’ll hate them again this year. But I have to admit that you have a knack, August, for making me see how lucky I am to have all these hellos and goodbyes to say. When you tear around that corridor and thwack into me, it’s as though I drop a box I’ve been chucking stuff into all year long – and when I see all that stuff popped open and spilled out, I realise how much I have.

So, I have a prayer to say for you, August. For each goodbye, I am thankful for the hello that it started with, and I pray that it won’t be the last. For each hello, I have joy at saying it again, thankfulness that it stood the test of time and distance. My prayer is deep gratitude.

Thank you, August.

Love, Caits

Unpicking Perfectionism

It’s been a little over five weeks since I completed my first marathon (that’s 42.2 kilometers!) Despite the deed being done, despite the aches having faded, the feet recovered, and despite already having blogged about it… I keep thinking about that marathon. (So, here comes another post about it – sorry).

People I know seem genuinely impressed that I ran a marathon. Family and friends were genuinely congratulatory and excited. Running a marathon, it would seem, is a thing about which to be proud. Yet, when I think about that long, long run, I don’t feel proud. What sticks in my mind is every symptom that indicates I got to the day and totally choked: how much I hurt, how much I cried, how much I wanted to stop. When I think about it, I feel quite disappointed really. Nevermind that I crossed the finish line… I had planned to cross it so much better.

Sounds like a dysfunctional response, I know. Especially as, any runner will tell you, bad runs happen sometimes, and sometimes they happen when you least want them to. Believe me, it really irks me that I ran a marathon and feel disappointed instead of proud about it. What irks me more though, is that I respond like this to a lot of the ‘achievements’ in my life. Stuff I’m told I should celebrate, I find myself thinking I could have done better. Doesn’t matter that I did the thing, I could have done the thing better. A-class dysfunctional.

It’s a dysfunction called perfectionism, and it is an unsatisfying and exhausting way to live. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place in life to be driven, to demand more of yourself than you think you can give. And to be honest with yourself when you maybe aren’t giving enough to something. But to live in a way that means you cannot/will not recognise the good in anything that you do… that’s a big problem. That’s a hard and unkind way to see yourself.

Maybe this perfectionist thing is in my genes – both of my parents are perfectionists, so Bam! I got a double dose. But I don’t think that’s really enough of an explanation. I think living hard, living unkindly, is a societal thing. I think it’s political.

As a woman, my experience is that the society I occupy wants me to be less. Take up less space, be smaller, be weaker, be prettier, be quieter (you seen the cover of any mainstream women’s magazine in the last fifty years?) Don’t be so loud, don’t be so bossy, don’t brag, don’t be too strong or successful. Qualities that are generally approved of in men, aren’t in women. (Generally… I think a solid argument could be made for society being harsh on men too, though in very different ways). As a woman, I don’t get the message from my culture to be kind to myself or to celebrate myself – I get the message to be hard as nails on myself, and to strive towards a complicated, contradictory notion of feminine perfection… and I’m a white, wealthy, well-educated woman from a loving home, so how much more must this be the case in the lives of, say, women of colour, or women of fewer material means? Hell, as women we even get vlak nowadays for not loving ourselves enough. There’s no winning. Perfection, and not celebration, is the ideal we are taught.

The people in my life who know me well, know that I’m not terribly good at celebrating the cool things I sometimes do (even writing that phrase feels wrong!) They tell me to live more out of kindness. Someone (no names mentioned) told me just today that “I wish you would actually do something really averagely, so that you could figure out how little it matters and how much you are loved anyway.” Sounds like tough love, but it actually felt like the nicest thing I’ve been told in a while! It’s so important to my well-being, I am learning, to live out of kindness and celebration… and not out of such hard, unachievable perfectionism. I ran my first marathon, dammit! Who cares how, except that I hauled ass across that finish line in the end?

I realise this post is a little personal, and perhaps obnoxious sounding. What I’m really hoping in writing it (apart from shedding these wretched words onto a page) is that it will strike home with someone. Does anyone else find it easier to be hard rather than kind to themselves? Anyone else find self-celebration difficult, and wonder why? If you do, I invite you to post your own snippet of a story, or pop me a message to hi. Helping to celebrate each other seems like a thing to do.

“Have you loved you today? It’s ok if you haven’t, but maybe check in with yourself about why not…” @guerrillafeminism (Instagram, 9 July 2016)

For Oupa

For as long as I knew him, my grandfather was a runner. I only know he owned any shoes other than his trusted takkies because I’ve seen pictures of him, black-heeled, at my mother and aunt’s weddings respectively. The way my mum tells it, my Oupa was a lazy-bones couch-potato until about his mid-forties, when he saw the Comrades on TV one afternoon and decided he’d do it the following year. It is testament to his perseverance and hardheadedness that I only remember him as a man who held permanent numbers for both the Comrades and the Two Oceans Ultra.

This past Sunday, I ran my first marathon, in Edinburgh – a place my grandfather was never able to visit. In the build-up to Sunday, I thought a lot about him, and how excited he would have been for me. He would have called me before to wish me luck and say ‘You go, girl!’ Although he died many years ago, running this marathon made me feel connected to my Oupa. And that made me think about why I run.

I had a lot of time on Sunday (over five hours!) to think about why I run (frankly, there were a few moments I came up short for answers). Running isn’t for everyone, and I’ve been on the receiving end of the sentiment that a marathon is madness more than once. But in all the hours I had on Sunday to think this over, I put my finger on it – the crux of why I run.

You see, running isn’t so much about running; it’s about connecting with people. Sounds ultra-dripping cheese cheesy, I know, but hear me out. When you undertake to do race – any race at all – your undertaking will at some point connect you with someone. Maybe, like me, running ‘runs in the family’ (pardon) and running makes you feel connected to the people who are your heroes and mentors (my Dad falls into this category as well as my Oupa). Maybe, like me, you find a running partner who goes the whole hog – training through the winter, running through the breakdown, whining through the stiffness – with you. Maybe you’ve joined a running club, or it’s the spectators on the day who give you sweeties and water, or the camaraderie with the people you compete against, or that one other runner who catches your eye six miles from the finish and looks they want to collapse about as much as you feel you do. No matter your reasons for running in the first place, at some point this solo sport is going to bizarrely and inevitably connect you with other people.

Apart from ‘how stiff are you right now?’, the question friends and family have asked me most since Sunday has been whether or not I’ll run a marathon again. The answer is yes. In part, this may be because I’m a sucker for punishment and hardheaded, like my grandfather. But it’s also because, come race day, it’s not really about the race anymore. It’s about the people – the people who carry you, and the people you carry.

So… yes, I’ll keep running. I’ll run because of Oupa, because of Dad, because of the people who carried me on Sunday, and because of the people who need me to carry them next time. I’ll run because of the people.

Living with Dissonance

Here is more honesty (be warned: this honesty gets messy)…

It has been so long since I last wrote that it took several attempts to remember my wordpress password. My last post (now deleted) was a fanciful piece recycled from my collection of highschool writing. Not so much the output of an aspiring blogger.

It seems I have hit a blockage. The creative well-spring that normally feeds my writing has dried or been buried, and I’ve been struggling to find a way to plumb it again. Colloquially, I think this is called writer’s block. But, I’ve been calling it something different. Dissonance.

In the dictionary, dissonance is defined as a lack of harmony between people or things. I’ve experienced as a lack of harmony between the physical space I occupy, and the lasting impressions of another space in my mind. In my life, dissonance is a disorientating sense of the place that is ‘here’ not being the same as the place that is ‘home’. It is the feeling that what I need to feed my fire, my spirit, my creativity, I cannot find the foreign landscape around me.

Dissonance is the word I have been using to describe how a massive upheaval in my life has made me feel. The way I am using the word is perhaps unique to me, but I think the experience – of profound change disorientating us in unexpected ways, causing our wellsprings of creativity to dry-up – is more common (I can think of several people in my life right now who are having this experience). What matters more than pinning down the words to describe the feeling is figuring out ways to not be knocked sideways by it, and to recover creativity after it.

In doing this, what I have found the hardest is asking for help. When parts of or the whole of our lives change, I suspect that most of us need help adapting. It could be all you need is a friend who doesn’t mind their shoulder getting snotted and cried on once in a while; it could be you need professional counselling. The point is that, whatever sort of help you need, you are going to have admit that you are not 100% on top of your life. I find that hard under ordinary circumstances. I’ve found it particularly hard these past few months because the change I am struggling with is of my own making, and is in fact positive change. If I chose it and it is ultimately good, it shouldn’t be hard. I shouldn’t need help with it. Right?

Nope. Wrong. Wrong, because bad and hard are not the same experience. A hard experience, an experience that produces what I call dissonance, can still be instructive, constructive and enriching. We learn what we are made of from these experiences, what we want, what matters most. Learning those things just isn’t always easy – and, in my experience, learning them, getting the good stuff out of ‘dissonance’, actually requires asking for help. As someone told me the other day, when we are so confounded by change that we forget how able we really are, we have to rely for a while on the faith of those around us that we are able.

Asking for help is what makes the difference between a bad experience and hard experience. It’s what makes it possible to live with and learn from dissonance. It’s what shakes loose the gunge that blocked up the well-spring and makes creativity flow again, however small the trickle starts.

In Ruins

Today we visited a castle, ruined.

Upon thick black rocks, it hulked alone

wind whistling through windows

empty halls.

Drips echoing.

It was us only, out in the frigid rain

tramping through

such a quiet place.

Stone – all that’s left –

emanating cold, drawing our absurdly loud footsteps

into its thousand year-old memory.

I couldn’t help but feel gripped

by a peculiar chill,

as we poked about

in the dark innards of that castle.

Afraid of what?

Being so alone, so alive,

with so many long gone years.

Leaving, we passed some young boys

boisterous with the prospect of discovery

too young

to feel the melancholic weight of what once was,

the acute yet imprecise impression

of the past on today’s bodies.

Happiness Is

This was written for two of the most special people I know, and for growing up with good friends.

 

Early autumn in the city’s cupped palms:

air still, sunshine syrupy and warm.

A balcony floats on a sea of corrugated rooftops

within a grand amphitheater of mountain.

Soft light melts on metal,

orange glazes across the rocky face

and the pace of life pauses, for a moment

as friends sit together

sharing wine, the golden evening

laughter.

Happiness is the shared years passed

and the hope of years to come

meeting in that present moment

where old friends gather

to bless a new home.

On Being Like a Creme Egg

I am like a creme egg, filled with sugar, filled with truth.

Today, I am going to be personal (the personal-o-meter of previous posts pales somewhat compared to this one). During my counselling session last week (yup, I’ve sought out the guidance of a counselor – and that is alright) she and I had a conversation that went something like this…

Me: It’s really hard, living away from home, living away from family, living away from sun. Do you know, I take mind-trips sometimes. My mind visits places at home I love, and when I come back to myself, it’s jolting, because it takes me a while to remember where I am, really. Is that crazy?

Counselor: (Insert something comforting and reassuring).

Me: I feel like it shouldn’t be this hard. I should be grateful, not homesick. I shouldn’t feel this way. 

Counselor: But those are your feelings – you can’t change them. Why do you need my permission to trust your feelings? 

Well. Her question fell into my lap like an unexpected, badly-wrapped gift. Because I suddenly saw (and it was quite sudden) a pattern of behaviour I have always engaged in: I don’t trust the validity of my own feelings. I need other people to give me permission to feel certain ways. (If my parents are reading this, they are probably chuckling – they are my go-to permission givers).

Let’s pause here… Feelings are a response to experiences, yes? The things I experience everyday come into me through my eyes and my ears and my nose and my skin, and inside me, those tangible experiences that my body receives turn into feelings. My body is my channel between my particular segment of this world, and my particular shard of spirit. What comes in through my body as experience and turns into feelings inside me is my only way of occupying a place here. It is all I have. My experiences and my feelings, in other words, are all I have. And, as it turns out, I don’t trust them.

WTF?

That doesn’t make sense. That is like buying a creme egg (here comes the analogy), which is a creme egg and is meant to be filled with creme, can only be filled with creme, and thinking it inappropriate that your creme egg is not filled with maple syrup. Who on earth told you that a creme egg should have maple syrup in it? Who told me that I should be filled with something other than my own experiences, my own feelings?

This realisation struck me as terribly sad. I have been given this one perspective on the world, this one way of experiencing it, which no-one else has – and, for the longest time, I have thought that that one perspective is invalid. Surely, I didn’t always think that? Look at little children – they are utterly absorbed in their own feelings. They intuitively understand that that is all they get. At what point in my life did I lose my childhood trust in my own perspective, and who taught me that mistrust?

I don’t have an answer to these questions, yet. I also don’t believe in returning to a childish state of absorbed selfishness – I believe in compassion, empathy, in the validity of other people’s experiences. But I see now that I am doing myself a painful injustice by seeking other people’s validation for my own experiences. To paraphrase Geneen Roth (author of Women, Food, God – a beautiful read), I am no longer going to collude with the belief in my own invalidation. I am a Caitlin-egg, and I give myself permission to be filled fully with Caitlin.

What kind of egg are you?

I Am White: I Am Here

“…[Others] just could not see the beauty of that broken stump… could not imagine themselves to be so small that this jagged fracture could become a world of iron mountains… In this broken-off stump was a whole new realm of possibilities to be explored… Mister God certainly [explored] it, but then Mister God didn’t at all mind making himself small. People thought that Mister God was very big… but Mister God could be any size he wanted to be. “If he couldn’t be little, how could he know what it’s like to be a lady-bird?”… After all, Mister God did not have only one point of view, but an infinity of viewing points… and the whole purpose of living was to be like Mister God…” (Mister God This Is Anna, Fynn)

The room is full of thirty young adults, here for a week to tackle being young in the (not so) new South Africa, to tackle each other. Tonight is night one, and although at the week’s end these strangers will feel like mentors, allies, friends – at this moment they are… strangers. Kate is sitting on the floor. Everyone else is seated on chairs. It has been comfortable until now, but as the room shrinks with tension, with centuries of ignored injustice, it begins to feel like a disempowered vantage point, being on the floor.

White people. White people and reconciliation, that colossal word. White people, reconciliation, and how white people never want to reconcile, never want to make this country a better place. They are comfortable in their ivory towers, padded with privilege.

The conversation drags around this point. Tension. The minority of pale people in the room sit stom, muted into silence. No apparent historical legacy allows them into this swollen conversation. She can feel heat blotching on her cheeks, on her neck. Her hands tremble a little. ‘Fuck it’, she thinks.

When it comes her turn to speak, she is calm. The emotion is clean, controlled, channeled into the point she wants to make, knows that it is vital for her to make.

It is simple. ‘I am here,’ she states. ‘I am white, and I am here.’ Although in that moment, her white skin is red as blood, showing indignation, showing conviction, showing truth.

She Sits Outside and Weeps

Roughly a year ago, I did a silly but intuitive thing and went on a retreat, for people who wanted to ‘find their inner troublemaker’. An ongoing activity during this retreat was to write our stories, to identify moments in our lives that somehow shaped our desire to make trouble. This moment, which happened over ten years ago, featured prominently in my own story. Sadly, I don’t know what happened to the woman who burned such an impression in my heart.

It had been a long, late day. Her father was not there, away on a business trip possibly, she doesn’t remember. She does remember how her skin fumed with chlorine and her kit-bags cluttered about her legs as her own exhausted mother herded her and her brother into a Spur – past the woman collapsed into herself in the doorway. After a little while seated at the table, she said, ‘Mum, that lady…’ With money pressed in her fist, she and her brother troop back down to the woman.

There are two things after this Kate recalls vividly. The first is the woman herself, the violence of her despair. She was sobbing, wailing – her whole face, body, a ragged collection of defeated limbs, muscle, spirit. In Kate’s memory, the woman is distorted, like a Dumile Feni painting, in her grief. She is so insistent in her refusal to take the money, so frantic in her request, that the silent grey child next to her is made almost invisible. She remembers this too as a part of the scene – the invisibility of this child, who sits dull-eyed as her dying mother beseeches passerbys to take her. Other people are coming to the fuss now, trying to calm the mother. Kate is thirteen at the time, her brother even younger. They cannot help this woman.

The second thing she recalls is being ensconced back in the sticky, fake cow-hide seat… and sobbing tears and snot into her rack of Spur ribs. Shaken. Shattered. In her small life, this is the first time that Kate thinks ‘Democracy has done shit for this country’. This is the first time she consciously has a political thought.

It will not be the last.