Someone I cared about and respected deeply died this past Friday. The grief and shock has been coming in waves for me, mingling with the grief and anxiety I feel about the world at large. It’s taken me a while to decide what to say – if anything – about her death. I tend to step back when someone who wasn’t part of my family or closest friends dies, wary of appropriating others’ grief (we all know that one stranger who takes over all the message boards when someone dies, like a sadness vulture).

But she changed my life. This person, Marian, changed my life multiple times over. And I want to remember her in writing, because that’s where I make sense of things. So this is a letter of love and gratitude to a woman whose spirit moved me deeply.

When Marian and I became colleagues in 2015 I didn’t realise at first how multi-talented and accomplished she was. A teacher, writer, musician, academic – Marian excelled at many things, and did it with such humorous self-deprecation that her gifts kept sneaking in under the radar. Before I came to know her as the idea-generator and researcher of note that she was, I knew her as a very kind and very funny woman. When she bragged, it was about other people’s accomplishments. (She’s probably the only person – other than my supervisors – to have read my MA thesis.) When she joked, it was mainly about herself.

At work she bustled about with funny quips and stories about her family. She defused the tension in meetings. She kept me company as I chain-smoked between lectures, sharing about her own life and emotional struggles in a way that made me feel safe to share as well. She once described us as people “missing an extra layer of skin against the world”, matter-of-factly giving words to the sometimes excruciating experience of living in this world as a sensitive person. She was completely disarming: infinitely quotable, gutsy, wholesome, yet vastly complex. She had a tremendous appetite for life (and for naughty jokes), a shy streak, and a huge heart.

Besides being an all-around good human, Marian changed my life in a number of tangible ways.

At a work retreat in 2018, shaky and weepy and exhausted, I shared my romantic and existential woes with a few colleagues around the dinner table. (I cringed about this for days afterwards, but that’s what happens when you combine red wine and Marian’s icebreakers.) Marian stepped in immediately: “Book yourself into a psychiatric clinic, girl!”

At that point, I thought only REALLY sad or sick people went to psychiatric hospitals. Like, not-me people. Marian was quick to bring me back to reality by pointing out that I was in fact REALLY sad, and also, that I had a use-it-or-lose-it opportunity: Our work-imposed medical insurance permits 21 days of free mental health care a year. “It’ll be like a 3-week holiday,” she said. “Treat yourself.”

I treated myself, and boy am I glad I did. (There were many problematic aspects to the psychiatric clinic, and don’t even get me started on the lack of help available to non-insured South Africans, but nonetheless – my stay at the clinic turned my life around.)

Marian destigmatised mental illness for me, in that conversation and many others.

A year later, when a close family member of mine attempted suicide, Marian sent me countless resources. Not only information about mental health, but names and numbers of people and organisations who could help; she even phoned several counsellors on our behalf. For months afterwards she sent me messages to hear how we were all doing – full of advice and opinions, she also knew when to step back and simply support.

It’s also through Marian that I met my closest friend and the biggest shaker-upper of my adult life so far (and please universe don’t let there be many more of those – a girl can only take so much shaking up). It was at a workshop led by Marian; I caught a lift home with her afterwards and her first words to me in the car were “whew, he is HOT!”

And I was like “which one?”, because there’d happened to be two hot guys at the workshop and I was feeling giddy and wonderfully glad I’d attended the session. (This was a while after my exit from the clinic and I was just about ready to flirt with the world again).

Marian had laughed and said “both, you’re right!”. And then myself and one of the hot guys in question struck up a romance, and it was complicated and intense right from the start, and I tried not telling my colleagues about it because I didn’t actually know how to explain it. But they found out anyway because Marian was beside herself with pride that this had all started at her workshop (and also, I am BAD at secrecy). We were her success story – one time she ran into us having coffee, sent me a wink, and cornered me afterwards to call dibs on being our future children’s music teacher. (I tried explaining to her that wasn’t at all where we were headed, but she was dead set on this imaginary future for us).

When the romance part of that relationship ended, I distinctly remember feeling bad on Marian’s behalf that things hadn’t worked out the way she’d envisioned. To her credit, she didn’t pry. She just sent me the occasional encouraging text or email, and commented on my glow when we met in person (she had optimistic eyesight). I was going through an extended (ongoing) reshuffling of my understanding of love and friendship and life itself, and Marian was there for it. I shared with her a little bit about my forays into non-monogamy and she thought I was a bit weird but brave. It was such a relief for my people-pleasing soul to share about my life – with a colleague, no less – and be met with warm-hearted acceptance.

Marian took life on with gusto. She was funny, and wise, and humble, but most of all she loved well.

That is what will remain, what cannot ever be undone. The biggest lesson I learned from Marian is that everything pales in comparison to simple, ample, sincere love. When we show up with willingness and an open heart, we change the world.

 
 You do not have to be good.
 You do not have to walk on your knees
 for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
 You only have to let the soft animal of your body
 love what it loves.
 Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
 Meanwhile the world goes on.
 Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
 are moving across the landscapes,
 over the prairies and the deep trees,
 the mountains and the rivers.
 Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
 are heading home again.
 Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
 the world offers itself to your imagination,
 calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
 over and over announcing your place
 in the family of things.  

 -        Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver 

A life update

Almost exactly three years ago I was discharged from a psychiatric clinic after spending three strange and illuminating weeks there. I was 28 years old, wobbling my way back into the world, eyes stinging from the beauty around me. I felt reborn and also very, very old.

‘Everything is about to change,’ I told myself. ‘Everything is different now.’

And it was. It is.

I had done a lot of self-work in the ten years prior to my visit to the clinic: Seen therapists, journaled, cultivated self-awareness, read Women who run with the wolves. But now I intended to work harder. Dig deeper. Cultivate more nourishing friendships. Exercise more. Eat healthier. Heal.

I did not factor Covid-19 into my plans, of course. Nor had I really thought about the effect of living in late-stage capitalism, in a prolonged world-wide existential crisis, in a looming climate disaster. Nor had I really reckoned with the depth and intensity of my own childhood trauma. I was going to yoga it all away. I was going to do magic mushrooms and make uplifting Spotify playlists and listen to good podcasts and go for long walks and I was going to be ALL BETTER.

And, credit where credit’s due: I don’t know where I would have been had it not been for long walks and Spotify playlists and yoga and good podcasts and psychedelics. And good friends. And my dog. And nourishing food. And breathing exercises. And journaling. And the foundation of self-inquiry that had been laid over the past decade. Thank fuck for routines and good books and self-care.

And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.

I don’t even know what ‘better’ means anymore.

***

This is a life update, because some of you have been asking me what’s happening and why I’m so silent on my blog. I have a million other things to do, but I’ve just spent three hours in foetal position on my couch staring into the void – nothing else is about to happen, so I might as well write this post.

I am turning 32 soon. A lot of people tell me they don’t feel as old as they really are, but I definitely do. Not that I’ve become remotely good at adulting, but my heart feels heavy with all the lives I’ve lived. Not exhausted exactly, but laden with sorrow and pungency like tea that’s been left to steep for hours.

I know some parts of the world have been coming out of hiding, but over here in South Africa we’re in the heart of a third wave of Covid. Every day I receive news of more friends, colleagues and acquaintances who are very very sick. Facebook feels like a minefield of bad news and conspiracy theories. Our government is fast losing whatever credibility it once had and our president’s fortnightly speeches are just fodder for memes and existential despair. We wear masks and obey the 9 PM curfew, but other than that, everybody does whatever they feel like, myself included.

It’s winter and outside the rain is pouring down; even my dog refuses to leave the house. My sister, who lives in Kwazulu-Natal province, sends us hourly updates on the protests and violence over there. She’s locked inside her house. Someone she knows had to evacuate. I refresh the news every ten minutes, watching with rising horror as my beleaguered country burns down. On Instagram the positivity brigade is wearing me down, yet I scroll endlessly through uplifting posts in search of answers, in search of something to do: Another mantra, perhaps. An online tarot card reading. An inspirational quote.

I am not holding it together, but I am holding it.

I am holding it all and I am grieving really hard because this world is terrifyingly broken and movingly beautiful, and it is a crazy thing to be alive right now. It is a privilege and a curse. It’s everything.

I have no idea what’s going to happen next, not to the world nor to myself. It’s like I’m living in the eye of a storm and all I keep feeling, deep in my gut, is to be here fully. To resist the urge to DO SOMETHING, and be here instead. It’s excruciating.

***

At the end of 2019 I felt very strongly that I would have two more years at my current job and then I’d have to move on. Tick tock, those two years are coming to an end soon. I still plan to move on, but all my best-laid plans have fallen away in the face of internal and external crises. I thought I’d be writing much more, making beautiful zines, cranking out poem after poem, connecting with other writers and artists and even making money out of my writing by now. Instead, I have a floundering blog and a slowly-growing Instagram presence (about which I have mixed feelings). A piece I wrote a few months ago has been accepted for publishing in an anthology book, about which I’m very excited – and also, I can’t seem to find the inspiration to make its last requested edits. (I will, though – tomorrow.)

What am I willing to do without? What am I willing to let go of? Because more and more I am coming to know that I will have to surrender whatever is not necessary, whatever weighs me down, and whatever markings of success I’d envisioned achieving soon.

At first I thought I’d find somewhere cheap to live (probably east of here, because where I currently live is not affordable on a freelancer’s income). I thought I’d pack up my things, twist my brother’s arm into helping me move, and find a small place on the east coast where I can do freelance work, build my writing practice, play the ukulele a lot and make friends with the locals. Now, I think even that might be too solid and structured for my next move. I think, instead, that I might have to put my possessions into storage, and bring only my dog and my clothes with me. I might have to flounder about from place to place, volunteering and staying with friends. I’ll freelance if needs be, but I don’t want to spend too much time scrabbling to earn a living at jobs that take more energy than they give. I want to write. I want to start a podcast. I want to build meaningful connections. I want to learn about community living and regenerative agriculture and about the endless variety of cultures and ways of being in my own country, ways I know very little about.

I don’t want to quit my job only to find myself scrambling away at endless low-paying freelance tasks that allow no room for creativity.

I am asking myself: How little money can I get by on? What am I taking for granted that very soon I’ll have to give up? Personal space, organic vegetables, fancy dog food – can I do without that? My handful of close and beloved friends here – how do I leave them behind?

And, on the flip side: Why do I imagine that only hard things are worth doing? Why do I imagine that I’ll have to move to a remote town on the far side of nowhere to prove my commitment to making a change in my life? Is there another option? Have I been so steeped in a mentality of suffering that I cannot imagine an authentic future if it isn’t isolated and difficult?

I’m shit scared all the time, and every time I try to reassure myself by falling into frantic action my body forces me to a halt. The only things I seem to be able to do semi-consistently is to weep a lot and go for long walks. This prolonged inactivity goes against everything the world has taught me and against my natural inclination too, yet the only thing that feels right at this moment is to exist very slowly. Even as my self-imposed deadline looms closer and closer (a deadline I still intend to honour), the message I feel insistently in my heart is that right now I should do very little, and do that fully. I don’t get it. But it’s what I’m doing.

To summarise:

The world is not okay.

South Africa is not okay.

I am not okay.

That’s where I’m at right now. I am not holding it together, but I am holding it. I’m holding it all in my heart.