This post is dedicated to my friend Jannie – your pain is sacred. I feel it with you.

Magic mushrooms have taught me so many incredible things that sometimes when I talk about them, I realise that I sound like a televangelist. It’s hard for me not to grab people and shout at them: “take shrooms!” whenever a related topic comes up. But I must add that magic mushrooms can also make very little difference, or be detrimental even, if we don’t embrace the experience they give us with surrender and a willingness to change. And using magic mushrooms as a spiritual tool should be accompanied by putting in the work: practicing self-care, developing a spiritual practice, building on one’s foundations, putting in the hours to turn our lessons into lived reality.

That being said, some of the things I’ve learned through magic mushrooms were just THAT BIG, that transformative, that they changed my life immediately and irrevocably. It’s like seeing something for the first time, and never being able to unsee it again. And of all the revelations I’ve had on mushrooms, the biggest one by far has been, quite simply, love.

Every mushroom trip I go on gives me some experience of love. One of my favourite things about shrooms is the experience of expansiveness and belonging that happens especially at the tail end of the trip. But almost every trip I’ve gone on has also had a theme, something(s) specific that was shown to me. Sometimes these are hard realisations, like the one time I delved deep into my own shame.

In fact, in my experience there’s always at least a part of the trip that is quite difficult, even on the experience I had roughly a year ago now which I now call my “love trip”, the one which entirely changed the way I understand life.

It began in my house; I was watching the sunrise through my window, feeling my mind opening in the rather terrifying way it does on mushrooms. Spontaneously the image of a person I love deeply came to me – his soul, the nature of his essence, his aches and joys rose up in my consciousness so strongly that I immediately burst into tears of awe. I couldn’t stop crying, profoundly moved by the beauty I could sense flowing from his heart. He was the most breathtaking being I had ever seen. Everything about him was perfect: his struggles, his fears, his desires, all coming together to create this complex dance of flesh and soul, this Being, this very breath of God. That’s what I saw. I saw that he is perfect, that nothing is out of place, that everything belongs, even the things he dislikes about himself, even the things he denies about himself.

And I saw that loving him is the most natural response imaginable.

The only thing I need to love fully, I realised, is to notice. As soon as I notice someone’s beauty, alive and throbbing in their every cell, my only possible reaction is love. And it is an expansive love, a love filled with awe and compassion, with recognition and admiration and sadness and profound joy. There is nothing else. I knew in that moment that when we are able to open our eyes to the vibrant beings around us, we cannot refuse to love them. We cannot even be afraid or shy or insecure in our love – faced with the fullness of Life, the only possible response is to open entirely.

Okay, I thought, but this is someone I love deeply, even when I’m not on mushrooms. Would it be the same if I thought about somebody I know less well? So I thought about a colleague. Her laughter rose up in my mind, the funny stories she shares at work, the way she rushes late into the office, breathless. Immediately my heart overflowed again. WOW, I thought. There is so much here. Such a complex and joyful and perfect being, imbued with such tremendous beauty. It’s there. It’s right there, everything: every struggle she has had and will ever have, her fears and empathy written into her very cells, everything exactly the way it should be. Changeable, fluid, yet at the same time everlasting.

It is incredibly poignant to witness another human. We are all so very brave, as we continue living on this earth in these limited forms, seeking love, seeking connection. Every day we have to reconcile our need for belonging with the limitations of a life in which resources are scarce, in which time is short. We get tired, we get hungry, we get jealous or irritated, we worry about money, we worry about our families. We negotiate our needs and desires in a world where there is a constant sense of not-enough: not enough sleep, not enough time, not enough energy. We pick our battles. We hold our tongues. We laugh, and relax, and tense up; we give of ourselves, unceasingly, in every interaction. We are so very scared that we might not be loved, or be worthy, or be enough. Yet we continue living through this fear, giving, loving, as best we can. We are so tremendously brave. We are so beautiful.

I thought about myself. I could feel the calmness of my own essence, like a tree somehow, grounded and singing softly, whispering the song of my heart to myself. I could feel my soul contract and expand like a river flowing unhindered around obstacles. I could feel the bigness in me, the joy and the grief running deep. I am SO beautiful. I am breathtaking. I am exactly as I should be.

All it takes to love myself is to see myself. Now, when I feel tired or self-critical, I lie down and place my hand over my heart. I grow still, until I hear the song inside my soul. It’s there, constant, my own life force undeniable. Sylvia Plath wrote it so powerfully: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am I am I am.

                                                                   * * *

That day, I listened to my own heart for a long time. Then I started asking questions: What about rejection, and loss, and jealousy, do they form part of this elemental love that I am feeling? What about desire, is that part of it? In this, in what feels like divine love, is there room for need as well?

Yes and no, came the answer. There is nothing wrong with feeling fear, or loss, or jealousy, or an overpowering need to be loved back. Those feelings form part of this human experience, and they are the things that make us so complex and beautiful. In fact: We can love these very things about ourselves.

All the different emotions and experiences that we have as humans are simply more chances for us to love another part of ourselves. I see my own insecurity, and I love that too, and I love myself FOR it. And I am grateful for the chance to experience the whole gamut of emotions, because everything is another experience I can open myself to.

But. Love is independent of these feelings. As a human I am hardwired to want, and need, and even fear. Those things serve a purpose. But none of them affect the quality of Love itself, the love I was tapping into as I lay there, the love I have often tapped into since. We could be in the midst of much pain, bereft or abandoned, rejected, unseen. And still, if we are able to open our eyes to ourselves and to others, love will arise naturally. Even in the midst of a deeply painful moment.

Sometimes in life that feels impossible, and I do think there are times when opening our hearts is not what serves us best. There are times we feel threatened. There are times we need to insist on getting our needs met. There are times when we don’t have the energy to surrender into the full expansion of this kind of love. But it is there.

It is there whether or not we have the capacity to allow ourselves to realise this.

And it’s all okay. Even while I was on this mushrooms trip I realised there’s a reason I don’t feel this intensity of love all the time: I would not be able to function as a normal human being if I did. I get to witness myself and my fellow living beings in awe for a while, and then I have to go back to the grind of normal life.

But that’s where the magic happens: when it’s not easy. When I am anxious and rushed, yet suddenly remember the beauty around me. When I become still after a long day and acknowledge my own heart again. When I realise that love, this kind of love, is at the heart of everything I do.

Last night I watched a video by Russel Brand. He was talking about the death of his cat, about the deep love that existed between him and his pet, a connection far deeper than language would allow. “What is love”, he said, “other than an acknowledgment of oneness, an acknowledgment of union?”

That was the thing I saw on that mushroom trip: that we all have the same spirit. Every living being is beautiful in a wholly unique way; never will the exact combination of genes and experiences cohere again as they do within each of us. Witnessing each person is a journey of awe and discovery every single time. Yet at the heart of us we are the same. We have the same Life throbbing within our cells. Recognising the beauty of someone’s being is recognising my own. It is remembering, deep within my bones, that we are one.

I stumbled onto the drug scene comparatively late in my life: the first time I ever smoked weed was at 21, in a coffee shop in Amsterdam. It took me another three years before I tried cocaine, and the first time I took LSD (at 28), I didn’t even know what it was (looking back, that could have gone horribly wrong – but instead it sparked a profound love of psychedelics).

Of course the term “drugs” is very strange. Grouping speed and magic mushrooms into the same category is patently absurd. Equally absurd is the fact that we don’t generally describe alcohol as a drug – we talk about “alcohol and drugs” as if they’re separate things. This grossly underplays the dangers of alcohol, which we somehow feel safe to use even though it is by far the most ubiquitously destructive substance.

Most of us have been very mis-educated about drugs – the only drug education I ever received was to just “say no”. We’ve all seen the before and after pictures of a weather-beaten teen star, or heard whisperings about the local promising student who fell in with the wrong crowd and got hooked on meth. As a teenager, I thought all it would take for me to become a raving drug-addled dropout was to take a single pill handed to me by friends.

You hear that drugs, all drugs, are so addictive that you’ll never be able to quit if you’ve tried them once. You hear it burns holes in your brain. You read about that one girl who took ecstasy for the first time and promptly died of a heart attack. I was terrified of ruining my life – more than most kids, perhaps, I realised there would be very little to catch me should I fall. I needed my wits and my willpower, such as it was, to carve a life for myself and so I stayed away. Looking back I am quite glad I abstained from drugs for as long as I did.

But the widespread misinformation about drugs is much more harmful than it is good.

One of the biggest dangers about this misinformation is it that it completely alienates people who DO use drugs. Parents and peers alike react with horror at the slightest whispering of substance use. So what happens if you stumble upon cocaine, for instance, and find yourself liking it, and using it increasingly often? There’s no one to talk to, that’s what happens. Your mom would cry herself to sleep if she knew. Your friends and colleagues would look at you differently, even though many of them get drunk almost every weekend. You can’t even tell your GP because you’re too ashamed.

You enter the twilight world of dodgy backstreet purchases, of taking lines off toilet seats in clubs, half surprised your brain hasn’t collapsed yet. On the inevitable cocaine comedown you lie in bed feeling suicidal, totally alone, even though half your acquaintances have also, unbeknownst to you, abused a substance at one time or another.

On the flip side, the misinformation regarding drugs doesn’t prepare you for the relief you feel when, after all, you don’t promptly die of an overdose the first time you try MDMA. Oh! It’s actually fine. Actually all your friends use it too! It must be okay then. Because all the official sources react so hysterically to drugs, you dismiss them all as entirely wrong. Have you ever tried googling “effects of using MDMA”? All the websites stridently warn you off. All of them have banners at the top with the numbers of helplines you might call if you suffer from substance addiction. All of them detail the side-effects but barely mention what happens if you, like most people, simply take drugs every now and then without disappearing into the chasm of total addiction.

So between the hysterical headlines and the casual secrecy of your drug-using friends, you have nowhere to go for solid information. You have to learn it all yourself.

Imagine if we did this with sex – imagine if you googled “having sex for the first time” and the internet exploded with enthusiastic reddit threads and WebMD pages listing all the dangers of sex, with nothing balanced to actually explain your experience to you. What would happen? You’d be too embarrassed to ever go for an STD test, for one. You might never understand why your body works the way it does. If you enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you. If you don’t enjoy sex, you might think there’s something wrong with you.

As we know, until recently, this hushed hysteria surrounding sex was in fact the norm. We are realising the error of our ways gradually, with increasingly thorough sex education (though we still have a long way to go), with magazines and movies imperfectly bringing this profoundly normal act into everyday conversation.

But drugs? Drugs are still the all-around baddies. In movies when a character takes drugs (almost always a nondescript pill given by dodgy friends in a nightclub), the camera becomes shaky, visuals blur, music becomes ominous. You know the protagonist is going to wake up bloody and his best friend will be revealed, through disjointed flashbacks, to have died in a car accident. In police procedural series, it’s always either the street thug, the hopeless rich boy, or the crooked policeman who uses drugs.

This ignores the fact that most people have tried mind-altering substances at one time or another. Most of these people are functional citizens. Most people manage to drink two glasses of wine on a weekend without becoming alcoholics (although I’ll say again that alcohol is much more dangerous, in my opinion, than most other drugs). Many, many people smoke weed without becoming ambition-less stoners. Many people routinely take MDMA at a party and wake up just fine, if a little emotional, the next day. Many people, myself included, have even flirted dangerously with substance abuse and have emerged a little poorer, a little battered, but wiser and humbler on the other side. Without help, because none was available.

We need to talk about drugs. We need to talk about the fact that humans have been using mind-altering substances for as long as we have existed. We need to talk about the difference between psychedelics and opioids, about the difference between a line of pure cocaine and the similar-looking but much more dangerous speedball.

And importantly, we need to talk about the difference between drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction.

A friend recently told me “I don’t use drugs because I don’t need anything to change my reality” – she was very drunk at that stage. This is one of the most pervasive myths I have encountered about drugs thus far: that it is somehow shameful to take them because it implies that you can’t have a good time otherwise. Like religion (the “opium of the masses”), drugs are viewed by many as a crutch for the weak, for those who can’t face life without something to soften the blow. SO many of my acquaintances have said to me that what you experience on drugs “isn’t real”. By implication, sobriety is the only valid way to experience ‘reality’.

Reality is a matter of perspective. You see colour differently than your dog does. You experience emotions in a different way from anybody else. Your brain chemistry and your biology is entirely your own. The information we take in, every minute of the day, is heavily filtered according to what we need to know and what we are able to process. Something as commonplace as a cup of coffee or a chocolate bar may significantly change our experience.

The expansive love we feel on ecstasy, or the spiritual awareness on LSD, or even the frenetic excitement of cocaine, is not inherently less valid than any emotions we might normally experience. It’s just an experience we might add to our arsenal, another way of seeing, another way of being. Like everything, this could further us on our journey, or it could hold us back. But to safely expand our horizon of experience, we need to bring drugs back from the shadowy world of fear and shame that they currently inhabit. We need to start a conversation. We need to talk about drugs.

For a really long time I thought that being healed, whole, would mean not feeling much pain anymore. I still catch myself thinking this quite often. At the very least, surely, being a healthy human should mean not experiencing inexplicable bouts of intense sadness, right? I mean, surely I must be doing something wrong if I rock my weepy self to sleep, face glued to a snotty pillowcase, and promptly resume my sobbing the next morning? And surely I am un-whole if life still routinely rocks me with its rush and clamour, and I find myself feeling namelessly anxious throughout the day? Right?  

Yeah, if I’m going to wait until life doesn’t hurt anymore to pronounce myself healed I might as well not try.

But first of all, I think that I should backtrack: the word “healed” merits a proper investigation. I speak about healing in my very first post, and even on my home page – but it’s a really vague word. What do I mean by healed? And healed from what? And what does being healed look like, anyway?

Okay, so to begin with: while I often feel broken, and sometimes use that word to describe myself, I do not mean ‘broken’ like a toy would be, or a leg. I am not a utilitarian object, I’m not here to DO a specific thing. Therefore I cannot be broken in that sense. If I don’t react as others do, or if my pain and past trauma clouds my judgement, or if I struggle to convey myself, or if I misunderstand others, this is not because I am broken. It is because I am unique. I have a unique past, unique aches, unique fears, unique talents and a wholly unique soul. There is no one way to be. There is only this odd and beautiful maze that I am walking, in which each choice brings its own challenges.

What I mean by broken, rather, is broken open.

I mean unprotected: as if my vulnerable underbelly is exposed to the world, as if I am holding my throat bare to the ravages of life. And indeed, as if life has ravaged me. I have not stopped functioning, I am no broken toy – in fact I am functioning beautifully, as wounded and terrified and gloriously myself as I will ever be.

I’m only thirty years into this life and so I cannot make any final pronouncements, but it does seem to me that the older I get, the more broken open I become. Everything.Still.Hurts. But it hurts differently. I hurt more coherently, as if with my entire body instead of with separate bits. Instead of reacting blindly to a stimulus, I open. Instead of rolling into a tiny ball, or snarling from a corner, I fling my arms wide open. I have some choice in the matter – not always, sometimes I’m a fiery ball of rage and relived triggers, but every now and then I feel this: Aaaaaaaah – everything hurts. I’m going to let go, right into that pain.

A fun metaphor I like to think about is the fantasy trope of the untrained magician. You know, that young boy or girl who gets discovered, potent with unrealised magical powers, yet with no inkling of how to use them. This young witch is trained, gradually, to direct her anger and her desires into what she wants to accomplish. At the same time, as she gains focus, she becomes increasingly aware of the untapped reserves of power she has always had, yet could never access. Before her training she was reacting rather than responding to stimuli. Becoming more skilled means focusing, but it also means unleashing. It means allowing what wants to come through to break out, because it’s safe to do so: she can hold it. She can hold herself. She knows when she’s about to drown in her own outpouring, she knowns when to step back, and she knows how to release more fully.

So I guess that’s what I mean with healing. I mean bringing the unconscious things, the fears and traumas and desires that have in the past largely determined my actions, into the light. Becoming whole means knowing who I am. I know what I’m working with. I’m still just as vulnerable, life has not become less dangerous. But I am equipped. I get to make choices from a place of self-knowledge, and self-acceptance, instead of from a place of constant threat.

That feels really fucking powerful.

And it’s also a shifting goal post. The more I discover who I am, tap into my own depths and learn how to dance the dance of catch and release, the more I have yet to discover. It feels like an increase in capacity, capacity for joy but certainly also for pain. At the end of the day, perhaps healing is best defined as presence: How much of myself can I bring? How much of this human experience can I show up for, knowing that it will hurt, knowing that it will reward, knowing that I get to decide, moment by moment, what my response will be? Presence means arriving in each moment armed only with surrender. Healing means trusting enough in oneself to be able to do that.

And yes, everything still hurts. More so, even, because my body is becoming more attuned to what’s happening within and around me. The world is bleeding, I feel its profound aches resonating within myself. We are disconnected from each other, from ourselves. To some extent, this is due to our current dysfunctional society. But disconnection is also part and parcel of the human experience. We are not one being floating blissfully into the ether – we are comprised of separate bodies, with hormones and hunger and gravity and the elements each exerting their influence on us. Life chafes. It pushes and pulls. We long to know and to be known fully, but in this life we never will. That is frustrating and painful.

But somehow, above and beyond the pain of it, this experience is something glorious. I am profoundly grateful to be here for it.

I’ve quit smoking. Again.

I started this habit when I was 21. It felt good at the time, for a long list of reasons, chief of which was that I was asserting my autonomy. For a time, smoking felt empowering, strange as that may sound.

Now it’s just a remnant of a different phase of my life; an unfortunate habit I am having the most difficult (and interesting) time kicking. It’s time – it’s been time for a while – for me to leave this behind.

And so I have, repeatedly. (I’m really good at quitting. Not so much at maintaining the quit.) The interesting thing that happens when you give up your most cemented habit is that a lot of stuff you didn’t know you had comes up. With hourly cravings suddenly abandoning centre stage, the slower more profound yearning emerges. It’s hard to explain this, but it’s as if my constant back-and-forth with cigarettes was distracting me from what was going on below that: a longing to know and be known by Life. A deep thirst, a discomfort, a yearning to be connected fully.

I ask of this yearning: What are you?

The only answer I have thus far is that it feels like a distress call coming off a stranded spaceship, floating free in foreign atmosphere. It knows it belongs somewhere. It’s calling out to that place.

In between this odd adventure into yearning, however, I simply, plainly, miss cigarettes. Today I bummed one off my neighbour. I should have known it would make no difference – ten minutes after smoking it, I was feeling the pangs of realisation that I couldn’t have another.

There’s a familiar shame that comes with these cravings. My self-talk starts spiralling: I’m meant to be better at this by now. How do I except to grow as a human if I can’t let go of this one basic bad habit? I don’t deserve to have nice things if I can’t quit already. It’s embarrassing – every other ‘spiritual’ person I know is doing awesome things like meditating for hours every day, and I am chained to a packet of stinky nicotine sticks. Why am I so weak? And on and on the thoughts continue.

Then I read this poem by Hafiz:

Because of our Wisdom

In many parts of this world water is
Scarce and precious.

People sometimes have to walk
A great distance

Then carry heavy jugs upon their
Heads.

Because of our wisdom, we will travel
Far for love.

All movement is a sign of
Thirst.

Most speaking really says,
“I am hungry to know you.”

Every desire of your body is holy;

Every desire of your body is
Holy.

Dear one,
Why wait until you are dying

To discover that divine
Truth?

I read the poem once. It was beautiful. I read it again, repeating out loud “every desire of your body is holy”. As often happens for me when I’m reading poems, the beauty of the words struck me before their meaning really did. But then I paused – wait, what? What does this really say?

It says, I realised, that I am holy. I am a spark of Essence; I am the breath of the Source (or God, or of Life, whatever your words might be),

I am a chip off the old block which is Consciousness.

This world is sacred. I, within it, am sacred. And so are my desires, mundane or annoying or embarrassing as they might seem. How dare I call anything in this strange and difficult life less than holy? With what superior knowledge do I get to choose which parts of my experiences are sacred, and which are mundane or foul? I do not get to pick and choose. I get to embrace my life as best I can.

And so I will honour my every desire, whether deeper yearning or simple craving for nicotine. Honouring does not mean humouring: I honour my desire for cigarettes. I recognise this as my body’s way of offering me relief from the discomfort of the moment. I honour my insecurities and anxieties and cravings, and I hold myself with care in this moment. But I do not simply roll over and have another smoke. There are better ways, I tell my body. In three days you’ll be glad I hung on.

But this, this struggle not to smoke, this giving in and then quitting again, this soul-battering addiction? This is holy too. Every bit of it.

But I get why it’s important

I get really annoyed when people say “be in the moment”. It’s become such a mantra, it’s like the phrase has lost all meaning entirely. And what if the moment’s boring, or irritating, or painful? Why would I want to be in it?

I mean, I suppose I do actually get it. The times I’ve managed to be fully present, even to unpleasant emotions, I’ve realised it feels MUCH better than running from them.

Feelings pass, but only when we don’t resist them – and fleeing is resisting.

But the mantra makes me feel guilty because I so rarely succeed at it. I tend to jiggle this way and that to escape the discomfort of the moment. Even when I try to allow myself to feel fully, I tend to migrate the emotion quickly into my mind, where I analyse and investigate the feeling into a whole new frenzy.

Take yesterday: I spent the better part of Saturday writing an excruciatingly personal essay about my childhood. Then I posted it and was immediately filled with regret. What if my siblings think that I am co-opting their story? What if my mom reads it? Am I oversharing? I was also feeling rather raw, as dredging up the past is wont to do – raw and sad and somewhat cabin-feverish.

To top it off: On Thursday night I got quite terribly drunk with my neighbours. I live on a small farm and there are about seven houses here; we know each other well and walk back and forth, borrowing spices, returning dog toys. Now, since none of us are leaving the farm anytime soon, we get to visit a bit and get more safe social contact than most people would. At Thursday midnight the great South African lockdown was about to descend for 21 days and of course we all wound up on one porch, dancing to Kings of Leon and drinking too much wine.

I might have offered to guide everybody on the farm through an impromptu 21-day meditation course. Facepalm. I also tried to convert everybody to the joy of magic mushrooms (why do I do this all the time???). And I sang VERY loudly to every song my neighbour was willing to play on the guitar, googling lyrics when I didn’t know them, harmonising at the top of my lungs at every chance I got. I can’t be sure, but I am willing to bet quite a lot of money that I was decidedly off-key.

So on Friday I stayed resolutely in bed. My dog, Waldo, kept checking in on me, poking his head gingerly through the door, but I was having none of it – no walkies today. I tried to work remotely (life goes on), but mainly I ate popcorn and watched Netflix the entire day long, trying to distract myself from the embarrassing memories.

But yesterday I had no more excuses. After putting up my newest post, I had to return my neighbour’s jacket which I’d somehow managed to stumble home in on Thursday. He looked abashed. Oh God, did I flirt with him? That would be so like me. Please tell me I didn’t flirt with him – I really like his girlfriend and also, I am not even a little bit interested in him. Did I flirt with anybody else perhaps? I clearly remember telling another neighbour that I’d missed his face – would he have taken that as a come-on?

Haaaaaaaaaaaah. This moment is so cringey. I don’t want to be in it.

I think that embarrassment is legitimately the hardest kind of moment to stay present to – except perhaps for shame. And so I find myself, over and over again, trying to distract myself from my thoughts. Aargh, I think my sister might be angry at me. Okay, new thought. New series on Netflix! …Is my neighbour looking at me weird? No, new thought! What shall I eat?? …Oh fuck, everybody on the farm definitely hates me.

So I did yoga. Yoga with Adriene has a video up, “Yoga for insecurity”, that sounded perfect. I got on the mat. Waldo planted himself in front of me, as he does whenever I try to do some exercise, so I gave in and cuddled him first. I buried my face in his stinky neck – he smells exactly like a sour cloth, one of those you forgot to wring out, because he swims in the swimming pool all the time and never gets a chance to dry. I inhale. This is home.

Acknowledge how you are feeling,” says Adriene. “I feel really shit”, I mumble while in plank. Oh, that works. A little bit. “I’m afraid that nobody’s going to like me anymore”.

Oh! I’m not embarrassed, I’m afraid. It all comes down to fear, doesn’t it? Every time I feel yucky, when I dig down I find fear somewhere in the mix.

Let’s investigate – what does my fear feel like? This time it feels like extreme tightness between my shoulder blades. And like something’s a little bit stuck in my throat.

But you can’t really be in the moment and continue to be afraid, because fear implies thinking about the future.

I realise this with a tiny jolt as I continue dropping into my body and some of my fear dissipates. I’m a little nauseous, I also realise; but that might just be because I’m still in plank. Okay, down to cobra. My back makes a creaky sound. And whoosh, back to downward dog. I hang out there for a bit. My arms ache. This feels present. This feels good.

It’s half a day later. I’m not all better now – but I’m a little better. At least I did some exercise. And I understood something: I’m afraid. So I said to my fear: never mind, you can hang out here for a little bit if you need to. It’s okay, I’m chill.

I AM chill. I check in with my heart: it’s very full. I am loved. I love. I get to breathe this moment out.

Being in the moment is a pain in the arse, but at least a pain in the arse takes your attention off your fears.

Content warning: This post contains mentions of abuse and mental illness. It was a hard piece to write and I imagine it might be hard to read as well.

What do you get when you combine flaming intelligence, a deep-seated feeling of unworthiness, an undiagnosed mental illness and fundamentalist religion?

You get my dad.

I’ve never been sure whether I love my dad. As a child this bothered me tremendously. I’d wish he would die and then I’d beg God for forgiveness for my savage thoughts. I’d feel sorry for him, when he’d be weeping at the table after reading the Bible for instance, embarrassed on his behalf for his exhibitionism. He cried a lot, and at strange times – when something would strike him as beautiful, or as sad, or when his own feverish mind tipped into momentary despair. It took me a long time to accept my own overabundant tears as a valid way of being. My tendency to weep about every beautiful thing vaguely grossed me out for a long time, like an unfortunate genetic reminder of my dad’s need to be the centre of attention.

Now I don’t think that knowing whether or not I love my dad has much to do with anything. I have compassion for him. I am sad that the choices he made have alienated him from everyone. I’m sad that he shows no signs of developing self-awareness, I’m sad on his behalf and on behalf of everyone whose lives he traumatised, mine included. I also don’t want to be around him, ever again. And that makes me sad too.

An unauthorised biography

My dad’s early life was easy in some ways.

Growing up white, male, and intellectually gifted in a relatively well-off family in 1970s South Africa was no apparent hardship. Yet, the youngest of five children, by the time he was a young boy my grandma was seriously ill, and from my dad’s accounts my grandpa was quite harsh, following the disciplinarian model of parenting that went unquestioned in those days. I imagine my dad felt rather lost: an intense, emotional child, most likely very annoying to his siblings, head filled with grandiose ideas that no one else was interested in.

He built up a long list of grievances early on: his father, who forced them to work endlessly in the garden. His high-school girlfriend, who broke his heart. His twin brother, who didn’t always pick his side. Somewhere unacknowledged: his mother, who loved him fiercely but was always too tired to engage with him as he would have liked. There’s something there, something I don’t think he has ever admitted to himself: a deep sense of betrayal from his mother, the woman who was meant to have his back, but didn’t. This anger became a pervasive rage against all women, something that to me looks like his own anguished attempts at protecting himself against the need for approval he feels towards them. Women are inferior, yet they are dangerous. They need to be disciplined, punished, more so because he feels a helpless yearning for their love.

Somewhere during high school he found Jesus. Back then most Afrikaans people went to the Dutch Reformed Church, abiding by the faith of their forefathers in a lukewarm manner, their lifestyles comfortably sanctioned by the Church. Becoming ‘born-again’ was akin to joining a sect. Being baptised as an adult, and worse, ‘speaking in tongues’, was deeply strange. My dad embraced the strangeness. By now his identity was riding on being different; it was him against the world, and with God sanctioning his every choice there was no way he could go wrong.

When he met my mom he was a young, charismatic missionary. He’d quit conscription halfway through, after what sounds like a genuinely traumatic time in the South African Police Force – this was the early 80’s, when Apartheid riots were rampant and the police reacted extremely violently. My dad objected fiercely, but I gather that he did some things that would haunt him nevertheless. And he was bullied by his teammates, further compounding on his fear of helplessness and his faith in his own righteous ‘otherness’. This was a strange time, a time I hesitate to write about since I know so little of it – I am deeply aware of the wounds in the psyches of so many men who were conscripted then, but even today an almost unanimous silence hangs over the topic.

Women liked my dad; my mom says he was always surrounded by a group of hangers-on. But my mom, shy, beautiful, zealous in her faith yet non-performative, stirred his imagination: here was a woman who was suitably unattainable, who paid more attention to God than to him, who promised intelligence combined with submission, should he win her over.

He won her over. They were married at 21, and left the country soon after to escape his uncompleted conscription.

A childhood

A year and a half later I was born in France, where my parents would live for eleven years in total; four siblings followed.

We were very poor; my dad had grandiose ideas but very little follow-through. He’d finish a course in agriculture with the idea of starting some profitable commune-type farm, and then do nothing with it. He’d spend his time praying and going for long walks through the forest while growing increasingly excited about the signs that God was giving him. We were the Jewish nation in the desert, he said, and he was Moses, obeying God through these forty years in the wilderness. In the meantime we were living off the state. My mom stayed at home with us, because my dad didn’t want her to work, and also because we were scared of being left alone with him.

He was scary. Sometimes he could be very funny, dancing like a big Oompa Loompa through the house, reducing us to fits of laughter. Other times he was violent, throwing things, kicking a chair over. Once he hit me so furiously that I peed in my pants. There was a kind of pattern to his moods: Gradually his excitement would build – we’d wake up in the mornings to the sound of him singing in tongues, repetitively like someone chanting a frenetic mantra, walking up and down or swaying back and forth, often weeping. At the table he would tell us about his plans, about God’s plans, voice rising as we sat cowed, scared of what would come next. There was always something: my mom would not be enthusiastic enough about his ideas, or one of us was too noisy, or I broke a glass. His enthusiasm would tip over into rage. He’d rant, usually at my mom, voice rising and rising as we all shrank back. He’d break something, or throw over the table and leave in fury. The next day the house would be in a hush. My dad would sit in bed until late, weeping – nobody understood him. If he’d given me a hiding he’d come to apologise, explaining through tears that he was only disciplining me because he loved me.

We didn’t have many friends. My parents had some from whichever church or prayer group we’d be attending at the time, but usually it didn’t last long. There’d always be a fight, usually about differences regarding an interpretation of the Bible. My dad especially hated opinionated women, viewing them as abominations in the same category as lukewarm Christians, gay people, and anybody, really, who dared disagree with him.

We weren’t allowed to listen to non-Christian music, read fairy tales (Pagan myths) or be close friends with ‘worldly’ kids. Not that the worldly kids would have me, anyway. In primary school my sister Esther, just a year younger than me, made friends a bit easier than I did, her sunny personality and willingness to fall in with others’ plans serving her well. I was too awkward and intense, and easily bored by the games everybody wanted to play. I wanted to act out scenes from my favourite books: dig for diamonds in the front yard, or build a tree house, or start a detective agency. Everybody else got tired of it quickly, even Esther who was my biggest ally and loyal sidekick, while I carried on stubbornly.

In school I was that annoying child who always volunteers an answer to every question; my classmates hated me accordingly. I once threw cow dung at a boy who was teasing me and after that I gained a reputation as the girl who smells of poo. When I tried to fit in it wouldn’t work for long: Esther and I once snuck out to listen to the Spice Girls in the basement of our apartment complex with some classmates, but my dad discovered us and dragged us out in front of everyone, giving us perhaps the biggest hiding we ever got. Kids were understandably wary of inviting us to things again.

We were different from other kids. We were nervous. My mom was depressed, although I didn’t know that then, only that some mornings her eyes would be hugely swollen from crying and we’d gingerly try to be extra nice to her.

By the time I was eight I was twisting and pulling large clumps of hair out of my head, until eventually the bald spots alerted my parents. My dad cried and asked for my forgiveness: it was because he’d hit me as a baby, he said. I was embarrassed by his effusiveness and by the awkward attention I was receiving. I didn’t want to look weird, or weak, so I stopped. I read a lot of books. I daydreamed compulsively. I was very lonely.

One time my mom left my dad, fled with us when he was out of the house, and took us to a shelter for abused women and children. He found us within a few days, standing outside shouting tirades at the staff. Alternatively he cried, begging my mom to come back. It was embarrassing, and re-traumatising for all the other women and children. We went back.

The next time my mom left my dad it was to come back to South Africa. My dad was in China then, teaching English for a few weeks while getting the lay of the land: we were going to be missionaries. He was going to learn one of the many Chinese dialects, an obscure one for which he would then invent a written language, then translate the Bible into it. Meantime, while he was gone my grandparents bought us all tickets to come back to South Africa. I was almost ten by then.

My first memory of South Africa is of my aunt coming flying into my mom’s arms at the airport arrivals, both of them weeping, as us children stood awkwardly glancing at our new cousins.

Our new country was wonderful, even when my mom took my dad back – she’d been convinced by religion, I think, still striving to be a submissive wife, and by the fear of forcing a broken home upon us. Chastened for a little while, soon my dad was exactly the same: moving us from church to church because he disliked the respective pastors, forbidding my mom from seeing her family because they were putting evil ideas into her head. But the people here were nicer. I felt less foreign. I had some friends.

We were in a small private Christian school, where I promptly fell in love with a boy who eventually asked me out on a dare from his friends. My dad got wind of it and stormed the school, shouting at the headmaster for allowing such impurity. The whole school found out. I felt a pariah, crying and begging my mom daily to take me out, which she eventually did to homeschool us instead.

Then for a while she left my dad again, when I was eleven. This time it felt very real, she was even seeing a divorce lawyer. We lived in a little house on a farm, had very little money, got a pet pig, had a vegetable garden. My mom made us smoothies every morning. We took horse-riding lessons and visited regularly with other homeschooled kids.

Sometimes we’d visit my dad in his weird empty bachelor flat. We’d eat fish and chips the entire time, him forcing long mountain hikes upon us while ranting about my mom’s iniquities. It was repetitive, unceasing: his list of grudges, the people who had wronged him, his promises over and over to himself that God would help him triumph. We hated visiting him but we knew we had to. One time he refused to take us back to my mom and kept us with him for a few more days – I don’t know what made him return us eventually, perhaps the fact that we were crying all the time. Strangely, we often begged my mom to take him back. We were sorry for him, he looked so devastated.

One time I even told my mom that I thought God hated us, flinging my frightened accusations in her face, enjoying her resulting tears.

They got back together; a visiting preacher finally convinced my mom to embrace forgiveness. Also, she was heavily pregnant with my youngest brother at the time, and I don’t think she had any idea of how we’d all get by. My dad has started his own translation company by then and was earning lots of money when he was energised, sometimes working through the night for days on end.

We moved a lot. Eventually we ended up on a farm in the Kwazulu Natal province of South Africa, where I entered into my teenage years with admirable awkwardness. My dad’s mood swings endured, but they were tempered by the space around us – I would flee often into the surrounding countryside, accompanied by my dog, walking for hours on end. We were still homeschooled but we’d made some friends in Sunday School, some close friends even. I got a horse. I was also profoundly religious, strangely finding sustenance in my time alone with God, who was different from my father’s God although we gave him the same name.

Interestingly, people liked my dad. He was witty, charismatic, chameleon-like in his ability to charm dour farmers, pastors and our friends’ moms alike. After a while of course there’d be a big blow-out and they’d disappear from our life; his secretaries always quit eventually, even the farm labourers didn’t usually last long. But unanimously people would react the same, upon initially meeting him: “But he’s so nice/normal/interesting!”

It’s weird when people – especially your friends – think that you’re overreacting, when they can’t understand why you’re afraid of your dad, or why you think you wouldn’t be allowed to go to a party when clearly your dad is such a nice guy. He wasn’t a ranting lunatic – he was an emotionally astute man, not bad-looking, accomplished and engaging. In comparison, we were a rather rag-tag gang of children: shy to the extreme, clueless about pop culture, nervous. We made him look bad, if anything.

The year that I turned 14, God told my dad to take a Sabbatical. For a year he would renounce his job and focus only on prayer and worship, although we had no other income and a rather expensive farm to maintain. My mom was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer and underwent intensive chemo treatment. I went through a series of surgeries that left me on crutches and in constant, severe pain for a year. Meanwhile, my dad was gradually entering into a strange frenzy. It culminated in him telling us that we weren’t allowed to have our friends anymore, because they were all ‘infected oranges’. He disenrolled me from piano lessons, my sister from guitar lessons, and decided that we’d all learn to play golf with him instead. We weren’t allowed to go to church anymore, which was the only place we interacted with other people.

Something snapped. One day, in a rage about my mom’s ingratitude (we had no fuel left and couldn’t go buy milk and butter from the neighbours like we usually did), my dad climbed on a horse to fetch the butter himself. He promptly fell off – he was a very bad rider. We all laughed, guiltily.

He kicked us off the farm – we left three days later, five kids and my mom in an old Audi, with our clothes packed tightly into the boot, pots and pans on our laps. We moved to my grandparents’ town on the other side of the country. This time it was final. And this time I was deeply, furiously relieved.

Of course it doesn’t end there. My parent’s divorce took almost another decade, ending in the High Court. He never paid any maintenance money, exhausting lawyers and judges alike – our local magistrate ended up recusing himself whenever a case regarding my dad came up. He filed dozens of complaints against my mom, alleging that she was a neglectful parent. Tens of times he was ordered by a judge to see a psychologist, but it never happened. When we’d visit him he’d tell us about his newest dream: to have many wives, one from each South African culture perhaps, living in houses around him with his children numerous as the sand of the sea, a la Abraham. Women don’t mind sharing one husband, he said, it’s their natural position – as long as they have each other to gossip with they’re content.

Once, he kidnapped my brothers and fled the country with them – he was caught in Mozambique, just before they would have left for Madagascar. It was a hellish time; I barely know how my mom survived it. She fended for us as best she could, putting us through school somehow. Against the backdrop of such insanity, my last few teenage years were relatively normal. I saw my dad as rarely as possible; in any case I often did things that made him cut me off as his child for months on end, like having a boyfriend, like having kissed someone.

A year ago my dad contacted me for the first time in years. It’s strange how his story repeats itself: he is living in France, doing a course in agriculture, estranged from his new wife. They’re in a protracted custody battle for their two little daughters. He is fighting a righteous battle, he tells me, and he’ll win. He’ll win. God is on his side. Soon after we resumed contact his continued attacks on my life choices forced me to break contact again. It didn’t feel healthy. I was getting nothing but a sickening sense of deja vu from listening to his stories.

                                                                                Epilogue

I thought for the longest time that I should be able to forgive my father. Everybody says so: you can’t move on if you can’t forgive. I felt it a moral failing on my part: even though I did process large parts of my childhood trauma, I could never bring myself to forgive. Every time I tried I knew that my forgiveness was inauthentic.

Then I kind-of got over it. Going back again and again to my most difficult memories to eke out some forgiveness feels counterproductive. And blanket forgiveness feels untrue. More: I don’t think I SHOULD forgive my dad, not right now, perhaps not ever. It doesn’t feel like part of my journey.

I feel instead that I should straddle the line between remembering and letting go, grieving for myself and my family while allowing anger, when it comes, its justified position.

I was reminded of this last night, as I was reading a piece from Jeff Brown’s book Grounded Spirituality. Brown writes: “If forgiveness of others arises organically, so be it. If it doesn’t, there is no issue. We are not responsible for those who wound us. They can take that up with God, or whatever they answer to” (own emphasis). And “Forgiveness of others is not always the appropriate response. There are actually situations where it is more healing not to forgive. That is the genuine and true response.”

I am not responsible for those who wound me.

I am responsible for me. And I decide, I decide, what my path will be. This is true: a tremendous and continuous injustice was done to me by my father. He was not a good person. And he will never apologise – if I am hoping for vindication from him, I will never get it. There will be no reconciliation.

This is also true: Without denying the damage he did me, my father gave me many gifts. Suffering under him taught me compassion. It expanded my faith, although that faith has since morphed away from religion entirely. It opened my eyes to the pain of others. It sharpened my intuition. It gave me self-awareness and sensitivity. It made me band together closely with my siblings, forming a bond that will sustain me all my life.

I am not grateful towards my dad, but I AM grateful towards life. I wouldn’t have my childhood any other way, now. But I am also angry. I am also sad. The landscape of my heart is profoundly uneven, full of peaks and troughs. I stumble upon my wounds when I least expect to, bewildered by the anguish buried within. I still catch myself inhabiting my body with fear and awkwardness, asking for permission to exist, to be loud, to have opinions. I still stumble upon residual anger at all men.

But I have built a brave life. I people it with love. I engage with my own wounds. I recognise myself as more, much more than my own woundedness: If I am broken, I am also whole. I am triumphantly, unceasingly alive.

And although forgiveness might not be my path, I know that compassion is. I have compassion for my father, a terrified and lonely man whose choices drove him further and further away from connection. My heart breaks over the fact that there are so many like him, men and women entangled in their own rampant emotions, undiagnosed, untreated, yet so clearly profoundly ill.

He did the best he could. What freedom, to realise this – not as an excuse, not even an explanation, only as statement of fact. My dad did the best he could with the level of maturity and self-knowledge and faith that he had.

His best was not good enough. He will have to live with that forever, as will I, but I get to have compassion. And I get to move on.

When COVID-19 forced me into isolation five days ago, I wondered what effect it would have on my well-being. Would I enjoy this time alone? I was definitely looking forward to it, and initially I was a bit perplexed when people were commenting on social media that their mental health was suffering due to the enforced aloneness. Sleeping late felt luxurious. Doing my work on my own time felt amazing. The silence felt amazing.

And then it didn’t. I live alone, and boy, is this head noisy when it isn’t balanced by other people’s voices. Also, it turns out I’m not very disciplined when nobody’s forcing me to get up. Yesterday I sat around in my dressing gown until 11 a.m., and my dirty dishes have become rather…abundant. I haven’t done any batch cooking like I planned to and instead have been intermittently eating cashews, lots of tomatoes, and ice cream every two hours.

But the worst is the weird angsty feeling creeping up on me.

I have struggled with some anxiety in the past, and that feeling has been gone for long enough that it feels deeply unpleasant to encounter it again. I have this sense of vague foreboding – I don’t want to get in my car because it feels as if something bad is about to happen. I’m a little emotionally off-balance, my movements are sharp and quick, as if I’ve had too much coffee. I imagine that my neighbour is angry at me. (She really might be, she caught me shouting at her dogs who were barking incessantly. There was this deeply awkward moment where I yelled at them furiously to shut up and then realised she had come home early and was standing right there. To explain the awkwardness of this, you need to understand that my neighbour madly deeply loves her dogs. And she thought I loved them too. Also, we live on the same smallholding, we share the same lawn, we even share a wall as our houses are semi-detached. We need to get along. And as it is, that has been challenging because our lifestyles are vastly different. I imagine that she now intensely dislikes me, and it bothers me that this bothers me so much. So I am profoundly overthinking this and wondering how to apologise to an extremely conflict-averse person without making it worse…)

See? I’m anxious.

There have been many good things about the past few days too. I’ve sloooooowly cultivated good habits over the last couple of years and they are standing me in good stead. To some I am now returning with more fervour, others have been there all along. When I emerged from the clinic in 2018 I decided to approach my own well-being differently: I would build manageable small rituals into my life. These rituals would either be things that came naturally, or things I could easily adopt into my life – they would not be turned into chores, I decided, because then I’d quickly abandon them and have one more thing to feel bad about.

Now many of these rituals have become an important part of my life, significant anchors when my heart was buffeted by storms last year. Returning to them has always felt like returning to joy. And even at my lowest points these habits were doable enough that I managed to roughly maintain them. So here’s a list of tiny rituals that I have found useful. I hope that you might too.

  • I make playlists. Two years ago I started amassing songs from wildly different genres into one Spotify playlist, and because the songs had nothing in common except that they made me feel better, I named the playlist “soul food”. It’s now a rambly, rambunctious list with Leonard Cohen, Natasha Bedingfield and Nahko And Medicine For The People sitting uncomfortably next to each other. I have other playlists too, but I listen to this one almost every time I drive to work in the morning., and arrive replenished. Since I’m not driving to work anymore, now I just listen to them when I’m driving aimlessly.
  • Which brings me to the next thing. When I’m feeling jittery, I drive. I try to limit my drives for fuel consumption purposes, but this habit actually started long before self-quarantine did. We have some beautiful winding roads in the area. I put on my playlist du jour and I drive slowly up the winding road. And then I turn around and drive back. Having to focus on the road while singing along very loudly to “So long Marianne” really brings life back into my bones.
  • I walk. I started doing this during one of the million times I quit smoking: I’d feel an itch to smoke and I’d walk instead, to nowhere in particular. Again, I know that I’m fortunate to live in a space that is both open and relatively safe – it’s harder in a city, but it’s worth the effort to find a nature reserve or a beach or a park that allows for walks, especially walks that aren’t headed for somewhere specific.
  • I listen to something nourishing before I go to bed/as I fall asleep. I have had rather severe issues with sleep for most of my life, and none of the recommended relaxation techniques have ever worked. Lights off? Mind on. Then I realised that I quite easily fall asleep if I’m watching a movie or series while allowing my eyes to close – trying to focus on the story prevents my mind from running off. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sleeping next to a blaring laptop and awake to a screen staring at me, so I switched to podcasts. Spotify has this neat option where you can set its sleep timer to turn the app off once the episode is over, instead of running to the next episode and playing through the night. I listen to Tara Brach’s podcast because her voice is soothing and the contents feel healthy for my soul – usually I fall asleep about 15 minutes in, so the next evening I fast-forward to the spot where I fell asleep and listen to the rest. In this way I gradually ingest a whole lot of wisdom, and I fall asleep more easily than I have ever done before. (I don’t listen to her meditations though, only to the full talks, because I don’t want to train myself to fall asleep during meditation.)
  • I listen to podcasts while I cook. (I’ve heard this also works well with audiobooks, but personally I prefer reading over listening to books). I have a list of favourites: “On being with Krista Tippett”, “Poetry unbound”, “The future is beautiful”, “Getting naked with Nate” and “Under the skin with Russel Brand” – and when I’m a little tired of overtly uplifting or deep stuff, I spend an hour laughing to “Wine and crime”. (And I’d love some more recommendations – leave a comment!)
  • I do short sessions of yoga. I’ve always been drawn to yoga, yet every time I’d attend a class I’d leave feeling ugh – I couldn’t do the strength poses, the teacher would keep telling us to push ourselves, my tights made me look like a gangly grasshopper… Then Yoga with Adriene took Youtube by storm and changed my life as well. I started by choosing her shorter videos – nothing longer than 15 minutes. Gradually I worked myself up to longer videos, and now simply moving has come to feel so delicious that I do this every day. I’m often not much aware of my own bodily sensations, and the value of arriving more fully to my body has been tremendous. There are other great embodiment practices as well, or perhaps a simple stretch will do – sometimes I just do a forward fold and hang there, limp, for five minutes while breathing consciously.
  • I meditate, but I do it MY way. For instance, I don’t push myself to meditate every day because then it becomes a duty, a Thing That I Must Do To Be Spiritual, which I think misses the point entirely. This might change in future, but for now, meditation for me looks like this: I sit down and start breathing more deeply. I check in with my body, sometimes for the first time that day. I become aware of some stuff happening – anxiety, perhaps, or sadness, or excitement. Sometimes I lean into that and explore the feeling, sometimes I focus on my breathing instead, depending on what feels right. Often I change my position – I might end up lying on my back with my legs up against the wall, or in child’s pose, or I just put my hand on my heart, acknowledging myself. I try to stay in the position I chose for about ten minutes, but if I feel the need to move again, I do so. And sometimes, instead of focusing on my breathing, I listen to the sounds around me. I imagine being really IN the sounds, expanding my ears and my consciousness to envelop everything I can hear, the birds, the far-off cars. Sometimes I talk to the Earth, or to my vague concept of God/Source, or to the part of me that feels like a scared child. The thing is just to sit, and see what comes up, and stick with it for a little bit, without chastising or ignoring any of the information our body is so willing to give us when we listen.
  • When I have a burning or repetitive thought that won’t leave me alone, I record it. It’s faster than writing it down, and it always breaks the obsessional hold that it was gaining over me. Often I talk to somebody specific in these recordings (but I never send them). If I’m struggling to let go of resentment over something somebody did, I tell them about it in detail. I try to get to the heart of what’s really bothering me, as if I’m journaling. And then I let the recording chill on my phone for a few days. When I listen to it again, I realise that I’ve moved on from the issue. I might delete the recording then, or keep it for longer to listen to again. This really helps me figure out what’s mine to deal with, and what should actually be discussed between us.
  • This one’s new; I was introduced to it at a discussion session I attended a while back and it really spoke to me: I greet the Earth and the four directions. For this, it’s nice to be barefoot and to be standing outside, somewhere relatively private. I figure out roughly where north is. I pick a plant, or a rock, or a piece of soil, and I greet it silently. Then I turn east (where the sun rises). I acknowledge all the beginnings in my life, the new things that are coming up for me. I turn south. I acknowledge where I came from – my family, my ancestors, my own story. I turn west; I acknowledge the things that are ending for me. I turn north; I acknowledge my own spiritual journey, my intuition and the guidance I am receiving from within and above. I breathe silently for a moment and remember that all things ebb and flow.

The beauty of these tiny rituals is that they bring a small sense of accomplishment, but without much effort. On really tough days, I can list the healthy things I did for myself today: “today I went for a walk, AND I did yoga, AND I sat and breathed quietly for ten minutes – yay me!!” They also become refuges, ways in which to punctuate my days with minutes of peace.

But the important thing is to create one’s own practices. The internet is full of advice on how to live better, more wisely, more efficiently. Taking up too many habits at once, or setting an unattainable goal (‘I’m going to meditate for two hours a day’) only contributes to exhaustion. Starting with one small thing, one thing that resonates, that suits your own style, makes a huge, but gentle, difference.

I dedicate this post to the healthcare workers of the world – without your service we’d be lost.

Last night I feel asleep listening to an episode of a podcast by Tara Brach.  I often do this when my heart and mind need quieting. It calms me profoundly to spend my last waking minutes remembering that this too – the stress and rush of the day – may serve the expansion of my spirit.

Cooped up and cabin feverish, lately at night my mind roams restlessly. I text back and forth with family and friends, re-read my own blog posts and nit-pick any small errors, lumber to the fridge to see what else I might raid from it.

There is a tense hush in the atmosphere. The whole of South Africa seems to be holding its breath as we watch the numbers of Corona cases mount (to date 150, more than double what it was two days ago). Self-isolation is our only line of defence and we are doing it imperfectly at best. Total shutdown seems a terrible option in the face of what seems to many to be only a rumour, an “oh, it wouldn’t happen here”. How do you explain to millions of people that staying home indefinitely, losing the wages that are feeding their entire families, would be better than being infected with this still mainly hearsay virus? As shops close I think of the grim face of the owner of my favourite local café as he sends home his two employees, Tumi and Marbella. They will receive a skeleton wage, but money might run out.

Both my brothers, Benjamin and Zeb, work in the tourist industry and judging by the amount of prank videos they are sending me on Whatsapp, business has come to a grinding halt. One of my sisters, Luna, is alone on the other side of the country – she works for a wildlife rehabilitation centre and they are bracing for the impact this might have on their funding. My other sister, Esther, her husband Wolfgang and their three children live in Rwanda. Their borders are closing tonight. Many of the expats they know are flying home while they still can, but my sister’s household is staying; Esther sends me long flustered voice notes in which I can hear her children running and screaming in the background.

As for my mom – she owns a guesthouse and a bakery. Her guests have all cancelled and the weekly market where she sells her loaves has closed down. After much hurried recalculating, she’s purchased a ticket to Rwanda for today. She wants to come by my house on her way to the airport (we live 300 km apart) to say goodbye; somehow this time feels different from all the other times we’ve parted. I wonder if she should go, I think about the busy airport and its roving germs. But in four days my mom is turning 53 and I think of the joy, the togetherness, she’d have surrounded by her vibrant grandchildren. I’m envious – it’s strange that we live in the same country but that it feels safer for her to go elsewhere.

In the meantime my phone is lighting up in a flurry of texts as my aunt tries to get us all to phone my grandpa.

He’s 90 but he’s refusing to stay at home, even though my cousin offered to do his shopping. As a compromise he’s promised not to go to a restaurant as he usually does on Fridays, shrugging off all other concerns with typical headstrong bonhomie. I catch myself feeling weepy – I’m not ready for my grandpa to get sick. I didn’t answer his last call because I thought I didn’t have the time, and now I wonder whether he knows that I love him. And so I send him a voice note (my grandpa is very much with the times when he wants to be) and when my voice catches I realise the beauty here.

What a great privilege: to love so many people, to be loved by so many. I sit alone in my house with my dog (who can’t believe his luck at my continued presence) and yet I am utterly rooted in a sense of belonging. My heart aches deeply when I think of South Africa. We have roughly three million citizens with untreated AIDS, many more with active TB, so many sick or old or immunocompromised. We do not have the capacity to weather a full-flung pandemic – if Italy didn’t have enough respirators, we don’t stand a chance. Suggesting good handwashing practices and self-isolation to people without running water or a house of their own is ludicrous. I imagine the impending losses, how powerless we are before the face of this giant, and my heart contracts – and expands.

This is what compassion feels like: a deep ache. Something larger than myself moves in my chest and I feel heavy with wonder. There is no room for superficial optimism in this vastness, only for grief, and for gratitude. It is my honour to stand and witness the joys and the suffering of the world. Where I can reach out, where I can provide support, I will do so from a place of being profoundly humbled by this Earth and by the life she brings forth. This life carries all the meaning I could ever ask for.

In her podcast Tara Brach speaks about the prayer of the Bodhisattva: “may this serve the awakening of compassion”. Awakening feels uncomfortable. We become aware of aches and irritations and of the fleetingness of life. But it also feels beautiful.

Our individual and collective stories hold the breath of something sacred within them, flawed as we are, tired as we are. This life, these stories: this is what I will continue showing up for.

I love you, world. I’m sending you a flower from my garden. May this time serve the awakening of our compassion.  

I live in the Boland, the mountainous winelands to the north-east of Cape Town. In a good winter here it rains almost continuously, enveloping the region in a blanket of dampness reminiscent of European autumns. In summer the heat can be stifling, relieved only by the great gusts of the south-easterly wind we also call the Cape Doctor. Everything smells of fynbos and the mountains go hazy in the strong afternoon light; roads shimmer and somewhere a bush fire is blazing its way up a hill.

And then we have autumn.

Autumn makes me want to weep. The wind carries an indefinable crispness, foretelling the cold to come, while also laden with the last scents of summer: the mustiness of grapes, drying scrubland, stone. The harshness of summer mellows into long mornings of shimmering sunlight. From my home I can hear tractors driving up and down, carrying the late harvest grapes to their destination.

Even my Labrador, Waldo, sleeps later into the mornings, and now that I am working from home, I wake up in my own time to a chorus of guinea fowl occasionally interrupted by the haunting cry of a fish eagle.

Autumn is the season of mangoes, of gradual ripening and voluptuous eating. In my garden only the hardy plants still bloom – the rosemary, the scarlet geraniums hanging from their baskets. It is a time of stillness, this year much intensified by the spectre of COVID-19 gathering us each into our own homes.

This morning I took Waldo for a walk and no car passed us on the road, only cyclists.

They say that humans too have seasons. Some seasons seem to last for ever, just like a Boland summer lingers interminably, but then one day you wake up and realise with surprise that something has indeed shifted. The air is softer, somehow.

I wrote earlier about feeling beckoned to sit with and accept my deepest aches.

The thing is that you can’t force acceptance. You can only hang out with your pain as well as you can.

You show up. Perhaps that means crying. Perhaps that means feeling generally ugh and uneasy without judging or shooing the feeling away. Perhaps that means washing three dishes and celebrating this tiny accomplishment. Sometimes you distract yourself with other stuff, because you catch yourself spiralling into thoughts that aren’t useful, and that’s okay.

To me acceptance these days has often meant feeling achingly lonely, and sort of…leaning into that. Not in a self-pitying kind of way (although I think it’s very useful to acknowledge sadness without ‘positive thinking’ it away), just in a calm way. Oh, I feel bereft. Oh wow, my heart really yearns for connectedness. This feels…heavy. My chest feels heavy. The back of my neck feels tight. I feel small and tired and I want to be comforted. And then sometimes I hug myself, laughing a little bit because it feels so silly. But I am reminded that I’ve got my own back.

Building practices into my life that allow the realisation of fear or sadness or aloneness to arise naturally has been really useful. I don’t meditate every night, but when I do it often ends up completely different from the quiet mindfulness practice I’d envisioned. I sit down on my blanket. I greet all the feelings in my body and start breathing more fully. And then anxiety, or loss, come knocking. “I hurt”, my gut whispers. I’ve learned to listen to that, instead of forcing my mind to clear and rise above the painful sensations, and so I respond:

“Why do you hurt?” I ask my gut.

“Wrong question”, answers my stomach. I sit quietly.

I hurt”, whispers my gut again. “It’s right here under my rib cage, a heavy tense emptiness.”

I’m sorry that you hurt”, I whisper back. “What might make it better?”

“Lean forward. Do a child’s pose.”

I lean forward, knees splayed wide under me, chest against the floor. It’s nice down here. My blanket smells of washing powder and slightly of dog. I can hear crickets and Waldo snoring in the lounge.

I breathe. The emptiness is still in my stomach but the ground is holding me. Slowly in the silence my own presence unfurls.  

or How I Stumbled Across My Biggest Fear

Note: I wrote this post in January 2020, and while it still holds true, it’s also been really good to notice that since then I’ve been moving steadily towards peace. So if you’re aching – hold yourself lovingly and treasure the knowledge that grace will come.

2018 was a strange and difficult year for me – I’ll write more about it later, but there were weird relationships, drugs (both good and bad ones), a visit to a psychiatric clinic, and intense beautiful moments of healing and connection with myself and others. It ended on a hopeful note.

Then 2019 – oh, 2019. I will always remember 2019 as my Year of the Reckoning. It’s the year I turned 30. It’s also the year in which my romantic and familial life finally collapsed in on itself after many, many ups and downs and near-misses over the years. It’s the year that forced me to sit down and take stock – and by taking stock, I mean rage and grieve. But in between the raging and grieving there was recognising, and naming the wounds, and accepting them, and extending a tenuous compassion towards myself and my loved ones. This happened in cycles – is still happening in cycles – and so the tentative grace I could give myself was alternated by times of blind fear and loss; yet that shy grace, when it came, was my lifeline.

Because life is not neat and therefore the arrival of a new year does not miraculously herald in uncomplicated peace and joy, 2020 thus far is still quite a mixed bag. But there is more space between the moments of anguish now. Every now and then I wake into days that begin and end with intense weeping, I still have moments where the pain of being alive utterly takes my breath away, but they’re fewer and further between.

Yet I catch myself being in a hurry, rushing towards being ‘all better now’, and then the despair, when it finds me, is accompanied by grave disappointment at the fact that I’m not yet ‘over it’.

I’m still, in many ways, broken. I still have the same fears I had two years ago, a decade ago, even 30 years ago. Often I’m still reacting from a place of deep elemental woundedness like a child who’s terrified for her life. And that’s what I am, in so many ways: a child who fears that she might not get the love and the acceptance and shelter she needs to survive.

Because I find it intensely hard to just sit with pain without DOING anything, I read a ton of books last year. One of the books I read was Undefended Love, by Jett Psaris and Marlena S. Lyons, which deeply changed my life. Undefended Love speak about the “cracked identity”, which the authors describe as the lies we have come to believe so firmly about ourselves that they have become a fixed, and important, part of how we see ourselves. In one way or another, we all suspect that we are deficient. This belief is compared to living with a broken toe: we hobble around, raging at others if they so much as come near our toe, avoiding situations in which we might stub it, numbing the pain however we can. We are not living from a place of wholeness and joy, because there’s this one untreated injury dictating what we can and can’t do; and therefore, if we do not become conscious of these wounds, as the book says, “they will control our experience of life, including our relationships.”

Most of us believe more than one lie about ourselves, naturally, but Undefended Love maintains that there is most likely one main theme. It could be that we feel worthless, or weak, boring, powerless, un-special, too-much, that we don’t belong, that we’re shameful, etc. Sometimes many of these adjectives might feel true, but they’d tend to cohere under a main theme.  

The idea that all humans feel fundamentally flawed and unworthy, that we’re all looking to cover up this feeling of not-enoughness, is not a new one. But what I liked about how Undefended Love presents it, is that it maintains we all have a specific wound and corresponding fear. This means I can dig up my own ‘cracked identity’ and see how it has been influencing my behaviour and my relationships, instead of just vaguely dealing with knowing that I feel ‘not good enough’. So, as I was reading the book, I set about figuring out what my cracked identity could be. This is what happened:  First I thought of a thing that awakens a strong reaction within me. One of the things that opened up a deep well of fear and anguish within me last year was when a then-lover no longer wanted to be intimate with me. What did/do I fear? I fear that, having seen and known me intimately, he no longer finds me beautiful, worthwhile, interesting, that he’s lost interest in WHO I AM. What does that loss feel like? Like deep aloneness and abandonment. Like being utterly and completely bereft.

And, when I dig further into it, it feels like confirmation. The thought that comes up for me is “this was bound to happen, after a while I’m always unwanted”. The thing that I had feared – and expected – most had come about. And here, thus, the belief underlying to it: That I am, and always will be, unwanted.

Immediately upon recognising this I started crying. There’s something that happens when you poke at your deepest wound: your entire body gasps with the shock of being touched where it has been trying so hard NOT to be touched. In my experience when tears come involuntarily, like a reflex, a deep truth has most likely been triggered. The truth for me was that I believe I am unwanted.

Over the past decade I have spent much time building up experiences and self-confidence: I learned that I am interesting, and resilient, and that my heart is a beautiful place. I learned that I can survive many things, that I am able to make friends, that I have a generous spirit and a sturdy mind. I believe, except for the occasional moment of self-doubt, that I am worthy. I believe that I am beautiful. But. I am having a truly hard time believing that I am wanted. This is my broken toe: I feel that my personality is too cumbersome, too intense; I am too hungry and sad and happy and clumsy for others to accommodate me for long. Try as I might, I cannot consistently manage to whittle down my emotions and ideas to a size that others might find palatable. Here lies my greatest fear: That when I allow myself to relax, my bigness will sneak out and others’ reaction will be to gently but insistently distance themselves. So far, life has not proven my fear wrong. (But I also know that there is such a thing as confirmation bias and that I am primed, as we all are, to have my biggest fear confirmed.)

There’s a lot to say here. There’s a lot to unpack when you suddenly come upon your own broken toe and realise you’ve been limping along with this injury for a lifetime. But unlike a broken toe, this cracked self is not ‘fixed’ within a month or two. I’ve tried repeating uplifting mantras to myself (“the universe loves and values me”), I’ve tried yoga-ing and meditating it better, I’ve tried digging out the root cause of this wound – and while these are all valuable, there’s also a time for just sitting with this. That might be the most necessary part of the process because it means ACCEPTING this fear as a part of who I am right now. I know that I cannot move into a life of flourishing if I am judging my own fears and wounds and trying to criticise myself into being healed. I can’t force myself not to be afraid of being unwanted.

So, over and over again, I have been facing this thing, and it’s been… interesting.

All of a sudden I recognise all the times my cracked identity has been calling the shots:

When I try to be super useful so that, if unwanted, I might at least be needed. When I people-please. When I become the life of the party and afterwards spend hours agonising about whether I talked too much. When I apologise too much. When a small comment or setback sends me into paroxysms of self-doubt. When I fluctuate wildly between being flamboyant and shy. When I feel resentful towards others for not doing as much for me as I do for them. Fuuuuck. There’s so much here. It’s so deeply annoying to find that, after 30 years of living and about 12 of more-or-less sustained self-inquiry, I am still THIS fundamentally wounded and afraid. That at the heart of my actions sits the simple yet profound fear of not being wanted.

I have no specifically cheerful note to end on, but here is the intention that I have set, will continue setting: To sit with my wounded heart, to investigate it and, most of all, to ALLOW it. For now, this is where I’m at and it’s taking tremendous effort not to rush the process. But I’ll own up to this, I’ll recognise it as the identity I’ve built and believed in over the years. Therefore:

Hello! My name is Sage, and right now I’m shit scared of loving people. I’m in a place of fearing even just existing fully in this world, because I secretly believe that I’m unwanted. I might be here for a while – so let’s have tea and chat while we’re waiting for this moment to pass.