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.  

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.

Dear reader,

For my first post, I’m sharing with you the seeds that gave birth to this blog. I hope that my words and the call to action that I am feeling, will resonate with you in the same way that I feel it urgently within myself.  

In 2018, I was for a time a patient at a psychiatric clinic – I was worn-out, weepy, dispirited, hardly eating and heartbroken, and the clinic gave me much-needed respite from my increasingly disjointed life. On my first day there, having done the requisite intake interview with the psychiatrist, having been measured and poked and prodded and fed, I settled in and met some of the other patients. People spoke openly and easily, for the most part – about their traumatic brain injuries, about their bipolar disorder, frequently about their families. I was immediately and immensely moved.

There was so much pain here, and so much resilience; so much suffering, yet, present in each person’s story, such willingness to be vulnerable. Like a thread through every conversation ran the need to connect – to be seen, to be acknowledged, to exist fully. My own pain, while it did not become insignificant to me, was put into context: I am a profoundly wounded human in a profoundly wounded world, and that makes complete sense. There’s an odd poetry here, I thought, in how we are all searching for acceptance;

there can be immense beauty in our collective healing, more so than if we’d never been broken to begin with.

And whilst I could not quite see the beauty in my own story yet, I could see it in others’. That gave me hope, and it gave me meaning.

On that first evening, sitting in the tiny smoker’s lounge of the clinic amidst rattling aircon and overflowing ashtrays (which is where everybody got together), I first realised what has since become a mission statement for me: If it is at all within my power to find healing, then it is my duty and my calling to do so.

I must do so on behalf of Melanie, skinny boyish Melanie chain-smoking here with me, who lost both her lover and her mother to cancer, whose sons are no longer speaking to her, who is going to rehab after this. I must do so on behalf of James, who is turning twenty but whose parents have never celebrated his birthday, who peers at us from underneath his greasy black hair, occasionally banging his head against the wall. I must do so on behalf of Karen, whose husband refuses to accept that she has an illness, even after she tried to die.  

But it’s not only on behalf of the patients here and elsewhere that I must heal. It is also for my family, for my country, for everyone in the world who carry their own difficult stories within them. If I can heal, if it is at all within my power to find healing, then I must do so on behalf of my mother, who tied herself to abusive men twice over yet raised us valiantly and kindly. I must do so on behalf of my grandmother who carries the sorrow of her son’s suicide in her body. I must do so on behalf of all four my siblings who venture into life with compassion and curiosity, carrying their wounds with aplomb.

If I can find healing for myself then it is imperative that I do so, on behalf of my country where the wounds of the past are seething just below the surface. I must do so on behalf of my continent, embattled but glorious even under the strain of sustained poverty and strife. I must do so on behalf of the earth, this fierce nourishing Earth, awe-inspiring planet who houses us and feeds us, who whispers into our lungs, who aches into our bones until we return to her dust.

If I can find healing then I must do so, because to do any less would be betraying myself, my family, my planet. To refuse this mandate would be to hinder the healing of the entire Earth a little bit, to bury my head in the sand while our planet spins into chaos. I cannot heal others if I cannot tend to my own wounds. I cannot love my planet if fear and avoidance reign in my heart. I am deeply ineffectual if I refuse to plumb the depths of my own heart.

I must become whole if I am to live.

This is my story.