We’re ten days in and so far 2021 has been…all of the things.

Some questions I am asking myself as we skid and crash into this new year: What does it mean to show up fully? How much can and should I allow myself to feel the pain of the world? How do I balance that with joy?

So far my answers have been: Yes.

Yes to pain. Yes to joy. These things can, and do, and should, co-exist.

Yes to loving hard. Yes to grieving. Yes to doing the work. Yes to self-discipline. Yes to flow. Yes to rest.

On this day, yes to all of the things.

And then, two months after I began writing poetry in English again, the annual Poetry in McGregor Competition took place. The theme was “Love in the time of Covid”, something I’d become intimately acquainted with over the last few months. I had the option of writing either in English or Afrikaans. Why did I choose English? I don’t know and I feel conflicted about my choice still.

But here’s my poem. It was a finalist in the competition and finally won the merit award for very moving poem (an award that felt so ultimately perfect that I giggled about it in delight for days afterwards):

As a child I wrote poetry in French (what now seems to me, with a strange feeling of loss, to be poetry written by somebody else since I have since forgotten the meaning of every fourth word). Coming to South Africa at the age of ten, I flailed about in search of a language that would fit well enough to give rise to poetry. Afrikaans, my mother tongue (in the sense that it is my mother’s language), felt so earthy and clumsy beneath my throat that no poems would happen.

And then in high school, romantic and forlorn like every teenager, I tried my hand at poetry in English. Writing in your second (or third) language, for those who haven’t tried it, is strange yet appealing – it gives you a sense of distance, of romance even, because every word doesn’t feel as fully and awkwardly birthed from your own innards.

But then the romantic phase passed and for many years I wrote no poetry whatsoever. At varsity, tentatively, I started writing in Afrikaans, my very own language, the language I have had the most complicated and passionate relationship with yet. Afrikaans is a Germanic language. It asks for guttural sounds and little explosions of consonants beneath your pen. It asks for honesty. I loved it and found it daunting. I kept at it.

But English – English sometimes reminds me of French in how it allows me to bring some smoothness to the process. And so, eventually, I found myself writing poems in English again as well. Today I alternate between Afrikaans and English, always conflicted, always longing for the ease of English and the rawness of Afrikaans, whichever language I choose.

Here is the first poem I wrote in English as an adult, after an almost 15-year hiatus:

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.