A life update

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

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

And it was. It is.

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

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

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

And also, I AM NOT ALL BETTER.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To summarise:

The world is not okay.

South Africa is not okay.

I am not okay.

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

I have written and deleted six different opening paragraphs to this piece. Writing about my own stuff – even the hard topics, even stuff that makes me feel really exposed or embarrassed – comes naturally. I own my story and I choose how I tell it; I might worry that readers will be alienated or bored or offended even, but I am never scared of being wrong.

But talking about race? This is far beyond even the furthest outposts of my comfort zone. I am white, and squirmy under the knowledge of my privilege. I am South African; when the topic turns to race I know to tread gingerly around the simmering rage and gaping wounds that lie just beneath the surface of our collective psyche. I am petrified of overstepping, of appropriating others’ suffering, of riding roughshod over the pain of People of Colour with my good intentions. Even the terminology feels hard. Do I write ‘People of Colour’? That sounds somehow both euphemistic and slightly racist. ‘Black people’? But then I’d be leaving out all the people who aren’t white but aren’t black either. Very quickly I start drowning in the myriad ways I could go wrong and find myself deleting yet another paragraph, undoing my #blacklivesmatter tag on instagram, backing out of a conversation, apologising profusely.

Basically, I don’t want to look bad. Sure, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings nor ignore my own privilege, but really, behind it, I want to save face. I want to be perceived as humble and willing to learn and woke. So much so that I’d rather stay quiet than offend, which as it turns out isn’t very woke.

My sister pointed this out to me when we were texting about the newest events around race, of which both our news feeds were full. Both our hearts were heavy. This started in America, which to me can feel very far, but it resonates deeply here in South Africa too. A man died. Many people have died. Atrocities are happening. Whether this be in my own country or elsewhere, injustice is happening and it HURTS. I hurt. I hurt; and I also feel guilty because this is happening all the time but I don’t always hurt. I only know about this when facebook won’t let me forget. I only pay attention when my attention is grabbed. The rest of the time, race issues for me lie uncomfortable but dormant, half-acknowledged, relegated to the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-about-this folder in my mind.

So I said to my sister: “I want to write about this, talk about this, but I don’t feel it’s my place.” To which she replied

“but it is EXACTLY our place to talk about, because we are the cause of this”.

Later she made a post on Instagram with the tag “#whitesilenceisviolence. And that made me cry, because I have been violently silent. I feel deeply convicted. I feel moved. And I still have no idea how to have a conversation about race.

But I can listen. And I am willing and eager to listen, I am hungry to grow, I am hungry to understand how I may better hold space for my fellow humans who have been oppressed and ignored and bullied and denied basic rights and respect, for centuries now. And they have been ignored by people like me, well-intentioned people who just aren’t willing to see beyond their own reality. I want to see past my own reality. I want to do better.

At this point in my post I initially started writing about my shortcomings as a white person. I started naming my unacknowledged prejudices, my lack of Black friends, the times I don’t call other people out when they make racist jokes. But then that felt kinda…self-interested. Another smart way of making myself the topic in a manner that doesn’t allow for much conversation.

So I’ll try to write in a manner that doesn’t appropriate the stories of others, while not putting myself centre-stage either. I might get it wrong. But here’s what’s on my mind.

I have been reading a lot about trauma recently. It was a huge relief for me to admit out loud that I have a lot of personal trauma, mainly from my childhood. At first I fought against it, because it felt weak, it felt disempowered, it felt as if I were relegating myself to the role of victim. But you can’t heal if you can’t admit your wounds first, so I started admitting them. And here are some of the things I have been learning, which feel relevant right now:

Acknowledging one’s own victimhood can be tremendously powerful.

In our society we tend to avoid the word ‘victim’. When somebody suffers an injustice, they will be quick to say “Yes but I’m not a victim” or others will say “good for her, she’s not playing the victim”. We associate it with self-pity, helplessness, weakness; everything that runs counter to our ‘pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps’ culture. But saying “I’m a victim” isn’t weak. It’s saying: “Something bad was done to me and I DIDN’T DESERVE IT. I am not in the wrong. The perpetrator is in the wrong. I am innocent of any crime, I deserve justice and respect and dignity, and the fact that I was not given these things is embarrassing, sure, but it’s not embarrassing for ME – it’s embarrassing for the perpetrator. It says something about that person. It says nothing about me. And I will acknowledge this injustice, in private and in public, because what was done to me matters. I matter.”

This is what’s happening right now. George Floyd was a victim. Thousands of African-Americans are victims. Hundreds of thousands of Black people everywhere are victims. The protests are acknowledging that, and it’s high time.

But sometimes there isn’t the space to lay claim to your own victimhood. Often the people around you are made uncomfortable by your pain, or feel vaguely guilty because of it, or somewhere deep down believe that you deserved it. I see this in my own life: there have been dozens of times I’ve tried restoring some semblance of a relationship with my dad, only to be laughed off when I bring up the topic of my childhood. He’d say I’m being dramatic. He’d say my reaction is unintelligent. He’d blame my mom. He’d say he’s always been misunderstood. I’d end up tiptoeing around his reactions, bending over backwards to explain myself, frustrated because no relationship could be maintained without acknowledging the wound at the heart of it. I finally realised that no conversation could be had with a man who wasn’t open to a process of restorative justice, nor to even imagining the tremendous wounds he has inflicted.

So fuck him. I’m still acknowledging my trauma, but I’m not bothering to explain myself to him anymore. Nor to anyone whose reflexive reaction is to say: “Well, that was a long time ago, look at all the nice things that have happened since, isn’t it nice how it all worked out?”

In the story of race, white people are my dad. I am my dad. And if I’m going to be pat and dismissive about this, then I cannot expect anything to change for the better, ever. It’s my job to create space for people to embody their losses and say out loud what was done to them, even if that makes me feel guilty, ESPECIALLY when that makes me feel guilty.

I hesitate to write about other people’s trauma, but literature agrees that People of Colour in South Africa (and elsewhere) have collectively been traumatised. Over centuries. Do you know what happens when you have trauma? You feel shame. You internalise the voice of your oppressor. Even if on the surface you know that you’ve been treated unjustly, somewhere deep inside you fear that you might actually be unworthy. You fear you might be found out, be rejected again, be given no love or respect. In this meritocracy we live in, being mistreated is cause for shame, because the narrative says in a million tiny ways that people who suffer probably deserved it.

Which is why acknowledging victimhood is such a powerful and necessary step: It breaks the narrative. It says “nope, actually I didn’t deserve this”. But it’s not enough for POC to admit that they’ve been victimised. It’s up to us, to those who have been benefiting from their suffering, to make it safe for them to speak out. And not only to make it safe, but to welcome their voices. To be really open, and willing to learn, willing to be corrected, willing to feel convicted – ashamed even. We have to be willing to do the work without reflexively jumping to some version of saying “there there, it’s all better now.”

Because what I see in South Africa, over and over when these conversations happen, is that white people jump up and say one of the following things: “Okay but Apartheid has been over for 26 years now, can’t we all move on?” or “Okay but what about crime/farm murders/the awful current government/affirmative action?” or “My parents were really poor and I couldn’t afford to go study either so you weren’t the only one who suffered, you know.” We do what people always want to do when confronted with others’ pain: we argue it away. We feel very very threatened because this narrative doesn’t bring to the forefront the fact that our lives haven’t always been easy either, we start competing in a “who suffered the most?” game, we want to tell our stories too, and above all we sidestep blame. We’d do anything not to feel culpable.

No one has sole ownership of suffering – but there is personal pain, and then there is systemic, structural oppression. One is not like the other.

I have a ton of resources and support yet it has been taking me all my life to process my own trauma. My childhood abuse affects my every adult relationship and every choice I have made thus far, even what job I took, even where I live. So I cannot imagine how far-reaching the effect of societal abuse must be, how difficult it must be to live and love and make a living when the abuser still shrugs off the damage it has done, when you need to interact with this abuser daily. I am calling society at large the abuser in this description, but let me be very clear: we are society. You and I, we make society. And we can change it.

I cannot tell another person’s story on their behalf, decidedly not when I have benefited from their oppression. Thus I won’t try to expand further on what I imagine the effects of systemic racism must be for those on whom it is inflicted. To some the impact might be severe, to others not. Some might reject the label of ‘victim’, and they also get to do that. I don’t want to say “I know how you feel”, because I don’t. But I do know that if we are to heal, both oppressors and oppressed, then it is the job of those of us who are privileged to seek out restoration. To make an effort, and to listen to the stories in all the forms that they may take.

Because for me to be a healed person, my fellow humans also must be healed. I am because you are. And if you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

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.