And there it was. The strange machine of talking to myself.
In the black and white photograph, I appeared as any stranger would. Dazed, worldly, beautiful and dazzling. The silence was magnificent as any silence was at that time of year in South Africa. I repeat myself. Forget if those words were part of an essay, prose, haiku or poetry. Rain. It is purity lit up. A symbol. The veil lifted up. Humanity lit up, lifted up in a way. As cold as ice. Plums stored in the refrigerator. Whatever was stolen is this. Birdsong, foot stomping on the stairs by children scribbling in the air, the stars’ survival, the change in climate but you see I do not care two hoots. I do not think that anybody reads my work anyway.
Perhaps they think there is something heroic about me. Perhaps I think that there is something heroic about them. Real people in the world out there. What the universe out there does not seem to understand is that nobody takes me seriously enough. I slept the whole day until darkness fell outside over the world. Winter has revisited me, I told herself. I should have been a mother. I should have been a wife. I should have been a lover. Here I am at home with the origins of the Khoi, with research on the origins of the Khoi. Slowly I am educating myself. All around me people are productive. Either doing the same thing I am doing. Research has become second nature to me.
The word ‘Khoi’ and ‘origin of’ is not strange to me anymore. Instead, I see all these beautiful strangers in the pages in front of me as my kin, my kind of folk. I belong to their tribe. These lessons from their patchwork world are my lessons. I go to the photocopying machine and make photocopies of past lives to take home with me. Cancelling ghost lives, mapping them out, and mapping them out of the system. They are becoming more than book knowledge to me. They were human too. Their bodies damned, yet beautiful in their own strange way. Now they were accessible. They were surreal to me. Dadaist surreal. Their physical body, which had the texture of the sun. Songs have been written about them indirectly.
Documentaries have been made about them directly. I wanted to remember them forever. I wanted to nurture them as any mother would. Faces with their blurred lines. Blurred like mountains. Did they ever find their manna in the valleys in which they lived, I wondered to herself. I live in a city of bridges with my elderly mama and papa in a house big enough for familial supporters. I am a grown up child with doll features. Safe from drowning but not from sparks, not from animal skin collections, from otherworldly, tender poetry, picket fences.
The extraordinary machine of talking about yourself in the first person.
The night angels came to my window. I knew they came for a reason. There was a time I walked down different streets in Johannesburg. I surveyed alleyways. I needed to believe in something. Risk. Change of heart. Change of mind. I really needed to believe in suburbia again. Out of sight. Out of mind. I needed it badly like the wife who needs intimacy in the early hours of the morning. Like the wife who needs to communicate to her husband that she needs her bones to be protected from sadness, the glaring future of incompatibility.
Society wants you to work for a living. Society wants you to work yourself into a depression, into stress, into having that sunny road. Into having those kids, going to the dog park on weekends with your husband, having Indian friends who will make you curries and biryani, hide that single malt whisky at the bottom of your chest of drawers, having those Muslim friends who will bring you samosas’. Society does not want you to believe in angels. A moveable feast. That you can be a writer, be a poet, be anything that you want to be. They want you to earn minimum wage before you start climbing the ladder, getting that promotion, running marathons at the weekend, treating your pets as if they were your children.
They want you to flip burgers before you become a professor. They want men to marry an intelligent woman who is thoughtful, affectionate, warm, loving, and sincere. In other words, society wants you to marry your mother except a sexier version of your mother. A woman you can take to bed. A poet will tell you that illness and disability are beautiful strangers. Blood is thicker than water. They want you to remember a myriad of things. When aunts and uncles hurt you. When strangers comforted and loved you.
When you ate watermelon in childhood, gravitated towards peaches, adored pears for their shape, their sweet fruit, and when the self-portrait of their juice was like a novel discovery like aloe sap. A beautiful landscape was always useless to me unless it contained people, a sunrise, or sunset. I had to observe something in the wilderness history of it all. Study minutia.
The night angels came to my window. Angels without wings. The fractured wind wed birdsongs. Driftwood spilled out of purple seawater. My bones live when I swim. Swimming gives me some relief from the daily grind of work, of love, of play, of fun, of lovemaking, of gardening in the dirt, of planting. The street is filled with chameleons with their shark teeth, with their colours of the rainbow, with their tough skin. Their skin is as tough as a crocodile’s, haunting storytelling, enormous giants, grotesque freaks. Freaks whose faces are covered with fur. Female sword swallowers in a circus. Dwarves. A little person. Little people.
People with hearts of gold. People with hearts period. Their visions are not handmade and visions are not crafted by hands, indecisiveness, and choice but rather by a god. What god do you worship? What god do you praise? The god that you choose to believe in. The god that you grant access to, passage to your dreams and your thoughts. Your successes and your failures. Your exits. You inside and out. What does the physical illustrate if not the beauty of mankind, all of the minor angles and the major distributions of humanity’s ins and outs, struggles to come to terms with bereavement, denial, grief, and singular loss?
In the search of cold, winter guests (rotting leaves in the gutter, wet paint, black leaves, Portland, Oregon) invited uninvited entries in journals. In the end what matters in this world? Sickness. Does it matter? Is there logic in losing someone that you love to a terminal illness? Is there logic in domestic science, in domesticity, in the domestic goddess who dazzles with her recipes, her grocery list, her exploding trolley in the supermarket, her pathetic frustration at not finding exactly what she wants if it happens to be fish fingers or pineapple juice. I am a whale because of fish fingers. Look at me. My fried chicken thighs. I make circles on my plate.
This is what the maelstrom of chaos and disorder of illness can do to you. You can crack open the peanut butter jar in the early hours of the morning. It is a source of loneliness, isolation beckoning. It says, hey there. I really missed you.
People matter. Earth matters. Chilled earth. Bulbs. Butterflies up in flames. There is something poignant about dandelions. Real lions. Images and frames. Shooting through the lens. I mean that is understood.
There is the light exploding into perspective like Mrs Dalloway, our mother in the kitchen after church in her Sunday best. The chicken is far away from all of us now. It has its own memories of loneliness and lust. Its white meat has begun to resonate in the oven. Make waves. We will be going to the beach in the afternoon. If we are good, we will get ice cream.
I remember the sale on the breeze. Its gift in my hair. The beautifully understated smell of salt. Fragments of winter. In all of its unstable geometries. There is a journal there. There is a winter journal there. Are you there God listening or are you having conversations with a prophet with their garden state of mind?
Life is a mystery to me. It yields a kaleidoscope, a mountain, a meditation of going up the mountain. My brother does not know anything about life or sex yet. I do not see the sexual impulse, the sex drive shining in his eyes yet. I wish I had someone to talk to about this. I kissed Oupa’s cheek when he was in the intensive care unit at the hospital. A kiss for the dying. People leave me alone. Why do people leave me alone? It is a postcard. It haunts me.
I think of Ouma’s kitchen and how I could not get enough of her potatoes. Television could not give me enough introductions to being raised on Hollywood squalor and rubbish. I hardly watched the documentaries with their green hope a-plenty, and an abundance of green feasts in the jungles where pygmies lived.
Key in pocket after school I would open my front door to an empty house and pretend I was a runaway or an orphan. Does God answer prayer? I returned to the book of miracles, Noah’s Ark and Jonah’s whale, Daniel in the lion’s den. Were they not ordinary people like the diary of my family life?
In the lonely afternoons bored with the dialogue in soaps, the prophets kept me company. The impressive Jesus, Moses in the wilderness, the burning bush, Aaron and Miriam. They were my manna. As long as there were glaciers, there would always be urban cowboys, and kites on the other side of the world.
I unearthed scholars of trivia, lunches of blood of red meat and potatoes, the aftermath of the forced removals during apartheid South Africa that was what my father the author called the ballad of South End. Of course, there was mental illness on my father’s side of the family, alcoholism, breast cancer, fertility problems on my mother’s.
There are ordinary people in the slum of Helenvale. There are ambitious girls who are also promiscuous. Please help. They call that intimacy when they are in a room with an older man with his gifts of fine wine, expensive chocolates, and perfume. With a sigh, she lays sleepless in his arms.
He says to her. This is my inner vision of you. You are a lotus flower. Thirst. Primitive. A virgin. An innocent. I will teach you everything I know. You will leave the lamentations of this world far behind from this zero point. The survival kit for mental illness is not therapy, it is water. It is when sleep cometh. He encouraged her to keep a journal.
When bad mothers happen, it is as if you are eating a bitter orange. Pretend that the interior of the pomegranate is mental illness in the wards of Elizabeth Donkin. Pretend it is Biko, Hani, Julius Malema, and Daddy. Tell yourself. Welcome to Sarajevo. Think of water. Think of hours, water in wild places and when I make love to you think of the land of milk and honey.
Who is the laughing carcass? Whatever happened to the ballad of Dulcie September? Has she gone the way of the flight of dandelions, swans and geese gliding through the air, when women had wings? Men know how to make money (that is their shot to the big time). Women know how to nurture and develop life skills in their children (that is the width of their thread).
I was a slave to the sophistication of art, the heritage beyond the dream, my hot tea, and my slices of bread and butter. The external world. Did that make me bitter, torment me? There was the vision and the goal. Nobody knows my inner life of eating bread and cake in the depths of the night. In the early hours of the morning, I think of Sarajevo and Susan Sontag.
The thing about Sylvia Plath is she was luminous. She was America’s gift to the world. While I garden, I think of the land that borders on God. Rilke’s world.