Sunday, August 28, 2011

Great Expectations

Yesterday on the way to Cape Town, to drop Tinus off at the airport to return to Dubai, I was struck once again by the incredible beauty of this valley of ours.  Flowers everywhere; No one planted them, or watered them, there was no one to plan the layout or to prepare the soil.  Yet we have the joy of miles and miles of fields of flowers.    Every year is different and you never know what to expect. 

Our conversation in the car circled around the flowers, the mysterious beauty of Table Mountain, the lovely time we had here, how lovely it was to see everyone again so soon, the weather, what type of aero planes operate in and out of the airport close to Atlantis and anything and everything, but our future.  Both of us are apprehensive – to say the least - about the future.  Our family and friends are all very excited and happy for us that “things are now getting back on track.”  Neither of us feels that way yet.  Having been swept through this valley of dread – even though we came out on the other side so well, knowing we are blessed - we are worried that, should we hit another obstacle, (I feel like saying, should we be hit by another obstacle) we may not have the energy to overcome it.

Tinus is fond of saying that the only way to ensure that you are not disappointed, is to have no expectations, you have to try and live your life without expectations; so that when things go right, it is a nice surprise and when it goes wrong you are not disappointed.  This sounds cool and calm and collected, so strong and wise that it makes me feel like such a weakling. Because I have expectations. 

Those of you who know us, know that he is the planner and I am the dreamer.  I do what I do because I want to, until I don’t want to anymore.  He does what he does, because it is part of a plan with a predicted outcome, with scheduled change management calculated in as part of the many variables all accounted for.  He is great with finances and went on to do a degree in it and I cried while doing accounting homework for the few years it was a compulsory subject at school.  I’m still not sure if a creditor owes you money, or you him. 

What I do know is that if you invest money in something, you EXPECT a return.  You put money into some fund – I always imagine a man with stripy pants and a really big bag - because you expect Stripy Pants to give you your money back at some point.  But you also expect him to give you more money than what you put in.  I don’t know what happens in the bag, that is why I don’t have a degree in money management.  But if I were money minded enough to be let loose on the stock exchange (can you imagine that) I would not invest money in something I have no expectations of getting more money out of than what I’d put in, right? 

So I have expectations, now finally, after thinking about it, without feeling stupid.  I am going to expect everything to go well from now on.  Happily Tinus arrived in Dubai this morning just after 4am South African time, 6am UAE time, and he had a good flight.  On Friday we are starting our journey and I am looking forward to it!  Oh yes, I have great expectations.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Magic Bread and Dreams

On Saturday we went to Eugenie’s house warming.  We’ve been meaning to have a house warming for the past two and a half years, but there was always something:  As soon as we are done with the stoep, (that’s what we call a veranda here in Africa) … as soon as we’re done with the pantry …. as soon as we are done with the new bathroom … we need to get the ceilings done.  And so the months crept past…It is so nice to see what she’s done with the house.  Skye’s reply to Ulrich, when he asked her what the house looked like, was a breathless: “It’s so beautiful.”  Strangely enough, I looked at this pretty little house, standing on its own little hill framed by the Milky Way, and there was no connection.  I have moved on.

When we arrived the fires were already burning.  The traditional South African barbeque (braai) is something to appreciate.  In this particular case two deboned legs of game (Springbok) were the main features on the menu.  One was marinated in buttermilk and the other in red wine.  There were some artfully done salads, chocolate brownies for desert and a selection of wines, cheeses and bread.

I am a vegetarian and so I naturally gave the meats a wide berth and took myself some bread.  The bread was brown, like earth after rain, cut in chunky slices.  As I was looking at the cheeses trying to decide which ones to try, I bit into the bread.  The slightly sourness sparkled on my tongue and caused a tiny fireworks display of happy hormones to be triggered somewhere on the inside of my head.  If anyone did see my expression at that point I’m sure they’d have though I had too much wine.  I must’ve looked dazed at least.  I realized that this is not the kind of bread you can eat standing up and I went to sit down under the stars a little apart from the crowd, with my single slice of bread on a plate.

The next bite was part crust.  The crust was the perfect balance of crunchy and chewy.  Like tasty gift wrap around the perfect gift.  It spoke to my Pagan Soul.   “From the sun to the Earth, from the Earth to the grain, from the grain to us, Great Mother, we thank you for this blessing.  I could taste the sun and the wind and the wisdom of the Earth which grew this perfect grain in dark secrecy. 

At this point Mathe and Hans arrived.  They are both German, and both of them have beautiful stories of their own, which I might tell you later.  They came over and sat down next to me and Mathe turned this slice of bread into a story.  Mathe and I got to know each other better, sadly, only a short while ago, when she asked me to teach her to speak Afrikaans.  She already speaks four languages fluently. We exchanged the normal pleasantries, chatted over this and that and at some point Hans left with one of their twin girls.  Mathe reached over and broke a piece off the slice of bread on my plate ate it and said:  “You know I baked this bread?”  In her lovely gently rolling German accented English.  “It takes twenty-four hours to make.”  It made perfect sense, nothing less for something this perfect.  “I love working with dough, the feel of it in my hands,” she said and continued:  “All it is, is flour and water and salt. And also the yeast, it is natural sour dough, I make it over several days and I have to feed it regularly. Working with dough like this, is like magic.”

 She told me she wants to build a wood burning oven, at the moment she “does all kinds of things” with her oven to make the bread taste like it’s done in a wood burning oven.  “That is my dream, “she said, “to have my own little artisan bakery.  You gave it to me, you know.  We sat here on your stoep, and you told me, I have to have a dream.”   

I smiled as I remembered:  I told her of a Bushman (Khoi-San) I met many many years ago, who when I asked him how old he was, said he didn’t know; Numbers were not important to him.  He said he is as old as his greatest achievement and as young as his fondest dream.   And there under the stars, sharing magic bread with a beautiful soul who has a dream, I thought it’s time for me to get myself a new dream.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Unbearable lightness of being

Warning – this is too bloody depressing to read, but I had to write it.  There is no pain, no tears, just this big quiet slow motion explosion in my head.

One particularly cold and dark morning we’ve decided to head away from the river for our early morning walk.  There were ice on the grass and the two previous icy mornings my socks were soaked and my toes frozen when we returned – my boots clearly need some Dubbin. We found a path leading off into the remnants of a forest.  We walked in silence as the rays of the new day’s sun sparkled off the still closed wild flowers around us.  I thought my eyes were deceiving me when I saw graves in the misty tendrils of the morning. Forgotten graves make me sad.  They make beautiful photos but the gravestones are markers for a life once lead, someone once loved – but now, no longer remembered.  The graves were overgrown with wildflowers.  I remember thinking that no florist’s bouquet can come close to this, and that if I had to choose how my forgotten grave would look, it would be like this, hidden among the wild reeds and covered in wild flowers.

The wonder turned to confusion when, as I walked amongst the graves, looking at the names and dates, I realized that the graves are not old.  The dates are fairly recent; 1990s and the family names I saw are of families still prominent in town today.  Later that same morning Lizana came around and I asked her if she knows about the “forgotten” graveyard.  She did, and asked me if I noticed that they are busy cleaning it up.  It is one of the many things the community forum has taken on as a task. 

The community forum is one of Lizana and Ulrich’s many “brain children,” conceived on the thinking chairs.  They have started the community forum and opened it to every person in Hopefield.  The only prerequisite was that you had to come in a positive spirit.  The aim of the forum is to take responsibility for our town - I say our, because this is my Hopefield too.  In South Africa we have municipalities which are responsible for more than one town or city.  This unfortunately allows little towns like Hopefield to disappear amongst the cracks. 

At the first meeting of the Community Forum the whole evening was spent giving everyone a chance to name things they think can be changed for the better.  Lizana listed each and every issue on a whiteboard.  These were then organized into groups and “task forces” were formed.  And now things are happening.  The shift in the energy around Hopefield is obvious and change is sweeping through our village like a happy hurricane, leaving smiling people and splashes of colour all over the sandveld.  The embodiment of being the change you want to see.  This started literally as we were about to leave.  I think the first community forum meeting was held the day after Tinus and I flew to Dubai the first time in May.  Would I have been part of this if we were still here?  It seems obvious that I would, but in that dark place in my mind, where I’m too scared to go, I wonder. 

The last month’s rates and taxes accounts just arrived.  On it is a newly added monthly charge of R200.00 for having a prepaid electricity box installed in your house.  A number of years ago, the government encouraged everyone to have one of these installed – free of charge (I think,) I bought the house with it already installed.  It works exactly like pre-paid airtime, which I don’t have, because I know I will run out of airtime in the middle of the Kalahari while being attacked by a monstrous snake after my car broke down.  It happens with my electricity - normally on a Sunday afternoon, once when I’ve had a cake in the oven for about ten minutes.  This is hugely uncomfortable for me, but I would have to pay R1700.00 if I want to have the box removed.  Now if you decide not to pay your rates and taxes account, every time you go to buy pre-paid electricity, half of the money you tender to buy electricity will be used to cover your outstanding rates and taxes bill.  Incidentally at the moment we cannot speak to anyone to complain or learn more about this charge – all the municipal workers are on strike. 

The other night we had one of those intense wine-infused discussions over the boxes.  No, that’s not true, it wasn't really the boxes, it was about everything of which the boxes were just something you could point to on a bill.  Things like Community Police Forum meetings closed to the community, the helpless frustration of a young reporter intimidated by Johanna-Ma-Baker-Stoffels and her Head-of-Hopefield-Police-henchman, someone saying someone said all whites in the country should take a pay cut in goodwill, being taxed for being successful and then not being allowed to have a say in what is done with your tax money.   Of unions forcing people to go on strike, and giving them nothing in return.  Forty percent unemployment in a country, where the things that should be done are not done because there are not enough people employed to do it. 

The story of the chicken and the pig looking at the farmer having breakfast:  The chicken saying: “It feels good to know that I’m contributing to the farmer’s happiness.”  The pig saying: “It’s all good and well for you to say, you’re only making a contribution … I have to get involved.”

In the story of my life I am the pig.  I do not have the capacity to contribute without getting involved.  And so I don’t, I am flippant, uncaring –deliberately so.  As the wine and words were flowing around me I cast myself in the role of the uncaring rich bitch while in the dark depths of my mind I remembered the pain of a family whose son was murdered on a farm, unsolved, a friend raped on her way to meeting me, unsolved, two pensioners robbed of everything they owned and the insurance company refusing to compensate them, of young conscripted men maimed for being involved in a war on behalf of a government for which they were too young to vote for.  I remembered warm tears as I held a little dying boy, who was born with AIDS. I remembered the look of defeat in the eyes of the father of a friend whose family farm was repossessed.  I thought of our country and her people and their potential, of us humans and our potential, and how close we are to loosing that, of spinning out of control, of becoming empty, and I wanted to scream in rage and desperation.  “… en binne my is twee, die een is gek, die ander ek, dit is hy wat kerm en gil … maar ek is bang en stil…   And I remembered Roza saying: “We all live lives of quiet desperation.”

In my fourty four years I have hurt too much, lost too much of myself by getting involved in fights I didn’t start.  In one of these passionate arguments one has when one is young, Tinus once said he finds it impossible to deal with my ‘lightness of being.’  There are many things my dear husband says which I just don’t understand.  For as long as I were able to make New Year’s resolutions in the thirty years before I smoked, my New Year’s resolution was always just this:  to lighten up.  I take life and myself too seriously.  Life is heavy, maybe that is why, in self defense, I live light.  In Shantaram the author wrote: “… all smokers have one thing in common, they want to die almost as much as they want to live.”  On my packet of cigarettes is a message printed in large friendly blue letters: “SMOKING CAN KILL YOU” - not a promise, just a possibility, not ‘will’ kill you, but ‘can’ kill you.  In that dark place in my mind I wonder if I should be diagnosed with cancer, would I have it removed?  Once life heaped upon life didn’t seem enough, but someone killed the fire, dreams all end in tears and I live life light.

A foolish word, bygone?
How so then, gone?
Gone to sheer nothing,
Past with null made one.
What matters creative endless toil,
when at a snatch oblivion ends the coil?
It is bygone – how shall this riddle be run?
As good as if things never had begun.
Yet circle back, existence to possess:
I’d rather have Eternal Emptiness.


Postscript:  Deep big apologies, I know we all get there, here where I am now, and then we move on.  I promise, tomorrow I will be better, the sun will rise as it does every day, I will get up and life will go on, here in fields of hope among the wildflowers.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Where Wild Roses Grow

 It is quiet, but not the bad quiet that scares one but that comfortable silence in which you can hear the chirping of birds, bees buzzing in the lavenders and in the distance, the sound of people.  Life here at the River Cottage is slow, but good.  We spend time just being.  Waking up in the mornings, help the kids off to school and since it’s freezing outside – and still almost dark, we mostly jump back in bed for an early morning snooze.  Once the friendly rays enters the room in the colours of the happy door’s stain glass panels we get up, have breakfast and go for a walk by the river. 

John and Marie-Louise are the greatest hosts, almost fay-like in their ability to be away when one needs to be alone and present just when one needs company.  John is an Italian Kenyan – one of those blond, blue eyed Africans with the wide openness of Africa, visible not only in their eyes, but also in their hearts and minds.  Marie-Louise grew up as a citizen of the world with a wine exporter as a father.  She did her law degree in France and after many winding roads ended up here in Hopefield with John– creating beauty. 
This is actually true of everyone here, while we were in this storm of uncertainty and fear I had the feeling that everyone here in Hopefield were standing with wide open arms, houses and hearts, ready to welcome us back.   Eugenie offered to move out of her house (she rents the house from us) so we can move back in there!  

The darling dear Merry Widowers said it goes without saying that we can stay there for as long as we need.  John and Marie-Louis have only recently decided to make part of the River Cottage available as an overflow for the Merry Widow and Tinus decided that this would be the perfect place for us to rest and regroup.  I could see the combined effort everyone put in to make the place beautiful and comfortable and it makes me feel so loved and cared for.  The Antoni’s (John and Marie-Louise) market the space as an artist’s retreat, and it is absolutely perfect for that purpose.  The peace and quiet one finds here is the perfect space to heal and grow.

Marie-Louise’s company – ‘Wild Roses Grow’ supply interior design and d├ęcor items in natural fabrics to various clients throughout South Africa.  She has only recently decided to open a small shop at the River Cottage, called ‘The Trading Post.’  Her opening will coincide with the Hopefield Flower festival – only two weeks away!  They are working very hard to get everything picture perfect for the great day.  

In the mean time Tinus is so much better that I can see my dear husband chafing at the bit to get back to work.  He spends most of his day emailing and getting himself up to speed with the new job lying ahead for him.  He will be leaving for Dubai as soon as his visa has been arranged and the kids and I will follow on the 26th.  I am so sad to think that we have only two weeks left here.  On the other hand it would be great to get settled and have a home of our own.  I love travelling, the in between bits, on the train or the plane or in a car on a road to somewhere or nowhere, where you can do nothing immediately but be where you are right at that minute.  But we have been in between for almost two months now; it is time to reach the destination.

Thursday, August 4, 2011


The first thing we as humans do when we enter this plane is breathe, after our mothers spent a long period of time breathing – “short breaths – hie hie hie – loooong breath…”   We breathe to calm ourselves down, to relax, to focus. With each breath we take oxygen into our lungs, which then – very cleverly – put the oxygen into our blood, which takes it to the rest of our body so that each cell, which needs oxygen to survive, can carry on living, so that we, the amazing amalgamation of billions of beautiful  cells, can live. 

Normally we breathe involuntarily; you can’t stop yourself from breathing – even if you try.  I read a funny article once about a ballerina (ballerino ?? – male ballerina) who in the final act jumped (very elegantly of course, probably doing several pirouettes) onto the stage, but in the process lost the knife, with which he was supposed to kill the female lead and, remorsefully, stab himself with, afterwards.  Improvising, he strangled the girl and then, to the amazement of the audience, proceeded to, very dramatically, strangle himself. 

We don’t think about the fact that we are breathing, and when we do, it is because we’re actually in need of thinking about the fact that we’re alive.  We breathe great gulps of life into our lungs every few seconds.  Over the last week I sat and watched a graph, visually showing how the man I love drag great gulps of life into his – now slightly reduced and quite recently deflated - lungs.  “Every breath you take – every move you make ..”  who sang that?  Rod Steward I think.  It was painful to be so helpless, so worried – I felt stunned, shocked.    But his recovery has been remarkable.  He has been in ICU from Wednesday evening till Saturday afternoon when he was transferred to a regular ward. 

I went to my parents’ place in Saldanha on Saturday evening - our sanctuary in this storm - to see Louis and Skye and arrange the logistics to get them back into school.  It was terrible not to be with Tinus.  Fortunately his mother flew down to come see him and with all the visits from friends and other family he never had to be alone.  During the operation on Wednesday the doctor removed five glands from his lung to do further tests on, to see if the cancer spread.  On Monday morning the results came back from the laboratory - the cancer had spread.  I went numb.  Where Wednesday night was one of the longest nights in my life, Monday was the longest day.  

Monday late afternoon I called him again, knowing he was scheduled to see the oncologist during the day.  The oncologist explained that of the five glands that they have removed only one had cancer cells in.   One too many, but apparently not uncommon and not something we should be too concerned about.  They have decided that he will have chemo or radiation in about six weeks, four sessions, three weeks apart to make sure they kill all the remaining cancer cells. 

He was discharged from hospital on Tuesday… less than a week!!  We have decided to come and stay at the River Cottage here in Hopefield while Tinus recuperates.  What we need right now is peace and quiet, to take stock of what happened and to plan for the future, to be together, to take time out … and just to breathe.