On Finding Your True North

shootingstar

Too hot to sleep, I got up in the middle of the night last night and went outside to try and cool down. The stars were unusually bright for where I live in the city, and as I drank in the gentle breeze and the familiar, comforting presence of Orion’s Belt and the Southern Cross I thought of a question my daughter had asked me a few days back. She said, ‘Mommy, if you’re lost somewhere can the stars guide you home?’ I replied, ‘yes, they can. Wherever you are in the world, if you look up at the sky the stars can point you to true north.’

And it’s a beautiful thought. I was also worrying that the #PennySparrow thing was going to slip through the cracks of our broken society, and in my head I was composing my letter to Jawitz. I needn’t have worried, nor underestimated the power of social media. At 5:45am I awoke to a storm of outrage, and the conversation that started a while back in response to racism in restaurants had been picked up again and was in full swing.

Reading the comments and tweets and contributing a few of my own I started to think about the fact that when you live in South Africa you are not allowed the luxury of political neutrality. Whatever you say and do comprises a statement. And the complicity inherent in saying and doing nothing when you were born white makes the loudest statement of all. Many people don’t like what I have to say, but they are strangers and their opinions don’t bother me overmuch.

But towards the end of 2015 I lost a friend over my political views and that hurt a lot. I spent many hours thinking about what had happened. I think that for her I posed a problem; created a kind of cognitive dissonance: she liked me personally, but she hated my politics. Her solution, in the email she sent me, was to continue our friendship on the proviso that we ‘agree to disagree.’ Presumably, that we pretend my blog doesn’t exist and she would try to distance  the ‘me’ she liked from my thoughts and opinions.

In a way the whole thing turned out to be a bit of a gift because it forced me to think about what this blog actually means to me and the role it plays in my life. Can I be separate from it? Are my views and I different things? Can I be something other than what I think and write about? And the booming answer was ‘no.’ While I am irreverent sometimes, what I write in this space is the truest essence of who I am in this world. I don’t do this for money or fame or attention; I do it because I am compelled to. For me, there are few things that matter more than figuring out my truth and putting it into words. I guess, in a way, this blog is my ‘true north.’ The thing I am in my soul and what I was put on this planet to do.

One of the reasons I love being 40 and not 20 is because I fit myself so much better. Of course I still want to be liked, but I don’t worry as much that what I am is ‘wrong.’ Anyone who asks me to tone myself down and be less of who I am doesn’t belong on my journey, and neither should do they be on yours. I would like to thank all of you, my engaged, warm, supportive and amazingly loyal readers for walking this road with me. What I wish for myself and all of you in 2016 is that we become less compromising about locating and following our own personal ‘true north.’ Sometimes it’s about being still for a moment and gazing up at the night sky and thinking about the direction we’ve been traveling in and whether it’s really where we want to go. And if it’s not, perhaps considering the possibility of changing course. Happy new year to all of you. Here’s to finding our way home.

Advertisements

On Getting off Facebook and Talking to the Petrol Attendant Guy

While apartheid ostensibly ended two decades ago, you’d have to be in all kinds of denial not to see how apartly (made-up word) black and white people still live, and it’s a phenomenon I alternately accept with a kind of soul-weary resignation and then sometimes regale against with all my heart because the fact that we don’t talk to each other lies at the very heart of this country’s ongoing problems. But because of this reality – my age, where I live, where my kids go to school – the only black people I encounter on a day-to-day basis are the ones at the supermarket checkout, the one bringing me my Americano and the guy filling my car up with unleaded. So, when I’m not feeling that I-can-t-make-a-fucking-difference-here-so-I’m-not-even-going-to-try feeling (usually brought on by reading the paper), I’m trying a new thing which is talking to every black person I get a chance to talk to.

Sometimes it will be the woman with the great weave at Sea Point Pick n Pay (there’s this drop dead gorgeous woman who sits there all day ringing up groceries and every day she is so glamorous and perfectly groomed she makes me feel like the bag lady); sometimes it will be the parking attendant – though, less often him, because I’m usually rushing somewhere – and often it’s the petrol attendant guy because he’s standing around, anyway, and you’re sitting there waiting will a few minutes to kill, and what I’ve discovered since doing that is that these micro conversations have probably changed the way I understand how people are feeling in this country.

The first time I did it was when Madiba was very sick and it felt like nobody was telling us the truth about what was going on and for weeks I was distressed and vaguely ill-at-ease. In the context of that shared tragedy it felt less weird to engage a complete stranger, and I put my skaamness about being white and in a fancy Swedish car aside and asked the guy what he thought of the whole thing. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember him telling me his family was from around the Qunu area and, as a young boy, he knew of the Mandela clan and was going there in the next while to pay his respects. Just hearing that was comforting. We shook hands awkwardly – me doing the formal thing, him doing that hand-clasp thing I’ve never quite grasped – but that part didn’t matter. We were just two grieving South Africans.

This week the guy I spoke to works in Green Point and, it as it transpires, he is from East London where I was born and my parents both grew up which means it’s a special part of the world for me and with anyone who comes from the Eastern Cape I feel an instant kinship. His name was Dumisani, and this is how our conversation went:

Me: Oh, wow, I haven’t been back to East London for many years, but I want to go soon. I want to take my mom and dad back.

Him: You’ll be surprised at what you find. It’s not like it used to be. I go back to visit my sister and when you come from Cape Town it’s like arriving in a different country.

Me: Ja, I hear that.

Him: I can’t understand, when people see how badly an area is being governed, they’ll still vote ANC. Look at what the DA does for Cape Town.

Me: Ja, but we’re still in transition. This stuff takes time. People vote for a party, not an individual. You can’t expect black people to vote for a white party.

Him: No. It’s been twenty years now. People need to wake up. The time of thinking like that is over. Who is serving you? Who is making your life better? These are the only issues that matter. I struggle. I do. But I’m providing for my kids, and they won’t struggle like I do. Their lives will be different. I’m teaching them to ask questions. When they vote it won’t be about what’s black and what’s white, it will be about what’s good and what’s right.

I didn’t really have much to say after that, but I thought about our conversation and I repeated it to my parents that evening over supper. Because we all still maintain this myth that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them’, and all the time, when I can be bothered to pay attention, I’m reminded that there is just an ‘us.’ If this ship goes down, it’s the under-classes who drown first. We whiteys can still weasel a passport to New Zealand. Dumisani? Not so much. I don’t know this man from Adam, but I can tell you that he’s smart and hard-working and doing everything in his power to make a better South Africa for his family. Unfortunately, his ceiling of opportunity was low and standing around all day washing people’s windscreens was one of the few jobs he was able to get. But he does it with pride and enthusiasm and he has a plan and a purpose and I drove away humbled and with great admiration for that kind of can-do attitude. Because, god knows, we in our nice cars like to whinge.

So, the point, I guess, is that all around us all time are these little windows of opportunity for us to engage and get to know one another a little bit better. It’s just about putting your phone down and taking them. They’re there. And the thing is it’s me who drives away feeling better, feeling more connected and more hopeful about the future. Less of a stranger in my own country. I’m going to try to do it more often.

How Tori Amos Saved My life

I discovered Tori Amos in my early twenties at the end of a terrible relationship with a lovely man. There is no time Tori makes more sense than when you’re twenty-something, blindsided with grief and reeling in shock and despair. I maintain that this kind of emotional pain you only live through once. Twice would kill you. After that, you get a bit wiser and a bit more resilient. It’s a survival thing. The song was her first hit, Crucify, and I went and bought the CD and drank all day and all night with whoever would sit beside me while I waited for the hurting to stop or, at least, subside. Her lyrics were like balm to my blown apart heart. She put words to the emotions that raged through me, and she spoke the unspeakable. Eventually, after a few years, the pain lessened and went away but my relationship with Tori grew, and in many ways her music has been the soundtrack to my life.

‘Hey Jupiter’ (‘No-one’s picking up the phone…’) for the times I’d sit in the semi darkness with the ring tone in my ear knowing, very well, he wouldn’t be home now, and even if he was, that there was nothing, really to say. ‘Putting the Damage On’ for the first time he took his new girlfriend away on holiday (‘You’re off to the mountain/I guess her skinny legs could use sun…’), and I’m bent double with the hideousness of how he’s moved on and is doing pretty well without me and my histrionics while I pine and lament and wish, with all my heart, that it was me sitting in the front seat of his car with a bottle of Jack between my bare feet and the days ahead wide open and the sky full of summer.

There was just something so arrestingly honest about this woman’s music. It was Girl with a capital ‘G’, and she had been all the places I had been, and she made it okay to be angry and feel sad and confused and fucked up. Like ‘Precious Things: ‘He said you’re really an ugly girl/but I like the way you play/and I died, but I thanked him. Can you believe that?’ The way I would go to school hoping to see The Boy, hoping he would like me enough to say hello that day, and the rejection and misery I suffered when he didn’t. Or the feeling of despair, being schooled in a Calvinist institution during the height of apartheid where any type of free thinking was literally beaten out of you, and her having the audacity to announce, ‘Father says bow your head/like the Good Book says/Well, I think the Good Book is missing some pages.’ Well, bloody well, so did I.

And suddenly it was okay to be a raisin girl and to have different thoughts and to ask questions and not take all you were being told at face value. And there was something very unshackling about that. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the feminist ethos of a lot of her lyrics played a part in forming the person I was to become. Her message resonated more strongly for me than, I think, anything I had ever heard, musically or otherwise. To this day I probably know every lyric to every song, and writing this I have to admit it sounds kinda sad, but it’s the truth. I’ve talked about how we are conduits of truth for one another, and she was that for me. I had nobody in my life at that time to guide me, a clever, headstrong, emotionally messed up young woman with no conception of how to be in a world that felt foreign and hostile and more than a little bizarre.

When I finally made it out of that small town and found like-minded people in the musty lecture halls of the best university in the universe and was introduced to a world of thought where people said no and spoke up and women were strong and fearless I found new ways of thinking and expressing myself and it was a kind of heaven. And still, to this day, Tori has a way of summing stuff up and making everything feel okay. When, 10 years ago, I had the anti-marriage to end anti-marriages in our beautiful, turn-of-the-century apartment in Sweden surrounded by 20 friends in jeans and our baby daughter, Sophie, looking on, it was ‘A Sorta Fairytale’. Like life is. Try as we may, it’s only ever ‘sorta.’ And I always have at least one of her CDs in my car so that, amidst the madness of adulthood and parenting and all that goes with it, her songs are there to remind me of who I really am.

I felt disappointed and a little betrayed when I saw what she’d done to her beautiful face, and I realized that, in spite of her music, she’s not that okay with who she is, after all. But then, like I always say, we teach what we need to learn. Tori is a stunningly talented musician and lyricist, but she’s still a human being and fallible and probably as confused as the rest of us. And maybe that’s why she does ‘real’ so well. And it doesn’t take away from what she gave me when I needed it most. And for that – giving me the voice I never knew I had – I will be eternally grateful.

If Real Life Was Like Facebook

Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing ever if real life was like Facebook? As in, people could only see you from a certain angle – your best – the one from which 98% of your pics are taken (we all know the other 2% were snapped by friends who didn’t know you had an angle rule and when it ended up on your timeline you felt too petty to untag yourself). That would be so awesome because everybody knows good-looking better get better jobs, have happier relationships and live more productive lives. You would SO get head-hunted, like, immediately, and meet Mr Right tomorrow.

And not only that. Imagine when people’s voices were making you bored, you could just choose a drop-box and remove them from your Timeline. One minute your boss is droning on about emerging markets, the next, there’s just an empty chair in the boardroom. Gone until further notice, buddy! And best you up your game, or I’ll never listen to your boring voice again. Or, better still, you could replace him with people you find interesting. Like your best girlfriends and that cute guy you picked up at Caprice and friended over the weekend. Suddenly, Monday’s strategy meeting just got way more fun.

If you could organize your office like you do your facebook community, you’d always be surrounded by people in sexy shoes holding cocktails, and your view of the back of the photocopier would immediately transform into a vista of Lion’s Head at sunset or a wintry beach or an adorable puppy. Bit sleepy from staying up to watch Scandinavian TV series all night? No problem: type your manager’s name in the ‘custom’ button under your status update and everybody but her will be able to see you’ve curled up under your desk for a nice little nap. And if the sarmie you made last night starts looking a bit sad, you could just instagram it. With the right filter you can make anything look gourmet.

Immediately, in your Facebook World, everything dull and miserable would cease to exist and your days would become endless forays into the winelands, meals with truffle foam and being surrounded by all your friends all the time as you smiled your way happily through life. What’s more, people would have to mind their ‘p’s and ‘q’s or your just wouldn’t ‘like’ them. And everyone knows how crap it is not getting any ‘likes.’ You’ll never have to break up with anybody because you can just press ‘unfriend.’ What’s more, if you report them to the Facebook Police they’ll never be allowed to talk to you ever again. No more end-of-relationship post-mortems – hurrah! By the same token, if you were tired of being single, you could just change your relationship status. Want to be engaged to Caprice boy? Done!

So, there’d be a button for when people bug you; a little air emoticon to warn folks when you’re crabby, and if you were feeling lazy you could just share somebody else’s clever, original post. Wouldn’t that be cool? To your boss: ‘what do I think? Didn’t you see my SHARE? Duh.’ Mark Zuckerberg is a genius, no doubt about that – I’m sure he’ll be up for the challenge.

10 Things I Know About Men at 40 That I Didn’t Know at 20

Writing for women’s magazines for close on 20 years has taught me some stuff about men and relationships. Here are a few biggies every girl needs to know:

– It doesn’t matter how awesome you are, if he’s not ready to settle down it’s never going to happen.

– He’ll say anything to shag you, but only when he knows you’re not the right girl.

– If he’s 30 or older and has never been in a serious relationship there’s a reason for that. Beware.

– Men want exactly the same things women do – to be loved, nurtured and respected.

– Consistent kindness is much more important than grand gestures. The guy who showers you with expensive gifts is often not the guy who shows up when you really need him.

– Men reveal themselves in the first few minutes of meeting you, so listen carefully to what he says. If he says he doesn’t want children, for example, you need to believe him.

– By the same token, he’ll tell you (without meaning to) how the relationship will end. Listen for clues like, ‘I’m bad at commitment/I was unfaithful/none of my relationships have lasted longer than three months.’ It’s a warning to you.

– If he cheated on his girlfriend/wife with you, rest assured he’ll cheat on you, too.

– The way he speaks about other people says more about him than it does about them. He’s mean about his ex? He’s a mean guy. Run for the hills.

– If he regularly needs ‘space’ or you find yourself making a lot of concessions to be with him, chances are he’s just not that into you. And he never will be. Leave, and find somebody else.