REPORT A PROBLEM
“Will you be my other Godmother?” she asked me one day out of the blue. I’m not sure if it was the effect on my ego, of this simple and touching gesture of friendship and love from the eight year old that made her my favourite, but she occupies a special place in my heart…
Shortly afterwards, washing the dishes when visiting, while in town for my father’s funeral, she (about nine by then) came up and said: “Why are
washing the dishes?” “Occupational therapy” I replied. “Do you know what that means?” “I
so” she responded thoughtfully.
I wash, she dries. She asks me about the world wars. “They’re doing a concert about it at school” her father says.
The night before, the night of my father’s funeral, there was a storm that felt like the end of the world.
She goes off to look in the encyclopaedias I’ve just given her, for information about the South African Anglo-Boer war. “My child with a social conscience”, says her father.
Last night I dreamed that she asked me for some of my crayons. I said I couldn’t part with the colours, but I’d buy her her own box.
It seems a bit bizarre that I’m eating while watching
. Almost rude. There they are, starving away, while couch-potato me watches them on tv over dinner. Well, I guess as Robert de Niro said, we go to the theatre and watch tv because “it allows you to live other people's lives without having to pay the price”. (I hate to think of all the parasites that’ve invaded their systems!) I suppose that’s the drawback of ‘reality tv’ -- for the participants that is -- they’re really just there for my entertainment. Oh yes, I forgot… and a million dollars!
“Humility is the ability to realise that just because something has been, doesn’t mean it will be again”, I once heard. I guess John found that out fast, when -- all set to win
-- a couple of his team-mates decided he was a bit
smug, and decided to get rid of him. I suspect his tearful “I’m not able to retire Mom”, will be remembered for a long while as a sobering moment by those who are cock-sure. But also as inspiration to those of us who are insecure about the future, that anything can happen…
One of those serendipitous moments today, of being in the right place at the right time. I hardly ever go onto the University campus, but am killing time today (“don’t kill time, make it come alive” Jeremy once said) and I spot a poster advertising a course in “Travel Writing”. Looks interesting, I think, but of course have no idea when the “second semester” is. I’m sure it must have begun already, but go and enquire anyway. “Come back after two and Michelle (the Professor) will be here” says the secretary. Turns out it’s an ‘Open Day’. I signed up!
Of course, now begins the task of putting together bits and pieces to show what I’ve “been doing for the last twenty years?” I have no academic qualifications (and this is an MA course) but have been working for an academic institution for the last nine years. (I could have been a doctor by now. Scary thought!) If anything, I think, I’ve learned what not to do. But I’ve also been cleaning up academics’ reference lists and footnotes… I’m a good researcher. Must just remember NOT to go off on a tangent! But this is a post-graduate course. Some leeway…
I dream I am taking a three-week trip up through Africa, but we are taking it by swimming down a river. I am afraid, as I am not a good swimmer, but then realise that we are travelling downstream, so the water will carry us. I wear black tights and a leotard. I take Sheldon Kopp’s “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” in my clothes. I ask Sophia, who is with me, and has learned to travel light, if she’s taking anything. “No” she says, “I’m hoping it will be warm enough when we get there.”
Footsteps… After three years, I have learned to identify all of the footsteps of my neighbours passing by. I know if there’s a stranger outside my door…
The first thing a San/Bushman child is taught is to identify his mother’s footprints (much I suppose like other children learn to recognise the sound of their mother’s voice). In the desert, it is sometimes possible to loose track and not see somebody for years, so it’s important to be able to recognise footprints.
Just as a fountain-pen becomes unique to its owner, it’s probably impossible to walk comfortably in anyone else’s shoes.
Walked past a house today that I used to live in eleven years ago. Gone to rack and ruin, as has everything in the area. “It’s a pity what’s happened to Yeoville”, a friend said a while back. Yes, I guess in many ways it is. But it’s hard to know in a transformation process, at what point the death of the old ends, and the rebirth begins…
Robert Pirsig said of New York in his 1991
: “When something new and Dynamic wants to come into the world it often looks like hell but it can get born [here].”
Paul Theroux today: “No, it doesn't always come easily. But even if you wrote a paragraph a day, at the end of a year you've done quite a lot of work. Even if you write a few sentences a day you've done quite a lot of work… So willy-nilly, something gets finished. I'm very careful about doing it every day. I don't take days off. I sit there and even though nothing comes, I just sit there and do it. Because I usually have something to write. If I have nothing to write, then I'm just as happy going swimming.”
I need to get her phone number. She opens the cubby-hole of the car. “I think that’s a pen next to the stethoscope” she says. “Oops, no… that’s insulin!” Well it looked like a pen. I expect since she attends lots of international conferences, and is given lots of complimentary stationary, it looks a lot like a big fat high-tech pen that she could have been given.
She’s sold her flat, and bought another, but needs to find an interim place for a few months while renovations happen. I’ve seen an ad for a “professional commune” that may suit her.
“Who are you?” I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I’ve been changed several times since then,” replied Alice. I know how she feels. Some might say of me that they think I’m sweet. Others might say they think I’m a bitch. And they’d probably both be right, depending on the day, or the angle of the light…
At my father’s memorial service I realised that if a collage was made of the stories that every person there could tell of how they experienced him, that would be the accurate picture of him.
I open the book, and find the postcard used as bookmark, as is customary with me. Dated August 1998, it reads: “I would so love you to come with me to Ithaca – maybe something can be organised at some stage”. And so it is. In August 2002 I will be going. Everything in its own time. So too with the book. Purchased in 1997 (dating books when they’re purchased is another one of my customs) but never read. Now it seems like the perfect thing to be reading.
The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling
by James Hillman.
Seeing her name on the credits of the movie takes me back to the time we spent together in LA. I remember her most for her kindness, and her red convertible. Driving me to the dentist for emergency root canal. If I’m not mistaken, on the offending tooth that I’ve just had extracted. Perhaps the hardest part of travelling is leaving behind the people with whom we intersect and connect so briefly. That urge to hold on, and want to maintain the contact. “What Dreams May Come”… Must have been a fun movie to be Director of Visual Effects on.
March became an article. Quite fun cutting up the “bits” and pasting them on the wall, then moving them around to form an article. The best was being able to remove superfluous words that were added for padding to get to 100, and the ability to pad the bits that had become a bit telegrammatic.
I felt a sense of achievement when the editor said “some had a little difficulty with the style, but others found it fresh, and I feel we will publish the paper”. In amongst the Foucaultian and Derridian deconstructionists, but without having to write like them.
The lectures are going to be in “the old dental school building” he says. He being the C in “The ABC [Adler, Bunn & Couzens] of Travel Writing”. “And the course is going to be like pulling teeth” he says. Oh God. I really find it hard to find it funny, after all the dental problems I’ve been having. This is my place to get away. I really don’t have to be reminded!
But he’s a very funny man (wrote a book called
Pees & Queues
- sort of travelogue on public toilets.) Don’t think he realises he’s funny though.
I receive a message on my answering machine from my landlord’s secretary, and have something of a panic-attack. “They’re selling my flat, I’m going to have to move”, I think. I DON’T want to move. I go through all the scenarios of if I buy it etc. Finally morning comes, and I call her. Turns out someone else wants to buy it, but keep me in it.
We were asked to draw a map yesterday of places that stayed with us in our childhoods. Everyone seems to have had one home that they remember. I seemed to be constantly moving…
The journey, of course, begins long before take off. Went to get my travellers cheques today, and had that familiar sinking feeling of giving R8000 and getting back R800 Euros. Of course I know that one Euro buys more than one rand, but there’s that distinct feeling of being a third world citizen/third-class citizen of the world. Now it’s off to get the visa. Now that I have the letter from my friend, a property owner in Greece, that states that I will be staying with her. That she knows me, and it’s okay. That I am ‘one of you’.
They taught us at Drama School that one of the most difficult characters to play, is one who is bored. Beware, lest it translates into being
. It’s the same when people write of their boredom. A fine line away from my becoming bored
them. It is said that “misery loves company”, but paradoxically, when we’re miserable is when we usually make the worst company. Somehow we want someone else to entertain or distract us, when in fact what we probably need to do is sink within and see what we find there. “Boredom is a lack of attention.”
I read in the papers today that the number of registered vehicles in Johannesburg has doubled since 1994, and the government plans to introduce access by toll roads only, to the central business districts of the city within the next five to ten years… After they improve the public transport system. Ha! What public transport system? Of course -- if I planned to stay in Johannesburg for that long -- I would be
if the public transport system improved. But forgive me for being cynical… Traffic- wise though, it still doesn’t feel as crazy here as London or Paris.
I notice that all the winners -- and most of the nominees -- for the SA Sunday Times writing contest are men… I wonder why this is?
From Jonathan Kaplan’s winning book:
“I felt strongly how much I had forsaken when I left this vast, intimate continent and I revelled in my rediscovery of it’s prolific nature… something elemental about this life, a sense of reality that had eluded me all the time I’d been away… something, too, about the quality of human suffering here; more explicit perhaps, or somehow more comprehensible, than I’d been exposed to in the West.”
A joyous day of two friends arriving from different parts of the planet, and reminding me of who I was in the past, and who I want to be in the future. Who I am right now is just mostly happy that they are here. The massive exodus from Johannesburg over the years has meant a more solitary existence than even I would’ve chosen.
From Theroux: “In the Africa I knew… people did not think of solving problems by uprooting themselves and emigrating… Living among such people intensified my sense of exclusion, of being a stranger, and it fascinated me.”
A strange process now, this parallel process of keeping a daily ‘travel journal’, as well as 100words. Writing 100words now for 235 days straight (wasn’t sure I’d get through one month!) has given me the discipline to write every day. But now there needs to be more. More substance, with a little more focus, given that this journal makes up 50% of the mark for this post-grad course in travel writing. (Hey, ANYTHING to avoid an exam!) But the 100words seem to fill in the gaps… the little more insignificant things that I might’ve forgotten, but am glad to recall…
Theroux again… “In general, travel is awful, though. I mean, I think any sensible person would admit that the experience of travel, no matter what kind -- whether it's plane, train, bus, boat, car -- it's awful. It's uncomfortable. It's tedious. It's repetitive. And in order to achieve the epiphanies of travel -- the vistas, the experiences -- you have to go through an awful lot of hell and high water…
“The best landscapes… hold surprises if they are studied patiently, in the kind of discomfort one can savor afterward. Only a fool blames a bad vacation on the rain.”
Driving round the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg with Linzi -- a native Joburger, who’s been in Cape Town for ten years, and Oxford for as many months -- she reminds me of the abnormality of it’s high spiked walls, and insular life-styles. Mercifully we visit Rosebank, with its multicultural-middle-class-mall-culture, which restores some lightness to the adventure. I think of all the stories I’ve heard about people travelling to South Africa to appreciate the beauty, being mugged in Johannesburg, and leaving in disgust saying that it’s an awful dangerous country. I think about the complexities of preparing travellers for this city…
We visit a primary school, distributing and evaluating an educational-booklet on HIV/AIDS. Perhaps they are repeating parrot-fashion, but these twelve-year-olds seem better informed than I am. I think of what it must be like to be growing up in a time with as little freedom as ours, plagued by crime and illness. But the principal of this school is an inspiration, as he affirms for the children that -- while they live with this problem -- they can also part of the solution. “We are middle-aged”, he says, gesturing apologetically at Linzi and I. “But you could find the cure.”
Says Theroux: “I suppose a half a dozen times in my whole life [I have felt in mortal danger]. That's not many. But once is too many. Once is bad. I've never felt in danger from animals. Occasionally from the elements. Of those six times, I would say that two were from the elements and four were from people who've stuck a gun in my face.”
But he says also: “There are New Yorkers who think nothing of travelling to Tierra del Fuego but who would not set foot in certain areas of New York City.” The paradox of globalisation.
From Paul Bowles’
The Sheltering Sky
: “The traveller…moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.”
Amazon’s review continues…
“But there is another important difference between the tourist and the traveller. As Port relates, "the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveller, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking." In doing this, however, the traveller runs the risk, if the degree of cultural separation is too great, if the foreign culture is too extreme, that he will become completely untethered from reality.”
Says an article in
“But there is, researchers believe, a central defect, and that is the difficulty people across the autistic spectrum have in developing a theory of mind… the realisation, which most children come to by the age of four, that other people have thoughts, wishes and desires that are not mirror images of their own.”
Well yes, this is pathological, but how far away from those who
that others have different thoughts, but see them as invalid, and will even kill to support this belief. The human brain, and it’s workings, is truly terrifying.
Sitting in the dentist’s waiting room, I read an interview with Angelina Jolie. She is asked when she last experienced grief. She says, when she returned from Africa, and witnessing suffering the likes of which she hadn’t realised existed finally hit her.
I am often intolerant of “First World”ers, and their apparently narrow view of the world. But I suppose, if you are never exposed to anything other than Hollywood, how
you know about the rest of the world? I admire those who take the initiative to step out and see. More important than
enlightened, is the journey…
“I often think that I became a writer because I had a good memory.” says Theroux. Well, that’s a good start. If there’s one skill that I have, it’s a good memory. Though there are debates about whether memory is a talent you’re born with, or developed through discipline. Dr Johnson argued that “The true art of memory is the art of attention”.
A friend complains to me about another friend’s apparent inability to remember anything she tells her. But perhaps she’s just not listening. She appears bored with everything. From the sweet-wrapper again: “Boredom is a lack of attention.”
The Tip Jar