It’s a crisp June morning, too early for the baboons, too late for the birdcall. The campsite smells of stale booze and future hangovers. The continued roar of the nearby water over a sluice is both annoying and comforting.
The hot air balloon helium injection called me out of my tent to wave good morning as it stretched it’s way across the dawn.
Returning to my old army style, single bed I am armed with a mug of tea to snuggle in the comfort of electric blanket as I wait for the campers to start rousing. I imagine the fellow morning people blinking in the dark tents wondering if they should stir the sleepers. With the thick canvas covering the windows of cold air and light, it is hard to determine the time naturally.
I like watching the sun claim the day, chasing away the traces of night. I love knowing that for the next 10 hours, light will triumph over dark.
There is only a brief section of the day, which feels exclusively mine. The part that I feel invincible, observing the quick shift in nature, asleep and awake. But the new noises of staff clearing up last night’s event remind me that they made claim to the day before it was mine.
The sunrise spills over the horizon and floods the land with light. Voices raise as people greet each other, deciding on how to start the first Sunday in June. A short visit to the countryside is a tonic for the soul.
When I was born, the world really was black and white and not just TV’s. It was a world of right and wrong, good and evil, fear and obedience. The hippie movement started breaking the post war mould. Elvis has started shaking it up, but the Sixties flower children stepped it up and what a job they had. No wonder they needed to be stoned. That movement needed courage.
In my small world, I was taught ‘us and them’. Glasgow then, the ‘them’ was Protestants. We were the Catholics. Mics and Proddies. Across the Irish Sea, this sometimes was a matter of life and death. I vaguely remember talk about the Paki shop, but there were no people of colour in my world. Okay, perhaps redheads, and I had 2 Ginger sisters and some cousins were also ‘different’.
This religious separation caused trauma, adrenaline, adventure and when it came to football, the intensity shifted gear. The air was always electric when there was a ‘match oan’. But before I really got stuck in those ways of life, we moved to South Africa.
Colour everywhere and the heat flooded my body. Suddenly the usual account for safety shifted. I remember being fascinated by the first black man who served me in the hotel restaurant. He called me ‘miss’. I stared and stared. I was five, so I do apologize but it might have been rude. I also didn’t like him calling me ‘miss’. Our family had rules and he was my elder, I was supposed to call him ‘mister’.
Unfortunately the barbaric laws of the land prevented so much learning and growing. The hippie movement didn’t really arrive at these African shores. But all the new dangers unfolded in my world. The Boer. They hated us rooinekke and I didn’t really know why. However most of them were Protestant, so that was a reason to stay separate.
Suddenly the local Catholic Church introduced me to Chinese people, Italians and even Indians. The Italians were in the majority though, but the new definition of British didn’t really get us to mingle with those ‘others’. In our ‘tribe’ suddenly I had Proddie friends. Even people from Edinburgh! I was familiar with Irish but had never met English people. And in a way our identity shifted to find familiar in a foreign world.
I remember our tribe longing for ‘home’. Getting drunk and having sing-songs always ended up with some tears. I watched as these grown-ups greeted and I wondered why. As the years went by, life shifted and some families returned to Britain. Other families moved as the 4 year contracts ended and the pocket of familiar changed.
Today I attended a Highland Gathering in Johannesburg at a local school. Pipe bands came in their hundreds to compete and I sat fascinated by the sights presented to me. Kids of all nationalities in kilts, carrying drums or bleating a bagpipe. Different cultures all finding a common love for the music and culture of MY people. Even, yes, some Chinese.
We had the opportunity to hear some background from a teacher who told us that in the Apartheid years, Catholic and some Private schools ‘rebelled’ against the militant governments rules of ‘cadets for kids’ and added some bagpipes because the band ‘marches’. I was amazed at how supported this pastime still is. Flabbergasted actually and secretly quite honoured, although my ignorance to my Scottish history is almost embarrassing. We sat surrounded by the music that felt so familiar and loved the community spirit.
The grand event of the day didn’t seem to be the prizegiving, although I may be biased, but we were told about the mass piper march at 3.30. The field opened up and the bands lined up at the far end of the field. The drum majors marched smartly to the front and the sound of a thousand bees suddenly ripped through the air. The bagpipes began their melodic wail with ‘Scotland the Brave’. Suddenly the crowd stood still, went quiet, tears spilled and other filmed with their phones and everyone felt it.
2019 is proving to be a year of many changes, so in what-used-to-unusual fashion, I decided to try something outside my comfort zone.
I think it might be my age, or planets, or lack of running but I am a lot more adventurous in my fifties. I seem to have let go of my underlying chronic anxiety. The fear has feared off. So to do an ‘internal’ test, I said ‘YES’ to doing a public talk at Montecasino. The Japanese format of PechaKucha which gives me 20 seconds using 20 slides and a grand total of 6minutes and 40 seconds to impress an unfamiliar audience.
I seem to be saying ‘Yes’ to a lot of things on impulse but I am enjoying the flow it is bringing to my life. I had a concept for my talk but I struggled to get the flow of the middle bit. Knowing that I can talk for waaay longer than the allotted time, and I can speak really quickly just to confuse non-accent-familiar folks, I deliberately put in less words than necessary. This was to force my pause and roll my vowels ( my mouth just sounded that last bit out).
So eventually the day arrives and I am excited but oddly non-plussed about my clumsiness with the middle bit of speech. We are encouraged to have a rehearsal beforehand to test the system and get familiar, which I always like. So I line up after two delightful polished, speakers who swan through their 6 minutes. My turn on mic, gets me into a very unusual knot. My voice trembles, my brain freezes (sans ice cream) and I swear out loud on mic. The second attempt, I walk away from the third slide, stifling a gallop to my car and a drive to the coast.
I pace up and down the casino complex passages mouthing to myself in 6 layers of crazy, yet the nerves are still silent. I have become extremely good at self scanning, so I wonder if I have just pushed myself so far over into complete numbness. But I realise I am still excited and curious to see what I do in front of an audience. Okay, one part of me could still hear my car call me away, but I ignored it.
The evening starts and I sit with the other speakers at the back and I notice the most experienced one of us all, fidget a bit. He’s sitting beside me, so of course I ask if he’s nervous. He admits that there is a touch of nerves and I can literally feel my shoulders drop with relief. I am still internally trying to locate my speech in my mind, but it kept me in suspense.
My turn comes very quickly. As I approach my position behind the mic, I feel my arms punch down and I hear a strange voice say ‘let’s do this’. I take a deep breath and look out at the large crowd of expectant eyes. I don’t hear my voice quiver, and I see people nodding their heads, laughing when I intended. I can’t really remember everything I said, perhaps I had a ‘walk-in’ lol. The slides fly by, my mouth keeps moving… and I must be making sense because I still see heads nod.
The last slide appears and I realise that I made it. Relieved but loving the human eyes on the chairs, I realise that I respond well to an audience. I like the feedback, much like the Comrades marathon, people naturally seem to want others to succeed. I feed off that. So this year I am not running the 87km and I doubt a 6 minute chit chat can compare to the magnitude of the race from city to city, but I did have a great experience and I learned something new about myself. I didn’t back down from the possibility of disaster and I dove right in… just to see how I would handle it.
A crisp Autumn morning saw me summoned to the big water mass in the landlocked city. Emmerentia Lake which was named after one of the Randlord Farmers wives, was ‘gifted’ to the city.
And what a gift it remains.
The interesting terraces and different areas make for a lovely wander.
On arrival at the gate, I saw a wedding procession arriving opposite a mass group of Tai Chi-ers. I was greeted by the eccentric but fascinating bookshop owner who rushed me along to the quiet martial arts display. I saw early morning picnic-ers, while kids scooted around on their bikes, while solo book readers lost themselves within pages of their books.
The summer leaves have started falling, exhausted from the unusually hot summer, but the trees still look rather full. Some swallows seem to be hanging behind on their migration north, while bulbuls screeched some morning tunes.
I lingered in the rose gardens and took my time to smell as many as I could and thought of my mum. Unusual butterflies didn’t allow me to take a photo but flitted their way as I made my way to the water. I was surprised how quiet it was, being a perfect morning for a paddle. I quizzed a remote boat handler and learned some interesting things.
Remote boats cost about R4000- so the sport is becoming less popular. There is a competition once a month (?) With about 18 ‘leaguers’ meeting to test their skills. One chap is good enough to compete internationally. When asked how his skills differed, I was told maybe he can read the water and wind better. I also learned that some people meet on the water at weekends to do yoga on standing paddle boards!!! I still had loads of questions but realised that he might be there for some peace and quiet -which I was ‘taking’ from him, so I thanked him and went off to check out the geese. Hundreds of them. All rather quiet, and some looking rather injured, I wondered if it was because of ‘inbreeding ‘ or other reasons.
The walk back to my car, saw me stop in the eccentric bookshop, which has marvellous books but somehow I resisted my temptations and they can remain there for future purchase. The wedding party had grown considerably but there was no sign of the bride and groom as yet. Pity, because their guests all looked gorgeous, so I wanted to catch a glimpse of the newlyweds.
The great outdoors called.
I think I might be missing my morning runs. But a long walk helped.
I am a sensitive person. I always have been. This means that I live with my heart on my sleeve and feel everything. Those emotions used to spill out of me in the form of jokes and tears, but mostly tears.
I was the one who cried while watching strangers reunite at airports. I cried when crawlers clutched their way to the Comrades finish line, I cried at every Oprah episode, heck, I even cried at the VW adverts.
I cried when I was angry, I cried while trying to make my point in Crew Leader meetings in a room full of TV men ( dammit). I cried when Auld Lang Syne was sung. I cried for anything and everything.
4 years ago I cried outside the ICU ward when I realised my friend was slipping away. A stranger consoled me. I stopped crying and locked in my tears. Within a couple of months of her dying, my husband had a serious health issue and was in the same hospital being treated by the same doctor. At the same time in a hospital on the far East side of our country, my dad lay in theatre having his broken hip fixed. I had no tears.
I felt perplexed as I know what suppressing emotions can do to my health. I am a therapist, I advise my clients to let all the tears, anger, fear and toxicity out. Yet I couldn’t access mine. Locked far down, out of reach, I put my grief neatly away. The therapist part knew it was dangerous, so I thought my walk across Spain would crack me. Nope. The only tears that I didn’t force, were those that spilled from an unknown place in front of Sagrada Familia. I returned home, invigorated but not cried out.
Towards the end of last year, my world began to shake. I could feel changes coming. This year, my 14 year old dog had to be put down. This was the crack, in fact it felt like a rupture of an old scar. Tears poured out of me, and I didn’t stop them. Like the first rains of Spring, they made grooves in my face and my heart. I wailed and wailed. This short beginning of 2019 has been a year of tears, changes and awareness. Today, my connection to my late friend, her beloved Gigi, or Gypsy girl, Boston dog, had to be laid to rest. This time the wailing was less. The tears know how to flow. They have been making surprise acquaintance all week. In supermarkets, DIY stores, in my car, and in my therapist chair.
I am trying not to overthink it, because it is simply a matter of feeling- not analyzing. I am surrounded by support. Some unexpected and from unusual people and I am allowing myself to feel. I am trying not to rush it away and I have to force myself to refrain from asking ‘how are you?’. I can’t deflect this. I have to own it. To feel it.
For someone who had inherited a bird phobia, I am rather fond of birds now. But not kept in cages, more those in the wild, suburban back yards, open velds, or more recently, up a cliff.
Johannesburg isn’t really a tourist destination. People sometimes touch down here on route to the Kruger Game Park, or a stopover for the Cape of Good Hope, yet for some exquisite creatures, it is a destination every year. The European Bee Eaters migrate here to spend their summers, calling from up high, feasting on goggas and teasing me, because their beauty is just out of good binocular view (for me). They have a distinctive call, and even though the name gave me a huge hint, I was overjoyed when I recognised their call while walking the Camino in Spain a few years back. My excitement in hearing this, made some of my Peregrino sisters laugh, because it is ‘just a bird, right?’ No, this is not just a bird, this is a fellow traveller all the way from Africa.
And this week, I had stood atop our rocky ridge in the city and had my breath taken away. The Northcliff Ridge is part of our rocky outcrops which wouldn’t be present, if a meteor hadn’t hit the ground about 80 miles away, 4 million years ago and caused the earth to split open and push upwards. But I digress.
I was standing there, taking in the marvellous view and I heard the Bee Eater’s familiar call. Except, this time, I didn’t need to look up, instead it was at my feet, flying merrily around and showing me the sheer beauty of it’s colour. I excitedly tried to take a picture but, I realised that this beauty was to be captured by my eye only. My camera fumbling relaxed, I stood there, mouth open. I was alone on the ridge, watching my Northern Hemisphere visitor. I wanted to ask it if it was readying itself for the long trip north, but I already felt the answer. I wanted to ask if it recognised me from Spain, and I laughed at the craziness in my head. Beauty is in the detail, and I had to google for a photo that what do this creature justice. But nothing quite compares to standing there on the ridge, feeling like queen of the world (sorry Titanic) and watching the dance of the Bee Eater.
I was never a ‘small dog’ person, or so I thought. But 15
years ago, our old dear was getting on and sore and hubby said that I needed to
go look at puppies at the pet shop down the road. Pet shop and puppies, I was against
both, but I humoured him. But I hadn’t counted on the lady from the shop
putting the cutest little tan and white Jack Russell puppy in my arms. How can
anyone put them back? And that started my love affair with the tiniest dogs
with the biggest character. Two nights after listening to crying from the
kitchen, hubby found the original seller and brought home the black and white girl
from the same litter, for some company. What was he thinking, I asked myself.
But it turned out to be the best decision ever. Sisters reunited, they kept
themselves amused for hours, playing in the garden and who knew that watching
puppies play could be such a fantastic stress reliever?
Naming the girls was a tricky thing, because we are terrible
at it. After a few weeks of calling them puppy 1 and puppy 2, Nic announced
that we should call them after our favourite comedy show at the time ‘Father
Ted’. We had a ‘father Jack’ in the chicken who turned out to be a hen, so we
knew Jack shit about fowl gender, Ted was great for the ‘tan’ coloured one but
Dougal seemed to be too long a name for such a small dog. So puppy number two
became Doyle, after the hilarious Mrs Doyle. And true to her name, Doyle was a
She was catlike, in that she only wanted to be touched when she felt like it, she didn’t run to us if we called her, and she used to lie up high on tops of couches and things. She even dug in the sand to do her business but it was her at least times of nine near-death experiences, that I was convinced of her feline genes. She thought she was the size of a Rottweiler and even in her last days, would bark bravely from the doggy pram at other bigger dogs on her walks. She would sigh and groan, and was very vocal in her emotional display and didn’t bark in a usual ‘yappie dog’ way. She would love eating the Jack shit and after Jack went to the chicken coop in the sky, Doyle took to daily foraging for pigeon poop to crunch on, before she would grace us with her presence during our morning tea. She loved to sprint round the garden in her excitement then would rush inside the cat flap to suckle the rest of her excitement away on the remaining reindeer soft toy , that had made the scale for 10 years after she destroyed several teddies. When we were over the road visiting neighbours or out of town on business, the two dogs and the chicken would sit patiently at the gate waiting for our return. They would throw in a howl or two just to remind us that they were waiting, and to tell anyone that knew them, that we had left home on foot.
When Doyle’s sister, Ted, died from cancer her personality changed and seemed almost more loving, although still nothing like her late lap dog sister. For 18 months, she slept quietly at our feet in our bed, and sometimes sleeping right through for 14 hours without needing to go do her business. When her new/old sister Gypsy arrived, she acceptingly went back to overnight in the kitchen with the snoring and farting of the newbie being too much for us humans. Doyle continued to show her personality at any chance and taught Gypsy how to eat bird kak. When she tore her knee ligament on her afternoon walk, she was caged for a very long period of 6 weeks, but she healed well, and not too long after would gallop around the pool, ears flapping quickly on her head (don’t tell the vet surgeon!) She taught Gypsy how long we would run for and after 20 minutes of sniffing around the house would go and sit and wait at the gate for a quick spin up the road herself when we got back. ( I timed her, when Nic went running and I stayed behind)
As her eyes aged, and her hearing dimmed, she got less afraid from the storms and fireworks, and would sleep peacefully through any anxiety of her youth. She started taking ‘turns’ the past few weeks, and would lie completely still and look desperately sad. I thought initially it was a stroke, but it was probably more from her liver as the vet had seen a shadow over it when I admitted her one time. She would rally round the next day and continue to bore a hole in my head, staring, if it was getting close to walk time or dinner time, and she really was very, very punctual. This morning, her clocked stopped and decided it was time to go find her sister in doggy heaven and as sad as it is, she gave us a life full of entertainment and love. Plus, I am told that the chicken poop that side is ‘heavenly’.
The beauty of being an immigrant of the 70’s is the opportunity to have two places, thousands of miles apart, that feel like home.
As much as I love buildings, it’s not the physical structures that make it feel familiar. It’s the energy of the place. Glimpses of past memories spent there, shared with the familiar look on aging faces.
I went to a funeral of one of the foundation people from my childhood. A mother, a smile, a patch of the quilted memories that add to my sum total of experiences. As I sat in the back of the all too familiar church, a place where my own vows were taken, I looked at all the familiar heads and sighed with belonging. My tribe, but no blood connections. Strings woven through each of our hearts. This recognition of history without knowing specific detail. Some threads connected looser than others but the common ground literally giving us a bonded meaning.
Grief visited, through hearing the tender words of bereaved friends and family, acknowledging our own personal visits with the feeling, both past and present. A laugh on hearing about dear Patsy’s character. A glimpse into her nuclear family while enabling a brush with my own wider ‘femily’. It helped that Patsy had lived well, that she made the world a happier place with her wide smile. There was cheer in the air, in spite of the tears.
Driving through the once walked streets, flashes of houses triggering long forgotten names, I wondered what it would be like still living here, having never moved away. A ‘dad song’ popped into my mind.. and I sang the lyrics as tears rolled down my cheeks. Not tears of sadness but of gratitude and peace of my own life, well lived.
” It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home
Yes, they’ll all come to meet me, arms reaching, smiling sweetly
It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home..”
Although I no longer put all my hope into the magic of one day or one resolution because I now find magic in any ordinary moment, I still love observing the global cheer of being hopeful. I love watching people build themselves up with positivity and expectations and the excitement that goes with that is infectious. But I am no longer compelled to join in. A lesson in setting boundaries which I have enjoyed doing.
The day is just a Tuesday, yet the importance of the collective days get rounded up and judged accordingly. Us humans have a need to assign, to determine and to judge. It helps us understand the craziness of the world. I used to have a sense of panic of not setting proper goals, of not finishing last years, of not being ready to finish dates with a different year. But maybe it’s age, maybe it’s just temporary, I no longer panic. The anxiety has shifted. The compulsion altered. The ‘what if I don’t get it done…’ has changed to ‘I am never going to be done’ and that has given my internal mechanisms a real break.
In saying all that…. 2018 was the year of relationships for me. Most of them completely shifted, because I became easier on myself. I took leaps and the nets did magically appear. I lept into the abyss of the unknown, possibly the biggest leap I have ever taken and I am amazed that the chronic fear has all but disappeared. Realism hasn’t left me though, but I am aware that I am responsible for my life and I have tremendous support yet, even if that were to disappear ( which was the scariest of fearts- Scots words) I will be ok. I will find my way.
So I wish for myself the contentment of the moment, the fun in dreaming big, the excitement of exploring and the inner peace in the midst of chaos.
Ok, I wish that for you too, but that is up to you to find your way.
Cheers, to all who have loved me, been loved by me and to all future loves…
This time of year always gets me thinking about our emigration. The 13th of December 1971 is the ‘official’ landing day for our tribe in South Africa but a thought crossed my mind about the actual journey.
Today, the 10th of December is the day we left behind the cold, familiar world of Milton in Glasgow. I was five and (almost) a half years young. The world as I knew it was dark, icy and busy with family. I don’t recall leaving our upstairs tenement house, nor any packing of clothes, or selling of furniture. Nor the taxi trip to the station- it must have been a couple of taxis, at least. I do remember being at Glasgow Central Station amidst a frenetic goodbye from cousins, aunts and uncles and boarding a sleeper train. Maybe this is what triggered my love for trains, perhaps. But at this point I can’t recall if I had any idea of where I was going, then again don’t think any of us did. All we knew is that we were going to ‘Sunny South Africa’ where my dad would be guaranteed a 3 ( or 4?) year work contract. In a rapidly shrinking work opportunities-city, it made sense for my folks to take care of there 6 and 3 quarters size brood, in a far away land with sunshine! A bargain! But I digress…
I don’t recall how many sleeper compartments we had, nor who I slept beside but I do remember the clackity clack of the train, the twinkling ‘exit’ sign lights and my first encounter with a chamber pot. Fascinated as a curious 5 year old can be, I don’t recall actually using it but more interested in how it got emptied.
On arrival in a bustling London station, I remember the vision of a huge pile of suitcases on wheels and a flapping coat trying to control the worldy belongings of our entire family. The blue cover of the record player was at once familiar for me because Cliff Richard sang ‘summer holiday’ on it and this was kind of what this trip felt like.
Details in between are very sketchy but the next clear phase of my young journey was an indoor swimming pool with coloured lights surrounding a man sitting at the bar. In the pool!! My eyes bulged when I saw this and in some dusty part of my memory I think Hawaiian music was playing. This pool was in a 5 star London hotel which we were to spend the night of the 11th of December due to the maiden Boeing 747 flight to Johannesburg being cancelled. I think we had 3 bedrooms between us but another exciting memory is the huge silver domes that covered our food on tableclothed trolleys that we wheeled to us. The life of luxury…
My mum must’ve had swollen feet and several anxiety attacks being 7 months pregnant and all this adventure showing up. But I remember her smoking away on the airplane which in my, short 5 year legs memory, seemed to be so roomy. We stopped for fuel at Los Palmos ( I think) where it was so hot my nostrils felt blocked and I was fascinated by a huge wooden fan slowly chopping the air on the roof.
My next memory is not the airport in Johannesburg but the fountain at a white hotel ( the Lido) where I think I paddled in my panties ( or knickers) free from the very heavy and hot kilt that my mum had made for all us girls. It was also the first time I experienced Coca-cola .. in my own glass bottle and I remember being impressed.
The 13th of December had us sleep over in a one star hotel in my future home town of Ver een ig ing ing. The National hotel was somewhat different from the London luxury and I heard my first ever cricket chirping! The tiny basin in the rooms had my-size Lux soaps and eating in the dining room and being served was an adventure for this young bairn.
The three days of journey were always kind of remembered in separate bits. Today I went on the journey again as a 52 year old accompanying my 5 year old self, who was full of wonder and awe. The destination almost forgotten but what a joy I felt, piecing the sepia bits together and stepping back in time for the journey that got me here.