Pomegranate Tree

In the brick-paved area between the Escher-like Senate House and WISER, there is a pomegranate tree, with a crop of ruby-red pomegranates that grow on the top-most branches, split open to the sun and the birds.

I noticed it only a little while ago while walking past, and I was as surprised as if I had suddenly come across the door that leads to Narnia, or across a Phoneix, blinking down at me with all its splendour made real and surreally ordinary.

Pomegranates are mythical fruit: their red jewelled seeds arranged around the labyrinthine insides of the hard, gourd-like shell like opulent treasures. Their juices are both sticky and sweet, and yet tantalisingly thinly wound around each seed, so to eat pomegranate seeds is almost an exercise in the sublime.

Persephone, or rather, the telling of her story, is what made this tree transport my memories here.

I am sitting on the thick carpet in our high lounge fringed by trees in the lush Durban that only really exists in my air-brushed memories, and my glamorous grandmother, her hair wound around her head with expertly placed hair combs, is telling me the story of the snatched child Persephone, taken down into the underworld. Her eyes widen dramatically, and her high, beautiful cheekbones lend an otherworldly seriousness to her description of the withering earth while Demeter, earth mother, mourns the loss of her child.

It will be years before I read the real story, but in this for-children, yet still thrilling tale of my grandmother, it is a girl who is taken to the underworld by Hades.

Mercury begs her to help the earth recover, as the world is desperate for new life and growth, but she, wild with grief, refuses.

It is up to Zeus to make the decision about whether Persephone can return home, but in the depths of the underworld, Persephone is hungry, and longs for the food from above the earth. Hades sends his minions all over the earth to find food for her, and for many days they find nothing.

Finally, they return with one all-but-withered pomegranate.

Zeus makes his decision: as long as Persephone has eaten nothing from the underworld during her stay, she will be free to return to her mother.

Mercury flies down to the underworld, to discover that the hungry child has eaten – my grandmother says these last words with small, significant pauses between them, each word enunciated – six seeds of the pomegranate.

Mercury devises a compromise. Persephone must spend six months in the underworld every year, and six months above it. Her mother will mourn for the time her child is away, and Autumn and winter will make life difficult for human beings. She will rejoice when Persephone returns: and spring and summer will make the earth fertile once more.

It is the pomegranate that features in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of Persephone, the small, scarlet seeds like a small wound in the canvas, dwarfed by the rich fabric and the tactile-looking rendering of her hair. This painting, in turn, was used for the cover for a re-telling of the story of Mary Magdalene that I read in the haven that was (and perhaps, still is) the Durban Girls’ College library. In it, Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a spurned woman because she suffered from epilepsy, and was thought to be possessed. The book ends with her finding Jesus, and looking forward into a new life, golden with promise at the edges.

It was years before I held a real pomegranate, in an old-fashioned fruiterers near a local library in Pretoria. I bought a pack of them, and they were as much of an adventure as the finding of the library itself, and as the Ursula Le Guin books I took out that day, the comforting smell of their old pages seeming to fill my nose again as I write this.

I remember taking the fruit home, thrilled, and then being put out at how difficult they were to cut and eat, and how many pomegranate seeds were stored inside one shell. I couldn’t finish them all. Some of them went to waste, the bright red juices becoming brown and the seeds congealing.

I walk past the pomegranate tree every day as I go home. The season for fruit has passed, but the sliver of crescent moon was out tonight when I walked across campus, bestowing its silvery beams like a benediction on all my confused musings, one folded inside the other, not unlike the labyrinthine structure of a pomegranate.


The wisdom of Terry Pratchett (and of re-reading Terry Pratchett)

Like many people before me, I discovered the psychedelically colourful shelf of Terry Pratchett books in my public library when I was a teenager. I had heard of intelligent people who liked them, so when I found them, I took one out (the one about the two witches appealed to me) and I was pretty transfixed for many years after that.

Death is a favourite of mine. His SPEECH is endless amusing to me, and the combination of his deeply human and deeply inhuman aspects (like his inability to understand space when he built the house for his adopted daughter) makes him someone you would want to come and fetch you at the end of your life.

I loved the Unseen University and the orangutan librarian who spoke only in “ook”s, and the four elephants that stood on the back of the giant turtle.

But Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are probably my greatest heroes. Their witchy wisdom, humour, practicality and no-nonsense attitudes gave me little alter-egos I could call on for some spine in my deeply insecure teenage years, and there is something deliciously subversive about reading about such intelligent, talented women whose brains and abilities awe and cow everyone around them.

I stopped reading them for a few years, though, as I felt they were a bit repetitive. Perhaps I thought I had outgrown them, or maybe all the obsessives who used to come in and look for the books in the shop where I worked put me off it.

But now I have been back at school and back at the library more often. And I decided I wanted to pick one up again to relax and switch off with some humour.

What I found, though, was astute political commentary that had gone right over my head as a teenager. Right now, for example, I am reading Making Money (about a character I had not met before: the Dickensian-named Moist von Lipwig) from the school library. I came across a comment that explains colonialism in a nutshell:

a brigand for a father was something you kept quiet about, but a slave-taking pirate for a great-grandfather was something to boast of over the port. Time turned the evil bastards into rogues, and rogue was a word with a twinkle in its eye and nothing to be ashamed of. (90)

Growing up (in KwaZulu-Natal), Cecil John Rhodes always seemed a bit like a genius-rogue: someone who had torn about the continent with his madcap schemes for the greatness of the British Empire, and wanted to create one of those railways (a railway! How quaint!) between Cape Town and Cairo. He had helped make the British Colony (as misguided as it turned out to be) what it was.

Now, of course, I realize he is an “evil bastard” whose policies and ideas still tear South African families apart because they continue to fall prey to the “slave-taking pirates” he enabled to function in his wake.

I love that someone can write about brilliant, complicated plotlines using humour, love, the ridiculous, the fantastical, and incisive socio-political commentary.

And once again, I realize why going back to an author’s writing is so valuable.

PS: If you would like to read something that explains why Terry Pratchett is brilliant in the most beautiful and complete way I have ever seen, (BUT BEWARE THE SPOILERS) have a look here at Amanda Craig’s review of his final book, Shepherd’s Crown at The Guardian.


Changes (or some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984)

I realized, yesterday, that I would like to change the title of a series of posts I do called “My Life Through Books”. I think the title is clumsy, and I actually believe that what I say about my realisations is often true for others as well. That is why I write about it in the first place. I like to articulate what I am feeling (I think it was Joan Didion who said she didn’t know what she actually thought about something until she wrote it down. I get that) and often I understand the world around me better through reading and then thinking about books. It’s the connection, that feeling of being less alone because you have found a kindred spirit in the precise arrangement of letters and words on a page.

And what I always hope for when I write about my connections, is that someone else will read my connections and feel that spark of recognition.

So the new title will be: “A life through books”. It is a subtle article change, but it is an important one, nonetheless.

All future posts will be named this, so I decided I need to go back to change my past ones so that they are consistent. And all of a sudden, I am Winston in Orwell’s 1984, going back through old publications and changing “facts” that have changed so that history is consistent with the new present.

Obviously, this blog is like a continuously evolving piece of art, so I have the right to go back and rephrase things I am unhappy about, but it did make me wonder about the nature of our online history-keeping. Anyone who wanted to erase an event from the public mind would have a much easier job than Winston, who spends his days searching endlessly through physical books and papers and painstakingly changing the names of enemies and allies.

I suppose it is more difficult, too, as people can take screen-shots, and a mistake made on any piece of social media is a mistake made forever.

But it makes one wonder.

image source: International School History


My Life Through Books #3: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

One of the books that keeps reappearing on Audible’s Bestselling/Recommended List is Japanese author Marie Kondo’s The Magical Art of Tidying Up. I read a little about it, and as I have an Audible subscription and have paid in advance to buy books on a regular basis (more on that later), I decided to give it a try (not least because I am one of the messiest people I know).

I had not even finished the book when I was so electrified by it that I decided to buy a Kindle copy so that I could refer to her advice in written form, and couriered a physical copy to my (even more messy) father on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

This was a surprise, even to me. This book has got a bit of negative press, mainly because Kondo advocates keeping only what you love and (here’s the negative bit) throwing everything you do not want away. There was even an amusing (and terrifying) cartoon in the New Yorker that pictured someone leaving a mountainous bag in the middle of a field (no doubt it will then make its way to a landfill). The cartoon was subtitled, “The Life-changing magic of shoving everything into a huge hefty bag and leaving it for somebody else to deal with”.

This is a fair criticism of the book (landfills are terrifying prospects when you really give them some thought. Did you know, for example, that Johannesburg’s landfills are only large enough for another few years’ worth of stuff?), but the book’s advice is actually fantastic if you choose to give everything away instead.

There is also one more caveat before I begin this review in earnest: this book is written for people of my income bracket (that of a teacher who may not earn a lot, but definitely earns enough to have accumulated a lot of “stuff” that I do not use). If you get angry thinking about privilege and owning more things than you know what to do with, this is not a book for you, not least because one of her pieces of advice is: if you miss something you have given away, then buy another one. This sounds incredibly wasteful, but that being said, I have not had to buy anything to replace what I have given away.

That being said, if you are able to read this on a blog, I am pretty sure you could use her advice, and you do have stuff you will feel better without.

In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo has a belief that when we have a house full of stuff that we do not use or love, it distracts us from doing and being who we really want to be, and what we really want to do. Her solution: get rid of everything that you do not love. Start with clothes (including shoes). Move on to books, then accessories, electronics that no longer work or you no longer use, papers (she recommends throwing away photographs last, as then you will have got a good sense of what you really love and what you can do without from sorting all your other possessions).

Her process sounds rather kooky. You have to take everything off your shelves and out of your cupboard and spread it all out on the floor around you. Then, pick up one item at a time and ask yourself if it “sparks joy”. If it sparks joy, then you keep it, and if it does not, then you put it on a “give away/throw away” pile.

As you get rid of things, you thank each item for existing, for everything it has done for you, and thank the people who gave you the things to you (if they were gifts). She makes the really good point that one should not hold onto gifts because of the person who gave them. One should hold onto the care and love that went into choosing and giving the gift, because that is what is important.

So being the to-the-letter-recipe-follower that I am, I followed the whole process from beginning to end. This is what I learnt:

  1. I owned a lot more than I thought I did. I do not consider myself to be someone with an endless wardrobe, but I gave away seven (!!) large black bags filled with handbags, clothes, and trinkets: much of which I had barely worn, hadn’t ever worn, or hadn’t worn in years because they no longer fit, or no longer fit how I wanted them to. I also gave away two trunk-sized collections of books. You would think I missed parts of my wardrobe if I gave away so much. One of the other teachers who saw me bringing everything in commented that I wanted an excuse to buy a whole new wardrobe. Actually, I have had to buy nothing more than an extra pair of open-toed shoes. I already had almost everything I needed: I just didn’t know it.
  1. Being able to give things that do not bring you joy to people who will derive joy from them makes you wonder why didn’t give it all away sooner. My clothes have found homes with people for whom these items are now some of their favourites (I know this for a fact). My books all went to the public library that has just had a (probably province-wide) funding cut. Now those books will go to libraries around the province that do not have copies of the books I donated. If they do, those books will be sold to raise money for the libraries. My favourite set of children’s books (the L.M. Montgomery books) went to Bruce’s children. I have not read them for years, and may never have children of my own. My children may not like them. Even though I loved them once, it felt so much better to be able to give them to children whose eyes almost popped out of their heads with excitement when they saw them.
  1. I am also mortified by how much I had to throw away. Spices and flours that had expired were testament to how much I take being able to buy and have food (and never mind food, luxuries like spices) for granted. Three people on three different budgets live in my flat, so when I cleared out the expired medicines, the man at the Clicks Pharmacy counter’s eyebrows almost shot up past his hairline in surprise when I tipped out the bag. I thought I cared about the environment, and about not wasting, but these purchases showed me the importance of being deliberate when buying things.
  1. When I wrote my thesis, I read this life-changing article (I have written about it before) that explains that people try to create their identity through the stuff that they buy and own. To a certain extent, I think that what we own says a lot about us. When I tidied my bookshelf, I donated books I always felt I should read, but could never bring myself to open past the first page or two (if that). So when I gave away the books, I discarded a version of myself that I always felt guilty for not being. When I discarded clothes, I discarded guilt at not being the body shape or size that would suit those clothes. One of the things I have been trying to do this year is to become more the person I am, not the person I feel I should be. Sorting out my stuff was an important part of that.
  1. That strange-sounding advice to thank everything is actually an incredibly moving practice when you carry it out. It made me feel humbled by my privilege, and so grateful to have had (and to have) so much. It has made me question every buying decision (do I really love this? Do I really need this?), not least because now I can see everything that I have, and I deliberately chose every item in my house.

So oddly enough, although my house is tidier than it has ever been in my life (it has been almost six months), what was really life-changing was everything connected to the process: giving things away, and in the process, finding what really matters.


On re-reading Jane Eyre

One of the movies we had on tape that my sister and I would watch over and over again as children was the version of Jane Eyre with Anna Paquin as young Jane, Fiona Shaw as the diabolical Aunt Reed, Charlotte Gainsborough as adult Jane, and with a soundtrack motif I can hum until this day. Part of the appeal is that we accidentally taped the music video for Skunk Anansie’s “Brazen” before the film (when M-Net still had “Sound-Check”). It is set in a mental hospital suffused with red light, and shows Skin (the lead singer) throwing herself around in a padded cell. I loved (what I now know to be) the gothic drama of it all.

And perhaps those gothic longings lead me to love the film too, set on the moors in a large old house with the madwoman in the attic.

The first time I read Jane Eyre, it was a Puffin Classics Edition that I found in my Senior Primary Library at Durban Girls’ College. I read it during Needlework class when I had finished or forgotten my work, and I would hope I would find words I couldn’t understand so that I could ask the teacher looking after us to explain them. I did not have a crush on the teacher, but I really wanted validation and praise for reading such an advanced and grown-up book. In retrospect, I think my teacher would have loved and been pained by me almost in equal measure.

I read Jane Eyre again in matric at Port Shepstone High School. I wanted my seven books and films list to look beautifully curated and diverse, and so it included Jane Eyre. This time, I noticed the tortured interactions Jane has with St John Rivers (how did I not notice them at all the previous time I had read it?) and I realised I had never really understood the love story. Perhaps because I was falling in love for the first time myself that year, but also because I was almost the same age that Jane is meant to be in the book, it resonated with me anew.

Then I tutored Jane Eyre with first year Rhodes students when I was reading for my Honours Degree. I cannot remember anything they thought about it (ah, the development of the teacher’s awareness that the learning experience is not about you had not yet started for me), but I do remember reading it in Hogsback on an Opera Company practice weekend. I was sharing a room with Natasja, similarly enamoured of certain of the classics, and just as much of a romantic at heart as I am. It felt right to be reading it again, and to be noticing, for the first time, all the beautiful statements Jane makes about women and their need to be active, useful, independent and creative. Again, I wondered how I managed to miss all those wonderful, passionate declarations about the rights of women.

The latest film version came out a few years later, and although I cannot hum its motif as its combination of string harmonies is too complex for the voice, it is a no less deeply moving and lithe film score. The film also has compelling lead performances, and the deft use of light (or lack thereof) in the house is revelatory.

So, reader; I read the novel again.

This time, I wondered what it is that calls to me when I engage with this text and with this story. The language, obviously, is immaculate, and I think the love story, although wrapped in some Victorian morality, is an imperfect and exciting meeting of two souls.

I think, though, what really appeals to me, in some elemental part of my consciousness, is Jane’s steadfastness of character.

I have found really being an adult so bone-wearyingly hard because I have often felt like opinions I once held so strongly needed to be changed, and the person who I thought I was and the adjustments I thought I was capable of making were partly delusional (perhaps a kinder way of saying this would be that I had, and have, many illusions about myself).

Jane Eyre finds what she wants through being true to her sense of what is right and what is good. Her circumstances may change, society may not look about her views and wishes with approval, and she has to suffer, but she finds what she wanted and what her soul knew to be true.

I have discovered that I do not want what I thought I wanted, that my heart believed incompletely, and that my view of what is right and good has often been fundamentally flawed. The ground has often shifted beneath my feet, and it is unsettling and frightening.

But perhaps being able to re-read Jane Eyre is a kind of gift and the best kind of stability. There is the returning to the narrative and to the story, and the process of re-reading, and seeing anew. It is like being given a second chance at a life, and at a way of experiencing. These changes have made my reading of the novel richer, and I notice more of its treasures every time. I hope I am learning to see my own painful experiences of seeing anew as positively.

Perhaps one could read my above statement as an effort at self-helpifying the re-reading of Jane Eyre, but that is not what I mean. I think it is more about creating a narrative of my life that will serve me and help me to enjoy and be thankful for change. As Rebecca Solnit explains in The Faraway Nearby:

A physical therapist once told me that chronic pain is treatable, sometimes by training people to experience it differently, but the sufferer ‘has to be ready to give up their story’. Some people love their story so much even if it’s their own misery, even it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear – you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself.



There was this beautiful guy I was at school with. He was deputy head-boy in the year above me, and while he was small: both short and slim, he had this real bone-deep confidence and a genuine, Hollywood smile. He had a strong sense of morality as well, and his leadership was unwaveringly good and admirable. He could command the attention of the school: no mean feat, considering it was 1200-strong.

He also had a beautiful voice. I first met him in a stage production of Grease. He sang the “Beauty-school drop-out” song with his smooth-as-golden-molasses voice, and became a member of the KwaZulu-Natal Youth Choir with me and a few friends of mine. I remember having intense conversations with him on those long journeys to Durban and back, and there is a photograph of him between another of my friends and I. He is smiling and looking perfectly put together, and we are dressed with all the taste and class (or should I say, lack thereof) that I can only laugh at in retrospect.

When he left school, he was lucky enough to get a scholarship – to become a teacher – from a prestigious private school. I remember hearing he was struggling, but I was always knew he would find his way.

Then I left for university, for Rhodes, and in the hodgepodge way that was common to us adopters of Facebook who only adopted it once we left school, we slowly gathered those strands of the web of our pasts about us, and marvelled at those who had three children before we had finished our degrees, or at those who went on to garner fortune and even fame in the world beyond.

Benjamin Mavimbela saw nor experienced either. He died before he was 30 and I could never find out why.

He died when he was a little younger than I am now, and I mourned in an alternately frozen and molten way after I heard. He had escaped my web of connections, and I suddenly wondered why I had never sought him after school. I wondered what could have happened in the years between school and that lonely moment that prompted his death. I couldn’t help but feel his vitality and surety had been crushed by something, or an assortment of somethings, that he no longer felt he could bear. Even as I write this, there is a dull ache that is metallic in quality, like emotional shrapnel, still lodged in a limb.

In Lars Von Trier’s film, Melancholia, the planet (called Melancholia) advances inexorably towards the Earth, and the people there can do nothing but watch it advance until it crushes everything in its path.

I thought of him, and of Melancholia, when Castro Ntsebeza died this week. Castro was also a teacher, one who struggled with his work, and who tried to be good. I only met him twice, but on the last occasion, we sat in Carla’s bright and beautiful garden and shared my char-grilled artichokes and talked about Veganism and trying to make that decision and stick to it: that decision that you make when the horror of the violence and cruelty and environmental devastation feels like it is poisoning your very soul.

I wish, in retrospect, I could have been kinder. That we could have shared Vegan recipes, and jokes and hopefulness about the future, and kept in touch.

I do not think it would have helped in that most vital of ways. Erik taught me that sometimes kindness and friendship and love cannot stop that planet from annihilating that Earth.

But knowing that cannot ease that grief that presses on your chest and makes you wish things could have been different.

I wish things could have been different.


On not being a teacher

Teaching is the closest to a mystical experience I have ever had because it is an emptying out of self. You stand in front of a group of people every day and you speak to them, and try to get them to speak to you.

And then sometimes they send you their work, and it evolves so quickly it is like watching a time lapse in text form.
You listen to the deepest sorrows that are riven through their very being, and you watch it come to life in their artwork and it makes you weep, in public, without being able to stop yourself, because they are beautiful.

When it works, you help them to create things they would never have had the opportunity had you not asked them to. And more parts of them are revealed to you, each other, and even themselves. You radiate with such great pride that you show their work to everyone who will listen.

But then it doesn’t work, and you walk through your day trailing unravelling threads that catch on everything. The tinnitus accompanies the minutes until you can spend a day with your own thoughts, although even then, their voices and jokes are like phantom presences.

It is exhilarating and exhausting. I feel hollowed out: finally the paradoxical negation and simultaneous finding of self I always read about.

After three years, I am leaving teaching. There are myriad reasons, but one of them is because I want to choose, carefully and individually, the things that will fulfill rather than hollow. I certainly have the room now.

Teaching taught me that I am not who I told myself I was. Truly becoming myself is both harder and better than that narrative. I am a teacher, and that will always be in some part of me, but I am also a writer, a musician, an academic, a lover, a friend, a mentor, a sister, a daughter, and a moving, aging, agile body in space who seeks, like my students, the Great Perhaps.