Uncategorized

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.

Standard
Uncategorized

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.

Standard
Uncategorized

Melancholia

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.

Standard
Uncategorized

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.

Standard
Uncategorized

On White Linen and Adulthood: an analogy

A few months ago, Zwe and I spent time in one of the most most beautiful places either of us had ever seen.

In Kleinemonde, the beaches seemed endless and were completely unspoiled, and there were lagoons with the odd paddle boat. In the morning, the view of the thick green foliage lining the banks of the lagoon and the clear, clean waters below were enshrouded in sea mist.

The house where we were staying was equally picturesque. It had a verandah with a plunge pool, and the couches just behind the glass verandah doors were oversized and comfortable, perfectly placed in the path of wafting sea air. The bedroom where we slept contained a white and brass-colored iron bed, a puffy white duvet and white curtains and blinds. That room was the locus of a place that was both a retreat and a starting point for an adventure. We returned to Pretoria feeling like we had visited another world.

Back in our narrow, tiled flat with the sound of the freeway and the red dust constantly seeping in, I found myself longing to re-create that fresh-aired atmosphere of Kleinemonde. I went out and bought my very first set of white linen and In one foul swoop, I had bought into adulthood.

I do not say this because I am unwittingly trying to develop my conception of myself through things (oh, capitalism!) but because I have willingly bought large pieces of material that I will have to work hard at keeping spotlessly clean. Adulthood (at least in my privileged world where I have been educated and can make career and reproductive choices) is about deciding to do something that will require sacrifices of your time for something that you think is worthwhile, and sticking by those choices no matter how painful (or just irritating) they will sometimes be. Billions of people decide to have children despite the fact that it will wreak havoc with their bodies, their sleep patterns, and the rest of their lives because, children (apparently).

I have been struggling with the notion of my own adulthood (and simultaneously, of childhood and children). Perhaps it is because when I first started teaching teenagers, I felt more “adult” than I ever have in my life. They looked at me like I was so “past it” (wherever “it” is) and as if I was there to supplement their lives that I wanted to wail, “What about ME?????” I felt like I had stuck my head out of the window of a train, expecting to see exotic scenery flashing past, and instead had discovered that I had reached the end of the line and everyone else had changed trains earlier without my realising. 

Luckily, one of the benefits of being a literature student is knowing when to change figurative devices. Life is not a train and I am not a passenger.

I have decided I much prefer analogy to metaphor in this case. When I was reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree (fittingly, a book about children and the adults they become), he refers to Lucretius, and explains that one can find the sublime by exchanging easier for more difficult pleasures. Choosing to buy white linen, in my mind, is a good analogy for consciously deciding to do something difficult because it transforms the world for the better. At our best, I think that is what adults do.

Plus, when I get into bed at night, I feel like I am looking out into an ocean of clouds.

Standard
Uncategorized

Falling into a Rut (on race in the classroom)

At school, I sometimes fall into a bit of a rut.  No longer am I the Janus-faced teacher who takes on many different roles and can have an intelligent conversation about anime films or politics, philosophy or new scientific discoveries. No. I become the dreaded white-woman-pretending-to-be-down-with-the-brothers.  I lecture kids about black consciousness, the intimate horrors of apartheid, the right of a black woman to wear her her hair however the hell she wants without male judgement, and I make Boondocks-references and refer to Jay-Z and rap when teaching poetry.

Part of this horrifies me because I feel like such a stereotype (and not in a good way). I am the round-faced white woman who wears Zulu beads but cannot speak Zulu, but I am also the pseudo-revolutionary who calls for social change, but then goes home to my nice middle-class home and signs petitions on the Internet. Ugh.

The other part that needles me is that I feel that, as a white woman, what can I really know about what it is to be a young black man in a formerly white school? Also, what if I am missing something vital?  Most of what I espouse has been gleaned from a fairly limited reading experience, and, no doubt, from the overwhelmingly euro-centric media I read.  As I will go on to explain in a future blog, one comes to consciousness about the subtleties and intricacies of prejudice in bits and pieces.  As I am explaining about how I understand prejudice and inequality, am I enacting that same prejudice and inequality in some way I cannot yet see?

Despite my doubts and anxieties about all this, I still feel like I need to carry on teaching this stuff because no one else is talking about it. At school, one is supposed to do one’s best to equip young people to go out into the world as perceptive, sympathetic and responsible citizens. I feel like I will not be doing that job if I do not expose them to the casually racist assumptions embedded in their world views that may hinder them from being sympathetic, perceptive or responsible.

I also realise, though, that I do not just feel compelled to talk about it because I feel it is my civic responsibility, but also because I have a particularly personal stake in these issues. I am confronted by problems and anomalies caused by racism, apartheid’s resonances and white privilege more often than most people, and it affects and changes me deeply. Sometimes I talk about it less because my students need to hear it, and more because I need to lighten the weight in my chest.

So I have come to a compromise that I think will be healthier for my ability to engage with a variety of topics as a teacher.  I will keep starting conversations about these issues as the need arises, but I will also set all my thoughts down here on this blog. That way, I will be able to talk about things the students need to hear, but I will also be able to say what I need to say and exorcise the experiences that tend to twist in my gut.

* picture source: http://boondocks.wikia.com/wiki/File:Wiki-background

Standard
Uncategorized

On Walking #1: Menlyn

“These marks, the places where our thoughts and feelings have brushed against the world, are not just for ourselves. We are like tramps, leaving secret signs for those who come after us, whom we expect to speak the same language. Our faith in the music of this double address, in the echo chambers of the head and the street, helps to explain why apartheid deafened us to the call of home”. Ivan Vladislavić, Portrait with Keys.

I do not have a driver’s license. Confessing this fact is something I have been ashamed of to the degree that going to take (another) driver’s test is enough to reduce me to tears from nervousness and pressure. I will continue to try to get my license, but I must also admit that not having a driver’s license has given me experiences and insights that I would never be able to get anywhere else. If apartheid deafened us to the call of home because it stopped people from really following in each other’s footsteps, then post-apartheid does just the same. We don’t make the streets of our cities part of our “call of home” because of fear, and I think we are poorer for it.

Walking in Pretoria is actually very pleasant, as the weather is generally sunny and the gardens and open spaces are green and filled with birdlife, wildflowers, unexpected streams and various singing and dancing Shembe groups on Sundays. Simply walking to Menlyn and back home (it is a very short walk) over the five years I have been around has provided a treasure-trove of anecdotes and stories.

I do most of my shopping at Menlyn, that consumerist maze in which I used to work when I first arrived in Pretoria. I still know people who work there, so I enjoy visiting, and I walk that road often. I am always armed with pepper spray and I remove any conspicuous jewellery, but I have not, to date, had any issues. On the contrary, walkers generally ignore each other or exchange a simple greeting. It is probably more dangerous to be a driver on Atterbury Road, as people generally drive recklessly.

One of my favourite parts of the walk was in the winter (before the recent alterations), as you could smell the sweet, fresh scent of roses on your way in. You can (still) also watch the street hawkers scatter whenever a police car drives by, or exchange greetings with them, or listen to their advice on how not to get run over by cars when jay-walking across the slip-way into the mall.

At another time, I was accosted by two street-urchins whose mime paint was flaking off and who were swiftly closing in on me, devouring seafood from the Ocean Basket (I am not sure whether it was a donation or whether they pooled their earnings to buy it). I clutched my bag closer and tried to ignore them at first, but then I realised they had been arguing and just wanted to know the name of one of the sea creatures they were eating, and had no interest in asking for (or taking) money.

In fact, the part of walking that I dislike the most is the attitude that city functionaries have about pedestrians. As a well-off white South African, you are taught to fear ordinary (mainly black) South Africans, but in my experience, it is the officials who have no connection to the people on the ground (literally in this case) who cause the actual harm to society.

Many changes have occurred in my five years walking the route to make life more difficult for pedestrians who must walk through wealthy areas. Pedestrians adjust, and I feel proud of the way we make things work, but the small humiliations inflicted on people who must walk leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

All the green areas surrounding where I live have been fenced off with imposing, green metal fencing, and one of the most common walking routes (for domestic workers, construction workers, cooks and shop assistants) between the suburb and Atterbury Road was fenced off with a kind of updated barbed-wire fencing with no space for pedestrians to walk through.

As walking around would take forty-five minutes to an hour up a winding, busy road (or require a hike up a grassy hill so steep it was dangerous), pedestrians would cut a hole in the fence, which would then function well as a pathway for a few weeks until some roads department official would come and patch it up again and reinforce it, only for a space further down the fence to be slashed open a few days later. Finally, the powers-that-be made a kind of cattle gate that was so narrow I had to go through holding all my clothes close to me (my wardrobe is filled with flowing skirts and long jerseys that snag easily) while simultaneously making sure my shopping bags made it through. Never mind aeroplane seats being wide enough for large passengers, this spiky pedestrian gate was a contraption that made one feel like an abused farm animal the gates were made for.

Such disrespect for the people who walk on the streets of Pretoria is disheartening, as walkers are the unsung heroes of everyday life. Walking is incredibly good for people’s health and also for the environment. It has certainly increased my confidence and given me a familiarity with this city, “in the echo chambers of [my] head and the street”, that many people who have lived here their whole lives may not have. Even on urban, unnattractive walks like the one along Atterbury Road, there is knowledge to be gained if one will just stretch out one’s hand and take it.

Standard