Friday, October 29, 2010

early morning

I had stumbled, bleary-eyed off the bus the other day as I usually do and trundled up to the mall where I work, putting the little earphones of my MP3 player in my ears. I sat inside on a bench (it was cloudy and a bit miserable outside the huge wall of glass that is the entrance) and lost myself in the tales of Odysseus for a while. Homer's writing is really quite vivid. I always imagined somehow it would be dry and difficult, but I have found it interesting in too many ways to count.

I learnt about epics backwards. In high school drama classes, I learned about Brecht's "epic theatre" of the twentieth century, in which the whole story is told beforehand so that suspense can be no distraction from the importance of the content of the story, the action all happens in episodes and repetitive phrases were used frequently throughout. The Odyssey - the original epic - has all these aspects. The events described in the epic are all told by characters to assemblies of other characters in the style of a kind of oral poetry. The repeated phrases in the Odyssey become as beautiful as a litany. "Dawn came, fresh and rosy-fingered" is probably my favourite. Homer - when he rather than one of his characters is telling the story - also takes great care to describe the small and personal actions of his characters. The care with which Telemachus' (Odysseus' son) nurse extinguishes the lamp in his room and does other perfectly ordinary yet perfectly wonderful actions when he goes to sleep at night is simply and lovingly described. Homer actually becomes so attached to one of his characters (a loyal and humble swineherd) that he addresses him directly throughout the story.

I glanced up from my book and because I had forgotten my cellphone at home (it was that kind of morning) I wanted to wait outside to see if anyone else was at work. I put the book back in my bag carefully, but I left the music playing in my ears. I walked out towards the parking lot through the glass doors, and when I walked out I walked out into something sublime.

A vast expanse of concrete was splashed with shining remains of the the rain, the water reflecting the blue panorama and gargantuan white-grey clouds above. The wind gushed around me, making everything fresh and it seemed like you could do anything or be anything in that space. It reminded me of all the times I walked across parking lots with dear friends, exploring worlds with our words and escaping the homes and shops and other people. Seeing that wide, exciting expanse was like a promise that although those other times may be past, new explorations await. I can experience my own odyssey, and live to tell the tales carefully and lovingly.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Grandmother Adventures: Volume Two

One of Granny Pam's greatest storytelling talents is that she manages to talk about all sorts of details about life in an earlier era that everyone else has conveniently blotted out of their minds. Everyone knows that back in the bad-old-days, all people who were not white were treated appallingly, women had far less opportunities and being homosexual was even more difficult than it is now. The minority group that very few people have ever acknowledged are those born mentally handicapped. They cannot tell others how badly they were treated in the past because they have no voice in a society obsessed with a high "intelligence quotient".

Granny Pam's story starts with a woman who was a friend of hers. Tragically, her friend's husband suddenly became ill and was rushed to hospital. It was discovered he had terminal cancer, and only a few more months to live, which he had to spend in the hospital owing to the nature of his illness. His wife had a violent dislike for people who are ill or infirm, and as a result, Granny Pam - on her visits to the hospital - had to placate him and tell him that his wife wasn't coming to visit.

He passed away, and the lady re-married. She fell pregnant again and gave birth to a beautiful little girl. Unfortunately for this little girl, she was born with a heart condition, a cleft palate and downs syndrome. Granny Pam's friend left the hospital without her baby, effectively disowning her. The lady's mother had the same distaste for "abnormal" people and would not have anything to do with the child. The lady's husband went to see Granny Pam, and begged her - the neighbourhood mother with her thriving nursery school - to look after their baby, as his wife would hardly acknowledge her existence.

Granny Pam knew nothing about caring for children with special needs, but took the baby back to her home with some helpful hints from the nurse. The baby's cleft palate meant she could not drink properly, and had to be fed with an eye-dropper. Her heart condition was such that she could be in trouble at any time and need to be rushed to hospital. The sign Granny Pam had to look for was the baby's hands turning blue. Granny Pam explains how she would wake up anxiously at all hours of the night and stealthily shine a torch toward the baby's hands to make sure her fingers were still pink.

The mother relented after Granny Pam had been nurturing the child for about six months and took her back again. She was always sickly, however, and some might say - considering the attitude of her mother and other people of the day - luckily, the little girl passed away when she was just two years old.

Much is made of standing up for those members of our population who cannot speak for themselves. There are animal rights groups, groups for abused women and children ("normal" children, of course) and groups for many other peoples who may be victimised. I wonder, though, how many people work for the good of those who society likes to stuff away in corners and slide their eyes past, learning not to see.

Luckily there are some people whose very nature it is not to be blinded and not to forget.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

beside the seaside

The one thing I will always have with me from my Durban Girls' College days are those songs Mrs. Perrigo (I never even realised how wacky her name is: it suits her perfectly) taught us that must have been written in the 1940s. I found myself singing "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag" whilst washing dishes the other day and gave a wry smile at the line"while there's a lucifer to light your fag". Language usage changes endlessly. There's also "There's a long way to Tipperary" and - of course "Oh I do like to be beside the seaside". College being what it is (or perhaps was? I'm a bit behind) the version we sang was a little different as the line"There are lots of boys besides, I should like to be beside" to "There are lots of games to play, every day's a lovely day". But that's another story...The point (in my piece from the other side of the boerewors curtain) is that I am beside the seaside, in Southport on the KwaZulu Natal South Coast to be exact, and - in my best English - I do am liking it. A lot.

KZN is so wonderfully green, or I should say greens, because there is not just one shade. The lush grass is a green so bright it is almost luminous, and then the deep and shady greens of the trees and over-hanging vines contrast with the grass and yet more greens that I can't put words to. It is even more beautiful in the pale five am sunlight with a fresh and gentle breeze enlivening everything.

There are always breezes and winds and chuckles in the air. There is sometimes the sharp, salty smell from the sea where I can almost feel the granules in my nostrils, or the sweet, ambrosial smell of the plants after the rain or just the intoxicating whiffs of Jasmine that float around at this time of year. I'm sure it is a large part of why people get so attached to the land here: there is always so much movement and life you feel like everything around you is communicating and that it has caught you up with it too.

And when I got back to the shop (Ramsgate Stationers: so much of a South Coast Institution that it was in Lonely Planet guides for years) that I have been working in - on and off - for almost seven years, it almost felt like I was at another home. We're packing up and moving shop (they have been in the same one for 26 years) and so everyone is a little frazzled, but there is always laughter and joking and caring and understanding (and the odd flared temper thrown in for spice). I feel like I am being thawed after a freezing spell in a hostile retail environment in Pretoria. I feel as though a weight has been lifted off my shoulders.

I can't wait 'til Saturday when I can dig my toes into the sand and enjoy the sun.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Crossing back through the Boerewors Curtain

So we were sitting in the "Stone Lion" the other night (a rasta-themed pub/restaurant in Hatfield (which, for the uninformed, is the student part of Pta)) and talking to a man in his twenties (slightly pissed) who was telling us about how he sleeps with his boa (you can't call them pythons in SA, apparently) and that he woke up one morning feeling like he had asthma because he couldn't breathe, only to discover that the boa was constricting him. Whether this story was true or not, I don't know (it's a-helluva-story either way) but when he called crossing over from Joburg to Pretoria crossing the "Boerewors Curtain", he was telling no lie.

I have been living in Pretoria since March of this year and now that I am leaving one of our capital cities on Sunday, I feel like I need to look back and reminisce. Pretoria has the Union Buildings, the National Zoo, roses growing on the side of the road, more Jacaranda trees than it is possible to count and more multi-lingual people than you have ever met before. The least number of languages people speak are two (English and Afrikaans) but I have met locals who speak ten of our eleven official languages. I felt very green when they chastised me about the fact I can only speak English. The World Cup that I experienced was definitely the highlight because everyone (and because there are people of every tribe and colour in creed in Pretoria, that really is everyone) bonded together: the vuvuzelas started in the streets and in the malls at 8 am and only stopped in the afternoon. Every Friday, the malls were seas of yellow.

And there are a LOT of malls in Pretoria. Driving down one road, one can come across six malls: some of them repeating the same shops (Mr. Price pops up in almost every one, as does Clicks). People flock to malls on weekends and they spend money on stuff for recreation like other people go rock-climbing or bowling. Except Pretoria people aren't over-fed mall rats, they are also incredibly fit. There are Virgin Active Gyms in almost every suburb and they are packed with people exercising with their personal trainers, swimming, walking, weight training and doing classes in droves.

Virgin Active (though not specific to Pretoria) has been one of the best things I've discovered since living in Pretoria. Gym has always been a happy place for me, but these have high ceilings, more treadmills than I have ever seen before, a swimming pool and smiling, helpful staff. I remember showering there before work and I had forgotten my shampoo. Lo and behold if there wasn't a big shampoo bottle available in the showers.

The main reason why crossing over to Pretoria is crossing the Boerewors Curtain is - of course - the widespread use of Afrikaans and the many Afrikaners who live here. I am always addressed in Afrikaans when a stranger or shop assistant asks me something, and organisations that have to produce English manuals for their staff use the most atrocious English to do so: "The Main Ingredience for Successful Selling" was the one I got. At Tuks University, Afrikaans historical figures who are hardly mentioned in the public sphere anymore are used for advertising, as the Student election posters using Paul Kruger show.
I suppose things I have loved about Pretoria are things common to any big city: an arthouse cinema, a theatre, a proper gym, being able to watch a movie in 3D and big book stores with books you didn't think it possible to find. I have also been lucky enough to know (and catch up with) some really good people in Joburg and Pretoria (you know who you are), and thinking back on my stay now that I am at the end, that part has been the best. I keep thinking of that saying about churches: that what makes a church great is not the building, but the people who make up the congregation. I think this holds true for cities as well. Pretoria is great because of her people. Thank-you to all my those who made my stay in this concrete jungle wonderful. See you from the other side of the curtain...

Friday, October 8, 2010

the (wo)man in the mirror

I have (and have always had) a slightly warped relationship with mirrors. I was about nine when I realised that certain mirrors in the house were more flattering than others. The one in my room, for example, always makes me look a little thinner than I really am. The one in my father's room (mounted on a huge chest of drawers) is more accurate, perhaps because of the good light streaming in through the windows. When I went to Rhodes I graduated to a kind of mirror-university as well. At Hobson House, there are several flights of stairs, and each wall facing the stairs has a full length mirror. There was another one just down the hall from my bedroom on my way to the bathroom. I must have looked at myself in the mirror twelve times just going to breakfast and back. Perhaps the most famous mirrors are those ones in clothing store change-rooms. You can really see if-your-butt-looks-big-in-this in the Woolworths three-mirror sets, and at the less pseudo-highbrow store, Legit. The changing room mirrors in Mr. Price are by far the worst. It's almost impossible not to feel huge in those slightly neglected cubicles with the spare hangers on the floor and the harsh light hanging above the single mirror that shows up every wobble. Countless articles have been written in Women's magazines about the terrible way our bodies look in changing room mirrors, so I'm not going to whine on about that for a while and then sum it all up in a cute conclusion about how my boyfriend thinks I look beautiful anyway or how I woman-bonded with someone else in the queue who felt exactly the same way.

It's not even really about the mirrors, or the woman in the mirror. It's about (Oprah-revelation moment) me looking at myself in the mirror, and what I see. I am horrified - for example - when I look at my matric photographs. In my head, I was always a little larger than most, but never the little round person I see when I look back. I never saw the round person in the mirror.

At University, I was amazed at how much weight I was losing (finally eating properly and exercising enough) that I'm sure my morning routine (again in front of my mirror, trying on clothes, seeing how thin I looked) became almost narcissistic. My mother lost her temper with me because I kept looking at myself in the mirror to check that I was still thin. I denied it at the time, but she was right, I was terrified of putting all that weight back on and ridiculous as it sounds, I had to keep checking that I hadn't.

This is where writing this blog gets a little embarrassing. I get embarrassed watching all those people on television and reading about them in the magazines: how they were huge but just couldn't stop themselves from eating (tears inevitably leak out of the corners of their eyes as they tell the story) and a fair amount of the population who have never had the misfortune to be overweight look on in complete incomprehension. Then the large person comes on the television show or comes out in the article looking marvelously skinny and happy and everyone claps approvingly. Then a few years later (like me) they put on weight again, despite having lived a healthy lifestyle for years.

So how did I become this embarrassing person? When did I take on this debilitating and trivial (even more humiliating because it is such a seemingly trivial thing to fix) eating disorder? I shouldn't even have to write about this. I'm 23 years old. Surely there are more important things in life I should be focusing on instead of my diet and exercise: something I sorted out years ago. I am intelligent, highly educated and I have a healthy body that responds well to exercise. I am not and have never been prone to asthma or joint problems or sports injuries. I am even well co-ordinated. So what is my problem?

Firstly, I have always seen not being afraid to splurge on dessert or pizza as a sign of feminist forwardness. I shouldn't have to restrict my diet like a girl who wishes to be something close to a brainless barbie doll. Talking about food and what one should and shouldn't eat isn't as important as what is happening in my mind and in my soul.

Of course, what happens to my body is actually what feeds my mind and my soul. If I feed it with coca-cola and cigarettes, I won't be able to concentrate very well because of all the sugar spikes. I may even become moody (not a good look for the soul) or unpleasant.

And anyway, who said that the mind and the soul floated above my body and were separated from it? Our bodies are our mind and soul. When we feel nervous or extremely sad, the pit of the stomach starts to hurt. When I had the idea for my thesis topic, my whole body tingled with joy. It stands to reason that talking about food and nourishing my body is important.

Then there's the ugly factor. When I was at my thinnest, I remember sitting at a lunch table and hearing a then-friend say that she would never be friends with anyone who was ugly. I felt sick and horrified at this person. Firstly, no-one is "ugly" unless they are a horrible, twisted person who makes life a misery. "Beauty" really is relative. Advertising and media saturation makes female "beauty" something standard (stick-thin figure with big boobs, Bridget Bardot lips and big, long hair). Actually, different cultural mores make many different bodies and appearances beautiful. I probably also felt so sick because it nudged at one of the reasons I became thin: overweight people are often thought of as "ugly". At school I remember being told I looked like a dancing couch. Ouch.

It is also (apparently) everyone else's business when a person puts on or loses weight. When people started commenting to my face about how much weight I'd lost and how good I looked (they didn't say anything when I put some back on, though I had heard those same people talking about the weight gain of others so I knew they were talking about me) I felt like they wanted to own some part of my body.

It was around this point I realised I had been sucked into the "beauty" hamster-wheel myself. I now had a friend who wouldn't be friends with anyone like me. I say "like me" despite the fact that I was close to 52 kg and no-one would call me "ugly" because I was fat. It was more because - to misquote George Orwell in his novel "Coming Up for Air" - inside my thin (woman) was a fat (woman) trying to get out. So being thin wasn't a guard against people who were shallow, and I still sometimes felt sixteen kgs heavier. What I did feel was a lot more energetic, cheerful and able to take on the world.

So it is not being overweight that I object to. It is the wilful damage of our bodies that prevent us from experiencing the vitality we have when we are a healthy weight. Knowing that, how did I come to damage my body (again)? I've realised that when certain people work extremely hard they have little time for fun, so food becomes the fun. A chocolate (for example) is super-sweet, in a brightly coloured wrapper and one has to go out to a brightly-coloured shop to get the super-sweet chocolate.

Also, I have to confess and admit that certain foods can become an addiction. I have heard it said that sweets set off some of the same happy chemicals in your brain that cocaine does. Now some people can sample a drug every now and again and not get hooked, whereas others start to spiral into addiction from the very beginning. This kind of characteristic is usually genetic. Now, both my grandfathers were such serious alcoholics that neither of them saw 65, almost everyone in my family is either a smoker or ex-smoker and my uncle is addicted to gambling as well as cigarettes. Clearly, I am susceptible and my earlier blog about my not being addicted to anything was incorrect. Refined sugar is my drug of choice.

Being overweight (and a sugar-addict) can have nearly as many health risks as being a life-long smoker. I could get diabetes, have a heart-attack, a stroke or suffer from countless other diseases. It also hinders my daily life in little, irritating ways.

The moral of the story? People's relationships with their bodies (and the bodies of others) are frequently misinformed and often more complicated than one can explain. I realise that this blog is confusedly written. It's because there are more factors and they are more intricately related than it is is possible to explain in one blog. It's not about the weight, it's about our loving our bodies and wanting what is best for ourselves, but it is about the weight: we cannot love ourselves and masochistically overfeed ourselves.

So the tricky thing is to get off the "beauty" wheel and truly love and cherish my body and encourage others to go forth and do likewise. And I really do need to get over my sugar addiction. Next time you see me, ask me how long I've been clean.