Wednesday, December 22, 2010

for Judy

Judy Orpen was a giggly, intensely serious anthropologist and player of the Celtic harp who studied with me at Rhodes University. It might sound strange to call someone both very serious and full of inescapable giggles but in Judy's case it was true. We were both in Music I and II together in the tiny Rhodes Music Department, and we would often sit on the bench that circled 'round the Jacaranda Tree while she planned practical jokes or poked me. She was incredibly mischievous and loved playing practical jokes, but would immediately become contrite and truly concerned if she felt there was any chance of anyone being the slightest bit hurt.

I hadn't seen her since graduation this year where we had both been at the same restaurant on the outskirts of Grahamstown for a dinner with the proud parents and extended family members. There was a buffet at a restaurant called Yellow Piano, run by a wild-haired German man with tiny dogs and a huge Zebra as pets. It was a beautiful evening, and the kind that one can enjoy nowhere else except for Grahamstown in all its unexpected beauty and eccentricity.

I am friends with her on facebook, however, so I figured I would hear all her most important news. But then Gwynlyn called me, and told me she had heard Judy had died. She had gone into hospital to have some bunions removed from one of her feet, so it didn't make any sense that there were messages all over her wall from people saying how shocked they were, and that there was a facebook group in memory of her.

As I heard many days later, she had an embolism (a clot that can stop your heart) and had died completely unexpectedly. I wasn't one of her close friends in the end, but I truly am honoured to have come into contact with her.

The best way I can explain why is to tell about one of my last encounters with her. One Saturday morning between 7.30 and 8am, I was on my way to Opera Company rehearsal. I always made my way to the Music Department past the Jac Labs and past the little gap in the wall that leads from Drostdy Hall to the road past the Clock Tower and main admin building. People are not exaggerating when they tell stories of how much drinking goes on at Rhodes, so Saturday early mornings are deathly quiet and deserted. I was thus pleasantly surprised to run into Judy, standing next to the wall with a huge brown box on it. I stopped to have a good catch up chat as I thought she was waiting for someone to pick her and her huge box up.

It eventually transpired that she was just resting as she had carried the box (full to the brim with Maths textbooks) from her residence to the wall, and was only half-way there as she needed to get it to the dictionary building. She was giving extra maths lessons to local, under-privileged matric students a little later that morning (As well as studying Music and Anthropology, Judy had also done Maths at the beginning of her BA). She had requested a lift, but no one arrived, so she was calmly carrying them there.

The two of us then continued together, both holding the box. Even with the two of us carrying it, it was slow, heavy work. We had to keep stopping - amidst a few more giggles and many straining noises - to rest because the box was really heavy. I enjoyed being able to help, but I was inwardly astounded at the strength of will and thoughtfulness that evidently came to Judy thoughtlessly.

Eventually we made it to a few metres from the door and some boys took over and we said our good-byes. I have never forgotten it, though, because it was quite extraordinary.

Judy lived and breathed Christianity. Her faith sustained her and gave her an unwavering sense of the urgency of doing the right thing for people: whether it was guarding against saying harmful things to her friends or doing everything in her power to uplift her community. She considered everything and everyone with such care that I think it was often a heavy burden to bear: striving for goodness in a world of fallibility and incredible cruelty is the heaviest burden anyone can carry.

I send many prayers and thoughts to her family and close friends who feel her loss keenly. I know that everything she did will continue to resonate with the many people with whom she came into contact and - this is inevitable for Judy reached out to everyone - helped. I hope that now she is truly happy in the blissful sense we cannot comprehend.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

a christmas carol

As the Christmas decorations go up in Checkers (in September) and carols start to blare over the loudspeakers in malls countrywide (coming soon to an elevator near you), those things that people always say start to be said, and it doesn't have anything to do with being jolly. People feel harassed and put upon by them demm Christians and their holiday-that-isn't-even-their-holiday-it-was-a-pagan-one-the-Christians-stole-like-a-lot-of-other-things. Plus the glossy advertisements clog up the windows, newspapers and television, complete with cutesy children and holly-bedecked, ahem, "maidens". Public Christmas is a bit of a circus, particularly on the South Coast when thousands of binnelanders descend on our little town to be rude to shop assistants, get drunk and disfuguringly sunburnt on our beaches and - it must be said - give the South Coast a lovely big injection of much-needed cash.

That is what the Christmas season is at the end of it all: a huge money-making racket. I'm sure it was back in the pagan days too and the Church was only too happy to jump on that money spinner. (Incidentally, I am reading Bill Bryson's "At Home" (tagline, "The Perfect Christmas Gift") and he says that the Christmas card was invented by someone back in the day to encourage people to use the penny post. Yes, more money-spinners...) Loathing Christmas and all its consumerist trappings, many people on facebook - that omnipotent meter of public opinion - put "Happy Consumerism" or "Happy Consumption" as their statuses instead of Happy Christmas. They also drive themselves crazy complaining about Christmas Carols that come around every year.

Well I've said it and it's true and isn't Christmas a terrible thing enforced on everybody etc. But the realer truth (isn't there always a real-er truth?) is that I love Christmas. For a start, I really appreciate people close to me indulging in shameless consumerism on my behalf: to speak plainly, someone else buys me a book/books. That is never a bad thing. Secondly (and more importantly) I get to wander around and search for gifts that my friends and family will love or (if I'm feeling very creative) I will make something. I put together CDs of music that I have compiled after many hours of planning as to which people would enjoy which songs and in which order. I also cut up old magazines and make collages on bookmarks with a well-chosen quote or (my most recent project) I draw something. Then I get to search for ribbon and paper and wrap it. That part may not sound very exciting but there are such pretty ways of doing these things they are little ecstasies.

Thirdly, I love singing carols. Every year my old singing teacher Mrs. Spiller (a marvelous lady of eighty years old who has taught (and is still teaching) piano and singing to generations of South Coast musicians and music teachers including myself and up and coming theatre star Roland Perold) gets a group of us together (the same group every year) to sing. They are carols nobody recognises (except for a difficult three-part rendition of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" that we always mess up) and contain harmony parts that at worst consist of the words "Jingle-Jingle" and "giddy-up" and at best are quite haunting and beautiful. We sing at old age homes, churches and Christmas markets and sometimes there are eight of us and sometimes there are close to twenty. Nevertheless, all of us meet together after not having seen each other all year because we all love Mrs. Spiller and we love making music.

Perhaps that is still what some people hate about Christmas: being forced together with people you don't really know (and may not even like) every year just because it is Christmas. That's not something that has ever bothered me. I like seeing the people come back every year: hearing what business they are up to, what singing exams they have done and hearing how their voices have developed. I may not see or chat to them for the rest of the year, but seeing them always brings a smile to my face because of the shared memories and the shared music. I really am interested in how they are doing and what they are doing.

So I like that about Christmas. Personally, I love commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ (a man who preached absolute love and goodness) but I don't think that is what makes it special for the cosmopolitan community at large. It is the festive atmosphere and the bringing together of disparate groups, like the motley assemblage of singers or the various people who come back to staff Ramsgate Stationers every year.

A Hindu man came into Ramsgate Stationers the other day looking for big Christmas decorations to put outside his house. He said he didn't celebrate Christmas in the traditional sense of the word, but he wanted to brighten up his neighbourhood and enjoy the holiday with neighbours and friends. I think I know what he means. Whether you believe in the religious aspect or not, Christmas is the most concentrated block of public holidays and long leaves and that results - where I live - in people returning to work together once again with other people outside their usual paths and routines. It is for that reason I will (joyfully) sing my Christmas carols and feel far from an impending sense of dread at the approach of Christmas.

Friday, December 3, 2010

the blog about nothing

Doing nothing is actually not as fun as it sounds. Although perhaps a lot of people would not agree to begin with that doing nothing is not fun. To them I would say it is actually, sometimes. But definitely not most of the time.

After that intentionally convoluted beginning (I hope it is amusingly and not annoyingly so) I should place my philosophising in context. I managed a bookstore in Pretoria for a few months earlier this year, but after deciding that selling my soul to the store (that is actually a book title btw) was not worth it (particularly not for teenage vampire romance novels that have been flogged to death) I resigned and half-heartedly began to search for another job. It was a peculiar time because I knew I only wanted a job until the end of November as I wanted to be home for Christmas and then resume my full-time student vibes. So I would be looking for a job where someone only wanted me for three months and not over the busiest retail time of the year. Ummm...

So I chilled and had the kind of holiday I haven't had since I was fifteen. I woke up late, read some of the things I've been wanting to read for years but never got the chance to, including non-literature books about why the English colonised Africa and not the other way around. I listened to Talk Radio 702 and impressed people at dinner parties because I knew all sorts of bits of information people would never expect me to know.

I watched Oprah religiously. Watching Oprah also enables one to have powerful information at one's fingertips. I watched her show on the North and South Korea divide (and now look what happened! That Oprah woman is a prophet, I swear), another one about how African Americans are 50% more likely to develop diabetes because of Soul Food and another charming one of her interviewing Dolly Parton. Now previously, my knowledge of Dolly probably would not even extend to remembering that she sang "Islands in the Stream" (a song we danced to in our high school musical production of "Footloose"). Now, I know that she has the most wonderful, self-deprecating humour, and that she is warm and funny and down-to earth. I never saw the Twilight episode of Opera and missed out on the ubiquitous Robert Pattison and Kristin Stewart. Oh. Damn.

I also played pool (badly, it must be said despite Tumi, Zwe and Zam's best efforts to teach me. My Port Shepstone friends will no doubt smile understandingly, remembering all their kind-hearted (practically saintly) efforts to teach me decent tennis or ping-pong) and read all the odd articles in the Mail and Guardian online. I even joined as a commentator because I was so incensed by someone's disgusting racist comment that no one else picked up on. Needless to say, I felt very insignificant because my angry comment was completely passed over.

I gymed too. Zumba, swimming, weight-training, treadmill and toning classes. I felt like a housewife arriving for the 9 am class and then going home to have a shower and then out again to do the shopping. And home again for some reading before Oprah.

I must here give all due credit to Zam who let me drive everywhere in her car to practise my driving skills, and gymed and chilled with me all the time. And let me indulge my passion for frozen yogurt from "Memory Lane" in Hatfield. Anyone who goes to Pretoria should get one. Never mind the Union buildings: go and enjoy the sweet and exquisite coldness.

Well now I'm working again (in a place I enjoy) and have next to no time for any of my nothing days. But although I am missing Zwe and Zam a lot, I am being productive in other ways and feeling more energised and purposeful than I have in months.

And I manage to stay up until all hours writing. So doing nothing is fun. But doing something as well as fitting in all those great nothing activities is funner. Here's to the working holiday!
(and as always, to better grammar).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


The 16 days of activism really got me thinking this year. I mean really thinking. I remember marching for women and children at Rhodes (it was around the time of the Zuma rape trial) and thinking of all those terrible things that happened to women and children out there in the terrible world (and probably to several of my varsity acquaintances that I will never know about, considering the statistics). But this year I am in the working world, and not a working world made up of mainly middle-class university graduates; the working world of high school drop-outs, jacks of all trades, people of high and yet non-book-learning intelligence (is there a name for that? I would love to know because a lot of people have it and I would like to recognise it properly). In this working world, I see women that these days are in honour of.

Some of them are people I see in passing. There is an old, frail Indian lady to whom my heart goes out because she is balding. Women are proud of their hair, whether it is straightened religiously every morning into long, immaculate waves or shorn and artistically and carelessly unbrushed. This lady obviously can't afford a doctor or treatment to help, so she sits quietly by herself in the corner of the bus to and fro from work every day, uncomplaining.

Jody is also on the bus with me and we work in the same mall. She always has a complete supply of clothing for all weathers: a headscarf for when it is windy or rainy for her neat, short hair and a rain jacket and umbrella for when it rains. She is a manager at Checkers and is on her feet all day. There is a problem with her foot that flares up if she stands for too long and her foot swells almost out of her shoe. Last night she was at Checkers from 7.30 am until 8 pm because the national manager was coming to look today and they had to get the store looking perfect. In the end, he never arrived. He will (probably) come on Friday. She said she wanted to be a nurse, but growing up in Mooi River, the nearest coloured school was in Estcourt, so she had to catch a train to school every day at 4am. Her parents couldn't afford schooling past Standard eight, so that was it.

The lady behind me on the queue for the bus this morning (she's slim with fine cheekbones and a warm smile and has a coloured scarf wound gracefully around her head) says she wakes up at 2am every morning to make vetkoek to sell. The lady next to her had asked how she managed to stay so thin, and her answer had been that she has no time to be fat. Often stories about the industrious poor make people feel guilty or even de-motivated. This lady had so much joyful spirit and a shining inner strength that I felt inspired to do more just by looking at her.
After she got on the bus with her sealed, white bucket, the smell of sweet dough infused the air within minutes.

But this is the same bus I've been taking for years, and a constant person in all these trips has been Rachael. Rachael is an older Indian lady with shoulder-length curly hair surrounding a wide and thoughtful face. Her smile is genuine and a gold tooth glints from it. She always sits with her hands folded in her lap over her bag and looking out of the window, thinking. In the middle of our conversation yesterday, she broke off and answered her phone, pressing it to her ear and turning away from me. The engine is extremely loud, particularly when it is chugging up a hill, so I wasn't surprised. When she had finished, she turned to me and told me it was her daughter and I smiled, suddenly remembering what she had told me about her son years ago. He was good at science, and worked at the toll booths to make money whilst he was still at school.

Her voice suddenly became so soft that I could only see her lips moving and I wondered if she was telling me a secret. She told me her daughter had left home without telling her and her husband she was going. They came home and found her room empty and her work uniform laid neatly on the bed.
I glanced at her eyes to see if she was unable to control her voice because she is crying, but her eyes were dry but slightly wider than usual, like she was staring into her own oncoming headlights. She said she and her husband tried calling her daughter, but she didn't pick up her 'phone. They cried together, and then prayed that their daughter was safe.

When her daughter called, she called for the first time as I was sitting across from her. She said she was fine, she had a job and she was in another town, but that she was coming for Christmas. She didn't say where she was. I asked Rachael how old she was, and Rachael told me she is only twenty.

It is a moving and equally painful story, even more so because it raises more questions than it answers about why the girl was so desperate to move, why she felt she couldn't tell her parents and who helped her to move and why.

The last woman I want to write about is one I have never met or seen, but her story makes me realise why the 16 days of activism is so close to World Aids Day. My sister worked at a Boston College as a training advisor and it was a tricky working situation for several reasons that aren't important here. It became even more stressful because one of her colleagues - a young man - died of AIDS two weeks ago. Every now and again, people would still come and ask for him, and two days ago was no different. A young woman entered the office and asked for the man. As her English was almost non-existent, a young Zulu student - someone my sister and I knew at school - explained to her that he had died. The woman sat down in a chair and began to cry. She explained that her sister had had a baby by him and had been trying to call him.

Women are most at risk of contracting HIV and AIDS. As they are often seen as equally mystical and beautiful and interchangeable receptacles of pleasure for the man about town, there are more receptacles of the virus that will then be passed on to any offspring (unless they manage to get tested at a clinic soon enough to save their children). I hope more and more women can feel empowered to ensure their safety and health, and more and more men learn to respect them and their decisions (for the real story on how disrespecting women impacts our world see for absolute brilliance. Better yet, buy the book, "Half the Sky". Some of you may recognise her from an Oprah show on SABC3).

So tonight I do think of all those women and millions in the world like them to who - in my heart of hearts - I dedicate the sixteen days. And to all those affected by HIV and AIDS: may you find peace in your hearts, love from those close to you and understanding from your community.