I am nebulous A fistful of dreams As wispy as air Rising like steam I am the salt On a sea breeze Cascading over rocks With thunderous ease I hover in the sound of crickets at night Linger in the palette of day’s ending light I rise on the roar of a lion newly sated And rest in the soporific stupor Of the recently mated I am distraction, obsession, blandness Purpose, possession, The seeds of madness I am passion and boredom entangled A stream of consciousness chaotically mangled I am the focus that comes from a scream And the hazy contemplation of last night’s dream And laundry and bills and self-esteem I am the tip, the edge, the whole The all, the nothing The gentle unfolds Of tomorrow I am the fuel that keeps Curiosity burning Anxiety curdling Dreams unfurling I am thought Rising unbidden.
In the dappled shadows Beneath the leaves of Mangrove trees that breathe in Sunlight and saltwater I walk And slow my breath And in the stillness Of that moment Against the silver gleam of green Grass shimmering Wet with morning dew I hear the birds sing A hundred different sounds fill the sky Whistles and twitters Warbles and chitters A wondrous symphony swoops and swirls And falls like gentle rain Onto my ears Tuned away from chaotic fears There is a rose That captures my eye A red blossom cupped to the sky The gentle scent, I suppose, Reminds me of the papery skin Of my grandmother On a farm In the middle of long ago With her pantry stocked for months on end And a garden of vegetables to tend And a shelf full of homemade biscuits History is recorded in the past But lived in the present Or in the imagined days of tomorrow But come back now, here to now For the birds still sing And the grass is still green And red roses still turn their heads to the sun And today’s script is yet to be written
If ever there was a time to use the word discombobulated, this is it. It’s been a long and unsettling summer but just as the air clears from the ravaging bush fires and Autumn touches her umber paint brush to the leaves on the trees, we find ourselves, yet again, in a surreal world for which we have no experience.
Life has changed dramatically, but also looks remarkably the same. The sun still shines, the grass is still green, buildings stand and there are people and busses and work to be done and bills to be paid. And yet, we suddenly find ourselves in a world where an invisible foe has thrown our daily rhythms and patterns into complete disarray.
Perhaps most starkly, we are being asked to forego something that is intrinsic to our nature – social contact. Jazz hands have replaced handshakes for now but perhaps we might soon find ourselves confined to onscreen conversations and WhatsApp Wine time. Social distancing is difficult because it is foreign, and as a result uncomfortable. We like gathering in groups – park runs, church services, footy games, the theatre and on and on. So much of our life is built around connecting to others, and so much of our wellbeing comes from being in community with others. To have this disrupted leaves us confused and clearly in a state of panic.
I think a lot of (my) anxiety comes from endlessly anticipating possible outcomes. Will someone in my family get sick, will we run out of toilet paper, will we go into lock down, will the schools close? We have so much access to information, but it’s hard to separate out the facts from the fear and general nonsense – and we tend to trust anecdotes and advice from friends and family more than our leaders. This pandemic situation is inherently uncertain. The lack of control, and perhaps general distrust in the system, creates a sense panic. Panic takes on a life of its own, seemingly unstoppable, as the nation gears up for an anticipated “lock down” (that has yet to be flagged as appropriate). Social contagion and mob behaviour interest me but being in the middle of all those empty shelves is scary.
Lock down? Even that phrase sounds ridiculous. As if we’ve been thrust into a dystopian novel. Just watching Years and Years was unsettling, and this has some of the same feels. Perhaps that is the thing – we’ve only really experienced this type of thing vicariously, on the screen or in history books. It feels familiar, but only at a safe distance – one you can leave behind and head into a coffee shop to recalibrate from.
But of course this is not a dystopia. It is a situation that requires an unprecedented response, one of which we are capable. For once, the enemy is not our fellow humans, but one that we can jointly fight together. We have a strong health care system, largely intelligent leaders and a plan of attack. We are a stoic nation of fair minded people, most of whom will call for calm and kindness, and not resort to violence over toilet paper. The sun will come up tomorrow, and at some point, life will return to some semblance of the ordinary.
I lurch towards anxiety in the daily course of normal life. In an effort to maintain some sanity and keep my mind still, I am practicing being present: being in the moment and interrogating it for joy. I am tending to the garden of my own mind, and trying to clear it of the weeds of fear that could so easily take hold.
Yesterday I bought a plant, admired the beauty of the setting sun and enjoyed sparring with my kids over the dinner table. Today I walked the dog in the silver dewy stillness of morning and listened to the birdsong that continues unabated in the blue sky of today. This crisis will pass but focusing all our energy on hanging in there and just waiting for it to end also feels like a waste of precious time. Life goes on, whether the road is in shadow or the light.
Perhaps this is a lesson for life in general? Although we feel most comfortable moving purposefully forward, meaning is found in the moments we have and the perspective we take within them. Despite the upheaval of our best laid plans, there is still beauty in the world to bask in, avenues for our curiosity and space for reflecting. Perhaps the gift of these torrid times is a reminder to slow down and enjoy what we have, when we have it, rather than always focussing so intently on the future.
When anxiety comes upon me Like a fluttering little bird Wings beating against the cage of my chest Then I breathe I breathe the calming breath of nature’s forever connection From the stars that birth the building blocks of us To the leaves that sway in the breeze I breathe into the space between things The space between the you and the me The space between the me and the trees The space between the womb and the grave And all the things we perceive As separate. And nature breathes with me She ripples in the wind The invisible wind That caresses your skin And the curve of my cheek As we watch the waves rise and recede Standing on the beach made from a thousand yesterdays Bridging the boundary That is but an illusion Of time And ego And perception I breathe into the space of invisible connection I breathe away the illusion of the space between I breathe stillness into the fluttering wings of the shuddering bird Caught in the cavity of my chest. Sharlene Zeederberg, Feb 2020
Cape Town has always held a special place in my heart. It was the place where I first tasted independence, that somewhat scary but ultimately rewarding experience that comes when you have the freedom for self-discovery. As my university town, I grew up, figuratively anyway, in the shadow of Table Mountain. Having not been back for 15 years, I was determined to squeeze it in to our South Africa travel plans somehow, and it was well worth it. Although we only had three days there, we jammed it full of highlights, caught up with friends and family and indulged in both the nightlife and the spectacular natural beauty of the land.
We arrive at dusk. Cape Town is settling into its evening jewels as we make our descent. The omnipresent mountain, with its craggy sides and the flat top that gives it its name, is a darkening backdrop to this illuminated water-side city. In the western sky, the sun has set into the ocean, and the horizon is a smouldering palette of pinks, oranges and greys. It’s beautiful, even from on high.
Like many places in South Africa, Cape Town is a town of stark contrasts. There is natural beauty in abundance, a lively food scene and enough historical attractions to keep even the most ardent student of history happy but there is also poverty and desperation, and the traffic is horrendous. You can skim the surface here – enjoying the bars and beaches, wines and African crafts, and we mostly do. But, you can also scratch below the glittering façade and see what everyday life looks like for its varied population. Our social activist teen pushed us in that direction and by moving out of our comfort zone we gained a richer and more rounded experience of the town.
To start though, we visit the magnificent Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, nestled at the eastern base of the Table Mountain. It is spring and the gardens burst with colour. Pretty streams and old baths, an ancient cycad forest and the tree canopy walkway occupy our time and attention. Various sculptures dot the landscape and the sound of laughing children on school excursions float in the air that feels fresh and full of optimism.
We are drawn, of course, to the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a pivotal attraction point in Cape Town. We sit in the sunshine against the backdrop of Table Mountain, eating lunch and listening to live music – a four-man percussion and rhythm ensemble playing an upbeat tune on xylophones and drums. It feels uniquely African, and joyful. Here we explore the wonderful arts and crafts markets and shop up big to bring a piece of Africa home with us.
The Zeitz MOCAA (Museum of Contemporary Arts – Africa) grabs our attention and inspires more than a little awe. The building itself is spectacular – a mesmorising architectural feat that transformed soaring old concrete grain towers into a space that is full of light and sound. Looking back, I have a sense of floating in the space. The main exhibition is a showcase of William Kentridge, a prolific artist whose underlying political commentary is unsettling. (He did much of it during the apartheid years, calling out the absurdity and cruelty of this horrific political regime).
In stark contrast to all of this, we visit Imizamo Yethu – an “informal settlement” directly across the road from one of the richest suburbs in Cape Town – Hout Bay. Here, crammed into a small space on the side of the mountain, we pick our way through narrow muddy pathways that wind through what are primarily ramshackle tin shacks crowded together, like birds huddling in the wind. Our guide explains that people create their houses from whatever bits of materials are to hand, presumably putting them up wherever there is an available shard of space. Residents share inadequate sanitation supplies, and cold water taps provide hydration and washing opportunities. We are welcomed into homes that shine with care and hope despite the dire circumstances these poor people have been born into. The view from the township is one of space and luscious green grass, for across the road the horses of the rich stand in wide spacious paddocks, complete with stables that offer more comfort and luxury most people here have. No wonder people get cross.
My favourite part of this tour is a visit to the pre-school. The kids are exuberant and lively, with smiles that glow from lips to eyes. They demand our hands to play jumping games, and spontaneously deliver hugs and high fives. The number of children crammed into this small space would give Australian regulators nightmares, but there is no doubting the passion of the teachers and staff as they care for their high-spirited charges.
As in all communities, even one that is demonstrably poor, there are people who are doing better than others. The pub is thriving and the local internet café boasts a steady stream of business. Dogs roam the street and neighbours call out to each other. Some people are lucky enough to have traditional houses – made of bricks, with proper front doors (apparently the work of an Irish charity). The local church provides succour, handing out care packages from charities and showcasing some of the local arts and crafts. I spend big as a way to give back. At the end of the tour our guide thanks us for our bravery… they are words that floor me.
Cape Town itself, the city centre, is vibrant and full of life. Business is booming and the streets burst with people going about their business. But, lulled perhaps into a false sense of security, we nearly get mugged while standing outside the main train station looking somewhat confused and cashed up. Years ago, a taxi driver taking us to a similar place in Rosario, Argentina gave us a stern warning. “Cuidado, cuidado” he said, making a strange wavy movement with his hand. Watch out. Beware. Crooks about. So, it’s a lesson we know from old – in places with rampant income inequality, you need a bit of cuidado about you, especially at train stations. The intervening years of suburban complacency have clearly dulled our travel-senses. I ward off the “aggressive beggars” with the large painting I had purchased at Green Market Square earlier in the day.
The night life in Cape Town doesn’t disappoint. We bar and restaurant hop through the heart of the city which teams with life. The Gin Bar – a light and airy space with a wide selection of gin-cocktails; The Commissary – an intimate, low lit restaurant above a graffiti covered stair well serving excellent food and great wine; The Shortmarket Club – somewhat more sophisticated and high end for dessert. Through it all we felt safe and sated.
To round off the trip, we hike up Table Mountain. Yes, you can take the cable car or walk up easier pathways that wind step-like around the back of the mountain. But in the company of a local, who may well be part dassie, we opt for a frontal assault. Despite dire warnings of steep rock climbing and difficult navigation, our friend shrugs. He runs up here, apparently, and perhaps he is telling the truth because on our 4-hour climb we pass people doing exactly that. Still, there were some hairy moments for a little soul like me who is a tiny bit afraid of heights. Chains had to be used and there was some tentative shuffling across a narrow ledge to reach the end. But we made it and were rewarded with a spectacular view of the city so ripe with hope – if only more could be done to provide willing people with economic opportunity.
On the way home we stop at UCT – our old uni campus – and sit on Jamie stairs and reminisce about those long ago days of heady freedom, with just a few assignments, a part time job and exams to cope with. What a privilege it was to have attended this beautiful campus and what a gift it was to make life-long friends who still travel with us along this journey we call life.
It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat. Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.
We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are. Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem.
Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high. In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.
Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.
I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities. It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.
Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.
There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action. When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.
I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.
Out of the settling dusk
It glides into the station
A metal snake with screeching breath
Disgorging a tumble of people from its warm belly
I step inside the beast
Into air thick with a day’s activity,
Rigid ribs of seats hold weary bodies
All wrapped up in virtual worlds
A fetid tinge of alcohol, the rustle of a paper bag
Waft through the carriage
Beyond the reflections of heads bent on phones
Flickering images of night rush by
Darkness punctuated by red full stops
that leak from their edges
And bright rectangles of light,
Lined up like platoons,
In the clatter of a faster train
On its own straight and narrow gauge
The rhythmic clicking of machinery in action
The beating heart of progress
Slows to a reassuring hum
And with a screech and the slight
bump of inertia
we arrive at a brightly lit station
And I am myself disgorged
into the waiting arms of home.