Missing the notes

August 15, 2018 § 1 Comment

So it’s come to this. After an hour of inner cajoling and persuading and pleading, I sat myself down at the piano for a second or two this evening. Not long enough to play, mind you. Just long enough to feel the lump form in my throat, to close the lid again and leave.

I’m no concert pianist. I gave up in high school despite my mother’s warnings, and of course she was right – I do regret it. But the piano, preferably accompanied by singing, has always been my happiest place, regardless of the love-hate relationship I have with practising, and those damned key signatures that require remembering too many black notes.

At school I heard time and time again how very musical I was. It came easily to me – I was singing whole hymns perfectly in tune long before I could pronounce their words. I was permanently in trouble for not practising, but I passed my exams regardless. I could tonk out a simple version of  almost anything by ear, and often did. And playing music always energised me – whether I was belting out a show tune for a drama production, or trying to figure out how to play Chariots of Fire or Ballad for Adeline.

At university, I’d sneak onto the theatre stage to play the grand piano in the dark – just me, and the silence, and five hundred empty chairs. I sang away my homesickness, the overwhelm of being 17 and completely out of my depth. I sang to forget the still raw wound of my mother’s untimely death. I sang to remember – her, at the piano at home; her voice, so like my own.

Later, when I was a mother myself, I got a substantial tax rebate, and I could finally afford to buy a secondhand piano. My house finally felt like a home. I took lessons again and retook my Grade 5 exams. I returned to songwriting on that piano. I found like I was finally rediscovering my own voice.

Until I lost it. Not physically – it still works. But I’ve lost my nerve, and I don’t know why. 

I want more than anything to be playing, to be singing, but as soon as I sit on the stool, or open my throat to sing, the tears well up, my throat closes, and my joy flees. It’s like it’s all locked away, deep inside me. All that musicjust waiting to be released, but I can’t remember where I’ve put the key.

So here I sit, in a little bubble of sadness for the umpteenth time, and the worst part is, I can’t go to the piano for solace. All I can do is hope that either this is a phase, and it will pass, or that I will find myself a whisperer: someone who understands and can slowly coax me into letting it all out again – without fear, without tears, and sooner rather than later.


Toxic help

August 1, 2018 § 4 Comments

A couple of years back, through gulping sobs, I got my children to call my friend, Alison. The reason? I’d been crying non-stop for several hours and I couldn’t stop. I knew I needed help, but I didn’t know what help I needed.

This, actually, was huge progress. I’ve never been good at asking for or receiving help. So the simple act of asking my children to call a friend for me was massive. And I sensed that Alison was the right friend to call.

She was. For starters, she lay next to me on my bed in the darkness and laughed at me – lovingly. And then patiently – and with humour – she teased the problem out of me and coached me into finding solutions.

This was good help – but not all help is good. Sometimes it can be quite detrimental.

I’ve learnt a lot about help in the past few years – partly by necessity, and partly thanks to a brilliant life coach who taught me how to receive help. Many of us struggle with asking for help. Or we push it away when it’s offered, because the cult of self-sufficiency tells us we are weak and needy. Perhaps our pride has fooled us into believing we must keep up appearances at all costs – even if that cost is our sanity.

These days, however, having learnt (mostly) to ask for help, I’m more interested in the way we offer help. In Anne Lamott’s wonderful TED talk, she says, “Our help is usually not very helpful. Our help is often toxic. And help is the sunny side of control. Stop helping so much. Don’t get your help and goodness all over everybody.”

That gave me pause the first time I heard it. Help is the sunny side of control.

The trouble, you see, is not so much that we want to help others. It’s the way we do it. Partly, it’s because people don’t know how to ask for help, how to express what they need, but there’s also often a large measure of arrogance – and control – in the mix.

So many of us (myself included) often have a kind of well-meaning saviour complex: we not only see that people need help – we also think we know how to fix it. So we swoop in, uninvited, solve problems A, B, and C to our satisfaction, and then shake our heads in bewilderment when the recipients of the ‘help’ aren’t grateful, or don’t respond in what we feel is the appropriate manner.

This kind of help is the toxic kind – and I’ll be perfectly honest here – I’ve had to unlearn it. It’s disempowering. Its controlling. It’s patronising. It can be invasive. It assumes people are not capable of solving their own problems. And it also assumes that they have the same priorities you have.

But I get it – you want to help. What now?

The key is to offer your help in a respectful way; with consent. Even in an extreme situation, tread lightly. If someone is lying unconscious in a ditch, for example, consent for your help might not be possible or practical, of course. But bundling them into your car and carting them off to the hospital won’t be helpful either, if they happen to have a broken spine.

I did a first aid course a couple of years ago, and one of the things we learnt there was to ask conscious patients for permission to administer first aid. Not everyone wants your help as a first aider  – some people prefer to wait for the ambulance. This may also apply in situations that don’t require bandages and CPR.

When faced with someone in a dire situation – death, divorce, abuse,mental or physical illness – by all means offer help and support, but follow some basic guidelines:

1. Don’t offer advice if you’re not explicitly asked for it.

2. Ask a) whether they need help and b) if they do, what help they require, and then do only that.

3. If you do offer unsolicited help or advice, don’t expect gratitude. You probably won’t get it, nor do you deserved it, probably.

Offer support. Listen. Sympathise. Knowing there is a resource is usually enough for most people – it is their decision whether or not to make use of it or not.

The list

July 26, 2018 § 2 Comments

One of my university friends was fond of saying he wanted a ‘wasp-waisted’ woman as a wife one day. Or as he put it, in Afrikaans, ‘n perdebylyfie. And that was just one of the attributes she had to have.

So many single people I know seem to walk around with an imaginary list of qualities their perfect lover must have: tall, dark, curly hair, sense of humour. My list, mostly, consists of ‘sense of humour’ and ‘looks like a poet’. (I know – I don’t know what that means either.) Many people have that list and some people’s lists are very long indeed.

But as I stand in queues or walk around shopping centres and watch people, it strikes me that those lists do people so much more harm than good. There’s a perception that out there, somewhere, the perfect person awaits. It’s just a matter of being in the right place, at the right time, at which point – I presume – magically, you will connect with them and the angels will sing, and you’ll live happily ever after.

I blame Hollywood, frankly. And it’s not that I’m cynical about love – quite the opposite. I am the epitome of a hopeless romantic beneath my pragmatic exterior. It’s just that when I really watch the people I see, what I see is imperfect people, in imperfect relationships, muddling along quite happily.

Because while you’re sizing up everyone you meet against that list, and finding them wanting, there’s a good chance other people are doing the same to you. And I find it quite odd – arrogant even – that we have the temerity to draw up a list of often quite impossible criteria that other people have to comply with to be with us. Because we’re all so perfect?

Of course we aren’t. And of course I’m not suggesting that people should settle for someone they don’t connect with. But I also know that people are seldom what they seem on the outside, or at first glance. And I know that really, nobody is perfect – even the people in those old cigarette ads. We all get tired, ratty and, eventually, wrinkled. We all wake up with morning breath and sleep in our eyes. We’re all imperfectly, perfectly human.

And that’s the part I’m interested in – the human part. Who is the human behind the hair, the eyes, the height, the humour? What makes them get up in the morning? Are they kind to waiters and cashiers? Do they read? Do they make good conversation? What wounds have they suffered?

People are interesting. They have stories to tell. But you have to put down the list for a while, listen to their stories, and give up the search for perfection. Imperfection is so much more interesting.

Beauty fades; perfection wanes. There has to be that frisson, of course, that little spark that you have with some and not with others. But beyond that, you’d better hold my interest.


June 9, 2018 Comments Off on Ringside

Kallie Knoetze. Gerrie Coetzee. The men I’m most likely to recall if you ask me to name a boxer. Knoetze turned pro in 1976 – the same year television arrived in South Africa – and I remember watching several fights on SABC between Knoetze and Coetzee. My parents had their comfy chairs, and I sat  sitting cross-legged on the family room floor, white-knuckled with excitement, after my father finally relented and allowed “one of those things” in the house.

Somewhere along the way I lost my appetite for watching grown men slug it out in the ring, but 40-odd years later, I find myself driving to the Portuguese Hall in Turffontein, Johannesburg – on purpose – to watch two women slug it out in the ring. Eight male bouts, each  four rounds long, followed by a single female bout of six rounds.

It’s not quite what I expected. Too many Hollywood movies have created an image of an illuminated ring in the midst of a darkened room. This hall is bright and airy, and crisply cold, with sky-blue, sky-high, concrete stands half full.

A man in a sharp black suit and shoes that gleam in concert with his shaven head announces the boxers, the victors, the sponsors. His patter is rehearsed, and he trundles out well-worn phrases that become remarkable for their consistency as the afternoon goes on. Girls in skimpy shorts hold up the round numbers; the bell marking the beginning and end of each round is loud enough to wake the dead several blocks away.

My companion remarks that it’s amazing to see so many actual six-packs – to know that it is possible and attainable. I am amazed by how many spectators seem to be carrying around entire beer barrels under their shirts. Aside from the young girls in inch-deep make-up, who’ve been poured into their jeans, a large proportion of the crowd seems to be pulled from the same style pool as bikers.

I am struck by the theatre of it all – the ring and the rhetoric, the lights and the music, and the costumes. Oh, the costumes. There is satin – so much satin; so many ill-fitting jackets and gowns, the hoods pulled low to obscure the gladiators’ faces. Some boxers simply walk to the ring and climb into their corners. Others have an entire routine, executing a kind of dance around the entire outer circumference before climbing the stairs, and doing another lap of the inside.

You can almost smell the testosterone in the air as a series of young men square up against each other. I find I can tell by the end of one round who’s going to win. I can see a subtle shift in the predicted victor when he, too, realises he has the upper hand. 

I am grateful to be far enough from the ring not to hear fists slamming into flesh, not to be sprayed by blood, sweat and tears. I am especially grateful when Mike Schutte Junior takes such a pounding from Danny Ngokwey, that he vomits copiously in one corner while VIP ticket holders scatter.

And then it is the headline bout, Kholosa Ndobayini against Hedda Wolmarans, and the reason I am here – to join a band of supporters for Wolmarans, known in boxing circles as “The Shredder”. I’m not relishing the idea of watching someone I know being punched, but I find there’s no need to be concerned. She goes about her business with a clinical precision, patient, watchful, calm, persistent.

After six rounds, she is victorious, and I – the renowned loather of sport – am on my feet, yelling and air punching with the best of them.

Speak up, speak out

May 21, 2018 § 1 Comment

I understand the movements of peace, love and tolerance for all, but I’m starting to think we’ve fallen so in love with tolerance, that we’ve forgotten that there are some things we shouldn’t be tolerating at all.

We are witnesses and participants of casual racism more often than we care to admit, but we laugh at the jokes anyway. We say nothing when a husband or wife constantly puts the other down. We’ll discuss them in the car on the way home, of course, but we won’t say anything: we don’t want to get involved.

We watch estranged parents using their children as pawns in a battle that isn’t theirs, and we are silent. We witness corruption or tax fraud – sometimes at work, sometimes because our friends brag about it, about how clever they’ve been. Perhaps we even admire them a little.

“It’s not my business,: we repeat, like a little mantra. “I will mind my own business and leave them to mind theirs.”

But it is our business. Because the consequences of those behaviours don’t sit in neat, contained silos. They spread outwards through society, like the clammy fingers of a misty morning, touching everyone they encounter. People are damaged – children are damaged. Government and business coffers are robbed. And the damage quotient goes up and up and up.

And then we pontificate at dinner tables and barbeques about the state of the world: how it’s all going one way. How the country is going to the dogs.

But it’s we who’ve gone to the dogs. We’ve relegated a sense of broader right and wrong to an individual what’s right and wrong for me. And that only works up to a point. Some things are just wrong. Abuse, injustice, murder, rape and robbery for starters – many of which go on all around us in various guises, and are even perpetrated by our friends.

So be tolerant. Be inclusive. Celebrate the magnificent diversity of the human experience and recognise that we all navigate the world differently and have different viewpoints. But also have the guts to speak in those situations that make you uncomfortable – the racist jokes, the constant belittling of a friend by their spouse, the overfeeding of an already obese child.

Because no man, woman or child is an island. Damaged people make for damaged societies – and we have a lot of repairwork to do. Speak up. Speak out.


The meeting

March 7, 2018 § 1 Comment

Early this past Saturday morning, on a familiar road, I happened upon four young men. They were congegrated on a corner, leaning on an electrical supply box, seemingly oblivious to the crisp, autumnal air.

On top of the box was an assortment of drinks: a bottle of water, a take-away coffee, a carton of amasi. They chatted and laughed. One playfully punched another’s arm, as young men often will.

I drew closer and stopped at the lights, and noticed that one of them held a handwritten sign, and a paper cup loosely in his left hand. I knew his face; I’d seen him often at this very corner. Except now, the shuffling gait, the stooped spine, the pleading eyes were gone. Now he seemed tall and proud and vital.

This morning he was simply a young man, taking a few minutes before the work day began to chat to his colleagues in the sunshine. To talk about the news, perhaps, or share a joke.

Soon they would scatter to their respective corners, their sparse belongings obscured in the recesses of high walls, or the crook of a tree. Soon all of them would don their professional personas, and work the cars at the lights: shuffling, stooping, pleading: all in the name of making a few bucks for food, shelter, clothes.

And you can think of them as con artists, sure: there’s a sense in which they perform to extract money from passing trade. I couldn’t help but think, though, that many of the ‘respectable’ jobs we’re so proud of – the ones that distinguish us only by the buying power they give us – really aren’t that different when you really boil things down.

Bank queue

January 25, 2018 § 3 Comments

I had to stand in a bank queue today to collect some new cards. It’s payday, it’s been hot, and it was just after lunch so there were four or five people ahead of me. Still, I needed my cards, so I decided to wait it out.

Two people ahead of me was an older woman, impatiently pacing on the six-inch spot she occupied, moving huffily from one hip onto the other. When one of the two bank employees behind the enquiries desk dared to walk to the other side of the branch to fetch something, she boomed, “Great! Now one of them has left!”

The woman returned to her post and finally it was Loud Woman’s turn. She asked for her card, and it wasn’t there, despite her having a text message on her phone telling her to come and collect it. It was a frustrating situation, to be sure, but not nearly frustrating enough to warrant the shouting that ensued.

Patiently the bank employee explained the processes. Impatiently, Loud Woman shouted over the top of her, the volume increasing with every sentence. Eventually, after some further investigation, it transpired that the card was actually for her mother-in-law and she’d received the message because she was the contact person for the account.

Did she apologise? Don’t be ridiculous. She didn’t even have the good grace to look sheepish. She barked a curt thanks at the object of her abuse and stalked out of the bank.

Finally it was my turn. I went to the same counter she had. We exchanged some commiserations about the rudeness the bank employee had just encountered, and chatted about this and that as she processed my transaction.

An elderly man stepped up to the counter beside me. He greeted no one; just snapped out his business, and while he waited for the teller to help him, started attacking the woman helping me for delaying the queue. By his estimation she was taking far too long, wasting time by talking to me – a woman who had been standing and helping me the whole time I’d been at the counter, fighting with a sluggish network computer to process my cards. He leaned on one elbow and thrust a finger in her face with the other arm, shouting and called her a liar to her face, while she smiled and placated and practised the finest example of ‘the customer is always right’ I have ever seen.

I’d like to say I stood up for her; I’m ashamed to say I didn’t. The truth is, I was utterly gobsmacked by what I was witnessing. I honestly couldn’t form a coherent sentence.

And when he’d gone, she and her colleague shared an almost imperceptible chuckle and a head shake, and they carried on being their bright and sunny selves. “You can’t win,” she said to me. “If you don’t chat to the customers, then they complain about you. And if you do, then they also complain.”

Some days I think human beings really haven’t evolved much at all. And people who do these kinds of jobs, are my everyday heroes.

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