September 28, 2016 § 1 Comment
It might sound like a strange thing for a journalist to say, but sometimes I wonder if the amount of news we consume is such a good idea. Because as much as you rail against the fact that there isn’t any good news in your local newspaper, or on TV, we in the industry know that good news isn’t really what readers are after.
Sure, a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy story from time to time makes you smile over your breakfast cereal, but there’s a reason people gooseneck at car wrecks – human beings have a morbid fascination with the misfortunes of others. And ‘if it bleeds it leads’. And all of that adds up to a glut of bad news pouring into our hearts and minds 24 hours a day.
When you see the depth and breadth of the misery that humankind inflicts upon itself and others, it’s easy to get into a complete funk. It’s exhausting, demoralising and downright depressing. And the variety of always-on media available to us means it’s almost impossible to avoid.
When you get into that funk it’s easy to believe that there’s no hope for humanity, that somehow despite all of the advances we’ve made, we’re really no better than we’ve ever been. Perhaps we’re even worse. It’s hard to be objective, really.
But I do know this: for every child who misbehaved in class at school, there were 28 or so others behaving well – but the misbehaving child drew the teacher’s ire, and often got the rest of us into trouble too. The bad things might be making the news, but there’s a good chance they’re just that naughty child garnering all the attention.
So I find that sometimes the key is just to step away from the noise – switch off the TV and the radio, put down the newspaper, log out of social media and take a walk in a beautiful place.
Sometimes you have to actively be that force for good in the world. Smile at strangers. Say a kind word to the frazzled cashier at your local supermarket. Smile at the invisible people in our society – the cleaners, the garbage men, the homeless man on the corner. Help an old lady across the road. Give something away to someone who needs it more than you do.
And make yourself a joy list and add to it daily – anything that makes you smile, or lifts your spirits. The sunrise. The sunset. That perfect cup of tea. The sound of your beloved’s voice. The softness of your grandmother’s cheek. A joke shared with a fellow sojourner in a long queue. The tiny fairy flowers on a sprig of thyme. The scent of jasmine on a spring evening. The coolness of your sheets as you sigh into bed after a long day. The cool floor beneath your bare feet. The comfort of another’s hand in yours. A baby’s fat toes. And so on and so forth…
When you start to make a joy list you discover that the world is a place of wonder, but the wonders speak in whispers. And all you have to do is listen.
September 21, 2016 § 4 Comments
About a month ago now, I returned to my hometown to attend the 30th reunion of my final year in high school. I had been to the 10th reunion, but not the 20th, so it had been a while since I’d seen any of my former schoolmates.
I did solemnly swear that I wouldn’t blog about it, so some of them are sweating bullets right now, but it’s okay. I’m not going to reveal any secrets, nor will I explain exactly how much alcohol was consumed! But it was an interesting experience, once I’d got past the horror of just how old we’re all getting.
So first up, young people, take it from me – you can relax. You’re probably going to turn out okay even if you aren’t so good at Maths. There was a broad cross-section of people there, in all kinds of jobs and professions, and everyone had fashioned a life for themselves and seemed to be coping as well as anyone else does on the journey of adulthood. Even the most awkward of teenagers had turned into really great people.
On the down side, unfortunately, it was glaringly obvious that the divorce rate isn’t just a figure made up to scare you. Thirty years on there were significant numbers of divorced people among us, myself included. And there were several more people on the brink . It saddened me to see that – I think most of us want to believe in happily ever after, and it seems it’s harder and harder to find. So if you have it, don’t take it for granted. Hold on to it and keep working at it – you’re one of the lucky ones.
The biggest revelation for me, though, was just how poorly you can know people that you see every day for five years. I had some surprisingly deep conversations and discovered things about my former peers that I had no inkling of. None whatsoever. Some of those kids had really hard lives; had seen and experienced things no child should ever experience.
It left me with the firm conviction again, that if we teach our children anything, we need to teach them kindness. We need them to understand that you just never know why someone is behaving in a particular way – whether they’re extremely quiet and shy, or angry and combative. They can seem perfectly fine and be dealing with all kinds of fallout at home.
Everyone really is fighting a battle. Maybe not every day, but you’d probably be surprised at what is going on in the homes and hearts of people you meet at school or at work. None of us is immune to difficulties, and very few of us share our travails with others.
The best we can do, therefore, both children and adults, is to treat everyone with kindness and compassion, and hope that they will do the same for us.
September 14, 2016 Comments Off on Pigeons
In one of my childhood photo albums there’s a grainy picture of me next to a small boy with knobbly knees. The knees belonged to Derek, my great friend. He lived a few blocks away, just past the primary school, as I recall, with his parents and younger sister.
Derek and I were in preschool. Our mothers were firm friends, even after Derek’s family moved to another town. But if I remember anything at all about his family, it’s that they kept pigeons.
I was fascinated by them; astonished that you could take a homing pigeon, release it somewhere across town, and then be sure that it would find its way home. I loved their soft cooing in the aviary, the flurry of feathers when there was a skirmish over a prized bit of food. I was mesmerised when the birds were released and they swept across the sky in graceful circuits.
Whenever I hear pigeons today, though, I’m immediately transported to Stellenbosch, where my grandmother who lived in Stellenbosch in a block of flats – an impossibly glamorous place called Skoroda Court. Or so it felt to primary-school me.
I loved our trips from Port Elizabeth to visit my grandmother not only because she was an amazing cook who spoilt us rotten with delicious meals and the best milk tart in the country, but because there were tall conifers across the road from the flats that played host to more pigeons, and every morning my eyes fluttered open to their soft chorus.
Earlier this year I moved from my home of almost 17 years to a new neighbourhood. It was a move fraught with emotion and a kind of grief. There were many stresses, and I can’t remember when last I was as exhausted.
But when I drew back the curtains on the first morning I woke up in this house, I noticed a familiar sight – racing pigeons taking leisurely laps in the patch of sky outside my window.
And I felt that I, like them, had come full circle. And that this time, I was the one coming home to roost.
September 7, 2016 § 2 Comments
I took a walk before breakfast today, as I do most days, but instead of winding my way through the genteel suburbs, I headed for the grit and pace of Louis Botha Avenue.
Louis Botha, for those not from here, is a big arterial that connects Alexandra Township in the north with the Johannesburg CBD. It is ruled by Joburg’s traffic tyrants: scores of white minibus taxis that perform breathtaking breaches of traffic laws in the quest to acquire the most commuters and hopefully get them to their destinations. Arriving alive is far from guaranteed for their customers.
But oh, what a treasure trove of shops and sights and smells I found.
These are not the glitzy shops you see replicated in every mall across South Africa. There’s nothing glamorous about any of the shopfronts, and there is evidence of decay on most of the buildings. But there’s so much more to see – life and vitality and colour with every step you take.
The most common shops along the stretch where I walked were small convenience stores selling groceries and fruit, Hair salons and small dressmaking concerns rubbed up against each other. I leant on a wall to post a picture on Instagram and caught the unmistakable whiff of stale urine, and then, on the next block, the comforting aroma of fresh bread, the staff inside busily tending to a queue of customers. I peered through a dusty window to see beautiful loaves flecked with flax seeds, quietly cooling on a stainless steel rack.
A little further up the road, I came across a car spares shop, just there, on the high street, like it was the most ordinary thing in the world. Front bumpers on the pavement heralded its presence; a peer inside the door revealed stacks of car doors and other assorted wonders. I stopped to take a picture and a water meter reader waited patiently for me step off the meter cover so he could do his work.
I did a fair amount of peering into doorways. There are wonderful alleyways and entrance halls that beckon you to explore the flats above, or the courtyards at the back.
One building, painted matt black on the outside, had the most gorgeous painting just inside the door. I caught a brief impression of yellow, orange and blue concentric circles and wished, several blocks later, that I’d been less shy about taking a photograph.
I also discovered that right there, mere blocks from my home, the City of Johannesburg has installed an African literature bookshop. As an author, this makes me exceedingly happy – it’s so important not only to cultivate literature both at home and on the rest of the continent, but to encourage a culture of reading and increase platforms for Africans to tell their own stories. I beamed up at its bright blue beauty in a way that saw anxious parents pulling their toddlers a little closer to their sides.
Louis Botha Avenue is one of those places with a bit of a reputation. It’s gritty and dirty and the pavements have stories to tell. There are remnants of fires in disused doorways, broken glass glints from every corner. A bullet hole sends weblike ripples outwards on a shopfront window.
But there’s a buzz. Shopkeepers sweep the pavements clean and shoo their children away from the roadside edge. Groups of young men gather for a smoke and a laugh. Children in neat blue uniforms hurry to their first class of the day. Harried mothers clean invisible dirt off their babies’ faces in that time-honoured finger-licking gesture. Smiles are wide, greetings are genuine.
It’s quintessential Johannesburg. It’s home.