Monday, July 6, 2009


One of my favourite poems is a children's poem by that wonderfully eccentric American, Shel Silverstein. It's short, simple, and very moving. I only discovered it as an adult, and I think its impact is all the greater because of that: every time I read
Where The Sidewalk Ends I can't help being filled with an irrepressible, almost indescribable longing, not unlike the Iberian concept of sodade / saudade, as exemplified by the great barefoot diva Cesaria Evora in her heart-wrenchingly wistful ballads about her native Cape Verde. For me, the poem evokes the blissful naivete of childhood as surely as an exile's longing for home; the old cliche that the past is another country becomes, suddenly, very apt.

Of course, we are wont to paint the things we remember in richer colours than what they actually were: I just have to think of my first winter in London: cold, miserable, aching for the high skies and fierce sun of Africa, forgetting about things like crime and corruption, for example. It's probably just as well. Editing out negativity seems to be hard-wired into life; why else would mothers go through the excruciating horror of labour pain again? (So many mothers have told me they don't remember the pain. And no, this was without analgesia.) So too, do I paint my childhood memories in rather rosy colours, glossing over the murky patches that were not infrequently there. Yet, as far as the poem is concerned, these colours are very very real to me. Ever stopped to wonder that as the past recedes from us, our memories become more real than the reality they refer to, because they are all we have? We can never go back. And I'm not trying to sound fatalistic and Eeyorish. It just occurred to me that Pieter-Dirk Uys' quip is so true: "The future is certain. It's the past that's unpredictable".

Here's the poem, anyway:

Where The Sidewalk Ends

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Post tenebras, lux

In my uncle’s house, on a farm up in the lovely Agatha valley outside Tzaneen, is a small painted tile forming part of the decorations for the downstairs bathroom. My uncle, raised an Orthodox Jew who married an itinerant Anglican, chose these words himself, painted by my aunt in deep cerulean:
Judge Not
Condemn Not
It’s his motto for living, curiously evoking the mantras of peace of the major world faiths (they all insist they are a religion of peace). Of course, “tolerate” is a loaded word - my uncle himself will not tolerate overcooked roast beef - but we all know what he means. The little tile catches the sight of anyone who enters that room, poised as it is just above the washbasin. The simple words are humbling, staring at you, perhaps challenging you to live by them, having caught you unaware in a most private moment. They do not adorn lions rampant or eagles with wings aspread, but form part of a house in which a family has lived through happy and horrible times for over forty years.
Mottos as such have always intrigued me. From the incongruous Latin banner for the small Lowveld town I grew up in – Ex Tera Copiam: out of the earth, plenty; through the sober noblesse oblige of my school – Virtute et Labore (Through Courage and Labour) – to the unpronouncable, almost hallucinatory Xam phrase, !ke e: ǀxarra ǁke, that is the new accompaniment to South Africa’s revised coat of arms. It, perhaps tritely, means “Unity in Diversity”, but purists longing for the old Ex Unitate Vires should be reminded that at least my country’s motto is homegrown: both the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have mottos that are French, obviously. (Dieu et Mon Droit and Je Remanderai, respectively). Ever looked at a Welsh one pound coin? The writing beneath the coat of arms is not in Welsh, it’s in… German. Ich dien.
In the land of pompous epigrams, Latin remains king. One phrase that I’ve always turned about in my mind is Post Tenebras Lux. After darkness, light. It’s the motto emblazoned upon the Huguenot Memorial in Franschhoek, reflecting the experience of the French Protestants who sought refuge from Catholic persecution at the Dutch settlement at the Cape. I’m descended from them; it’s a strange feeling staring at the title deed handed over to my great-great-great-(insert exponential here)-grandfather for a farm in what is now Stellenbosch. It’s beautifully preserved in the museum adjoining Coert Steynberg’s art deco monument.
The document’s graceful faded calligraphy in 17th Century High Dutch promises a certain Francois Villion, born of Clermont, north of Paris, freedom to practise his faith and absolute right over his own piece of land… and dominion over several unfortunate slaves, too. I wonder how he’d feel about his descendant being raised Catholic and battling to reconcile twin legacies of pride (the Huguenot tradition of hard work, family values, stoicism and very, very good wine) and shame (slavery, racial bigotry and religious intolerance despite their own experience).
Nothing unusual about this: it’s the typical inherited baggage most young, post-apartheid white South Africans either fret about or deny vehemently. For me, still at school when Mandela was released, it was already easy to enter my adulthood concurrent with the freedom that 1994 brought. Still, I envy my nieces, all born after this heady time, with only a dim inherited memory of an era where it would be unthinkable for a little girl to have Barbie dolls of differing skin tones (never mind actually go on a play-date with a child of another colour.)
While I’ve obviously questioned my parents’ tacit complicity in the Old Regime, I have to thank them for keeping my childhood politically neutral. Politically agnostic, when I think about it. Just as anti-religious polemicists argue that children should be raised free of the “taint” of religion, I vehemently believe that political dogma should never be imposed upon a child. I realise my quiet, middle-class, unassuming parents achieved something miraculous, ideologically speaking: My father was conservative and my mother liberal, but when the obvious questions started nagging me at age 12 (“What is Apartheid?”, “Who is Nelson Mandela and why is he in jail?” “Why does the rest of the world hate us?” “What’s with all these Whites Only signs?”) they answered as truthfully as they could, and when they couldn’t, admitted it. Perhaps years of sharing a household of different religious systems (Catholicism vs. Calvinism, never mind close relatives who were Jewish or agnostic) had inculcated a culture of tolerance. It is perhaps their greatest gift to me.
Post tenebras, lux: I need to write more about this, but it’s been a long night on call and I shall be enjoying my post tenebras sleeping while the weak winter lux washes over my house. Perhaps one day I shall have the guts to make my own mark on a bathroom tile.
Until then, my uncle’s words remain a good prescription for living my life.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cape of Fire

So let's talk about the weather, then.

I have never known Cape Town to be so furiously hot. 38 degrees on Sunday afternoon, if the mercury outside the respiratory ICU is to be believed. After three years ostensibly acclimatising to the dry fury of a Cape summer (how I miss Highveld storms - probably the only thing I miss from the great Washington-upon-boredom that is Pretoria, besides drooping masses of jacarandas in October) I was still aghast to see a mile-long blanket of smoke threaten to smother the city this morning. They often joke that a Capetonian becomes delusional the moment he or she cannot see the Mountain, and this morning ou Tafelberg may just as well have been beamed up for repairs by the aliens, so thick was the ill grey cloud. And no respite in sight. I shudder when I think that arson may well be at play in the fires still roaring across both the tips of Africa and Australia. Bastards.

In a few hours' time we will be flying to the other side of the subcontinent, where KZN, as with the rest of the country, is almost drowning in record rainfall. It feels as if an evil balancing act is at play, while one part of the world shrivels and cracks and sizzles, another gurgles, shudders, swells. Two years ago one of my childhood idylls was washed away when storm surges decimated the northern coasts of Zululand; I only hope it has recovered.

The week's leave could not have come sooner. For me exams, hijackings, bereavements and crushingly enervating spirals of red tape were the sorry preserve of last year, threatening to spill over into this one as yet two months old. For the moment I am fleeing the fire, so to speak, to lose myself on a beach as wide as a runway and feel the sun alternate with the rain. Reconnecting with my future wife where the air is humid and the waters are warm. If I'm sounding clumsily poetic, it's because I'm becoming nostalgic past midnight, and possibly even hopeful: The rain must westward. The fires must out. I hope - guarded, as I am wont to - for growth, for life.