Sunday, November 22, 2009


What is it with Bureaucracies? Do you think they have weekly committee meetings to see how they can make their average customer’s life more difficult? I’m convinced they do. It’s the only explanation.

I had the misfortune last week to be on the receiving end of a bureaucratic system. This meant I had to go from Point A to Point D, brandishing a little form which needed to be stamped and signed and ratified and approved at each of the various stations. Have you ever noticed how the trip between any two points of such a system always has to be done on one of the hottest days of the year? Funny how that happens.

Anyway, I thought I could get it all done in an hour. All that was required, after all, were a few signatures and a little financial negotiation and I would be home free. Silly me. How easily one forgets.

Point A went along swimmingly, filling me with false hope for a speedy conclusion. Point B was a little sticky. Person required to sign the form was not available so I had to come back. And then come back later again. And once again come back later. But all concerned were doing their best to be courteous. When the person in question was finally back, the signature was done with the best will in the world. And it only took a couple of days. I was lulled into the false security that everyone was out to help me.

So I sailed on blithely to point C. And there she was. The original bureaucrat. The one who designed the system. The one who worked out how it takes five pairs of hands to fill in a single form. The one who says “How can I make this process more difficult for this person?” The one who lies awake at night thinking of different ways to say “NO!”

I almost escaped her clutches. Her young colleague was listening with empathy to my need for a little bending of the iron-clad rules. I could see the girl consider the possibilities of how we could make efficient but alternative arrangements.

And then the experienced signer of forms, the veteran deflater of hopes, the gainsayer extraordinaire moved into position. A quick interrogation of her colleague’s intentions made her act swiftly. Behind their glass enclosure, she covered her hands with her multi be-ringed fingers and whispered urgent instructions to her innocent and wayward co-worker. Of course I couldn’t hear a word of the vicious calumnies she was obviously pouring out on my head and so couldn’t pre-empt any objections. But it took a mere matter of seconds before the young girl’s helpfulness changed to stern “There is absolutely no way on God’s green earth that we can possibly contemplate this”-ness. If you know what I mean.

I sighed deeply. I did not break down and cry as I’ve done before. Three years ago, when ill with TB, I’d been broken by the system while waiting in a queue at the local clinic for a packet of pre-packed medicine for over two hours. I could see the packets neatly arranged on a table within my grasp. All the other patients were waiting for the same medicine. But we had to follow the primordial procedure to go from step A to step Z even though it was the n’th time all of us had been there. And then, then - just when it was finally my turn - the nurses shut up their little offices and went to tea. Both of them. For half an hour.

I do not profess to have great time/management skills but I’m sure I could improve the efficiency of most of these processes. I once heard a man describe his attempt to obtain his preordained funds from the government for his state school as being impossible “because it takes ten hands to wipe one arse.

It’s those weekly obfuscation meetings I tell you. They must spend hours devising new ways to make life more difficult for the average applicant. But I’m willing to bet that they never come to a unified resolution on anything.

In fact, I believe hell is not “other people” as Jean Paul Sartre stated in his play Huis-clos (No Exit). It’s being given a form and asked to get it processed by an endless string of bureaucrats!

Sunday, November 15, 2009

So You Want Me To Take Off My Underwear??

“You want me to take off my underwear?” I look at the young man in surprise, as I stand next to the bed. He is waiting for me to lie down. He nods politely as he prepares to take my gown. “But…” I splutter. Does he really mean I must strip down to bare flesh without even the lubricant of dinner and a movie? Can’t I even have a glass of wine first? His smile continues patiently. “We do have disposable underwear for you to put on during the treatment,” he says reassuringly as he reaches into a drawer. He removes a frippery of light paper which has a thong attached to a central landing strip the size of an Elastoplast. I am not ready for this, I think nervously. But there is no escape. I am left to remove my reassuringly black and prevent-all-comers underwear to arrange the minimalist scrap of disposable lingerie in the most discreet way possible. It’s not easy, I sigh to myself as I lie down on the bed and try to cover myself with the towels provided.

My young man returns, still patient, still smiling. Efficiently, calmly he begins to scrub my whole body with a mixture of coarse salt and something else which smells delicious. I talk rapidly, trying to ignore the unusual situation for me. I mean, I do not usually share my cellulite with just anyone. Matthew – that’s his name - continues, professional and efficient, answering my slightly hysterical stream of questions. I should get out more often I think as he begins to wash the salt off with many nozzles of the Vichy shower placed above the bed. I now regret the bikini wax I tried to do in five minutes this morning before I rushed out to do an interview before I was due to arrive at this spa. I had a premonition that I might be required to wear a swimming costume. I never envisaged this post modern thong thing. In my extreme haste to wax and go, I had burnt myself rather badly. The bikini area was now mostly fuzz free, but had the alarmed and reddened look of a freshly plucked chicken. Oh, how I wished those nozzles would wash more quickly over certain areas.

My young therapist does not seem fazed. He continues with round two. He makes a solution of milk and honey and begins to wash it into my skin. How decadent, I think for a moment. But how smooth! No wonder this treatment is called Cleopatra’s Secret. A great lover of creams and softening agents – I have never been able to bear dry skin – I am amazed by the glorious richness of the mixture. I am then wrapped in the plastic on which I had been lying all the time but hadn’t noticed due to my crippling self-consciousness. I babble on blithely until Matthew moves to a seat above my head. While my skin is absorbing the mixture, he begins to massage my forehead. One waft of his fingers over my brow and I am rendered speechless. Bliss. So this is what it’s all about. Not another word squeaks out of my mouth as I finally get the point of all this therapy. I stumble out of the spa a few hours later – refelexologied, massaged (Melanie gives the best massages in the world) and facial-ed out of all thought. I am so relaxed I can barely find the door. And this is just the first day of treatments. There are more tomorrow. I really should get out more often, I think again as I stumble home.

I was at the blissful and extremely delicious Fordoun Spa in Nottingham Road. Coming back to the real world is quite a shock after being royally pampered. Sigh. I will just have to keep dreaming of being Cleopatra whenever I get the chance. I wonder if anyone will notice if the milk disappears more quickly out of the fridge than usual.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Living Like Jane Austen

I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen a lot lately. No, I’m not waiting for a dashing Mr Darcy to storm over the horizon to carry me off to Pemberley. Actually, perhaps that’s not such a bad idea after all… But, no, the reason I’ve been thinking about Jane Austen is that recently my working life has been very much like hers.

Jane Austen is remarkable to me for many reasons, not least the quality of her work. She is one of the few women to be mentioned consistently in writings on the development of the novel. But one of the most impressive things about dear old Jane is that she wrote her novels in a communal sitting room in the midst of her family’s busy and noisy lives. Jane would pretend she was writing letters at her desk and cover up her work as soon as anyone came too close. It’s a sign of her immense writing ability that she managed to complete novel after novel while being constantly interrupted by visitors, having family consultations about whether to have lamb or pork for supper, and listening to inquiries about the sick people in the community.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a bit like Jane. Although working from home has many advantages it’s not always easy. Not having to dress for work at 6 am is a big advantage, though, and the joy of sloping around in my pyjamas until I absolutely have to get dressed is not to be sneezed at. Especially in winter. Having the flexibility to choose to work when it suits you, instead of when a boss tells you to, is another big plus.

Unfortunately, this flexibility is a double-edged sword. In many people’s eyes, working at home means that you are available. Available to help at school sports days. Available to have meetings with people who want to ‘pick your brain’. Available to visitors who come to stay during the week during what is a normal working week for you. You see, people seem to think that the phrase ‘working from home’ is an oxymoron.

What happens to me because of my flexible working hours is that I find myself doing all the extra things: the school meetings, the entertaining of visiting friends, the meetings with brain pickers, and sorting out of people in crises. And then in a frazzled rush I try to catch up with the never-ending load of work late at night, most weekends, and in the early hours of the morning.

Having your home as your work space also means that you have no place to hide. After a recent stint with builders wrecking my roof with some vague explanation that it was for my own good, I found the scales tipped far too heavily against me. Dealing with men breaking through my ceilings while supposedly fixing my roof, under which I was trying to write something vaguely intelligent, was just too much for me.

This intrusion into my home and work space was followed by an onslaught of visitors. It’s always lovely to see friends and spend time together, but my work suffered badly. The resultant strain as I tried to find any piece of a candle left to burn on either side has made me dream of an office with a heavy-handed boss. How blissful it would be to say that the boss won’t give me time off to have my brain picked, solve emotional problems or attend meetings of any sort. How nice it would be to say that I can’t be available as entertainment co-ordinator for visitors either as my boss won’t let me leave the office.

But I don’t have a boss, and I’m not really sure I’d like one. So I have to focus on Jane Austen. If she managed it, I should be able to as well. And so I think of how her novels sparkled with vibrant and quirky characters. Perhaps she would never have written such unforgettable classics if she’d been isolated in an attic with hours a day to think about her next line. I like to think her work would not have been as good if she hadn’t fed off the interaction of people around her. At least that’s what I’m telling myself just before the next batch of visitors arrives.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Women over thirty

In 1815, the British critic, J.W. Croker denounced the work of a previously beloved author as the work of a ‘shriveled hag.’ The reason? “Novel and novelist alike have grown too old to delight discriminating male readers,” Croker croaked. “The vivacity, the bloom, the elegance, ‘the purple light of love’ are vanished,” he moaned. Women should not write after they turn thirty, Coker implied. He must have been delighted to have another unassailable source of wisdom on his side. Lord Merton believed that, not only should women not write after thirty, women should not live after thirty. These two curmudgeons decreed: “If a woman had anything of significance to say which was not ‘modest, delicate, wispy and delightful,’ they were past their best as writers and as women.”*

Luckily, certain women seemed to have missed this decree about the decline of the female species after a certain age. It is a good thing too that they haven’t read the rash of prepubescent publications edited by pimply-faced youths who couldn’t get laid unless they had a position of power. Fortunately, there are women in the world who ignore these magazines’ pronouncements which say that women over the age of thirty-five should be euthanased. It’s also a good thing that certain women are not deterred by the fact that some internet dating sites have set an age limit for women, but not for men. (Women over the age of forty are persona-non-grata on these sites, according to a friend of mine who was not allowed to join because she admitted her age as fifty).

I asked my friends of all ages and both sexes who their female role models were. Their answers were pleasantly surprising. These are the names they came up with: Geena Davis; Oprah Winfrey; Jane Goodall; Madonna; Annie Lennox; Maria Ramos; Michelle Botes; Noeleen Maholwana-Sangqu; Sibongile Khumalo; Miriam Makeba; Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka; Rebecca Malope; Leleti Khumalo; Gcina Mhlophe; Nadine Gordimer; Susan Sarandon; Meryl Streep; Hilary Clinton; Arandhati Roy and many more.

Most of these women are well past thirty, most are past forty and the majority are older than fifty. Isn’t it strange that not even the prettiest model made it onto anyone’s list? It seems, therefore, that models are – forgive the pun - not great role models. Women who make indelible impressions need to make their mark in ways which are not only decorative it seems, although one has to admit that Michelle Botes, Madonna and Geena Davis are pretty darn sexy too.

The older woman’s need for romantic entertainment has come under scrutiny too recently. A Time magazine article written by Lillian Kennet referred to the emergence of a new genre of literature, ironically termed ‘Gray Lit,’ which has just become acceptable. It seems that the baby boomers are getting older and are still demanding large slices of cake, which they want to eat too. The largest growing demographic in the UK is the women-over-fifty-bracket. One publishers, Nikki Read, who has taken note of this fact and is publishing previously scorned novels about the love-lives of older women says, “Middle age is no longer a gradual decline to old age; it’s a time to start again. We want that to be reflected in the literature of our time.”**

So perhaps the mindset about women needing to be exterminated after the age of thirty is changing, slowly but surely. And yes, there may be some men who are saving themselves for their soul-mates who must fit just a single specification: they must be younger than thirty. But there are still men who appreciate women as they mature into their finest incarnations of themselves. As I approach, somewhat cautiously, middle-age which looms just ahead of me, I must admit that it feels good to be grower wiser and more satisfied with my life. Each passing year finds me more in control of my talents, more certain of my views of the world, and happier to be in my body as it is now. In fact, being well past thirty is remarkable simply because it is a much more comfortable place to be in than any other age before. Even if I am a woman who writes.

First published in the Sunday Independent.

Monday, July 13, 2009

On the Road Again - In-Gene-Uity

“What was I thinking?” says Jean, the character In-Gene-Uity, when she realises she has invited the Ladies Who Lunch from the local PTA to come to her house after a rather drunken AGM at the local school.

Her partner, Lucy, answers: “The question is rather, ‘What was I drinking?’”

Somehow these words resonate as the countdown begins for the great trek into the barren landscape of the Eastern Cape. This is the sixth play I’m taking to the Grahamstown Arts Festival and it’s always a gruelling experience.

When artists take a play to the Festival Fringe, it is very like gladiators going to compete in the arena of the Coliseum. Hundreds of performers bring their offerings to compete on the free-for-all Fringe, usually at their own expense. Often these creations are produced for the first time at the festival. Sometimes the first proper run-through takes place on opening night. Usually the productions lose, rather than make, money. It takes nerves of steel to keep going back, overcoming enormous obstacles en route, as well as facing critics and audiences whose swords are sharpened daily to cut you down to size.

The initial inspiration for In-Gene-Uity came from a ridiculous dream I had about a highly testosterone charged toddler (he was about two years old but had thick black hair growing under his armpits and a five o’clock shadow) rampaging through the garden with a helpless mother at her wits’ end trying to control him. It started me thinking about scenarios where people might have children who are very different from themselves. This happens in most normal families, obviously, but I decided to explore the idea with a cross-racial adoption, and for added complications, placed the adoption in a gay family. As I love British sitcoms the play became a frothy comedy, a sort of Absolutely Fabulous meets My Family. So it’s turned into a positive look at cross-cultural adoption, with the intervention of an ancestor or two, to guide the adopted boy back to his roots.

Creating a world in one’s mind and putting it down on paper is the easy part. Getting funding to launch a production of the written work is another story. Fortunately the National Arts Council (NAC) has funded every one of my plays to date. But they keep you waiting until the end of May to notify you about whether you’ve received a grant or not. Taking into account that one has to book one’s play into the festival in February and that actors should ideally be decided on well before the end of May, a lot of the pre-production process has to take place in blind faith.

One of the most important aspects of producing the play is to cast the right actors for the roles. I’d asked a well-known actress to consider playing the part of Jean, one of the two leads. In the middle of May she told me that she had another commitment so I decided to take another leap of faith and play the role myself. Fortunately I’d always had my eye on Arifani Moyo as the ideal person to play the adopted James, and Kiara Worth as the perfect actress to play Lucy. I’d seen them perform many times and knew they would get the job done well. Ian Roberts came to direct as he’s done for three of my previous plays.

The rehearsal process started with an informal read-through. As a cast we formed an instant bond which was enhanced by the fact that we were playing a close, if slightly dysfunctional, family. Almost immediately we found the right tone for each of our characters, and the director emphasised our contrasting mannerisms and personalities. A very gratifying aspect of this particular production was the sense of respect between each of us. This is invaluable. Without respect, no actor can trust himself to give of his best.

Our only stumbling block was the rapidity of the lines. As I’d written the play in a sitcom format, there were many snappy one-liners, especially between Lucy and Jean. These weren’t words you could learn easily on your own. We found it best to run the acts as often as possible in rehearsal so that we could learn the words on our feet, as it were.

Both actors lived up to my hopes for the embodiment of the characters. Kiara was lovably neurotic as Lucy and Arifani was wonderful sane as the young boy, James, who has supposedly gone off the rails. The director assured me that I’d interpreted the part of Jean properly. Our confidence began to grow.

As the lines became more fluent the drawing room comedy began to live up to its name. We found ourselves laughing at the lines even though we know them well. A small awareness grew in each of us that this play could turn into something good.

Meanwhile posters are ordered and made, flyers and programmes printed. Accommodation is booked and paid for. This is still relatively painless even though it takes a few drafts before the posters are right.

Then there are the variables which are completely out of our control. We can’t transport a three piece lounge suite to Grahamstown on our budget, so we have to book unseen furniture to be delivered from the Funky Junk antique shop in Grahamstown to our performance venue. As I write now, I’m crossing fingers that the furniture will be delivered at 5.30 pm on the day we travel down, just half an hour before our technical rehearsal begins at 6 pm. We leave at 5 in the morning and it takes about twelve hours to drive to Grahamstown. This is what you call cutting it fine. Yet more leaps of faith are required.

A few days before we start the long drive towards the cold Eastern Cape, a flicker of excitement begins to blossom. Maybe this time we’ll have fun. Maybe this time we might do better than just break even. And maybe “what I was thinking?” was a good idea after all.

First published in Sunday Independent 5 July 2009.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

It's a Jungle Out There

“Don’t worry about the noise the birds are making in that tree. They’re just sounding the alarm because a snake is after them.”

The Camel Man Game Ranger throws this comment over his shoulder as he lugs my city bag across the rough veld towards the tiny upside down umbrella that is my new home for the next few nights. He unzips the tent and shows me in. It is definitely not five star.

“You’ll be perfectly safe in here,” he says, showing me hard wooden beds and space between them large enough to almost stand up straight. “Just keep the screens zipped up and the mosquitoes shouldn’t be able to get in.

I force a smile, as if I’ve been camping all my life. Of course I’ll be fine, I answer. What with the snakes in the tree above my tent and the malaria-carrying mosquitoes and the two strands of electric fence keeping me from predators in the veld, I’m just peachy!

I’m in a section of the Kruger Park devoted to training. Field guide courses are run throughout the year and eager Europeans flock here in their droves to live on oats porridge and stew to learn more about the bush. Living in a tent in the middle of thorn trees and wild animals is exciting for them.

I’ve come up for three days to teach first time filmmaking students about writing scripts about wildlife. If only I hadn’t worn heels.

That night, I leave the community tented area to go back to my tent. I use my torch to light the way. Oh, did I forget to mention there’s no electricity in the camp? I sit in the dark – or crouch rather – on my bed, wondering how to spend the next twelve hours until my lectures begin. I decide I have no choice but to sleep. Ah, sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care, as dear Will Shakespeare said. He didn’t mention that sleep might be interrupted by the whooping of hyenas nearby or the definite growl of a lion. I think of the two frail strands of electric fencing. I am sure they wouldn’t stand a chance against a hungry hyena. And what’s that scratching along the side of the tent, right next to my face? It sounds like the claws of a large lizard type creature. How big do rock monitors get exactly?

Sleep does not arrive easily, especially with the rough snores of the man in the tent next to me. He’s sleeping like a baby. A very loud baby, I think jealously.

I have lots of time to think. Especially about the fact that my family did not do much camping when I was small. We were too busy having family crises to have family holidays. And we lived in the Free State for goodness sake. Acacia thorn trees and wide open stretches of veld were part of our back garden. We spent every moment trying to get away from the veld.

After the second night I vow that I will never go camping again. Especially as I’m not too keen to follow the example one of my students, a Dutch girl, who squats outside her tent at night in what she calls her “en suite”. The ablution block is miles of scary dark veld away and I am not happy.

On my last night in the camp, the students decide to throw me an impromptu farewell party. Two of the men produce guitars. The game ranger drags a skin drum out of a corner and the rest of the students grab various items to form a percussion group. The game ranger plies me with large glasses of whiskey. It would be churlish to refuse. Soon we are all singing Seventies songs, Beatles hits and eventually Johnny Clegg numbers. While we are all searching for the spirit of the great heart under an African sky, with the stars beaming down on us in milky way-ed splendour, I finally get what this camping business is all about. I can’t wait to come back.

And it really wasn’t just the whiskey talking.

First Published in The Witness 18 May 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

Things We Lost

A recent Cinema Nouveau film was called Things We Lost in the Fire. It was a touching portrayal of two people coming to terms with the huge loss of a mutual loved one, as well as a loss of their own identities. Through dealing with these losses they came to a much deeper understanding of themselves. The prejudiced and narrow-minded woman, played by Halle Berry, found that the person she was most prejudiced about was the only one who truly understood her. The drug-addicted friend of the dead man realised that he didn’t have to evade reality in order to find peace.

At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark Card, I’ve also been thinking about the things we gain when we confront the things we lost. My daughter has been ill for six months with an insidious and almost invisible malaise. She’s had to leave the very good high achievement school she’d excelled in, especially during her time in the primary school.

I realised how much the loss of her apparent prospects had affected me when I listened to a chance rendition of Pia Jesu last night. My daughter had sung the same exquisite hymn in her final chapel service at primary school, doing a duet with another member of the choir. The two soaring sopranos had reduced the congregation to tears. Listening to the hymn last night left me heart-broken for a while at her apparent missed opportunities. Then I started to think about the film I saw almost a year ago. Sometimes the things we lose in the fires of life give us gifts we never expected.

Very often we have plans and ideas about our future and especially those of our children. We envisage a future for them which will hopefully be brighter and more successful than our own. We can’t help ourselves. I suppose it’s all to do with the propagation of the species. When these expectations don’t come to fruition, we can feel a little disappointed in some ways.

But again, at the risk of sounding like a multi-forwarded feel-good email, I realised that this time out of the rat race has been a huge gift to my daughter and me. Taking all the pressure off her (which is extreme in today’s schools) has allowed her to relax for the first time in a number of years. While she doesn’t feel terribly well, she’s rediscovered her sense of humour and we’ve grown much closer than ever. She’s also had time to think about her identity, without peer pressure or external demands. This is one of the mose rare gifts. She said to me a few nights ago: “When I’ve found out who I am, I’d like to do more drama and comedy and make people laugh.”

Maybe we all need time out of the rat race to find out who we are and, if at all possible, make people laugh. The high achieving society we live puts huge pressure on us to produce visible outcomes to justify our time on earth. Some things are prized more highly than others. Growing an excellent vegetable garden is not prized as much as writing a novel. In fact, it is as much of an achievement if not better, in my opinion. And being able to say you truly know yourself is far more valuable than winning an Oscar for playing other people. They won’t write articles about you in Heat Magazine, however, about your incredible insight into yourself but that is a good thing!

So this time out of the world-which-is-too-much-with-us has allowed our whole family to re-evaluate the essential values in life. Firstly, it’s a cliché but it’s true: there is nothing more important in life than health. And if that is compromised, perhaps there are benefits to taking things slowly and more contemplatively. Also examining the pain that comes with illness or loss of any kind allows one to open a window into another world. This world doesn’t have as many photo opportunities as being an Oscar winner, but I would argue that its rewards are greater. Wisdom, compassion and patience far outweigh being chased by the paparazzi or having Heat post sleazy videos of you on their websites.

To ensure I don’t say anything as cheesy as a Macdonald quarter-pounder again, I’ll end with the words of the Sufi poet Rumi: “Look to your wounds: that’s where the light comes in.”

First Published in The Witness 20 March 2008.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Alice through the Glass.

Things are not always what they seem. The thing is, very often we set our minds on something convinced that it is this one thing alone which will a) Bring you eternal happiness; b) Bring you financial independence or c) Give you your heart’s desires. And then when you finally get what you think you want, you discover it wasn’t what you needed at all.
This came to me when I flew to Joburg for a meeting recently. I’d put so much store into this meeting, my expectations and hopes were high. When I arrived, the person I was meant to meet hadn’t arrived yet. I didn’t mind as it gave me time to go over my proposal again.

Almost an hour crawled by as I sat on the couch. Then a couple came in to meet someone else in the organisation. Eyes slightly glazed by now (I’d been up since 5 am) I became aware of them as they announced themselves at reception. The young man of twenty-something was talking non-stop to his companion. She was older than he was, her hair scraped back from her finely boned face. Her legs were as long and graceful as a thoroughbred horse. There was something very familiar about her. I’d seen her in a film. I stared a little as they sat next to me, my memory doing flick-flacks as I scanned the trillion films I’ve seen. Eventually my brain found the file. Chariots of Fire. Ghost Story. The Borg Queen in Star Trek. Alice Krige. It really was her. I tried not to stare, but I couldn’t help sneaking a few more surreptitious glances.

When the receptionist called me to the desk to say that the person I was due to meet would be arriving soon, I walked back to the couch straight into Alice’s warm smile. “I’m a huge fan,” I blurted as casually as I could. She graciously asked me about myself. We talked and I learnt that she is producing a film in South Africa after just finishing work on Skin, a film to be released here soon. I told her I was producing my own film too.

That’s when she asked for my card. Oh dear. An enthusiastic member of Postnet recently decided to get creative with my latest set of business cards. She’d produced something so awful that I’d thrown them all in the bin. I still hadn’t ordered new ones. Not sounding terribly professional I tried to explain about my lack of cards. Then she and her companion were summoned to their meeting. “Just write your details on a piece of paper, and leave it at the desk,” she smiled as she glided up the stairs.

Well, there was no way on earth I was going to leave a scrawled piece of paper at the desk for Alice Krige. I wracked my brains, and mentally thanked the person I was due to meet for being late. I had to come up with something special so that it wouldn’t be thrown in the bin soon after delivery. I searched my diary. I often keep mementoes in its pages. And there it was. The perfect thing: a beaded dragonfly of delicate beauty which my daughter had made. I’d stuck it on the front page with Presstik at the beginning of the year. That would do. Scrounging an envelope from the receptionist, I stuck the pale blue dragonfly on the front and wrote a note to go inside. I asked the receptionist to deliver it to Alice while she was in her meeting as – at last - I was called in for my own.

My meeting wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. It didn’t seem as if anything would come of it after all. But as I walked down the stairs afterwards, I saw Alice through the glass walls where she was having her meeting. She spotted me, gave me a huge smile. She waved the envelope with the dragonfly on it and gave me a big thumbs-up. That affirmation was enough. She affirmed that we are two women on a similar path. The outcome of my original meeting didn’t matter so much anymore.

That’s when I realised that we don’t always find what we’re looking for in the places we expect. But if we keep our eyes open, perhaps we’ll find our joy where we least expect it. Sometime even in the looking glass.

FIRST WORDS: Published in The Sunday Independent, 15th February 2009

Monday, January 19, 2009

Width of a Thread

One of Katie Melua’s songs has a verse which goes like this: “The line between wrong and right/ is the width of a thread of a spider’s web.” It’s one of my favourite songs at the moment. It makes me remember that only the tiniest shift in perception is required to make something appear positive or negative. As usual, good old Will Shakespeare said it first: “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”

This thought appeals to me, especially at the start of a new year. Perhaps this is a good time to renew a commitment to stop believing that things are hopeless and rather to look at how good they actually are. If we compare our situations to people in so many other countries - Tibet, Iraq and Zimbabwe are just three that spring to mind; or if we look back at our country’s very recent bloody past, our lives come out pretty much as half-full as the clichéd glass.

I’ve been observing this phenomenon lately in my daily life. For example, I’ve tried changing my dread of going to one of my least favourite places in the world: the Home Affairs offices in the city. Actually, that’s a bad example. Even Norman Vincent Peale couldn’t turn that into a positive experience. So perhaps I should think of something less challenging.

Okay, let me start with something smaller, like the way we treat others in shopping malls or on the roads. I’ve had more successes in these arenas. If someone bumps into you in the mall, for example, or tries to overtake you on a busy intersection, instead of blowing up with a barrage of well chosen invective, it will take the offender completely by surprise if you simply smile and graciously wave the person past. It’s so much less stressful to do this too, especially in South Africa where an angry comment can ignite a violent reaction fuelled by sixty years of bitter resentment. At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, I’ve noticed many times that if you offer a smile when one isn’t expected, anger melts away like mud washed away by rain.

Many more books have been written about positive thinking since the days of Norman Vincent Peale. In fact there’s an absolute glut of books on the shelves telling us that we can manifest our own destinies. From The Secret to books written by almost everyone else on the planet, these prophets of joy make it all sound so simple. Just think positively they say and you’ll be sailing a yacht in the Bahamas in a month.

I’ve read a lot of these books and thought a great deal about the whole issue too. I believe Quantum Physics is a very real phenomenon. It makes sense, really. Our way of thinking affects our way of being.

But there is a flaw in many of these books in my opinion. Demanding a wish-list of material goods for the satisfaction of our egos isn’t positive at all. Especially if the demands are largely selfish. I’ve noticed that expecting to get exactly what you want simply because you demand it, is doomed to failure. The reality of the matter is much more Zen. Being positive means that you, like the Zen Buddhists, remove all expectations of the outcome from your thoughts. This doesn’t quite suit the “large list of must-have items” brigade. Being positive means that you see the worth in every situation, even when you don’t get exactly what you want.

So if the person overtaking you on the intersection still chooses to show you the finger, just keep smiling and try not to wish he’ll hit the next lamppost. And if you see me forgetting my own advice and giving rude signs to the taxi, please forgive me. I’ve still got my training wheels on.

And I think for the sake of universal sanity, all of us should do all in our power to avoid a visit to Home Affairs!

First published in The Witness, 19 January 2009.