Category Archives: On being

What I write about when I am not writing

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I am nursing a wound. You can’t see it, but I can feel it. It’s on the lower right hand side of my heart. Sometimes it spreads to my solar plexus and it hurts to the touch. Sometimes it sinks lower and makes my belly ache and churn. Today it is a cold whisper, as if my heart has caught a chill.

I prefer not to write from this place. To write from here is like giving oxygen to embers allowing them burn me up all over again. But I also know that to ignore this place entirely is fuel of another kind. Ignore it long enough and it’s as if someone has tossed paraffin on the embers while everyone was out. The house burns down.

I know the content of the pain. And I understand that one of the reasons I can’t write about it is because of that content. Beneath the ache and the chill is hurt and anger towards those in South African society who, on some days, not all, have treated me with a mixture of haughty righteousness, lack of consideration and rudeness. The hurt and anger are linked to how I can never seem to find the right words to stand up for myself because there is some unspoken rule that because I am white and these people are black, that I am being given a taste of how black people are treated all the time, and that this treatment is part of my learning/punishment.

I am finding it difficult to find the line between what is fair and what is not, what is playful mocking and what is meanness, what is a lesson I need to learn and what is punishment for my behaviour or that of some other person with a white skin, and so I have pressed pause for a while on trying to fathom things out through words and have turned to my other ways of working things out: silence and craft.

Silence is an old friend of mine. Growing up in a house full of anger, silence was where I went to be safe. Speaking was dangerous, it was so easy to say the wrong thing and to become a victim of wrath, so instead I would curl myself in patches of sunshine, on my bed, or close to a tree, and sit alone, in silence. As an adult, I have learned, slowly, not to just sit in the silence but to allow that silence to move through me, for that silence to fill up in me, like hot water in a cup, and allow that silence to dissolve the hard grains of those feelings, so I can feel them fully, and then allow them to pass out of me. That is the practice of meditation that I have learned, and continue to learn, with the help of the Buddhist teachers Pema Chodron and Tara Brach.

Craft is also an old friend. I started patching pieces of African fabric together from the around the age of 15. I loved the bright, chaotic designs of African wax prints and working with it felt like I was bringing the pulse of Joburg into the sleepy South African suburbia where I grew up. It made me feel connected. This week I picked up a book on my bookshelf by the Californian patchwork and colour guru, Kaffe Fasset. There was one quilt in the book that particularly struck me – it had bright, clashing colours and wasn’t a complicated repetitive pattern but was rather long strips placed in an irreverent, who-needs-rules kind of way. The accompanying text said it took its inspiration from the Gee’s Bend quiltmakers.

Within a Google heartbeat I was down the rabbit hole into the world of Gee’s Bend, a remote community in rural Alabama surrounded on three sides by the Alabama River and inhabited by descendants of slaves. The African-American women of Gee’s Bend have been making quilts here since the middle of the 19th century, in a style labelled “my way”. Guided by personal vision and creativity, rather than by rules and patterns, the Gee’s Bend quilters create abstract, improvised quilts with unusual designs, colours and rhythms. Think Mondrian on ecstacy.

You can explore the quilts for yourself here:

http://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/gees-bend-quiltmakers

An hour later I was upstairs, scissors in hand, remnants of treasured fabrics scattered across the bed. A pillowcase from my friend Jolene. Discarded purple batik from Jolene’s mum. A piece of pink embroidered silk I found in Florence when researching Gucci for a writing assignment. Polka dots from Ikea. A piece of sequinned fabric from Delhi, bought on the weekend I spent alone, shopping in the city, after a Buddhist pilgrimage. A piece of jacquard from my favourite flea market in France. And of course, an African wax print from downtown Joburg. All the pieces with a story, and all the stories being patched together to become another tale.

Quilting reminds me of writing. When you write, you take little chunks of thoughts and feelings, and piece them together so that they solve a puzzle of meaning and make sense of the world that little bit more, for yourself, for others. When you make a quilt you pick and place, move and shape, until something inside you clicks and it feels right to the eye, and right for the soul. The words and behaviour of others are not ours to choose or change. But how we respond to them is.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The vilifier is back

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I took a break from Unpopular Essays for a few months because it can be exhausting writing essays that you know will stir up bile in others. Sometimes you just need to walk away so you can breathe again.

The trigger for my break was a piece I wrote in March, in which I reflected on two Consciousness Cafés that I had recently been part of – one that I had co-facilitated, with a mixed group of 70 South Africans on Human Rights Day, and one that I had facilitated alone with a small group of white South Africans who wanted to experiment with having a whites-only conversation about the legacy of apartheid.

As a facilitator, my job is to guide the group to find the deeper wisdom that is trying to emerge (none of us know what this wisdom will be when we begin), and what had struck me was, despite the fact that the cafés were held at opposite ends of South Africa with totally different groups of people, similar wisdom emerged from both groups.

The wisdom was that privilege, in whatever way we have it or define it (and it was agreed privilege was more than just wealth), is not something that we should destroy, but something that we should become aware of and use to the advantage of others, not just ourselves. Careful use of our personal privilege was the ticket to a fairer society for all.

I thought it was a powerful and insightful reflection, and I wrote a piece about it, and then asked my Consciousness Café colleague if I could share this essay on our Facebook page. The heartache came when she said no.

I immediately understood why she refused. As she saw it, this was not a perspective that would sit well with the black radicals. The growing narrative from the black radicals was that privilege was unjust, and white people, especially, should be stripped of their privilege. The way to a more fair society was through restitution and to some extent, revenge. To post an article that was counter to the black radical narrative on the Consciousness Café page would enrage them and potentially be bad PR for Consciousness Café.

My arms became heavy. I slunk down on the couch and felt that giving-up feeling.

This wasn’t the first time in history that the wisdom of the crowd was to be ignored or silenced. It happens all the time, every day, around the world. Shifts in consciousness begin on the fringe and it takes a long time for new collective wisdom to be born. In South Africa, the voice of the black radicals was relatively new, and it was claiming centre stage. And fair enough, grab the limelight while you can, but to silence a point of view because the current populists won’t like it is a mistake.

South Africa veers from “one solution” to another. Apartheid. The Rainbow Nation. The Frantz Fanon Approach. It is a society that abhors complexity and nuance – to its detriment.

Interestingly, in the few months I took away from the page, I received some amazing teaching from the world.

I went to India on a yoga retreat, and found myself, at the ashram, surrounded by 15 people who I couldn’t get along with, and who didn’t like me. This never happens. My husband always laughs that I could make friends in a toilet, but I had travelled all the way to India, hoping to find solace in the company of like-minded yogis, and had ended up the pariah.

I then went to a global WorldWork training event in Greece, and again, found myself in a group of 15 people who labelled me “the vilifier” and “the judge”. For the whole week, until a breakthrough on the last day, they detested me because I was pushing them to confront uncomfortable truths within themselves.

When I reflected later, I realised that the two experiences were connected but different. In India, I was disliked for no obvious reason, a personality clash. In Greece, I experienced being loathed for a reason. And I can say with confidence, I prefer the latter.

So I’m back. With a bit more chutzpah and insight. I am certain that at times, Unpopular Essays will upset friends, allies and enemies, but my aim is not to make you like me, but to give you something to think about.

How liberating. 

 

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The space within

I am struggling more and more with the South African story. With the current sentiment  that to be a conscious white, you must be a silent white. That unless you are a representative for the views of black people and acting as an ambassadors for “their” pain, you are a racist, or at least, deeply mistaken. I am feeling stymied and stifled and I feel my consciousness shrinking rather than expanding.

After a weekend of sitting with an anguished mind, I asked the universe to send me a wise man, and yesterday it, in did in the form of L, a fellow dialogue facilitator and a black man. We sat under a tree in the oldest garden in South Africa and he told me about his recent diagnosis of diabetes, and with his struggle with being labelled “ill” and feeling ill. He did not want either to be true, but both were, so in his wise, way, he leant forward towards those feelings,  while at the same time asking himself what he could do to get better. Both accepting and seeking a solution at the same time.

He then talked of other people he had recently met who had been sitting with diabetes for 15+years and how he was dismayed by their resignation to their fate. He then shook his head and wondered if it was a cultural thing, and went on to talk about a “victim mentality” which he feels is ingrained in the majority of black people’s consciousness.

“It’s hardwired into us,” he said.

He gave a metaphor. “If someone has R30 of airtime on their phone, they will spend R25 complaining about the problem, and only R5 trying to find a solution. But by the time they get to that R5, they are so exhausted by all the complaining, they have run out of energy and give up. The laws of attraction say that you get what you give, and black people frequently operate within a negative consciousness.”

I recognised what he was talking about. Someone has to fill in a form but they would rather spend 10 minutes complaining about having to do it, instead of just doing it. Why not just do it quick and celebrate that it is over? I do not see it as exclusive to Africa though. I have seen it plenty in Scotland. But L felt it was more prominent in the black consciousness.

“Our celebration comes before. Complaining is our way of making ourselves feel better about the fact that we have to do it at all,” says L.

I told him he should write about this, but he joked that he would be castrated for saying it. He added that whenever he suggested to black people that they lean into their pain, ask themselves what really lies under the pain around filling in that form, they go crazy. They reply that black people are always in pain and it’s stupid and wrong of him to suggest that they feel their pain even more deeply. Also, they will say, they know what causes the pain. The white man. The lack of opportunity. The poor living conditions. Things that others have caused and others have not fixed. The pain comes from outside. The problems are not in me. They are out there.

I realised something else as we sat under the tree.

L and I were talking about the structural challenges of co-running an organisation like Consciousness Café, and L asked me why I did this work. Didn’t I need to admit to myself that I was in it for profit?

“No,” I said. “It might be hard to believe but it’s not profit that motivates me, it’s belonging. I want to belong here. I want us to be able to see each other. It’s another form of selfishness yes, but that’s what is driving me.”

My Consciousness Café colleague and I had talked about this the previous weekend and she had told me that I had to accept that this would never happen: “If you expect the black movers and shakers of Joburg to accept you and not see you as privileged, you need to know now that this will never happen. Never. You need to accept that. And then you need to ask yourself again why you do this work.”

Speaking to L, I realised that my own desperation to belong was blocking my compassion. Not in the dialogue space, there my compassion flows with ease (perhaps from years of being a journalist who is naturally interested in the stories of others), but when it comes to the structural positioning of this work in society, and the relationship with others who do this work, some of whom have got out their guns and criticised me for trying. When it comes to those encounters, I realise my compassion is thin. My compassion dries up because it feels like they are screaming “YOU DO NOT BELONG!” while I am begging to belong.

It becomes all about me.

I thought I had learnt this lesson already. At my 40th birthday I told a crowded room that I had made peace with belonging. That I accepted that I had to find belonging in writing, in creativity, in my craft and in nature. That since I was not a nationalist, I had to stop looking for belonging under the South African sky.

I thought I was there, but I was just flirting with this new consciousness, it had not bedded in yet, and this fledgling consciousness had buckled and bent under the level of anger currently being directed at white people.

Yesterday, as I sat under the tree in the oldest garden in South Africa with L, he helped me lean into it, name it, see it, and as I did, I felt it lift off my chest.

I may wish to belong here, but the fact is, in the eyes of the majority of the people of this country, I do not truly belong. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me: “Where are you from?”

So once again I commit to letting go – or at least, lightening my hold – of my need to belong.

And as we create a little bit of space between ourselves and our deepest desire, our compassion grows and we can breathe again.

Follow me on Twitter@writerclb

 

Poem

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I am Afro-Celt but neither

Not born in either

Leopard legs

Tartan heart

Sometimes here

Often far

A world citizen? No

The phrase seems thin

The craving is, for belonging

I see you

But do you see me?

Trying to become

What it feels to be

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

Let it go, Let it go…

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Last week I turned 40. To celebrate, I blew a month’s salary on a Bollywood party in a hotel in Scottish Highlands for my closest friends. We draped ourselves in sequins and saris, glitter and velvet, and danced to bhangra while the snow outside turned to ice. As I held her hand, my three-year-old goddaughter whispered to her mum that I looked like Elsa from Frozen, and in that moment, I felt like a queen in my own Narnia, surrounded by magic, laughter and love.

Two days later, on my actual birthday, I sat alone, on the shores of Loch Carron. It was a day of complete stillness. No clouds. The sun blinding but without warmth. All around the mountains were topped with snow, and for hour upon hour, I sat on a bench in absolute silence, my legs wrapped in a soft, grey blanket, my head tucked into a Harris tweed hat, my eyes intermittently open and closed, until the sun finally dipped behind the mountain and it became too cold to be outside.

The stillness was tangible. Audible. At times throughout the day it felt like I disappeared inside of it, and today I am still craving it, so much so that I postponed my flight to South Africa. I was supposed to leave this afternoon, but I can’t bear the thought of moving across the planet, which is ironic, because for 40 years, that’s all I did.

Run away. Run towards. I ran from a childhood sense that I was tolerated but not wanted, desperately seeking a place where I would belong without question, where I would be loved with certainty. My running began as a way to survive, but it became a habit.

Last year, I ran back to my childhood city, Johannesburg. In its energy, I felt my own. A city of craving, a city unfixed. I wrapped its skyline around me and said here, this is where I belong. I am home.

But South Africa is a contested place, and as I walked her streets and rode her buses, I realised that at this moment in history, for a person with a white skin to claim belonging on this soil, is at best impertinence, at worst a subtle declaration of war. My running had led me back to a place similar to the one I had forever being running from – where I felt tolerated, but not wanted.

And maybe that’s nothing to do with South Africa, and everything to do with me. Maybe whenever we run away from something, we drag it with us. And maybe that means we continually end up in the same place, just in different guises.

As I sat on that bench in total stillness, I asked myself what home and belonging would look like, if it wasn’t tied to a place. It felt like an important question. A crucial question. We live at a time when nationalism is on the march. When angry men and women leaders around the world are taking to podiums to declare that some people are not wanted and should not be tolerated, that they must get off this land and go back to their land, despite the fact that the history of humanity is a history of migrations.

If home and belonging are just linked to place then the world becomes narrow and confined, and there will be more places where we don’t belong, than where we do.

But unhook home and belonging from one place, and it becomes an immense, interior landscape.

I’m home when I knit and when I sew.

I’m home when I daydream and gather stories.

I’m home when my best friends agree to wear saris in the snow, and when a 3-year-old sings “Let it go” on my 40th birthday, and I discover an unlikely new hero in a Disney princess…

[Make sure you play it and sing-a-long]

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The next pot of gold

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I am heading towards depression again. I can feel it hounding at my ankles. Self doubt. That feeling of overwhelm. Panic in my chest. The future stretches ahead of me, blank and uncertain. I want to switch the world off.

This last year has been an attempt to be in the world. Actively, passionately. I am struggling now with the things that I have found.

Realisations that my kind, the white kind, have done horrid things to themselves, to each other, to those who do not look like them, and that standing here in my white skin, I am often thrown in the heap with them. I am white. I am them.

Realisations that in the name of progress, of a better life, people have done horrendous acts. That the worst atrocities – the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags, Pol Pot’s mass murders – were all done in the name of goodness, because the perpetrators believed that this was the way to make the world a better, safer, fairer place. And now Brexit. Trump. The burning of books at Wits. The self-righteous insistence that the end justifies the means.

Realisations that people pretend to kill others for amusement, for fun, to relax.

What is this world where people believe that one person’s wellbeing will be improved by the destruction of another’s?

I am wearied by this. Wearied by this world.

Last week I went to the Biodata World Congress at the Wellcome Campus in Cambridge.  Genomics is the study of the variations and mutations in our human DNA in a bid to understand ‘the language of God’. I am writing an overview of the world’s largest genomic projects.

I was struck by these things:

  1. The reference human genome – the first dictionary that we made for this new field of research – is 96% made up of the genes of a Caucasian man.
  2. Nature abhors racism. It abhors sticking to your own kind. The more you breed with those who are close to you, the more it makes you into a mutant. Nature prefers diversity.
  3. Genomics is the next arms race. Fuelled by a belief that if we can figure out which genetic mutation causes which disease we can make drugs that will stop /fix/block that genetic mutation.
  4. We are so afraid of death, we are in danger of replacing it with a fear of life. Come here Human 4579kB, it seems that you are at risk of these diseases. We recommend this pill.
  5. We are mining ourselves as a way to make money. We are the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Weary, so weary.

 

 

 

 

The problem with ideals

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This past week I’ve been reading Svetlana Alexievich’s book Second-Hand Time for which she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Alexievich is a Belarussian investigative journalist who spent more than a decade interviewing the citizens of the former USSR –  most of whom were previously card-carrying members of the Communist Party – about how they feel about post-Soviet freedom.

Every night, since beginning to read the book, I have gone to bed in a pique, caught somewhere between shock, horror and a deep, deep despair.

Why?

Because their ideal was beautiful.

“Houses made of crystal and aluminium… Crystal Palaces! Lemons and orange groves in cities. There are almost no elderly, people get old very late in life because life is so wonderful. Machines do all the work, people just drive and control them. The machines sow seeds and knit… The fields are thick with verdure and bounty. Flowers as tall as trees. Everyone is happy. Joyful. Everyone goes around in fine clothes, men and women alike, leading free lives of labour and pleasure. There’s enough space and work for everyone…”

And what they did to achieve it was grotesque.

“I met my old comrade in prison… Nikolai Verkhovets, a [Communist] Party member since 1924. He taught at a worker’s school. He’d been among friends, in a tight circle… someone was reading Pravda [the newspaper] aloud, and it said that the Bureau of the Central Committee had held a hearing on the fertilisation of mares. Then he went and made a joke about how the Central Committee had nothing better to do that worry about mare fertilization. They came for him that same night. Slammed his fingers in a door and broke them like they were pencils. They’d keep him in a gas mask for days at a time. I don’t know how to talk about these things today… All in all it was barbarism. Humiliating. You’re nothing but a piece of meat lying in a pool of urine.”

The book documents more and more horrors of indivduals sacrified for the ideal.

A Ukrainian woman who ate her own child after the Ukrainians were sieged into famine for refusing collectivisation of the farms.

The account of an old Jewish man who, as a child, had escaped from a mass grave where his fellows were being buried alive. Moscow saw the Jews as traitors. They were to be annihilated.

And betrayal after betrayal of family, neighbours, friends who believed in the dream of a future, better, wonderful society, more than they believed in family ties, loyalty and neighbourliness.

Most disturbing of all, is how many of those, whose lives were destroyed in the name of the ideal, continued to believe in it. And still do.

“I spent almost a year in prison… And then they released me, dismissing all the charges… They called me into the district Party committee. ‘Unfortunately we will not be able to return your wife to you. She’s died [She had also been imprisoned as a so-called counter-revolutionary]. But you can have your honour back.’ And they handed me back my Party membership card. And I was happy. I was so happy…”

[Here the writer comments that she can never understand him – never.]

“You can’t judge us according to logic. You accountants! You have to understand. You can only judge us according to the laws of religion. Faith! Our faith will make you jealous. What greatness do you have in your life? You have nothing. Just comfort. Anything for a full belly…”

Alexievich’s book has made me reflect deeply on the ideals that I hold.

In South Africa, we have been working towards the ideal of non-racialism, and this book has forced me to contemplate:  who is being sacrificed for this ideal? Is there someone whose life is worse off, because of this ideal?

Recently I interviewed a young woman active in the #FeesMustFall student protests.
“I hate non-racialism,” she said, explaining how she views any attempt to turn a blind eye to race in South Africa as an attempt to ignore the injustices that have created a legacy of economic inequality.

Her hatred of this ideal disturbed me, but as I reflect on the Soviet dream, and what was done in its name, I am forcing myself to ask: what is being done and perpetuated in the name of non-racialism?

Mandela drew a line in the sand and said we could start afresh from here. We wouldn’t look back. And this past week I have found myself wondering:  who is sacrified when we push away the past and ask that everyone forgets about it and moves on?

The ideal of apartheid was swiftly followed by the ideal of non-racialism. But the past is a poltergeist. It is there and not there. It continues to hurt the living every day.

What ideal do we serve when we look away when another child is born into poverty in the township? What ideal do we serve when we dismiss the fact that another young man, without a decent education or decent prospects, has joined a gang and committed rape?

What are our ideals worth if they are more valuable to us than the present lives of our fellow man?

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We are not the same, are we?

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A koan is a statement that is both true and not true. The Buddhists contemplate koans as a way to reach enlightenment. Put simply, koans are head fucks.

For the past month, I have been getting uncomfortable with this koan:
“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all our histories are different, we are not the same.”

Another koan you can make out of this is:
“We are all the same in that we are all unique.”

Why does this make me uncomfortable? Because as a child of the Rainbow Nation which has non-racialism enshrined in its constitution, I have spent the last 22 years trying to undo the apartheid conditioning that drummed into our conscious and unconscious minds – through stealth, subliminal messages, structural inequalities and spatial positioning – that white people were different to black people. In fact, according to the message, we were so different, it was imperative that we were kept apart, and that we only inhabit the same spaces when we needed something from each other – mostly a labour-cash exchange. The only permitted relationship was transactional. For everything else – friendship, love, sex, laughter, worship, contemplation, education – you must stick to those who look like you.

Nelson Mandela’s vision changed that. We were catapulted into a new age where we were encouraged to not give any meaning to the colour of someone’s skin. We were encouraged not to make assumptions about someone based on their skin colour. Our new goal was to become a colour-blind nation. A goal long-since adopted by countries like the UK.

A month ago I interviewed a Fallist – the South African students leading the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests – for a piece I was writing about the shifting South African narrative. She agreed to speak to me as a favour, because, as she bluntly put it: “We are done with white people telling our story.”

She then went on to tell me how she hates non-racialism. That non-racialism is just a license for the privileged classes to enjoy a clear conscience while turning a blind eye to the continued suffering and economic struggle of black South Africans who have ended up there because of historic racism.

As a wealthy, successful black woman I know in her 50s, puts it: “Everytime someone says ‘I don’t even think of you as black’, I want to scream. I had to crawl on my hands and knees to get where I am today. When someone says they don’t see my skin colour, it makes me feel unseen all over again.”

I thought about this a lot over the past week while in Bulgaria on a travel-writing assignment, travelling around by steam train in the carriages that once belonged to King Boris III, the monarch/dictator who was murdered by Hitler’s acolytes in 1943 because he refused to send the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps. He was posthumously awarded the Jewish National Fund’s Medal of the Legion of Honor.

Bulgaria might be the ugliest country on earth. Not in terms of its natural beauty – it has its share of mountains, trees and a lovely spot on the Black Sea – but in terms of post-Soviet urban decay. Everything that was once believed to be grand, is cracked and crumbling. Apartment blocks with windows like eyes in mourning, mascara streaming down their face. It is not kind to make fun of another’s poverty, but being in Bulgaria is an aesthetic onslaught, your eyes constantly darting around, desperate to find a shred of beauty. You take pictures of flowers to ease the panic.

The Bulgarians have had a tough half a millennia. For 400 years they were oppressed by the Ottomans.

“We were slaves in our own country,” said the tour guide who showed us around the old town of Plovdiv, one of the few pretty enclaves in the whole country.

The word slave actually comes from Slavic, which describes the languages spoken in this part of the world.

In Sofia, the tour guide showed us a stone church built into the ground.

“The roofs of our churches could be no higher than a Turk on horseback,” explained the guide. Mindless, humiliating oppression. Your god must be lower than our people.

When the Bulgarians finally got rid of the shackles in 1878 they adopted an advanced democratic constitution though had to ask the Russians to help run the administration because they were without the skills and systems.

Later, during the first and second world wars, the Bulgarians made the mistake of siding with the Germans and after the second war, found themselves under the control of a new leader – the Soviets. And so entered a new period of repression under Communism. When the USSR began to collapse in 1989, 2.5 million Bulgarians – the so-called intelligentsia – left for Canada, USA, Europe and Australia, doubting that this country would thrive under democracy.

“Romania and Bulgaria were the only European countries who didn’t try and rebel against the Soviet state. That tells you something about the mindset,” says a Bulgarian physicist who I meet later on a plane. He fled to Canada in 1989 with the implosion of the USSR. “This is a nihilistic nation. Negative thinking runs deep.”

Which brings me back to my koan.

“We are all the same in so much as we are all shaped by our history, but because all of our histories are different, we are not the same.”

In the past year, at Consciousness Café – the pop-up dialogue café I co-run in South Africa to encourage frank conversation about racism and other ongoing injustices – black South Africans speak often about internalised oppression and the burdens of self-doubt and inferiority that people carry, often unconsciously, because of the legacy of apartheid.

Epigenetics – the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself – has even started to find that it is true, that we carry the anxiety and emotional strife of our parents in our DNA, just as much as we carry their facial features.

So where does this leave us, as we try to push forward and build a world where we treat each other with equal respect? How can we be both conscious of the long-term effects of the historical oppression on the psychology of members of our society, while at the same time, not always judging them on their history?

How can we be non-judgemental while also being conscious of the story that may lie behind someone’s race or gender, class or culture?

Koans are not meant to have answers. They are meant to be sandpaper for our minds. To make us continually aware of the complexity of existence and of how there are no absolute truths.

So I leave this here. I have no prescription. Except to always question authority.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

 

The perils of the older man

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When I was 27 I met a man twice my age and fell in love. Four years later he proposed and I said yes.

“I always knew you would marry an older man,” my mum said.

She might have known, but I didn’t. In fact, I had never planned to get married.

“The biggest love affair was the one you can have with the world,” I would often scribble in my journal.

But in Gavin Paterson Bell, Scottish, former war correspondent, travel journalist, rarely shaken nor stirred, I met my match.

This past week, on a plane to Sofia, I asked him why he asked me to marry him.

“I sensed a kindred spirit, someone adventurous, thoughtful. I also thought you were honest and had good values.”

But why did you want to marry me? I probed.

He thought for a while.

“I wanted a companion to share my life with, and I wanted to share your life. For all your bravado, I sensed a sensitivity and a vulnerability and I wanted to be there as a protector. And I got a sense that you wouldn’t make too many demands on me. You were an independent spirit and wouldn’t follow me around.”

So there you have our union. A marriage of dreamers and travellers, of protectors and independents. Comfortably together, comfortably apart.

Why do I tell you this?

Because although our version of marriage is one that has ample space for dreams, I was recently reminded how society has a less expansive version of the wedded union.

I have long wanted to buy a nest in my childhood home of South Africa. A soul home where I can retreat from the hurly burly of the northlands, and spend more and more time.

A few weeks ago I found a beautiful property in my hometown of Joburg, and applied for a mortgage, planning to put down a deposit using equity from a Scottish flat that I had invested in before we got married. My money, my mission, but the South African banks shook their collective heads and pushed away my application form.

Not only were they ill at ease by my self-employed status (why do banks penalise the entrepreneurs and reward the job-worths?) but because I was married in community of property, and because my husband was beyond “mortgage age”, it meant that I was also not eligible for a mortgage. It did not matter that we operate separate bank accounts and mine contain sufficient funds to bankroll the mortgage. What mattered in the eyes of the bank was that my husband was an older man, and I a married woman.

It’s not the first time that my dreams, desires and needs have been outranked.

Five years ago, when I was 34, my husband was diagnosed with throat cancer and prostate cancer. Before his treatment regime began, we froze some of his sperm so the chemotherapy wouldn’t damage all of his swimmers.

As we filled in the consent forms at Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary, the consultant informed us that, should we one day decide on IVF, we would have to pay for it ourselves because state-funded fertility treatment is not permitted for men of a certain age. It was not regarded as an acceptable use of state funds.

The fact that I was in my mid-30s and about to lose my husband’s virility to a killer disease was irrelevant. My bid for matriarchy was outranked by a patriarchy that saved no rank for the older stags.

“You could probably appeal,” said the consultant.

I shrugged. We were squaring up to a bigger challenge and my energy was needed elsewhere. I signed the forms and walked away.

We have since considered adoption, and until recently, that too was off the table because the mean age of the parents had to be below 45. Since the day we got married, we did not qualify. Fortunately in Scotland, this has now changed and today the rule is that the younger parent be below 45.

Still, I find it perplexing that we live in a world where single women can get mortgages, adopt children and are eligble for state-funded IVF (in some NHS boroughs at least), whereas her over there with the Silver Fox on her arm, all she’s eligible for is an upgrade.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb

The human race is on. Don’t come last

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In the middle of last week I hit the wall. I know the wall well because I’ve been here before. A lot. There were a few obvious reasons why I went splat. I was exhausted after co-facilitating an intense Women’s Day Consciousness Café. I was sad because I had just waved my mum off at the airport after spending a few days together. And I was lonely because my husband was all the way over on the other side of the world.

“Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness,” my husband says gently, whenever I go splat – a line from the Desiderata – but it wasn’t fear that was gurning around inside my head, but rather an abyss-like what’s-the-point-of-it-all emptiness, accompanied by that old voice: “You are a failure”.

Ugh. Back here. Again. That evening, after dragging my sack-like body to a yoga class, I came home and instead of listening to the chiding and goading, I decided to research why I was here again. What was the link between depression and that pointless feeling?

As I read through psychology articles, I came across a paragraph on PsychCentral.com that hit me in the belly.

“How can you increase your sense of ‘worth’? You cannot earn it through what you do. Happiness is not obtained solely by your achievements. Self-worth based on accomplishments is ‘pseudo-esteem’; it’s simply not the real thing”.

I put down my phone and stared at the wall.

Since I left home at 17, I have associated my value as a person with what I do. And those who know me, know I do a lot. Always a project on the go, always building networks, always connecting with friends, always doing. Somewhere in my mind – pretty close to the surface, in fact – is the belief that if I do good things, then I will matter to the world. And that if I don’t, I won’t.

The article went on to explain that those who measure their self-esteem against achievements are constantly having to do more to try and have any self value at all. This constant chasing of self-worth linked to praise and achievement leads to a never-ending cycle of excitement and disappointment. And burn out.

Which is where I was now. On the couch. Barely able to lift an arm.

Over the past five years, I have been drawn to meditation and Buddhist teachings as a way of coping. A sentiment often offered up for reflection is: “We are human beings, not human doings”.

It’s a teaching that I thought I had understood, and applied. But in that moment I realised  that I had been applying it through my own particular pair of lenses.  In order to embrace more being, I had decided that I had to do more relaxing things – more meditation, more yoga, more playing in the sun. But, of course, to interpret it like that just adds more ‘doings’ to the value equation, growing the list of things to value yourself by. Meditation. Tick. Juice. Tick. Sunshine. Tick. God, I rock!

So what does the teaching actually mean?

According to the psychology article, for the good of our mental health, we need to look inside ourselves for our self-worth, valuing ourselves not on what we do, but who we are. Are we kind, loyal, creative, strong, patient, graceful, funny, thoughtful? Choose your good (we’ve all got a few of them) and value yourself on yourself, not on constantly shifting goal posts outside of yourself. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do challenging and exciting things with our lives, but we shouldn’t ascribe all our value as a person to those things.

It was a light-bulb moment for me. I’m still contemplating it – how my wonky sense of self-worth links to my upbringing, my culture, and our world. I grew up in a Yorkshire family in apartheid South Africa. In the 18th century Yorkshire was the heartland of the industrial revolution, and I am a descendent of workers. In my family, having a job, being a provider, is fundamental. I was weaned on the idea that you cannot have pride or dignity if you cannot provide for yourself. “You need to stand on your own two feet, lass.”

And I’m not unique there. We live within an economic system which has competition at its core. The human race is on. Don’t come last. Capitalism firmly equates our value as people with what we do. But it’s killing us. It’s the reason I keep falling on my face with exhaustion and disappointment.

For too long I – and so, so many others – have relied on applause for our self-worth, when what we really need is a wee pat on the back from ourselves. Mine, for being a kind and honest soul.

That is good enough.

Follow me on Twitter @writerclb