I am trapped in a Magritte canvas… In The Blank Signature, perhaps, where nothing is as it should be. Woman, forest, horse, melding into one. And not. Witty and frightening in the same frame. Or, maybe, Golconda, where it’s raining men (no, not of The Weather Girl variety, though maybe it is?). Faceless bowler hatted men who all look like George Smiley in his trench coat, hunched up under the weather, falling from a cerulean sky onto red rooftops over close-curtained terrace houses.
They painted the subconscious, those surrealists. They captured those parts of our dream world that we visit in our sleep. They drew images from that nether space between sleep and wakefulness, often places we prefer not to visit, places we’d rather were hidden. They exposed our fears, and our desires. They depicted the dream and the nightmare, where very little makes sense. They took everyday objects (Dali, a clock; Max Ernst, a walnut; Magritte, a bowler hat) and turned them into things of memory, of menace – as they might be in a dream state.
And I think to myself…. I am in the grip of a dream, where nothing – and everything – is real. Where the impossible has happened, is happening. I am allergic to myself, to the smell of me, to the taste of me. I breathe out and the stench of something man-made, unclean, chemical is vapour before me. And the very smell of it churns my already unsettled stomach and I retch and retch until a thin stream of bile comes up and out of me, sometimes the colour of the red of the chemo cocktail that has gone into me. And I am repulsed: by the very act of vomiting, and by the smell that won’t leave me, not now – nearly two weeks after the last treatment.
And when I lie, listless and slack eyed on my couch, contemplating nothing, gazing into the middle distance unfocused and idle, I am reminded again of the surrealists, of their cleverness at distorting how we see the world.
If I were to draw myself, I would draw two of me. One looking at the other, but through some distancing object like a telescope dripping blood, or a hole in a wall interspaced by an ocean. The one being looked at would have arms where legs should be, the skin blackened, the pores open and spewing gore. The one looking would be aloof, contemptuous. The one being looked at would be resigned, embarrassed.
I want to change the picture in my head. I want the one doing the looking to be compassionate (if detached) rather than scornful. The one looking through the telescope has to find a way to connect with the one being looked at.
And so this sets me on the path of discovery and brings to mind something my mama used to say.
I don’t often quote my mama, Norma. She liked the cliché. She based her wisdom on all things biblical, invoking the wrath of Jesus often and vociferously. She lived her small life in small, meted out portions. That’s not to say that I didn’t love her. I just don’t quote her because she rarely had anything wise to say.
Except for this platitude (that I have never found use for until recently): Always find the blessing in your current situation, she’d say. Yeah, right!
Like when I was made vitrix ludorum at the end of my matric year, and it so incensed my classmates that they sent me to Coventry, disinvited me from my matric dance and broke my 16-year-old heart. (I can still see the apricot trilobal dress with its faux flower pinned on at breast dip hanging forlornly in my bedroom cupboard; the dress I loved and never got to wear.)
You see, my father was the headmaster of my high school, and my fellow matrics thought that the teachers had voted for me to curry favour with my dad. Or something.
Oh darling, mama said to me as she cradled my weeping head in her lap, life is hard. Just find the blessing in the current situation. I never have. Even now, when I think of that horrible time, I get a lump in my throat. Even now I am saddened by the cruelty of my so called friends. Even now I forgive them reluctantly, only because I know that not letting go hurts me more than them. Collectively.
Or when I played Shen Teh in Brecht’s The Good Woman of Schezwan, and the play tanked and I got the worst reviews… and it didn’t matter that it was 1976 and I was in my first year of drama at the university of Westville in Durban, and all around me people were striking and rioting and toyi-toyi-ing and making a stand against apartheid and on June 16 Hector Pieterson’s young life ended in the Soweto uprising…And I was so bad on stage, it was all I could think about. There I was, playing the part of the prostitute Shen Teh, so torn between morality and kindness that she has to create an alter ego… I was so bad on stage that mama, who loved me unconditionally and without criticism said to me – when the reviews came out: The blessing in this situation is that you now know that you’re no good at being an actress. Actually, darling, you’re really rather bad at it. The blessing (which will reveal itself to you at some later stage) is that you don’t have to waste years going down that path, attempting something that you’re so terrible at. There! Feel better?
I felt so not-better that if I’d been political, I’d have joined an underground movement and headed for one of the training camps in Moscow or Angola, or even Swaziland – though that wouldn’t have been far enough away from the bad reviews, from mama. And I never did get to find the blessing in being ridiculed for my performance of Shen Teh, which made me change the direction of my life, give up my dream to be an actress and settle for a life of words instead. A life diminished, a life stunted too soon. My young life forced into an alternate state of being, something that narrowed my options and made me see myself as a bit of a failure. I couldn’t act. And so I hated myself just a little more. Fat thighs, a size 14 when everyone around me was a size 0. Add “can’t act” to the equation = self loathing. My self esteem in the gutter, 16 turned into 20 into adulthood…
And then I heard that I have cancer. Well that didn’t exactly make me feel special. The universe showing up my weaknesses again. Physical. Again! Not flabby thighs or pot belly this time. Actual killer lump in breast. Finding the blessing was not top of my list.
I have to go back a bit to make sense of what I am about to say. On January, 29, 2007, I checked into rehab. I’d been drinking a bottle of Vodka a day and it was time to stop. I stopped. January 29 next year will mark seven sober years; I consider it my greatest achievement. But, when I stopped drinking, I also lost a large part of who I used to be. Mostly, it was a good thing. The old me was a mean, sharp tongued drunk. The old me was careless of other people’s feelings, of their dignity. The old me gossiped for the benefit of the anecdote. The actual content of the story – truth or lie – mattered less than the witty telling of a tale to a willing audience who let me know that I was being cruel even while they tittered behind their hands. Parties were easy for me, oiled (as I always was) for social interaction by a few stiff party starters in a bottle.
And then I stopped drinking and my life began to shrink. At first I was uncomfortable at parties. Without the grease from the party starters, my party joints creaked and I felt clunky and unwieldy in social settings. Self conscious and gauche, and it never got better as the night wore on. Remember I was going to be sober all the way through so no relief there.
I got lonelier and lonelier. And so I thought a change of scene would do it. Like the story teller sings of Pippin in Simple Joys:
So he ran from all the deeds he’d done, he ran from
Things he’d just begun
He ran from himself, now that’s mighty far to run
Out into the country where he played as a boy
He knew he had to find him some simple joys
He wanted someplace warm and green
We all could use a change of scene
And so I begged my boss to let me come home to Johannesburg (I’d been gone eight years) because I was lonely in PE. I forgot that you take yourself wherever you go.
Looking back on it now, it had nothing to do with PE and everything to do with me. I’d made my life small, so being in Joburg didn’t help the situation. Whereas I’d had a small PE life, I now had a small Joburg life.
I chose to buy an apartment that is enormous, but which – essentially – only has one bedroom, and no doors so that it really is best suited to housing one person. I think my subconscious was insistent on making it as hard as possible for anyone to come to stay. Comfortably. I introduced this ridiculous rule: I was in bed by 9pm, so going out to dinner was a no-no. I was up at 5am, when the world is still asleep. Whereas the old me used to cook, and have lovely dinner parties, I literally didn’t turn my stove on for three years. I shied away from having friends over. My flat became my hermit cave. I got further and further away from everyone else, and from myself. After a while, all but my dearest friends stopped asking me round. I fell off people’s dinner party lists, off their social gathering lists. I completely understood why. It’s annoying to have someone over and over to yours for dinner, with them never reciprocating.
I was so isolated – in my head and in reality – that I began to lose perspective. I’ve always been mildly dogged by gloomy periods – Churchill called his visits from the Black Dog – but now it moved into another space. Death and dying moved into the realm of the possible and I welcomed the thought of it. It would end my half life, my nothing life, my sad and lonely life. It actually became a source of relief, thinking of dying. I never once thought of killing myself. I’m too Catholic for that, too terrified that I would be banished to purgatory forever, never having the chance to get into heaven.
And then I got cancer and rejoined the human race. I want live. I want to celebrate life. I want to reconnect (am reconnecting) to people I love. I want to make a bucket list and fulfil all my dreams – dreams I thought I’d given up on a long time ago. I want to write a novel and see the northern lights and eat warm Mexican churros on a street in Guadalajara. I want to grow old and drive erratically down the main roads of Rome and Paris and read War and Peace and learn how to swim.
When I went public with my cancer (I think it was a subconscious life-saving thing to do) I didn’t realise what the impact would be. On me, mostly. I know now that I needed the support of everyone, old friends, new friends, family.
And I have had it: from friends I have not seen since university, old boyfriends, service providers I rely on to paint my toes or cut my hair, members of my family, stranger. People have responded with such warmth and love that I am blown away.
I am finding the blessing in my current situation. The blessing is that while my left ear has gone deaf, while my right eye is losing the ability to see, while I am vomiting over the toilet bowl… I have rejoined the human race. I love my life. I want to live. And I am eternally grateful.
I finally get it, Mama. If you look hard enough you will always find the blessing in the current situation!