Somehow I’ll Find My Way Home

I spend long times dwelling on the questions of being and belonging, in a place, in a time or within a group. And after over half a century on this earth, I realize that I relate most to people who have similar questions about belonging. I gradually drifted from people who closely identified with ideals, from a nationalistic or religious angle. My nature is a questioning one, and I feel that my personality, my likes and dislikes are not fixed. Nothing ever remains the same so why should people relate closely to identities and groups they did not even choose.

If we can rethink our choices of careers, partners, friends and favourite activities, why can’t we revise our ideas of home, culture, religion and tribe? The identities we were born with were imposed on us and we should have the power to question and change them. If I take this thinking further I can venture to say that the least interesting people I know are those who were born into certain categories of existence and spent their lives defending them and trying to tell me and others that theirs was the only way to live. When I am faced with such arguments I mostly nod my head sadly and wonder about where their convictions came from when they haven’t tried other options. The most powerful arguments of this type come from religious or nationalistic camps. It is easy to get trapped into logical fallacies when you proclaim your way as the only way, given that you have tried no other options. That is why religious propaganda and missionary work often relies on converts who have found their true saviours in Allah, Jesus or Jehovah after being failed by one of the former or by any other styles of belief or non-belief that exist in the world today.

The most compelling spiritual stories are about people who have spent a long time on their journey and altered their destination or worldview to arrive where they are. None of the inspiring people we know was born into the lifestyle and existence that inspired us. We are mostly inspired by change, by moving from one state into the next and this in essence is what we seek for our spiritual life.

I type these words now as I look outside my window into a back courtyard of a European residential building. The neighbouring buildings are hiding behind the green veil of tall trees swaying in the breeze. The oak trees are still carrying their full foliage and haven’t yet turned colour and I am looking forward to the autumn palette that I have not seen in many years.

My own journey of belonging is taking another turn, and I now live in Europe. I still feel the pain of leaving Africa. Today I re-organised some of my things, most of which are still packed in suitcases. I came across some gifts I received and items I cherished. The vibrant colours of Africa spilled out of my luggage from shirts, clothing items, kikoys, shopping bags, and masks. The ache is still there, and I miss the friendly faces of my Kenyan friends who became like family to me. But I also notice that I am slowly making this city my own. I walk the streets and see myself in many people, the crazy, the non-conformist, the woman who wears fluffy fur sandals in the mall, and the woman who sings audibly as she awaits the traffic light to change colour. I see myself in the ageing man with a pot belly wearing his socks with his sandals and in the young-looking grandma choosing her three apples carefully in the market.

I love the colourful markets and the niches of counter-culture I discover every day. I have even developed a secret admiration for graffiti artists and those who stick copies of their poems on the bridges that cross the river and its canals.

I used to identify as African, defying my son who branded me with cultural appropriation. I still relate to the simple African lifestyle, to the spirit of the good people, their patience and benevolence. How they are ready to welcome a stranger into their lives and make him or her feel at home. I felt at home in Kenya, and I believe that I shall return to visit often. But after over two decades of moving places, countries and continents, I learned that the only home I need to make for myself is within my own heart. I learned to welcome and accept myself at every stage of my life, and acknowledge that I had a blessed one. I am lucky to be where I am now, and I was lucky to stay six years in Kenya. I now know that I was even lucky for my four years in New York. In those four years I did not learn to befriend the city and its people, but now I know that it was possible to find my niche even in that wild city. I could have hidden somewhere from its blatant consumerist culture and found a space where art and counter-culture thrive on the challenge the city’s existence created.

There is always a place to call home. And it changes with time. Ten years ago, I visited South Africa for the first time after moving to New York. My friend and her children met me at Cape Town airport. They held signs that welcomed me and my son home, decorated with stars, hearts, and glitter. The childish colourful drawing and words touched me deeply, and I kept these signs for a long time. When I moved to Nairobi I stuck the welcome signs on the wall of my bedroom. The rising sun shone on them every morning, and I gazed upon them every night as I drifted to sleep. The symbolism of the sign was that I was truly home, safely in my bed, in Africa.

I gave up that symbol after six years. I now understand that a gypsy like me might always be on the lookout for a home. That the home that I am looking for might not be an actual place, just a feeling that I have when I like myself just as I am in this moment. And somehow I’ll find my way home. Somehow, I will be going somewhere.

Help Me Out

August will mark the five years anniversary to my arrival in Cape Town, a time when I finally faced up to the fact that perhaps I did not want to go on with the status quo of my marriage. You may say, and correctly that it took me a long time to realize it, but well, that is the way things were.

From where I am sitting now I shake my head in wonder. How on earth was I bullied to think for nine years that I was to blame for all the ills of this relationship. How did I ever accept the verdict of my husband and his judgment on everything when I was an adult with a healthy common sense myself. It all goes down to upbringing and culture. My mother – bless her and keep her healthy- is the most wonderful woman in the world but by her example she encouraged a subservience to the male head of the family, and unfortunately for myself and my sister we did not have any other examples to a healthy balanced relationship. If you add to that the fact that my ex is 13 years my senior with that much more experience than myself, a female who had a very sheltered upbringing, you may understand where my feeling of inferiority came from. Regardless, of the reasons I was intimidated into thinking that it was always me to blame until East London.

I am often reprimanded about my fondness for East London, a sleepy town in the Southern African province of the Eastern Cape. Admitting that you lived there is apparently extremely uncool.  East London to me is the place where I finally rose up emotionally to my chronological age. It was a long, long time coming.

I will always remember East London for its rolling dunes and beautiful beaches, for the twin rivers that border it and for the simple uncomplicated people who live there. One day I will go there again with someone I love whether it is a partner or a son it does not matter, but I would like to show someone what I found there… I found myself.

It was a long journey that I made alone, without the help of a mother, a sister, a trusted girlfriend or even an agony aunt, but I did have a therapist. It was back in July 2005 that I saw a therapist in East London, I tried desperately to speak to someone and even in such a sleepy hollow as this town -or perhaps exactly for that reason- therapists were booked for months in advance. This one had a slot after two weeks, maybe she was not that good. The only thing I remember about her place is the cream-colored couch and the light pastels of her consultation room. During the hour session, the woman did not speak much she just listened and commented and in that hour I articulated all the negative feelings accumulated throughout six years of marriage. The therapist made the appropriate noises and comments throughout and pointed me to the road that I have already glimpsed when I phoned for an appointment. It was not love that I was living it was an act of willful manipulation. It was time for me to break free and I did.

One month later found me on the shores of Cape Town. A few miles away from the Cape of Good Hope, and to me it was Good Hope. I had a lot of time to reflect on my past life and to think about the way forward; what I really want for my future. I could not, or was not allowed to severe my marriage completely, because at the time my husband  kept trying to win me back, for the wrong reasons now I know. It was the first time though since coming to South Africa where I lived according to my own rules, without having to defer to his every strict edict. I had a great time and indulged in simple pleasures that were not allowed at home: Staying up late, sleeping in, reading in bed, chocolate, cheese and many other treats and junk foods that were extremely frowned upon in my married life. I exercised when I wanted to, and rediscovered the simple joy of doing things for pleasure, not because I needed to break a sweat or do a chore. I also enjoyed the company of Spliff the cat, who shared my bed on some cold winter nights, another no-no in my husband’s dictionary.
The people I shared a house with – two singles dealing with their own problems with relationships and life- gave me plenty of insight, advice and anecdotes, and together we formed an unlikely but rewarding friendship. I enjoyed their company, more so because they also fell on the disagreeable side of my partner’s rules, he had something against overweight women and gay men.
Along with all these personal benefits, things were slowly going my way on a professional level. I bought a computer and worked on my first large freelance translation project, while I also attended interviews for jobs in Cape Town.

Still, no matter how successful I was, or how much I rationalized my relationship and analyzed its glaring flaws, there were many hurdles to conquer mentally and emotionally. I was helped along by a song that came out that year: All These Things I have Done by the Killers.
I would wake up at night sometimes to listen to FM radio on my headphones and would start humming along to the beautiful melody and the lyrics. Unlike the hopelessness of Losing My Religion, somehow there was an underlying theme of hope in this one, and the person crying for help, finds or at least expects to find a way out.
The best part for me was the refrain of : I’ve Got Soul But I am Not a Soldier. It translated my exact feelings: I do have a heart and emotions and I am capable of love and hope, but I will not continue this endless battle of my marriage, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The video of that lovely track, and the lyrics are below.

When there’s nowhere else to run
Is there room for one more son
One more son
If you can hold on
If you can hold on, hold on
I wanna stand up, I wanna let go
You know, you know – no you don’t, you don’t
I wanna shine on in the hearts of men
I wanna mean it from the back of my broken hand

Another head aches, another heart breaks
I am so much older than I can take
And my affection, well it comes and goes
I need direction to perfection, no no no no

Help me out
Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you got to help me out
Yeah

And when there’s nowhere else to run
Is there room for one more son
These changes ain’t changing me
The gold-hearted boy I used to be

Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you got to help me out
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down

[x10]
I got soul, but I’m not a soldier
I got soul, but I’m not a soldier

Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You know you got to help me out
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, oh don’t you put me on the back burner
You’re gonna bring yourself down
Yeah, you’re gonna bring yourself down

Over and in, last call for sin
While everyone’s lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I’ve done
All these things that I’ve done
If you can hold on
If you can hold on

I read in one interpretation that the lyrics are written from the viewpoint of God. Speaking how people turn to Him only when they need help, which makes sense. However, like any work of art this song evokes different feelings, images and memories in different people. The message for me was hope, eventually I shall prevail, or find help, I have what it takes.

In April 2008, I moved with my six-month old son Robert to the same house that welcomed me when I first arrived in Cape Town.  I was determined this time to finish what I failed to do almost three years ago.  The circumstances this time were more difficult than the first time around, but on some levels I was much happier. I never took walks alone to the beach anymore and wondered about my future, I never worried about what I would do about love. I had all the love and the future I wanted in my son. When my song played, there were two of us to dance to it.

A Little Crazy

I dropped off Robert at the day care, and because I had a few hours to kill I stopped with my laptop at a coffee shop that has a free wi-fi zone. I was totally out of place with the beautiful rich people, killing time and sipping coffee, but at least my laptop measured up. In my rush to pack up my laptop upon leaving home I forgot to equip my son’s schoolbag with nappies, everything comes at a price.

At eleven I had an appointment to look at the only flat I found in my price range AND in my area of interest. I Just wanted to reassure myself for a final time before I paid a deposit. As usual the place is not perfect but has some advantages over the one we live in right now. I went home and did the banking, paid a deposit then went for another appointment to view furniture being sold by a work colleague, I agreed to buy.

At about half past one I made my way under drizzling rain to pick up Robert from day care then onwards to the company garden where I had arranged to meet and spend an afternoon with my new friend D and her son, who is four years old.

We made a pretty picture, two women with similar colouring, two kids, one blond one with dark tightly curled hair, and no men in sight. D is also a divorcee so we had a few laughs comparing our situations.

The sun obliged and came out after we arrived at the gardens and the kids got to feed the squirrels and the pigeons. Robert mostly held on to the packet of peanuts and ate them himself until a cheeky little squirrel went up on its hind-legs and clambered up on his shirt trying to reach the little plastic bag held firmly in my boy’s fist. Robert was so surprised he dropped the packet and started howling… the image was worth a picture, but I was of course too surprised to capture the moment. D was quick to pick up Robert and comfort him, but his distress was mostly because he thought he lost the peanuts forever, and all was well when he reclaimed them. We made it as far as the museum, by way of statues of colonialists, bird cages and Koi ponds without Koi, and we ended the day at McGrease with two burgers, two happy meals and two very hyper kids, then D went with her son to catch the train while I half dragged half carried Robert to the minibus taxi stop.

I will be moving by the end of next week, but until now I have not arranged a moving team or packed a single item.  But I arranged to spend the day tomorrow with another friend Jen, who will be bringing my boxes. I will also meet the owner of the furniture to give her a down payment. The money is going through my fingers like crazy, and I feel somewhat crazy myself.

We never gonna survive, unless we get a little crazy, and nobody says it better than my friend Alanis.