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Kitchen Table Wisdom
by Abigail George
2015-01-20 14:03:57
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I had a younger brother (I worshiped him) and a sister (I adored her because she was beautiful and I was plain). I had a mother (sophisticated and elegant) and a father (who was too brilliant for his own good). I had a sea too. I was a young adult before I believed in guardian angels. It was hellish growing up. The kind of hellish whereas siblings we were always competitive at the swings. We were rock, paper and scissors. I loved waiting for a sheet of winter to wrap itself around myself. It made me feel alive. Gave me a thrill like Sylvia Plath’s panther on the stairs. Plain girls often grow up to be plain women. They settle. Beautiful children become beautiful woman often sad, lonely. Often they settle too. I pretended that my verdant sea was my River Jordan filled with the drowning bodies of my ancestors. Red flowed through my sea.

The memory of running freed me in a sense. In primary school, I was an athlete. I was a hungry athlete but it left me forsaken in high school. I remember running in video dreams now. Running was like a long night. It was as if I was seeing light but it was illuminating me. It was as if I had become an object, a phoenix. It was as if I had become something graceful like a unicorn. It made me hungry and all the other athletes on the fields were my rivals. I could not see anything except the light, which was also sad, and a truism in a way because to lose sight of yourself, your real self, and the one made of substance is also terrifically bad news. To be an athlete is to be something greater than you are. You need a dictionary to write. You do not need a dictionary to run.

I was a girl caught in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle when I used to run. Why give up something that you love? Why quit and walk away from it? The sad end is that it is always a wounded heart that makes you quit something. You are deathly afraid of something in the end. You are afraid of not winning. I could not see myself anymore. I was not connecting the dots anymore. Could not see my own survival anymore. The path was just not there. Nobody standing on the sidelines urging me on. I loved running. I realise now that it was good for my nerves. It was good for many things. My self-esteem. I did not feel dysfunctional. I did not feel traumatised. I did not feel starved of affection, did not need approval or attention. I did not feel the lack of mother love.

Only later, I felt that poetry is like feeling another person lying next to you in the dark. Do you believe in poetry, in the spirit of poetry? I could see poetry in ballads, in the picture of the Cathedral on the back of the postcard that my father sent my mother from London, in glaciers, peaks of mountains, river dust, Ian McEwan’s covers of his books, cheap thrillers. Running gave me a gravitational pull. Running was my mother love. I was barefoot. There I was dressed in white. Matchstick legs. Hair standing up. I did not feel like a zero. I did not feel like a lost oar, unloved, and unwanted, like a plant that needed water. A fleet of paper ships that needed to be mourned. I often felt homesick for the country of my mother.

It often felt like I was burning away when I was in that water. Salt cells in the wilderness of my hair. The seaweed wrapping rainbows around my calves and thighs that I would imagine were squid. I would dream of birds and flora, beasts and cave dwellers. Every childhood night was a broken night. My sister escaped. For a while, my brother did too (extraordinarily). They were exceptional beasts. Pain in childhood meant that it would last forever. Pain in adolescence meant that I was a shattered mess. Pain as an adult was an experience, a phase, a level that I had to endure before I became emotionally mature, and a healthy individual who could understand the world around her.  Pain is like a storm. Falling in love is like a storm. Obesity is like a storm. One day it is there and the next day it is still there.

Gifts were just busyness. This body did not live for me. He was just a boy with dark hair. A tall boy with dark hair who was selfish, had shallow motives, and could not really see me for who I really was. Still he intrigued me. Still I found everything about him alluring. Sometimes he wore socks. Sometimes he did not. He was my flock of sheep. My wolf in sheep’s clothing. He licked his lips and I knew one day that he would inherit me. Now I come to the ballad of the cathedral on the postcard. I want to talk about survival. I want to talk about how I survived. It is not a long story. It is only a few pages long. It started with the word ‘winter’. I started to write stories with the word ‘suicide’ in the title but they would never be published. I started hating the editors. I started to think that something was wrong with me.

I was doing something wrong or maybe my stories were just not good enough to be published. Plain and simple rubbish. My story, it started in Johannesburg, ended in my hometown. It started with falling in love with a lecturer, and ended up in a hospital but I think you could have seen that coming. I would wonder to myself would he kiss me chastely on the lips (would that be enough for him at first), would my bare arms be enough for him to look at. I was still a thin, flat chested child so this, film school was still a phase to me. A phase of childhood. Bet you cannot identify with that. Bet you were a slut when you were in high school. Bet you were the popular one, the blonde one, the leader of the fierce gang. Bet you were anyone, not a nobody like me. I am a lucky person. I was lucky to be there. Lucky to be there at the film school.

Nobody knew where I had come from. Of how I had arranged my house in order. How I had loved myself, resurrected myself, brought myself back to life, they just took one look at me and assumed that nothing was missing. They just saw me bathed in the Johannesburg light and assumed I was just like them. I wished he did not have a wife called Lisa but he did, nothing in the world that I did could not take the pain away of the fact that Lisa existed, and that she had studied at New York University. Johannesburg was a labyrinth but there was something in the air (the air was not pure, mostly filled with smoke, ash, pollution), the people that anchored me, anchored my bones. Lisa was fertile. Lisa was educated. Lisa was not a Khoi girl. I am a Khoi girl. I do not know how to braid my hair like a Khoi girl.

I do not look like a Khoi girl but I am one just the same. I do not know how to dance like one. I do not know how to dress like one, how to speak like one. I only know that the origins of my ancestors came from the Eastern Cape. We have a house here. In my dreams, my memories are mountains and the green feasts of the valleys of Swaziland where I was educated. I am a Khoi girl who has read Hemingway (journalist), Graham Greene (English), Amy Bloom (psychologist), and William Styron (perhaps manic-depressive and an alcoholic but he had kind eyes in the black and white photograph I saw of him). I read John Updike (wrote beautifully and liked to write about sex a lot in Couples, descriptions about girls), Jean-Paul Sartre (too many love affairs), and Simone Beauvoir (too many love affairs, bisexual).

Kingsley and Martin Amis (writes books I do not understand), and Jean Rhys (puzzling mistress/writer). This does not make me important. We experience dreams in phases. The universe as a puzzle falling apart at the seams when we are falling apart at the seams when we are broken down. Our warm bodies are beautiful and a delight to observe and watch when we are at our most frail and vulnerable. Sinking into a deep despair or stressful depression. We flourish like pageant queens and the first princess when complimented. We go from strength to strength when compensated for our trouble but it is easy to forget or witness ourselves being strong. The dreaming phase is only temporary. Keeping secrets are demanding. Dragging the agonised secret to light is a treacherous task but drag it I must.

In this way, I am different from you. I am a writer. My illness separates you from me. It is just an interview that will free you from me. I am an outsider. I will always be an outsider. It feels like Paris to me. If I need to think of Paris, I read Hemingway. He said it best. That Paris was a moveable feast. Paris is my kitchen table wisdom. You did it (whoever you are). You loved me or my writing and it changed my alien and isolated view of the world. There were no more blurred lines. There was still an unsexy awareness.  There are two kinds of terrors. Loving yourself and rejection. I keep thinking of the fish in the sea. There must be infinite schools of them. Schools of them licked clean by salt. The contents of the sea. I keep thinking of the sequins on a pageant dress.

I keep thinking that if I had been another woman, born into poverty I would never have become a writer. If I had been thin, I would never have become a writer. If my mother had loved me, I would never have become a writer. If men had liked me, women befriended me, words like ‘suicidal and terminal illnesses’ would not have meant anything to me. To run with scissors has given my poetry depth. My mother has sacrificed for me. My father has sacrificed for me.

I told myself that to hurt is not okay. I taught myself that it is not okay to hurt other people. It is not okay to hurt yourself most of all. If you read chronicles as a child, I think that is the message that is what they want to leave you with forever. If I had friends, real friends, people who were loyal to me, people who I could trust and lean on and all that I do not think I could write.

I could not call myself a writer type of person. You have to have substance to do anything in this world. You have to be a person of integrity. If you are a nurse, teacher, mentor or drive ambulances, work in a kitchen you have to be a person of integrity. If you do not have any sense of values, you are done for. That is what spiritual poverty is there for. For that penetrating gaze, that search for darkness, that gaze that seeks to confront me. People are only compassionate towards you when they want something from you. Poetry invades loneliness in a way that nothing else can. I thought if I changed that people, beautiful people, arrogant people, narcissists, intellectuals, readers, teachers, spiritual gurus would come into my life but they did not. I am still rowing my own boat ashore. It still feels like Hiroshima out there.

My angelic conjured up myth has returned with my brother from Johannesburg. Children are never mistakes. They might not all have been conceived in love but they are never mistakes. Christmas and the holidays is a war. It is a burned up satellite. A dynamic project that burns away brightly. There are two sisters. One, the angelic conjured up myth. The staggeringly independent and beautiful one. The other, a poet who watches everything around her, whose imagination is a painted drum. She sits on her throne while her sister is a marathon runner. A poet is meant to mean something. That at one stage in her life she had potential. She still has potential but she is growing older, losing her youth. I live in a box (not really). Here my shoulders are slumped forward.

Here is something of my childhood. Here is something of my siblings. (We celebrate our Christmas in summer) in summer, the air warms you with its village of fragments, reminds you of childhood, reading about the Khoi clan. Summer reminds you of bonfires and ghost stories and the Khoi. The Khoi girl. Yes, the clan that you belong too. You do not call it a tribe like the Native Americans do instead you use the word clan. Summer gleams. In that gleaming light, I gleam with it. When the winter comes, I am invited in. Thirst does not change me. My mother’s kitchen table wisdom does not change me. I stand in the cold. I stand with winter all around me. A field spread with a blanket of snow. The beach can change your life, the beautiful boy said. You are wasting your life, the beautiful boy said. Words are like medicine.

They sound like a violin. They are like a scattered dandelion that goes into the void. Pallid. The light is lawless. A shaming, shining gesture spills into the air. The physical body cannot lie about emotions. He transformed my life the same way that all male teachers transform all their girls’ lives. Letting go was like a small piece of fabric. The edge of a tapestry. I could feel it. Winter or at least there was a part of it that was wintering there indefinitely and then it was inside of me. Draining away and then some. I had a lifetime of straight roads ahead of me. Memory is nothing. Desire is everything. Do nothing. If you are certain of one thing in this world then that is what you do. You do nothing. If you are certain of love then do nothing because you have already found the exit route out. You do not have to have an escape plan.

I stood in the silence. I stood with its rainy veil out there in the world and I knew that the material things would not flatter me anymore. Death was a part of life, the hereafter. I have to read even though books tear me apart. I have to read to call myself a writer. To be a poet you have to die a succession of deaths after you write something. I know how to love a man now. I know how to love a woman but I still do not know how to love myself. I am hungry. I am angry. I feel pain. I am hurt. I do not know who has wounded me more. Life or my parents. My siblings, estranged family or strangers. You isolate yourself to forget something. What are you trying to forget or are you trying to forgive someone, yourself maybe, the many faces of you that you see out there just as lonely as you are? Be lonely. Nobody cares. Be sad. Nobody cares.

If you hurt, other people hurt to, you know. Perhaps they are hurting more than you do. This is what people think will happen to their enemies. They think that they will never get revenge but in the end, everybody suffers loss. That loss might not sound like a violin or harmonic, instrumental or orchestral, it might sound like wretched sobbing. You have to believe your parents when they tell you that they love you. If your father left you and your mother, if you have brothers and sisters, you have stop telling yourself that it was your fault that he left your mother. She was not a bad woman. You were not a horror story of a child and that there is something holy left in this world. Daughters and sons, mothers and fathers, they are all-important people whether they are absent or present, whether they drink, drink too much, are alcoholics or addicts, act cowardly or with little or no intelligence.

I think I dream more because I have been wounded more in life. Do people who are happier or lead less complicated lives how do they dream? After I wake up, I rediscover the room I am in. My mother is never the same. My father is never the same. The world is never the same. I fall in love with the world again. The traffic of flowers in the garden, I appreciate my family more, I discover I can write again, this gift that promises me earth, storms, friends, disappointments, something important, waves and the sound of something that I can love and look back on with loyalty. Something I can embrace most of all with trust. Every day I am afraid I will never be afraid to write. I am afraid it will be taken away from me as my innocence was. My lecturer who I was in love with is living with a woman or they are married. Stuck in those trenches.

I think about him all the time now. Fifteen years and I think about him all the time. That he could have been my first. When I hear the word ‘archipelago’ or ‘still life’, ‘self-portrait of nothing’, ‘self-examination’ I think of him. I think of the measure of love. What is the measure of love? I think of ochre in childhood. I think of gestures and stories. I think of connections and mental tricks. I think of the lack of desire (has it been that long), I think of the brain (I have not played chess since high school), brain cells (doing themselves in over darkness invisible, illness and renal impairment), nerves clenching and unclenching cancer cells, nudity, isms and psychological frameworks. I think of the first time I saw him. David. Shouldering his way up the stairs at the college where I was studying film. Khoi girls have their own sexual allure.

So tall but he had already made an impression on me. So tall that I did not see his face as he walked passed me. So tall and English. Johannesburg is a youthful city. Johannesburg is a city meant for the adventurous. Artists are never shy individuals but I was shy and nothing ever happened to me. Just a rush of love in a modern society. I was not sophisticated. I did not believe in destiny then. How does a Khoi girl fall in love? She falls in love with her lecturer at film school. She quits athletics when she enters high school. She is not shy about kissing involuntarily (boys or girls). She does it helplessly in exchange for more scarcity. When the Khoi girl begins to dance a man will begin to realise how lonely he is. It is strange that a man only realises how lonely he is when she begins to dance and sing in her own language.

The Khoi girl is an artist. She is shy at first, introverted and then she becomes an exhibitionist. She lifts her skirt higher and higher made out of cowhide. Sympathies are not forbidden. She is as attractive as nature.  The man (it could be any man, not an English man, a Scottish man, a colonist, an Australian, a South African, an Afrikaner) starts to fall in love with her small breasts, the fig leaf of a triangle between her legs. The men (who are still living in the age of chickens and water, the Iron Age) watch her, dazzled by her afraid to do anything. First, she is a gazelle, then she has the legs of an antelope, and the headdress that she is wearing has the colours of a peacock. The men are afraid that the river that is in their soul will soon become the death of river at the end of this Khoi girl’s singing and dancing. It sounds like a prayer.

The older women joining in now. Every time she twists her upper legs, they can see she is wearing something underneath. A slip and a brassier. Men work in the dark. Women conceive in the dark. Who spirited away the Khoi girl’s art, symbolism? She wants to put history into perspective. She wants to tell the world she has a soul. For a long time she was incomplete (like I was incomplete). Other Khoi girls were also incomplete. Trauma was a word like ‘Norfolk’, ‘Sussex’ and ‘Yorkshire’. All these years Khoi girls were orphans. All these years they needed sheltering, protection. All these years they were in need of a Khoi clan. Of brothers, of fathers and grandfathers to protect them. Shelter them with rainy hands and spears. Concrete cannot fix anything now. There were wrongful events in history that nobody spoke about, that haunted.

‘Every sensation was a devastation. I despised him but I had to save my daughter from him. She died because she was a girl. He never would have let go of me anyway. He would do the same thing to her. Like mother, like daughter. It was fluid where he touched me and I wept. I wept for the child who did not sleep that night when he came into the room. When he poured himself into me. He said the child was my trophy for being such a good second wife. For doing the things that his other wife did not want him to do to her.’ the Khoi woman cried. ‘I knew I had to save her, my daughter so I put the pillow over her head one night she was sleeping and waited until I could not hear her breathe anymore. I told everyone she must have died in her sleep. Soon after that, they sent me here to the asylum. They said it was best. I needed a long rest.’

Do the words ‘anemone’, ‘hunting’, ‘primitive’, ‘thirst’, ‘writing’ and ‘spiritual’ go together? In my dreams, I am the Khoi girl neon lit from head to foot. On dry land, I am the Khoi girl with arrows in her hand. In the forest, I am the Khoi girl. In the sea, I am the Khoi girl. I am the Khoi girl who is announcing her legislation, her wild cargo and precious place in the world. I am the Khoi girl whose limbs are rainy branches. We worship five seasons. Spring, summer, autumn, winter and the otherworldly. Listen. Mischief is trembling. Writing is like soil erosion, grocery lists, a trolley full of surprises that are a delight to a famished child wheeled down aisles; it is a village of tomatoes and melons. A liberal minded mother’s fatigue is transcendence. Worrying is contributing to the rest of the world’s sins.

If writing is like worrying, if writing is like shopping or anything like the angst of poetry, the sensual experience of lovemaking in the silence of the afternoon, walls closing in, the smell of soap evaporating from flesh, the details on the blueprint of skin against skin, the translation of memory in any language is blood. She sees her otherness, her innerness in the men’s eyes around her. There is self-pity in pride, a serious knowledge in the turn of her head as the Khoi girl dances and all is forgiven. All is forgotten. Prejudice and race. Ethnic cleansing.

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