Sunday, November 21, 2010

14 ESSAYS while in AFRICA (October 2010)

1) At The Feet of Mandela

There is an imposing grandeur to the statue of Madiba, as he is known, the great soul. He stands perhaps 60 feet high, his huge bronze shoes all bright and shiny from those touching or sat at his feet. The rest of him soars aloft and imposing in the subtle greens and browns of Africa. It seems incongruous that opposite him, through the courtyard with its sprouting fountains, there is a model-shoot with an attendant gaggle of cameramen and vanity poses and exaggerations of stance and outer-wear. Madiba is plainly attired, plainly authentic, very real, and as iconic as the statue itself is.

Mike Jablonski takes me there over lunch. We first were in the Sandton Mall, adjacent to the Mandela square, and Mike one-handedly pushes me, walking beside me, and we share stories from childhood and swap memories, yet at each intersection of our thread find meaning and significance in the fact that each ‘then’ brought us to this ‘very now’, even as I type.

Esemplastic and complex is my new friend Mike. He drew attention to the thousands of hands and hearts and steps and thoughts and feelings and ideas that wrought about our very reunion on the same day and moment of time that brings even you right now to be reading these very words. And we agreed that living in a state of gratitude and grace was the way of the present, as had Mandela led the way, rather than to be harping on the very past that we cannot change, not for all our wishing.

We whiled away an hour or three on the square’s patio over Alfredo and Rooibos, and we also went and purchased some gifts for those we love. In the CNA (Central News Agency), a company in which I was the branch manager at Wynberg, Cape Town in 1974, I bought an Afrikaans novel of short stories by a recent writer, Deon Mayer, called “Karoonag en ander Verhale” (and the more adventurous of you might Google the translation). Mike buys me a Herman Charles Bosman compendium; the kind of short stories written from a Boer point of view, in English, full of wry humour and insightful pathos. And at the feet of Mandela I am wheeled close by a contingent of tourists. An elderly Japanese man in a wheelchair, pushed by his daughter, locks eyes momentarily with me, and we both break into smiles at our comparative similarity of predicament, and as we pass we reactively give a high-five, right there, right below the beneficence of the man, the great soul, once incarcerated for over 27 years, yet who instilled the Truth and Reconciliation Committee. Madiba reached across the racial tensions of the proverbial bloodbath that so very many expected in 1994. And now that Japanese man and I, below Mandela’s gaze, are in no need of a common language other than the indelible recognition between us of our very humanness. So are the colours and the distinctions and the differences given blend, given oneness, given yet one more push along the turgid river of hope for accord within the natural boundaries that contain us all.

Mike’s rental van swallows up my chair. As I type he is away with it to the airport to go and pick up Rob Zikmann. It is 6.00pm. Rob’s plane got in at 4.30. I stayed behind to meet up with Quenton de Kock. Quenton, you see, was our classmate back in 1970. In fact, he was the last Pretoria Boy’s High boy that I saw, when I went to his house to collect my package of five class photos that he’d had reproduced for each of his friends. And I never saw or wrote to him again. But at 4.45pm today he arrived at my hotel door, jovial and full of camaraderie, and gave me yet another package; a book of South African Writing compiled by John Clare, with its picture researched by a mutual old Pretoria Boys High friend of ours, Harold Thompson. Harold, in gratitude for our Facebook tick-tacking that was initiated just this year, had emailed me about two months ago to say he was bringing the book for me, but now, with the sudden and unexpected discovery of having had an only child, 36 years later, he was on his way to London to meet his new-found son. Still, in all that it must have taken for Harold to come to terms with his new treasure, he’d remembered to parcel the book, to drop it off to Quenton, and then good old Quenton had bothered to find and bring the book to me. And Quenton’s story gave rise to my own, that of our discovering our only sister, 44 years later. Carol was met and fully embraced by my own father, just 18 months before he died, 2004.

We give value to things. We take for granted gestures that may have cost thousands of minute little steps, begun even before Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press, or Caxton’s  1475 introduction of its efficacy to the West. As Mike had alerted me, all the hours and hands that had floated that book of Harold’s along the river of life into this particular moment of significance, even as I now type, and even as you now read, deserves one’s gratitude. What then do we do with the seeds we so easily sow? What might our awesome responsibility not be were we yet more meta-cognitively to examine our motive, intent, and meanderings?

It is now 2.10 a.m. I’d eventually bid good night, at about 10.30, to Rob and Mike, and was asleep almost instantly. But now the darkness of the early morning and my sudden alertness to the expectations of this first official day of the 40 year Reunion has me waiting for the men to get ready for a very early start to manage the snarling roads and the emergent exigencies of getting from Johannesburg to Pretoria on time for the PBHS breakfast gathering. So, in the privacy of my room I softly go tick-tack on the keyboard with these thoughts of communicating with you. I am alive to the presence of my new friend, Rob, met for the very first time last night, though we’d spent 5 years in a school together.

Rob is this 6ft lean and handsome Comrades Marathon runner. At 88km that marathon’s k.m. stands for kill-me, I think. He’d once run it from Pietermaritzburg through the Valley of a Thousand Hills down to Durban, with a very bad flu, an exceedingly high temperature, and had had to be conveyed at the end of it with saline drips and severe dehydration to the hospital; but he’d done it. When they picked him up in stretcher at the finishing line he was ashamed to be on the stretcher, and covered his face with his track-suite top. That was when he was younger.

Younger. I shared with him the months of 1973 with my being a stoker on the SA Railways, based in Mason’s Mill, just out of P’maritzburg, and working at those old Bongols and Gammats, the coal-fed steam engines on the torturous route to Franklin.

The vanity that drives us is predicated so very much on our past. He’d had a very tough childhood. It was filled with material things. But he had a dominating father who hardly ever praised. The father would take the chamois (shammy) from Rob after he’d been relegated to spend almost the whole Sunday cleaning the Jag and (says Rob, now getting right up from his recline on the couch cushions that he’d set up on our hotel sitting room floor specially so that I would not have to turn my neck alternately to see him and Mike as we three formed a triumvirate of communiqué) “My father would find some spot I’d missed, even if it was in the middle of the car’s roof (and here Rob leans his 6ft height over the TV stand and in classic semiotics, and rubs at the surface) and he’d show me that I wasn’t ever good enough.” There’s a catch in this giant of man’s throat. It was just one of the several times we each had swapped stories and revelations of the past. Rob’s father had two jaguars, and the gold E-type was renown amongst the boys of the school. But Rob used to be skinny, shy, asthmatic, introverted, and pre-pubescent. Even in the army he was but a boy amongst the men. And then one day he discovered he had an academic gift, and that he could actualize his potential by the discipline of redirecting his habits, and he began running. In the late-bloomer stage of his life he entered the bar (no, he did not become an alcoholic, ha!) he became a barrister. He even learned to avoid the reaction people give to lawyers, to pronounce as a barista (ha!) and people presumed he tended bar, not that he served at the bar, (ha! ha!)  And he kept on running, and he grew, filled out, and one magic day, in his late twenties, he crested a rise on one of his marathon runs and there, unexpectedly, was his father, actually jumping up and down with excitement and pride for him, cheering him on.

The conditionality of love, of forgiveness, of acceptance, of receiving or giving love; is it innate or do we acquire such things as a result of watching those around us? Are we like babies who implicitly begin to understand that we too one day, like those older ones around us, will walk? We each gave examples for both contentions.  

Well, Mandela stands rooted, his arm outstretched in welcome, the famous smile now an icon of a time when man began to cross the final frontier of legalized racism.  So it is in Africa. But is it so in our hearts? What other lines stretched taught at the edges of our own individual paradigms do we need to cross before we are free to integrate the yin and the yang? How to flow with the continual balance of calibrating to the vicissitudes of this journey of life? If it is inherent in the moment to particularize, itemize, judge, prefer, co-ordinate, and pre-occupy ourselves with the demands of our self-centricity, how do we easily, simply, let go? And we, individually, by group, either at our own or at our collective peril eschew the letting go of the very constraints that would chain us to the earth, to our habits, to our value judgements, to our enslavement to the need for the approbation of others. We are mimetic, and so, lemming like, we run and turn and sway with the immediate mass of energy swirling about us, even as you have followed with your eyes the back and forth lines of this missive. 

This has been the gist of our discourse. As Rob intoned, tears in his eyes; every one of us has a story, and that story is sacred. It is our story, and it matters not that others validate it or identify with it; it matters that we find our own voice. As Rob quoted from a plaque he’d once come across near a mountain-top. “Death is just a horizon defined by a line of sight.” Yes, we create our own limitations. Rob Zikmann, Mike Jablonski, Quenton de Kock, Brian Cameron Haynes Smart, and me; all men in the late half of our sixth decade, all with a desire to find and share hearts filled with compassion and the search for wisdom, paying homage at the feet of Mandela. How some of our ancestors would turn in their graves!


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