I think you’re pretty (ugly)

Husband is somewhere along the west coast of our African motherland and I find myself looking at his profile picture as we chat during what has become a ritualist nightly call. He has stolen my picture for his own and it features the two of us smiling stupid happy holiday smiles, you know the kind. It’s the kind of smile that will have you wishing you could kick us in the teeth whenever we start talking about how amazing our holiday was. It’s odd to stare at myself in this way and I’m soon distracted by the weird notion that I look nothing like the way I imagine myself to look. “I look like an alien,” I tell Husband, narrowing my eyes and pushing my head forward to be more alien-like. “I mean, have you ever really looked at me?” By now my head movements mimic what I assume an alien surveying it’s reflection must do while Husband happily ignores the sound of my imagination running away with me. He probably throws in the noncommittal “You don’t look like an alien” or “What are you talking about?” but I am persistent, and becoming more convinced of my alien-ness by the second. “Seriously, I think I’m an alien,” A dramatic pause before my transformation is complete,”I look like something Sigourney Weaver gave birth to.” It’s his laughter that distracts me and its only much later that evening I find myself unable to sleep with two thoughts running through my mind- what does it mean to be beautiful and perhaps more pressingly, can I stream any of the Alien movies on Netflix?

Body hang-ups and my naturally tendency to be self-deprecating aside, I’ve never considered myself beautiful. You couldn’t throw that word at me, it wouldn’t stick. It would bounce off my disproportionately large nose, it would be confused by my small eyes and be terrified of my frizzly hair, in much the same way my forehead is. It’s not a word I identify with, but I do identify with it’s absence. With it’s absence in my ordinary brown eyes, it’s absence in the darkness of my skin, its absence in my common features. I remember my first taste of Toni Morrison, a woman whose words would move me and devastate me in equal measure, when I read The Bluest Eye. The poetry in her words, the twisting and intertwining of race and beauty, struck in me a way that I will never forget. The book was published fourteen years before I was born, yet I read it and know that we still hold true, today, notions of white beauty.

I grew up in a community where everyone apart from domestic workers, gardeners and a few people I went to school with, were the same as me in as much as how the South African Government labelled us “Indian”. Who were the pretty girls at school? Who were the ones we called beautiful? They were girls with light skin and every now and again, they were girls who had light skin and  had “different colour” eyes. It is with a deep ache that I wonder if we were any different from Pecola Breedlove fervently wanting those blue eyes. To this day it upsets me when I see people mask the true colour of their eyes, there is a desperation in it that I cannot bear. To compare someone to a white person, to mistake someone for a white person was a compliment of unparalleled magnitude. We bestowed a ridiculous degree of value on anyone who did not have typical “Indian” features. We built and continuously reinforced the idea that there was no beauty in what we were born with, or if there was, it was only to be found in the exception. The mirror was your friend if it held the reflection of someone other than you, but perhaps with just the right light you could mask your inherent brownness. The sun was not your friend, after long, salty and satisfying days at the beach people would often look at me disapprovingly and tell me how dark I had gotten. A pretty girl with dark skin- the notion didn’t exist but perhaps you could like her if her parents were rich, you’d never totally think she was good looking but at least she’d throw great parties and buy you awesome birthday presents. I remember the first time I said someone who had dark skin was beautiful, I whispered it. I said it defensively, waiting for someone to disagree with me. My guy friend at the time just looked at me and said “Her?”, as if he didn’t even see her, as if she didn’t even exist to him. But she was beautiful, I bet she still is.

When we got older, the boys would boast about talking to/making out with/pretending to have carnal relationships with white girls. This story was so predictable it almost became boring. No matter what she looked like, she was a conquest, something unattainable, something more valuable than an Indian girl because she chose to bestow her white light on some stupid child dressed up as a man. While the other boys would be in awe of the one who had slayed the white woman, the message to the girls was clear, you’re good but there’ll always be better. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wish all of us married and had babies with people outside of the social construct that we call race. In fact, I think part of the “Indian Problem” is that we did not dilute our bloodlines once we got off the ships all those years ago. So, I don’t take issue with that. What I did take issue with was boys who believed in the inferiority myth that was sold to them the moment they took sight of their brown skin. What I take issue with is that it’s a myth that’s still be traded today.

A young white girl came up to me once and asked me if I was a witch. She just walked up to the table I was sitting at, starred right at me and asked me flat out “Are you a witch?”. I was thrown and secretly excited to be thought of as spellcasting, evil creature until I realised that she may have also associated ugliness with witches. It took me a beat to realise she may have been calling me ugly. Whenever I think too deeply about it, I remember that as a child I believed that an axe murder was waiting outside my second storey bedroom window (he was a crafty murder who carried around a ladder and an axe when he went visiting young girls in the middle of the night). I remember that a child’s mind is rich ground for the invention of stories and I remember that, despite their irrelevance, there are some stories children don’t outgrow. And as much as I wish I could retell those stories, rewrite those stories, I can only retell and rewrite my own. So, while I know I am no witch and I can happily cast aside the title of White Child Thinks I’m A Witch, I need to learn to love who I really am. Even if it is Brown Girl With Ordinary Brown Eyes. But that will come later, for now I’m settling for Alien Birthed From Sigourney Weaver. I mean even she thought her babies were pretty, so I guess that’s as good a starting point as any.

Why it’s okay to hate your husband and other tales from a bad wife

Husband is eating a mushroom but by the sound of things he might as well be crunching on concrete. That he is at least 500km away from me at the moment does nothing to dampen the sound of his chewing or my anger. “You know people wont even be surprised when I kill you, in fact they’d be shocked I put up with your chewing for so long” It’s pure nastiness on my part, he can’t help it. Somehow Husband’s mouth was designed to amplify. Husband decides to distract me by changing the topic but only succeeds in increasing the volume of the concrete crushing and shifting the sound closer to that part of the brain that triggers violence. I look at him through narrowed eyes, ready to spit out the snarky, mean comment I have ready for him, but I find myself stifling a laugh instead. He moves to hide himself behind and wall and continues the conversation in a manner that is impossibly cute. This must be madness, this desire to want to kill him and kiss him at the same time. Perhaps this is what marriage has done to me, I’ve been made mad by living in such close quarters with another human. I veer between laughter and anger before the former wins and I realise that this man, destroyer of mushrooms and of quiet spaces, is my Husband. Mine, and well, I do like collect things, so I might as well keep this one.

Husband once asked me why it is that I refer to him as such in this blog. I wonder if it is symbolic somehow, as if through marriage, I have stripped him of his name and so labelled him “Husband”. It would make a great change from the norm of women having to cast aside their names for the sake of marriage, so I think I’ll stick to that version. It is incredibly hypocritical, in light of what I’ve just written, that I am very often annoyed at Husband when I am introduced as his wife. Maybe it’s because Husband has a habit of gesturing to me and saying “This is my wife” in a way that makes it seem as though he’s forgotten my name or if he was simply pointing out his new running shoes (in fact that might get more enthusiasm). Is it wrong to be introduced by my name (provided he can actually recall it) or perhaps by something fantastic and awe inspiring? This is Denira, reader of books, slayer of ignorance! It’s not too much to ask that this man, to whom I have bestowed the title of Husband, alludes to my greatness at very opportunity, is it? Also, if I’m being honest, I really don’t like the word “wife”, which is probably why I’m so cavalier about brandishing the title of “bad wife”. Wife, even the word sounds subservient, like you’d find it hiding in a kitchen cupboard because it forgot to salt it’s husband’s socks or wash his food, or something backward like that. Every time I say the word I want to shrug it off, it’s much the same for when I find a bug on me unexpectedly, there is a shaking of my shoulders and head and a completely paranoid check to make sure it’s really gone. I don’t like it. I don’t like it just as much as I don’t like the men who hide from their wives, who can’t be themselves around their wives. You know who I’m talking about, those men who seemed to have decided to marry their mothers. Those men who make it seem as if when they’ve managed an escape from the house, their wives are waiting for them clad in a housecoat with curlers in their hair, rolling pin in hand. The word wife makes me feel old and irrelevant, like I am incomplete, only one part of whole. There’s too much dependency in the word for someone who believes herself, alone to be enough. It’s too definitive and not powerful enough a word to encapsulate who I am. Yes, I am married but is that all I am? Will the world only ever see me as first a daughter, then a wife and finally as mother? No, that certainly will not do.

So, I am happy to be a bad wife, if it means that you’ll find me reading a book while Husband washes the dishes or if you’ll see Husband cooking dinner while I tell my puppies that I love them. I am happy to be a bad wife, if Husband is my partner, the looney human that I love spending time with, the keeper of all of my secrets and the person I can eat chips with in bed. I am happy to be a bad wife who challenges Husband, who speaks her mind and who isn’t afraid to be called “bossy”. I am happy to be a bad wife who is able to not only see Husband’s potential by my own and who is unwilling to comprise on any of our dreams. I am happy to be a bad wife who will admit that Husband frustrates, disappoints me and hurts me, he is not perfect, and neither am I. I am happy to be a bad wife who knows that apart from myself, there is no one else I’d rather be with, that Husband is my choice. I’m not a bad wife so that I can wear the badge, although the idea of the badge does appeal to me (I feel like I should start a Bad Wife Club). I’m a bad wife until we find power in the word “wife”, until it loses it dependency and until we stop selling the myth that a woman is only complete with a man.

The Girl Who Learnt to Love Learning

School terrified me. Every afternoon after enduring the trauma of pre-school I would cast aside my favourite possession, a brown rectangular suitcase type of bag that I am sure was constructed from cardboard, and fling myself onto the ground of my grandparent’s driveway. My grandmother would soothe away the hysterics, never once eluding to fact that I was being rather dramatic, and I would clutch at her and beg to never be sent back between sobs. In the mind of a four-and-a-half-year-old, school was a form of punishment I could not understand.

First, the “skills” that my sister taught me (how to spell the words “yes” and “no”) failed to capture an attentive audience as she had promised, those words found no purchase with the bunch of savages I encountered on my first day. I thought I was as savage as they come; I’d bite my way through frustration and I didn’t hesitate to throw some punches to win an argument but I, at the very least, saved that kind of behaviour for my family because they were forced to love me anyway. These kids were running around making me feel like I spoke the queen’s English and that I only took my tea with an extended pinkie. Second, I had to put up with the chubby cheeked girl who sprouted a series of thick octopus like plaits that would have otherwise fascinated me had I not been appalled by her preoccupation with unearthing ungodly things from her nose. She’d always have this knowing smile on her face with her finger shoved deep into her nose, she’d look me dead in the eye, confident that she had discovered some mystery to life that I was not yet privy to. I should have found refuge in her offered friendship (with an unwanted, generous side of boggers), my other choices for friendship came in the form of a boy whose claim to fame included finding a snail in the sandpit and stuffing chalk into a toy gun that never quite lived up to it’s potential to maim. But I guess, the worst punishment of all came in the form of my teacher. She was my mother’s close friend, a woman that I had grown to love before the thought of school troubled my young mind. She was a warm, loving woman who would greet me with generous hugs and wrap my birthday presents in paper so pretty I’d save them long after I had destroyed the gift it contained. Trouble was, when I saw her at school, all of this seemed to change. She now had to divide her attention, she no longer offered hugs in greeting and in the most unforgivable way, she liked the octopus-plait-blogger-avenging girl. My loyalty was irrevocably severed when she failed to notice my new dress (with matching handbag) that I had donned especially in search of her praise.

It would take me six months to adjust, during which time I would unsuccessfully devise ways to try and contract measles, the flu or any other sort of illness that seemed to be fashionable amongst the “lucky” children who would be allowed time off their sentence. It would take me six months before I started to like school or to forgive my teacher, my grandparents, my mother and my sister for inflicting such torture on me. It would take less than that time for Bongi, my absolute best friend in the world who also was my granny’s domestic worker, to share with me the illicit delights of making a quick pit stop to the aunty who sold mango pickle in clear plastic packets that I would buy and consume on our walks home from school. Somehow, during that magical crossover of the six-month mark, I started to have fun at school and truth be told, I think I carried that with me until I left school twelve years later with a head  filled equally with arrogance and curiosity.

I think about that now, about the journey of those twelve years of schooling and I can’t help but remember all the things I’d learn and unlearn in school. I’d learn that I had a voice, one that I was proud of, but one that would require a degree of tact I would only acquire later in life. I’d learned that I loved to write but I also unlearned to follow my passion for it because it wouldn’t pay the bills. I learned that even the deepest, most meaningful friendships aren’t always forever. I’d learn to love books that opened doors to my imagination and shaped my thinking. I’d learn and unlearn how to love boys who were not kind and who were no good for me. I wouldn’t learn who I was, I’m probably still learning that. School was a happy, safe place for me and even though I didn’t know it then, I was really lucky to have that. I was lucky that I was able to excel academically, because such a great emphasis was placed on this, even though some of the smartest minds I knew weren’t even acknowledged in the same way. I was lucky to have incredible teachers who motivated me, who shaped my desire for learning and who believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. I cannot do them justice here and in writing this I realise that perhaps they need a blog dedicated to them alone. I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn and to be rewarded for that learning, it is perhaps what has turned me into an eternal student and what has allowed me to catapult myself the unknown time and time again, telling myself that if I don’t succeed, at least I learn something. I was lucky to learn that learning never ends, that school is just “the end of the beginning”.

Meritocracy and other lies my mother told me

When I was younger I was fascinated by the size of my mother’s hands. They always seemed so large when she was ready to give me a smack but so delicate and lady like whenever she painted her nails the blood red she favoured. I wondered then how such a dichotomy could exist in one person. Those hands are different now, no longer warmed and ready for errant children and no longer painted, red or any other colour. And while I do not want to force my mother to reconsider her feelings that I am too old for her silence inducing, hysteria stopping smacks, I must be honest and call her out for being a liar. Not about everything, not even close, but about some very important things. It would be callous and unfair to all the silly anecdotes and crazy things that my mother has said to me sum up her philosophies into three main points, but I’ll have to take some liberties and at least try for the sake of brevity, you’ll forgive me, of course. If there were to be three main points that all my mother’s teachings pivoted around, it would be: treat others as you would be treated, work hard and you’ll get rewarded and don’t feel sorry for yourself because no one else will. Now, I have no qualms with the first of those, in fact I wish more of us thought this way. The third point, well, in my latter years I’ve realised that the fact that no one else will feel sorry for you is the reason why you should allow yourself some self-pity, but I can’t fault the teaching or deny that it is the way I live my life. Where I really take issue is with the second point, the fairy tale that every parent wants their child to believe, the fairy tale of meritocracy. It’s a fairy tale because the concept necessitates a world where reward and merit are undeniably linked, where reward is borne from the womb of merit. But that is not the world we live in, in this world reward and merit aren’t even kissing cousins let alone related. I think about the fact that my last domestic worker was my age and I remember how hard working she was, how deserving she was for a life beyond the one she had. I think about the fact that in our country, for many, huddles replace opportunities and I wonder if their parents did not promise them success through hard work as well. I wonder how many of those who live in poverty, or close to it, were also raised with myth that working hard and merit were the basis for reward.

Now this blog is not a plea for laziness or for us to all just abruptly abandon our belief in working hard. In fact, it’s likely that some people will think I’ve lost my mind because they can attest to the fact that hard work has brought them success. I don’t want to challenge that, I don’t want to take away from the energy, drive and passion that people have harnessed to achieve success, and nor do I want to belittle the sacrifices. What I do want to write about is that fact, that hard work alone is not enough. If you believe that it is, then you, like me, are privileged enough for that to be true. Something that frustrates me is the notion amongst many brown skinned people, like myself, that we earned our successes through hard work alone. That we rose from the clutches of the apartheid because we were crafty, we were wily, we were dogged in our determination to succeed. While that may be true, it is only part of the truth. What irks me about this “truth” that we tell ourselves and our children is that in it lies deep prejudice and a self-serving myth relating to those who have less than we do, those who will not see the same success we do. Flip this hard work myth on its head and you get lazy people who simply do not make the most of what is given to them. Flip it on its head and it’s a neat way to call Black people lazy while looking down your nose at them. It’s easy to sell the myth that hard work is what earns you success when opportunities are open to you, but what happens when your access to those opportunities vanish? I write not only of the opportunities that are available to us, I write also of our ability to see an opportunity and to craft opportunities. I shall never forget the story I read and cried over while doing my masters research. It was the true account of a young Black boy struggling at school. His teachers were frustrated with him, he was always shabbily dressed, he didn’t bathe often, and he often fell asleep in class. His teacher had dismissed him as a useless case, he failed to grasp the most basic of concepts no matter what she did. The boy was on his way to becoming a horrific statistic that characterises our education system. You can read it what I’ve just written and ask yourself, why didn’t he try harder? He had access to both primary and secondary education for free, all he had to do was show up and try, right? It’s easy to see it that way when hunger does not claw at your belly, when you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep in a warm comfortable bed instead of having to clamber for a warm dry place to sleep because your shack is flooded. For this boy, it was hard work just to get to school, for this boy he tried his hardest only to be cast aside by a society that has no place for him. This boy was trying to survive, he’d have to work a lot harder than I would have ever had to, probably than you’d ever had to either, just for shot in dark. A shot at being the exception, maybe making it out of school only to find his path thwarted with the structural injustices of our past, littered with the failures of so many before him. Hard work doesn’t even come close to what this boy would need to live the life that I do in this country.

Where does this leave us? I hope it leaves you aware that you owe your success to something beyond your hard work, it’s a hard pill to swallow and I’m not trying to take away from your greatness, you’re awesome. But we live in a world where other things are at play, often invisible and sometimes insidious for everyone apart from the benefactor. We can call it luck but, in our country, we know that it may have something to do with the colour of your skin, or even something as silly as the sound of your accent or what gender you identify with. Maybe your merit is somewhere hidden behind the “blackness” of your voice or buried beneath your breasts. We need to be cognisant of where merit hides or how we chose to define merit if we want to talk of our journeys to success or how hard work got us there. I’m not saying don’t claim your victories, life is too short for anything else, but let us stop claiming them in isolation, let us be aware of our privilege and the doors it opens. Hard work is nothing without opportunity and in a country where were it’s still bitterly relevant and true that white is right, it’s hardly surprising that we are not colour blind when it comes to recognising merit or dispensing rewards.

I have no doubt that there are people who have worked harder than I have, who will continue to do so and who are probably more deserving than I am, but who will live their lives without any of the rewards that I enjoy, material or otherwise. Meritocracy, it seems to me, is just a self serving fairy tale to inspire hope in the privileged and to replace understanding with arrogance. Maybe it’s a fairy tale we stop telling our children, choosing instead to remind them that their privilege isn’t the norm.

To my mother on her 60th birthday

I am good at things. Well, not too many things, but a select few (like being mean to Husband, or loving my dogs or not brushing my hair). But somehow in thinking about my mother, in thinking of a way to celebrate her, I feel desperately lacking.  It’s not that she’s set an impossible standard, although I do remember once acing a test and my mother signing it with the note “can do better”. It’s not that she’s difficult to please, I know she still has many ill-conceived handmade cards replete with stick figure drawings and spelling so bad it would make your eyes burn to even cast a glance upon it. It’s not that she needs some extraordinary show of affection to be validated or that she enjoys the limelight, although she once did draw a significant amount of attention to herself by turning her hair orange (I have never heard my grandmother laugh that much in my entire life). It’s because she is my mother, the one who gave me life. The one who has always been at my side even when I didn’t want or deserve it. How do I properly celebrate a woman who gave me so much? And who gave up so much for me? Perhaps I shall try the only way I know how, with these rudimentary words, misshapen but sincere.

Is it proper to complain about my mother in this ode to her? Probably not, but I am not one to hang on to the norms of what is or is not proper so here is my most vicious complaint, my mother is one of the most indecisive people I know. In helping her plan her “Emoji” themed party-that-isn’t-a-party, we changed the menu no less than 300 times and that was just one phone call. Each time we seemed to settle on something she’d pull back the decision by reminding me that some person or the other liked something that we hadn’t yet catered for. I suspect that my dog had more success chasing his tail than we did with some of those conversations. I’d hang up the phone smiling but rolling my eyes and shaking my head. It wasn’t simply that my mother and I were at polar ends when it came to making decisions, it was something else that she did that I didn’t think too deeply about. She considered everyone else, before herself. It’s terribly cliché to say that my mother is selfless and when she at my house riffling through my grocery cupboard, claiming any Lindt chocolate she can find as her own, I doubt there’s anything very Mother Teresa about her, but it is true. The woman can be infuriatingly selfless. So selfless, that I can’t help but respect what she’s trying to do even while it frustrates me. I suspect it has something to do with one of my mother’s famous prescriptions for a good life, a well-worn favourite – treat others as you would like to be treated. It is quite possibly one of my favourite of my mother’s teachings and one she seems to get right far more often than I could. I may live to regret writing this, but I wish we could all be a bit more indecisive if it meant that we were considering others before ourselves.

That I’m getting on a plane this afternoon to spend the weekend with my mother and my family is something that also reminds me of a reason to celebrate my mother. Not just because she gave me the means to see the world as one of possibility and because she created in me the foundation to lead a successful life but because the one thing she really seemed to want for her birthday was for her family to be together. When I see myself planning dinners and inviting people over I am reminded of the glue that my mother seems to be for so many people and this no less true for our family. For my mother this part is simple – you show up for your family, no matter what, you show up. It may be, as it is in my mother’s case, that family is created through bonds of friendship rather than something you’re born into. My mother does have a sneaky habit of “adopting” grown humans and somehow making them feel welcome, relevant and special. I can bear those adoptees no grudges, my mother is a warmth that many gravitate to. I think it’s because of some of the difficult hands life has dealt her that she someone seeks to be a mother to more than just the two children she brought into this world. It is through her kindness that I can often admonish myself for not quite living up to the example she sets.

But she is so much more than kind or selfless or someone who believes in family. She is my mother, a woman who it would be impossible to celebrate through these words. She is my mother, a woman who faces everything in life with equal measures of madness, happiness and laughter. She is my mother, a woman who taught me to have no bounds and to claim my place unapologetically. She is my mother and she is 60 today, fitting that it is International Women’s Day. Fitting that on a day like today we should celebrate one of the best women ever born, she is my mother.

Talking to White People About Curry

Two things. One, this is a rant, its prone to be a bit snarky and sarcastic and boy am I going to over-exaggerate. And two, I get it, seriously I do. Even as someone who did not grow up eating curry, I can still appreciate the flavour and how the smell of a curry is probably one of the most comforting and enticing aromas in the world. So, curry is phenomenal, no arguments there. It’s not curry that I have a problem with, it’s not even talking about curry that I have problem with. What irks me is the unimaginative, lazy assumption that a brown skinned person such as myself is a chilli loving, curry munching, cutlery adverse Indian (for record, I am, happily so). It’s not so much that I am not those things, I am those things. But that’s not all I am, and the fact that that needs to be stated says something about how little respect is present during these exchanges. Now, I’m not saying don’t judge me, I’m not saying that you should short wire the thing in your brain that sees me and connects the dots to Bollywood movies, curry and my propensity to ask for a discount. No, go ahead do all of that, but please, for goodness sake, can you just keep it to yourself?

Most days, if we’re talking about curry, I’ll offer to give you a fool proof recipe, and if I like you enough, I’ll even share my spices. But what really gets my goat is how so very, very often, someone I’ve known for all of five seconds starts talking to me about curry. Whether it’s about a new Indian restaurant that opened in some obscure location that I’ve never been too (sorry my curry radar must have malfunctioned on that one) or about how they have a curry recipe book from Durban (with recipes from white people in the book-gasp). And of course, I am the “heat police” so these people are also often the ones who tell me how they love a “hot” curry but at how their son/daughter/neighbour’s cat can’t so much as look at a pepper without their eyes watering. Man, it frustrates me. It frustrates me that when these human-like creatures see me, they’re too lazy to do anything other than shove a stereotype at me and expect my gratitude. What am I supposed to say? Thank you, Baas, for even taking notice of me and talking about something my little Indian mind can understand- curry. I would be lost without your kind words.

Why does it piss me off so much? Maybe it’s because you don’t see me when you say those things. Maybe it’s because instead of being a fully formed person with all of the complexities beneath your white skin, to you, I’m just a cardboard cut-out, a one-dimensional creation capable of constructing delicious curries or dancing around in colourful outfits, but not much else. And maybe, just maybe, that version of me serves you far better than the real version, the real version that is driven and capable in a way that scares you because the world is no longer your playground. I won’t pretend that I fully understand what the apartheid and the years prior of colonial rule did for a white person’s psyche in our country. And I won’t pretend that I understand how the shifting power dynamics in our mythical rainbow nation has tampered with those deeply lodged beliefs. But I do know a fight for relevance when I see it, and I do know that it’s easier to find ways to propagate your own myths than it is to see to the truth sometimes. What frustrates me about this sort of judgement and the ill formed belief that you are entitled to spew your rubbish at me is that it is degrading and disrespectful. Your arrogant, small mind looks for validation of the norms that your ignorance has created, and you smirk and reward yourself every time you’re able to reaffirm your stupidity. You presume that all people who look like me must certainly fit a box. Why bother to see anything different, we are not such complex creatures, right? You probably have these boxes for a lot of groupings of people, even those that look like you. Except, I suspect that for those who fit the box wherein you find yourself, you’re far more generous in terms of acknowledging higher order intelligence.

Yeah sure, you don’t know any better, of course there is that. Of course, there’s no intended malice, of course you’re a “nice person” and it’s not as if you called me a “Coolie” or anything. Of course, your belief in your superiority is so deeply entrenched that conjuring it is as easy as breathing for you. Of course, it is up to me to be open minded and to show you the error of your ways even when you will not see it. But can I just, if only for today, be sick of this? Can I just, if only for today, be an angry brown woman who is frustrated by the split second judgements and by the stupid comments? Can I just, only for today, not talk to White people about curry?

On aging…

I was at work the other day when I spotted an exceptionally unruly strand of hair poking out of the top of my head. That I could spot this stand of hair above all the others competing for chaos on my head was something of an achievement to behold, so it was with a warm sort of admiration for this daring strand that I decided to get a closer look. That admiration soon faded when I found myself looking at The First Grey, a single strand of grey hair so cunning that it lived in a world that defied the laws of physics as we know them. Upon the sighting of The First Grey, I had expected a degree of ceremony and I found myself holding my breath expecting someone to pop out of a corner and hand me a gilded plague officially proclaiming me to be “over the hill”. But instead of marking the disappearance of my youth with fanfare, all I found myself surrounded by was an eerie silence and the stark realisation of how alone I was. I leaned in closer to the mirror before me and pulled at my face bearing an uncanny resemblance to the popular Edvard Munch painting. I felt like I could stand that way for an eternity and it would still not be long enough to figure out how my youth had slipped through my fingers. How did I manage to get old without even noticing it? Somehow in all of my finite wisdom, I had never realised that I would age, or rather that I would grow old. I thought it was something that only happened to other people.

The version of me prior to The First Grey, would have expected me to face The First Grey with laughter and with the usual shrug of the shoulders sort of nonchalance. It wasn’t as though I subscribed to the notion of being “too old” for something, it wasn’t that I even felt “old” myself. But the version of me five seconds after The First Grey, was feeling decided uneasy. Logic be damned, I was getting old here and I could no longer talk of aging in abstract terms. I felt like I was losing something, like I was losing something beyond my youth, I was losing my relevance. Even in thinking it, I was shocked and annoyed by how fickle I sounded. Wasn’t I the woman who never truly cared about her appearance or was that just the arrogance of youth? The First Grey scared me and the fact that it did, saddened me. I wondered if I should let go of my face and cling to something more substantial. I felt the unmistakable pull of aging dragging me towards a place I dared not go and my impotent, yet unavoidable reaction, resistance. It was a dark vortex that would etch lines into my skin and steal plumpness from places necessary to inject into places previously unknown. I thought there would be more, you know. More to my life when I faced The First Grey. Wasn’t I supposed to have figured out things by now, like how not to look up the word “hegemony” every time I come across it? Wasn’t I supposed to have read all the books in my library? Wasn’t I supposed to know what I wanted to be “when I grew up”? I have always faced the world with a sense of curiosity that has both served me well as well as been something that I’ve been proud of, but now I see ambivalence in its place and wonder why it is that I don’t know more. Why it is that I don’t have more answers.

Time, this thing that I have always thought I’ve had enough of all my life, seemed to be vanishing before my eyes. Time was playing a cruel trick on me. But even so, it was also time that would break me free from my bitter reverie when I realised that sighting of The First Grey or not, I could not simply spend the day bemoaning the evitable, locked away in the bathroom. I grabbed hold of the wiry strand, wound it around my finger and yanked hard enough to bring tears to my eyes. Walking towards the door, I tossed the strand into the bin but not before I had the time to notice that The First Grey seemed thicker, stronger and shinier than my usual hair.

Castrating Casanova

When I was a child my wily mother would seek a few moments of peace by allowing my sister and I to have a bubble bath. There was nothing I loved more even though the time spent in said bubble bath would almost always be filled with strange and elaborate games sprung from the fertile mind of my sister. Looking back, all those games had but one common thread, that I was the slave girl to a beautiful princess who would demand an endless supply of “tea” (the top of a shampoo bottle filled with bath water and topped up with bubbles). I always wanted to be old enough so that I could be the one shaping the storylines of those games, never realising that when you have an older sister, you’d reach the end of your days before you’d ever be “old enough”. Even though I didn’t shape those stories, I most certainly knew how they would unfold. I too would be a princess and like in every fairy-tale, I would be rescued by a handsome prince. My stories were as dreadfully unimaginative as they were unyieldingly Caucasian, it would be easier to spot an alien than brown skin in any of the fairy tales I’d read as a child. Those were childish games, dreamt of in a childish mind, where men were heroes and women were sweet virgins waiting to be rescued. Except of course, I wonder when it was that we stopped asking men to be the heroes of the story. I wonder when it was that we started raising boys to be men instead.

This has been a difficult blog for me to write, I’ve mulled over the idea for a while, constantly picking it up and then dismissing it because the words I put together don’t fully shape the thoughts hurtling around in my mind. But the idea, I suppose, is a simple one. What happens to the boys raised to be heroes when they have no one to rescue anymore? What happens when those boys raised full of bravado find their masculinity threatened? What happens to the boys who grew up and were unprepared for the world they find themselves in now? The answer isn’t only the increased violence that seems to befall women as they progress in their careers. I heard a female executive speak, with quiet disbelief and horror in her voice, that she was observing a disturbing trend; the higher up women seemed to rise in the corporate world, the angrier their spouses became. To gain one form of power was to lose another. It is a harsh reality that for some men, a more successful partner is emasculating.

The answer isn’t only in the fact that women still downplay their smarts, their abilities so as not to threaten, so as to be accepted, to be liked. My sister (Princess of the Bubble Bath) tells me the other night that she read about a study that showed women of all ages uniformly downplaying their intellect when they were around men. Thoughts of the sheer waste of that capacity, that potential, are heavy and suffocating, to understand the constraint is to imagine a world without it. How could it be true that we’re still playing to the gender stereotypes of our parent’s generation? Is it because we never stopped creating the male hero, the Casanova, the strong yet gentle breadwinner, the provider? Part of me believes that. Part of me believes that we are still raising boys who will grow up and find their place in this world threatened. Those boys will grow up to see powerful women wielding invisible machetes and clutch their nether regions with despair.

Rightly or wrongly, I look to the mother here. I look to the women here, not because men are stupid and incapable of seeing logic. Not because the power struggles that we face daily are our fault or because no man on earth wants to see an end to patriarchy. I look to the women because I am one. I look to women because no one will understand this better than we do. I look to women and I ask, what is it we expect of our boys? Of our men? Do we expect a toxic, old fashioned version of strength? Do we expect to be taken care of? Do we expect to be rescued? Because if we do, we are part of the problem as well. We cannot to continue to propagate the power myth with our words and actions, to our sons, our brothers and our partners, if this is a myth we are seeking to dispel. I write this, and I know full well what happens to some women who challenge the power norms, and by no means do I ever want to trivialise violence or suggest that the one who survives it is somehow responsible for it in any form or way. But for me, there has to be something more here, we have to be able to look deeper and beyond the overt cases of sexism in our society. We have to start thinking deeply about what kind of messages live in our words, said or unsaid, and what clues lie in our everyday actions, conscious or not. Because if we are willing to do so, we continue to grow boys who will struggle and who will fight for significance and power in a world that would seem to take it away from them.

What if today, all you did was be kind?

We’ve all had those days. Those horrible, why-can’t-I-eat-chocolate-and-love-my-dogs-for-a-living-days. I’ve sometimes had days so catastrophic that I had to acknowledge my headaches by naming them. And believe you me, they are not your typical average Joe sort of headaches, they’re more along the lines of a headache named Barbra who is actually an overweight, cross dressing man who loves to indulge in activities that serve to challenge gender norms. Yes, even my headaches have a desire to be extra. Barbra, you as can well imagine, is well known for her perseverance and resistance to convention. It was one of those days where Barbra had decided to take up residence in the crease beneath my brow that I found myself wishing unfortunate ends for a large number of people that I was presented with something that made me smile. It was a simple something over a catch up about a project no doubt, and it was presented to me with no expectations. In between my deep grumpiness and misery there was a thin, long pack of Mentos. And the kindness within the gesture, the kindness of the bearer of the Mentos, was enough for me to stop feeling sorry for myself and to remember that the world is bigger than me and Barbara. It was enough simply because for that moment, in the handover of Mentos, I was given permission to sulk. It was a gesture that was kind and more so, it was a gesture that said maybe the world has bigger problems, but right now you’re more important than those. And yes, it was just a pack of Mentos, it was a split-second decision made as someone waited for their coffee, but more than any of that, it was kind.

I want to write that we could all do with a bit more kindness in our lives and in writing those words I wonder why I perceive it’s absence. It’s a no brainer that we would all like to be treated with kindness, that we would all want the proverbial pack of Mentos on a bad day, but then why does it seem so difficult for us? Now, I know it’s cool to be mean. Beyond that, it’s also easy to be mean, it distances you from a lesser human so as to stroke your ego just so. I’d daresay it’s easier to be mean than it is to be kind. Before you can spellcheck the word hypocrite, know that I am my fair share of mean, I’ve been mean to get a laugh, I’ve been mean because it seemed to come naturally and I’ve been mean because I was insensitive and self-absorbed. I doubt that perfect absolutes of “kind” and “mean” exist, if you had to consider those two terms diametrically opposed, each of us have elements of both, some more pronounced than others. Husband may tell you a different story, but even I am known to be kind at times, so it is possible that there is a sort of kindness-meanness spectrum that our actions generally fall within. I wonder how often the dial would point to kindness when I look back at my actions and I’m sure it wouldn’t be as often as I’d like it be.

It is seductive to think that our actions pertaining to these matters can adequately be translated to our more self-serving desires. A level of meanness protects our soft underbellies from would be adversaries and kindness endears us to fellow humans, making us more likable. No one can deny that we live in a world that places an illogical but substantial emphasis on outward appearances. No sooner is a good, kind deed done than it is posted on Facebook or Instagram and we all know that the harsh truth is that some people, if given a choice to do something kind that will get no social media attention or to do nothing, will do nothing. Somehow, we’ve managed to give preference to being seen as kind or good above actually being kind or good. In some respects, I feel like we’ve lost the value associated with being kind. We short change being kind because we’re busy, we’re ambitious, because kindness is for the soft and meek and the world belongs to the brave. We’ve forgotten how to share, be it the spotlight or our resources or a few well chosen words, because we think that sharing makes us vulnerable. We don’t support our friends, gosh we don’t even like their Facebook posts because if we give support or those coveted likes, we will deplete our own supply of magical power and perhaps turn into pumpkins at midnight. The crushing power of the like on social media is a substantial enough topic to deserve it’s own blog and I shall not even attempt to do it justice here.

So, what have we got? A bunch of heartless, self-absorbed, flesh casings running around our planet claiming to be human? Probably. But we also all know people who are more kind than they should be, we know people who care not to serve their own agenda but because they are driven by some internal compass that has no need for validation on social media. We are all grateful for the simple gestures that have helped us through difficult times, we are all grateful for people who have been kind to us in our times of need without so much as a thought about it. It is these kind, wonderful deeds that I think we should serve to mimic, it may not get us Kardashian like fame, it may never be acknowledged but it is, I suppose, the right thing to do. What if today we did what my mother tried to teach me as a child, we treated each other the way we would like to be treated? I’ve sometimes looked back at my particularly busy days feeling that I accomplished nothing, that all I got after a long day was an even longer to do list. I wonder how differently I would have felt if I had set slightly different goals, if I had challenged myself to be kind and I know, somehow, that that would have been enough. Because an act of kindness, be small enough to fit into a roll of Mentos, or large enough to encompass your grief, is an act that will always mean something to the receiver. I know that it has for me, and I am beyond grateful to a multitude of kindnesses and more so to the people who have been generous enough to bestow it. So maybe it’s time I start my days by my asking myself what if today, all you did was be kind?

D is for Depression

It was the simple, unflinching truth spoken. It was moment so sharp, so sincere, that I could not help but be moved by it. A work colleague opens up and choses to share his vulnerability with the team and I am uncharacteristically at a loss for words. He talks of his depression. He talks of how difficult life was, of how he wanted to do nothing and see no one when he was at his lowest point. He talks, and we listen. He talks and the silence that surround his words make them sound far away. He talks, and I fight the urge to go up to reach out to him, to tell him of how impossibly brave I think he’s being. He talks, and the trust laid open by his candour shows me what true bravery is. He talks to make this bad word real. The word we whisper, the disease we pretend does not exist, the people we tell to cheer up and get over it. There is remarkable strength in his vulnerability and in that moment of his truth, I wish for nothing for him apart from a desire for things to be easier. Not only easier for him to manage this disease but easier for him to be as open and as transparent as he was in that moment.

I won’t lie, depression scares me. I don’t understand enough about the disease and I often feel powerless and anxious when someone brings up the topic, because I’m never quite sure how I should react or what I should say. Part of me wants to make things better and even larger part of me does not to do more harm and try. What little I do know about the disease is that it is a silent killer, that it can spawn irreparable damage and devastation. I also know that depression is a wound that does not heal, it is one you must overcome and treat constantly, perhaps more so when you think you’ve got it covered. I know that many people have fought this battle, that many people continue to fight daily, and I admire them for the strength it must take to face each day, but it pains me when I hear “But I’m okay now, it was really rough, but I got through it”. Sometimes I feel like there is too much pressure to say those words. It pains me because that is the story we want to hear, when we do acknowledge this disease we want to jump to the part where everything is okay, we don’t want to hear about the messy parts in between. Give me your sob story just make sure you have a happy ending, pal. If not, let me badger you with words that will comfort me and tell you that’s not that bad, that you have nothing to be sad about, that you should “cheer up”. Let me do this until you only find release in lies I want to hear. Let me look at you and see you smile so that I can say “Look at everything he’s been through, and yet he’s so strong.” As if strength lies in pretence, as if strength only belongs to those who are cheerful, as if strength lies in a choice between happiness and depression. It pains me because we leave no room for vulnerability and for courage, we undermine what real strength looks like, so we can make things more convenient for ourselves.

I found myself crying at a funeral late last year and I felt odd because I did not know the man I was crying for. I don’t think anyone did. I cried because he was a prisoner in his own mind, I cried because he never got the treatment he needed for his mental illness and I cried because he died lonelier than I would have ever wanted to be. No one knew him because his disease was scary, his behaviour was embarrassing, his family was ashamed. And so, he lived and died with us only ever knowing the disease but never the man beneath it and I cried because no one should have to live that way. I cried because so many do live that way. If that upsets you even in a very small way, know that it is reported that two thirds of people who suffer from depression will never get the right treatment. Know that this disease carries a stigma, that many believe that it belongs to the weak or the crazy. Know that many of us would rather stick our heads in the sand than admit that something like this is close to home. Know that like me, you’re also part of the problem. Well, our ignorance is at any rate. However, there is a cure for ignorance. We must arm ourselves against our foolishness and our pride and we must not stop until we understand this disease better, until we are no longer ashamed or afraid. We cannot wait until you or I are afflicted, we cannot wait till this touches our family or friends, because chances are it already has.

If you haven’t done so, it’s worth checking out the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. We cannot wait any longer, we must know more, we must encourage our friends and family to speak up and to get the right treatment and we must be proud of those who do. It is time to replace the shame with courage, courage to challenge old beliefs and courage to give others the ability to speak their truth.

%d bloggers like this: