After you left, we all leave but you left early, I cried. We all did. Only because we loved your company, the presence of your life. Even when you weren’t around we knew you were there, somewhere. Here, there … do you see how difficult it is to locate you now. I think you will always be here but I do not fully understand where here is. You did not always have to be in my presence to be here. Here is a place in the heart of my mind, where it hurts. Can we call that place soul? Can anyone ever leave there? What does it mean to leave? I know others I have loved who left but still remain here. The whole world is still out there but very little of it is here. I never doubt it is not there even though I only ever see a small part of it at a time. It shall be the same with you I think. Always. After you went towards away, afterwards, we found language had failed us. All these years of using it every day and then …
This is how it failed us. I want you to know how because then you may understand why the world went quiet after you left. It was strangely wordless. In the hour after we received news of your going the house was so quiet. We heard the fridge hum and I had never heard it hum that loud in daylight. I walked over to it to see if something was wrong. There was something wrong, but not with the fridge.
It fails me now as I struggle to shift letters into words into a form worthy of you and words simply cannot do that. But they are all I have. And we have a need to share these things, we humans. We want to get the words right. You are worth the effort and at some point I will cease the bending and reshaping of this imperfect language and hope they reach you somehow. Then we shall go back to being quiet and polish our memories of you. I think you will shine.
The memories we have of you only reach a certain point and then they stop. We were all counting on there being more. This is a normal expectation, please do not be angry with us for that. Anger will visit us all. We will feel cheated by your early departure. But then, how sad you must have felt. We are sorry. We wanted to be able to fix things, like the humming fridge. We wish you had hummed. Maybe you did but in the daylight and the noises that come with it, we did not hear. We are sorry. Sorry is the word we use when the pain rises in our chest and up into our lungs creating such pressure that the place where we keep our language shrinks and leaves only a few essentials, the residue of life. This is usually emitted as a low hushing sigh. It is more a sound than a word and we fear the sound of it because against the memory of you stretched like the sky around us it feels pitiful, banal. When you hear the sound please hear it as all the love we can gather in one place as an offering of ourselves to you.
The memory that lingers for me is a montage of moments. It is what all of our lives are destined to become,
and somehow these are greater than words. You taught us something of value, presence is a beautiful thing. When we are present we do not need words, Words come afterwards, and after words, there is the beautiful memory of presence.
This country is in my blood father said. I refer to him now as father but even then struggled to call him by the usual names like dad, daddy or pa. I would wait in his presence until he looked at me, then speak. After he died talking to him became easier. My father, in heaven, hollow sounds your name … I had an aversion to names. I thought all children suffered like this to speak? Maybe they do? It was only in later years that I began to understand my struggle with names, once my own had worn thin. To name something is to establish one’s own identity in relation to that. It is to claim that as one’s own. As it was for my father so it is with country. Even now I cannot bring myself to claim it as mine. It is not my country. Father loved me, that is how I can call him mine. Countries cannot love, only the people around us that live in them can love. My family is my country. That I am is arbitrary. That I am that which I am on soil named one way or another is of no significance to me. Flags have always been an oddity to me. Fervour over teams and states something beyond the realm of logic. Flags, countries, patriotism, loyalty … these are cultural curiosities that detract from the more pressing issue of being and how to be as if one were hatched in an unnamed forest.
How does a country get into your blood? A country is after all just soil and blood is blood. Mud gets on your boots, blood leaks when you cut your skin. Men who murder mix “blood and soil”. Motherland, fatherland, no-man’s land.
In our search for identity, why is it we become obsessed with place. Does place form us? Perhaps. Are we not displaced at birth, from the warm confines of the womb to the world. Our first country is our mother, thereafter it’s just geography. Restlessness is the default setting of all human beings. We cling to a sense of place as a suckling baby clings to its mother’s breast.
My blood, the tissues and muscles of my body were manufactured from the water of the Suidkaap River, iron from the Makhonjwa mountains with probably some trace of gold that lay scattered across the valley and congealed in rich veins under the mountains. My father mined the gold, but that is a different story. The fruits that provided nutrients to me via my mother would have come from the orchards of Nelspruit and several trees in my grandparents home in Barberton. There was a Paupau tree, an avocado tree and a litchi tree. My body was manufactured in a beautiful valley in the hills of Mpumalanga. I am an amalgam of all of those atoms. Does my mind have an atomic structure? Is it composed of stuff? Does it matter?
Reared in the shadow of a police state my public body was weaned on the hard unloving tit of a fascist hag. I left that country and reside now in another, still displaced, with all of the papers to prove it.
I do not know this land. What does it mean to know a land anyway?
Renaissance map makers wrote the words terra incognita to indicate land (terra in Latin) that was unknown or unexplored (incognita in Latin). By the 21st century there is little left of the world to map. But what do we mean when we say the world?
In some abstract way we imagine planet earth. However, the world is never more than the square metre around one’s feet. We can never inhabit all of the world and yet often speak as if we are intimate with all of it. We speak of how the world is when we can only possibly know how it is for us. How do we form our view of the world? Knowledge of current world events does not constitute knowledge of the world. We hold bits of data in our heads and imagine we know so much. Other brave people have explored and mapped the globe, but to me it remains largely terra incognita.
I can only hope to know my self, the terrain within. It is difficult terrain and I am not always as brave as I ought to be. I am also not immortal. Time moves on leaving areas unexplored, I grow older, become less curious and more tired. Some nights I tame the beasts that confront me on the dark plains, some days they shred me.
I am of the ground, terrestrial, but I am unknown terrain. I am, in the words of Whitman – large, containing multitudes, and now I must map myself. Terra incognita was my name before my parents chose the one I have carried all my life. And everything gets worn down with time. Skin loses elasticity and wrinkles form like valleys. There are tectonic plates right under my skin. Joints ache, bones become brittle. Blood coagulates when it should not, arteries block, lungs must heave for air, the imagination weaves webs over the present, and reconstruct the past. The brain becomes atrophied.
My name is so thin in places you can see right through it if you hold it up to the light. It’s the same light I have been walking towards all my life, sometimes running to, sometimes away from but, mostly to. Once my name was new, freshly knitted it kept me warm for a while. Now the chill gets in quicker. People have been using it all my life too, my name, not the chill. When I hear it now it is like a bell clanging a labourer back to task. I used to associate my name with possibility. Now it like someone calling my name in a doctor’s waiting room, I expect bad news. So I’m changing it back to my original form name: terra incognito. Because I still feel unknown, unnamed and unformed.
One would expect that with five decades of breathing there would at least be an incremental increase of basic knowledge beyond the skill set one has accumulated through years of trudge. But no. There is no greater insight. One becomes not so much content with one’s life as resigned to it. If accepting your lot is the beginning of enlightenment, I may levitate soon. Currents still spark from the neurons in my brain. I still have fire in my belly.
There is pleasure in travelling through unknown terrain. Mapped and well signed land makes travel easy but the journey tedious.
Happy is he who can embrace the labyrinth of absurdity that is being. Being is not a set of coordinates.
One is never really lost.
Seven score and 12 years ago Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people for the people”. His social context was civil war and his political context was re-election. Nevertheless, we have adopted the cultural habit of associating individual freedom with the political structures of democracy. Furthermore, we tend to assume that the latter guarentees the former. But democracy has always been experienced within a firmly regulated space where the initial vision of egalitarian power has evolved into a mercenary political drive to ‘hold’ power.
Now, on the threshold of a new century, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate what democracy means to the average person. By average person I imply one of the ‘people’ for , of and by whom the above mentioned governance is meant to be administered. Those in power have always offered limited freedoms to appease the masses. The illusion of participation is a powerful opiate. In the age of social media this is especially true. Technology makes us feel that we are active participants in the world. Maybe we are? What is the alternative? What does personal liberty look like?
By the late Eighteenth century”Liberty”was represented as a lady in a toga. The bold, proud voice of seduction dressed in the cloth of imperial Rome. A woman in men’s clothing with enough cleavage to dispell any seriousness we might have in her ability to lead. A novelty perhaps? After about two and a half centuries it seems a lot of people are asking whether individual freedom has ever been taken very seriously at the level of governance. The daily bread of facebook, twitter and linkedin nourish the illusion of action. We tweet, ‘like’ activist pages and ‘sign’ petitions while chained to the cogs of the various systems that keep the engines of society churning. Maybe that’s enough and to expect any more is to be naive and hopelessly romantic? It begs the question, is democracy as an ideal flawed? Declining voter turnout (where voting is not compulsory), the emergence of the Occupy Movement since 2011 and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America appear to indicate an increasing disenchantment with many aspects of the democratic process.
Democracy has everything to do with a political process and little to do with the condition of being human in the 21st century. Globally there is a tangible disenchantment with politics. The primary goal of politicians appears to be re-election and pandering to an electorate. People feel powerless because they feel that the influence of their vote is diminished by the very political process that promises to safeguard their voice. We just don’t feel that we are being heard. Political speeches sound like lip service, politicians appear contrived. Shirt sleeves rolled up, blue and red ties, dark suits for men, executive haircuts for ladies, … everything feels manipulated. Politics has always been a form of theatre, lately it resembles a farcical puppet show. That’s ok if that’s your thing. I suspect this is why people are more inclined to tweet than vote. Their tweets are read, their votes may be counted but do not appear to affect any meaningful policy. Democracy has become the realm of bureaucracy. To borrow from Winston Churchill, an interminable paper tray has descended between the people and their government. The box has replaced the voice. “Tick the box that ye may be heard” is the new world order. And don’t draw outside of the box, under any circumstances.
Perhaps the best that we can do is to bring all of the conviction we have about life and humanity to the square metre of space around our feet and then treat the people that come into this space the way we treat the world online. If we want to actively participate in the world we may practice our ideologies online, but if we do not act them out with the people around us we lack integrity. Then we are no better than the politicians who pretend to care while they fight for re-election.
I have walked these streets before, but not here. I have seen these iron stairs, where fifty years of feet have cut the skins of paint from around a welded joint revealing contour lines of colour that expose bureaucratic flirtations with frivolity. Brave municipal souls signed off on yellow, cautious souls returned to gun metal blue, the current trend is industrial grey. These will be our Ozymandies, rusted steel and sky scraping nests where tomorrow’s scholars will speculate on the ritual function for those who travelled here with donations to their gods housed high above the ground in concrete slabs. What stories are layered here? Which hands have crafted this iron, placed it, cursed it, clung to it and from higher up how many displaced souls have jumped from it? How many commuters passed here in the morning with lovers at home and returned in the evening to unpacked cupboards? The metal stairs cut the sunlight into ribbons leaving only strips of shadow on the steaming tarmac below. I have seen that street dog. Wanted to be its friend but afraid it would bite, walked away before it could turn and leave me looking the fool. I have seen that dog everywhere. I have seen that beggar, heard the cock crow three times in every city. He gets around, that cockerel. I have felt eyes peel back my skin, make me translucent till i remembered no one cares and then become invisible again. Able once more to lose myself in the oil dispersing rainbows on wet streets where blues and purples run over greens with yellow nebula catching a trace of my current face. Here there is a long running symposium for lost souls. Everyone’s invited. There are always cigarette stumps stepped on and black from rubber and dirt, i have noticed them too, but not here. The smells are familiar. There is the occasional waft of rotting food carried in warm, nauseating currents fused with car exhaust fumes, excrement and fast food. When you smell these you hold your breath but cannot do that for long when you walk so you settle for short, quick inhalations and move to a busier road where gasoline and warm tarmac smells are welcome relief. I have seen the homeless man asleep on his cardboard, using a plastic bag stuffed with precious possessions as a pillow, but not here. The streets, the smells, the dogs, the people and the sounds follow me to Mumbai, Marakesh, Johannesburg, London, Beijing, Madrid, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Fremantle, Newcastle, Benoni and Jaipur. Perhaps i carry them with me. I used to yearn to travel. Strangers enjoy the greatest freedom. When you are unknown you can become anything. After two years you are invisible and people expect only the essentials from you, like breathing and presence.
Fellow vassel of need, honest companion,
We residue collectors, exiled together,
in this garden of earthly delights we incense air,
vassels of extinguished hope, heirs to the throne of desolation,
Vessel for the ash of my leisure
Little reminder of the end of pleasure
You hold my future,
Asher to ashes
It was fun while it lasted.