Everything seems impossible…

Any conversation that starts with “I want to be my own boss” invariably results in a stream of discouraging words from the listener. People have told me ad nauseum about how many hours you need to work, the lack of free time, the uncertain income. Every article you read about startups, they mention the unrelenting grind of 17 hour days, the constant rejection from clients and investors, the myriad little things you absolutely must remember to do for fear of all your balls falling to the ground and bouncing off in a merry little band to float away on the nearest river.

No one ever talks about what comes before that; before the long days and the investor pitches and the abandoned partners. There is a gap between deciding to do something and actually doing it. It is the widest, deepest gap you will ever have to step across. But until you do, nothing will get done. You’ll still be talking about how awesome your business idea is when you’re 70.

I’m in that gap now. It’s the one where after a couple of hours of recording finances or writing a document, I’m exhausted and finding ways to justify leaving the rest of the work until tomorrow. I wander around the house, moving coffee cups from the bedside table to the kitchen. I stand outside and stare at my lawn, planning how many boxes of grass seed I need to make it the truly luxurious carpet I aspire to grow. I check my emails, even when I know there is nothing in there. I read countless articles and call it research. I PROCRASTINATE.

Why, though? Why could I spend 12, 13, 14 hours a day sitting in an office and meeting deadlines for someone else, but I can’t do it for me? Why do I have huge bursts of energy for a week or two and then a week of feeling so flat I can’t get out of bed except to pee and occasionally feed myself? Is it depression? Is it fear? Is it laziness? Is it just a normal cycle that I haven’t noticed before?

The short answer: Yes. It’s all of those things. But also, it’s CONSEQUENCES.

When you’re working for someone else, there are consequences if you don’t do your work, or if you don’t show up for swivel chair duty. Those consequences are immediate and unpleasant; you get yelled at, you get warnings, you get fired. So you do the job. Because you must. Consequences force you into action even when your back is aching and your eyes are drooping and you feel like you’re going to burst into tears any minute.

I, of course, am not going to yell, or warn, or fire myself. Hell, I’m not even going to let myself feel guilty, because that never did anyone any good at all. So how do I go about creating consequences for not doing the work?

The answer, as hypothesised on our magical porch, where all great ideas come home to roost, is to look far future, big dreams, barely possible goals:

  • If I don’t get up, I am never going to hike Machu Picchu or see the Northern Lights
  • If I don’t get up, I am never going to spend months at a time with my mother
  • If I don’t get up, I am never going to start a global housing foundation for creatives
  • If I don’t get up, I am never going to run an incubation hub in Jozi Central
  • If I don’t get up, I am never going to change the world

All these things are vital.

All these things are MINE.

All these things are impossible, unless I finish that document and send it to the lawyer. Today.

I’m up! I’m up!

 

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WOTD: Liminal

It means threshold. That place between where you started and where you’re going. That place with no clear sense of what you’ll see next, you only know you’ve stepped out into it. The path to the gate is before you, but the gate itself? Formless and shifting in the swirling clouds of mist that is your Great Life Plan.

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From where you start…

There’s a total whiteout beyond the gate. A blizzard. A fog. A driving rain. That shit’s dangerous. You could get lost in that. Wander off and never find your way home. Freeze to death, drown in a flash flood, fall off a cliff. Much better to stay here on the threshold, just behind the screen door, where it’s still safe and warm.

Not as safe and warm as it was inside the house, of course, but that door’s locked behind you and you already threw your keys out of the window in a fit of pique.

It was warm in there, but the air was stale and no one wanted to open any windows for fear the weather would blow in and shuffle their papers and cool their coffee too quickly.

So you threw on your warmest jacket, put your coffee in a travel mug, flung the keys, flipped everyone the bird and stepped outside. Now the jacket isn’t as warm as you thought it was, the coffee is finished and no one would open the door for you even if you knocked.

Even if you wanted to knock.

You know there’s a train out there, just out the gate, across the field, over the next hill and through the tunnel to the station. It’s warm and safe and has a power point for your computer so you don’t even have to stop working while you travel. You already bought your ticket, you just need to get there.

And we all know visibility is about where you’re standing. So until you get walking, you won’t see a thing.

Hypothermia sets in faster if you keep still.

Here goes.

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To where you wind up. Apparently.

Observing father’s day

It’s winter, but the air in the car is sultry and warm as a summer afternoon, so I roll down the window to let the breeze in. It chills my hands curled around the steering wheel and whips my hair across my face, driving it into my mouth in strands, which snag on my teeth and the corners of my lips. The small dog in my lap is shedding fine hair, which floats around the car in swirling upcurrents of air, sliding into my nose and tickling the edges of my nostrils. He flips his head up to look at me and his breath washes over my face, invoking a momentary gag-reflex in the back of my throat. You’d swear he lives a wild life, dining on swamp creatures and cached dead things in holes, buried and forgotten until the smell reminds him they are there.

I swear. Loudly. And push him away. I reach past him and turn up the radio. Classic FM waltzes Beethoven concertos through the sunlit air. The cigarette between my fingers is sending tendrils of smoke into the atmosphere and I bring it to my lips, inhaling the minty freshness which belies the taste of nicotine and sending it soaring out again into the whistling wind. The dog sneezes. Serves him right. But I soothe his ears as I drive, my right hand balancing the wheel with the three fingers not occupied with gripping the cigarette. I lean back in my seat, allowing the back support to cushion me in padding, the headrest wobbling behind me.

The air blowing through my window smells of petrol fumes and veld fire. Both of these mean death to small things and I wonder if the small dog would prefer his carrion roasted.

The sun glares white on my windshield and I flip the visor down, shielding my eyes from the brightest light. To either side of me are multi-coloured apartment complexes: beige,white, eggshell, ivory, grey, dove, peach, tan, sand. I wonder how the people can stand to live in such a riot of colour.

Even the trees are grey, this time of year. A few dusty leaves cling to skeletal branches and as I drive, they drift across my path and get caught in my windscreen wipers.

The leaf leaves a line across the windshield when I try to flick it off with the wiper. It’s a yellow-green smear. Perhaps there was a caterpillar caught in there.

Winter driving is death to small things.

The other cars on the road fly past me too fast to catch the expressions on the pink-blurred faces of their operators. It’s Sunday, so I imagine most of them are on their way to lunch with their families, freshly pressed from prayers, the scent of roast beef and potatoes already playing tunes on their tastebuds.

I’m going to see my grandfather. We’ll eat sandwiches and drink juice and he’ll talk about that time he met the prime minister of England. These are the things that stick with him, these days. That, and all the Very Important PR work he did for the mines.

I wish he’d tell stories about us, rather.

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The old man’s got swag

Youthful pearsuits

So we celebrated youth day in South Africa on Thursday. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Soweto uprising which happened in 1976, when a large group of students were gunned down for marching against the use of Afrikaans as the main language of instruction in South African schools, as well as the policy of Bantu education. It’s an ugly history, but today the day is used to celebrate all things great about the young future leaders and innovators of South Africa and the world. I decided to use it to remind myself of the youthful talent I had which has been swept away in the hamster wheel which is adulthood, and attempted to draw a portrait of my girlfriend, having not picked up a pencil in 19 years. Needless to say, there was much scrumpling of paper and gnashing of teeth, and not a huge amount of success. So I decided to draw a pear instead, reminding myself that it may be a good idea to climb a boulder before I tackle the mountain. I think it worked. I think it’s fairly convincing. Maybe tomorrow I’ll attempt a mug.

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Granny’s gardens

So my gran died.

And it doesn’t matter how much you know it’s coming, or how much you’re expecting it, or how many times you see her with oxygen tubes in her nose and the weight dropping off her and her struggling even to stand up to do dishes …

Nothing prepares you for it.

There’s a gran-shaped hole in my world and I didn’t see enough of her before she left.

I didn’t tell her enough times that I love her.

I didn’t take enough pictures with her.

I didn’t enough ANYTHING with her.

I don’t think it would ever have been enough, though. My gran was not someone you ever got tired of.

I spoke at her memorial. This is what I said. It’s not nearly enough.

When I was thinking about what to say here, a million thoughts of my grandmother speeding around my brain like kites with tails too short to catch hold of, I had a sudden image of a Disney princess wandering around a forest scattering seeds in her wake, flowers springing up in her footprints and all manner of winged creatures swooping around her. And I thought … AH, there she is! Rather shorter and rounder than your average Disney princess, perhaps, but every bit as joyful and beautiful as Snow White drawing water from a well.


My grandmother loved alive things. I can identify many of the Joburg birds by sight or song (hoopoe, weaver, cuckoo, loerie, starling, crow, indian mynah, laughing dove, kingfisher, bulbul, mousebird), thanks to the afternoons we sat looking out of the window at her bird log strapped high in a tree, watching baby barbets poke their heads out of the hole like whack-a-moles as their parents whizzed back and forth bringing them food.

I remember winter mornings breaking the ice off the birdbath with boiling water, pouring a steady stream onto the middle of the sheet without splashing to create a hole that we could stick our hands into. First prize went to the one who managed to lift it off without breaking it. I would carry it with pride, at age three not much taller than the disc of ice under my armpit.

I’ve watched her sit still and quiet on her porch, scattering bread crumbs or biscuits to coax the birds nearer, hop by hop, until sparrows and kiewiets stood centimetres from her shoes, pecking morsels from the ground around her, not fluttering away when she spoke or reached for her cup of tea.


My grandmother loved alive things. Her porches were gowned in wisteria and honeysuckle, and when you stepped outside in the morning the first air you breathed was jasmine and morning glory. Her flower beds were trimmed with alyssum, giving rise to lavender and lemon verbena, petunias and Namaqualand daisies blazing sunshine colors in the spring. Hydrangeas massed along the side of the house, arum lilies and agapanthus clustered around their feet. I collected easter eggs in the forest at the top of the garden and picked gooseberries from the bush and ate them where I stood, the yellow balls warm in my mouth.

She spent three years growing a hoya for me, using a cutting from her own vine. The single strand was less than a metre long when she gave it to me and I carried it home and put it on the porch table. When I returned from work the next day it was lying shredded on the lawn where my puppy had dragged it. I didn’t know how to tell her. I did, of course, but she didn’t say much about it at the time and it was only when we were sitting on her porch soon after her diagnosis that she told me the parent plant, hanging tangled on its trellis behind me, was fifty years old and I realised what I had lost.

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That plant has lived in almost every garden she has tended. It has bloomed beside gladiolus and irises, marigolds and snapdragons. Sweet peas have wafted their scent over its velvet flowers and potted daffodils have clustered around its base. Every vein and cell and hair of it, and the soil it grows in, is imbued with her. And while it lives, she cannot die.

This is a poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye. I think it would make her smile.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry.
I am not there. I did not die.

 

The birthday that almost wasn’t

I drive 300km to fetch her from the Bethlehem SPCA when she’s five months old. My friends have her brother and he looks like a Great Dane, down to the blue merle colouring. When I called about the puppies left in the litter, they said they only had one female left and so I said I’d take her, no pictures necessary, I was coming. I walk down two rows of desperate dogs and the only thing that keeps me upright when I see the pleading in their eyes is the knowledge that I’m taking one out. I’m excited, and nervous. I’ve always wanted a Great Dane. Can’t afford a real one but this is the next best thing, and if she looks anything like her brother …

I step into the cage and I spot her, huddled in a ball in the corner of her concrete cell, her recently sliced open belly exposed and one yellow wolf eye peering terrified at me from under a floppy ear. Her legs are too long to fit under her body so they splay to the side of her and as I approach she tries every way possible to make herself one with the wall.

She does not look like a Great Dane.

She does not look like a Husky.

She does not look like a German Shepherd.

She does not look like anything I had in my head.

But I made her a promise, and she had an operation because of it, and so she is mine.

She pees herself as I put her brand new purple harness on her and she will not walk so I have to pick her up, foal-legs dangling, and the pee drips down my shirt and pools around my waistband.

She throws up in the car twice on the way home and spends the next three months eating my socks. She pulls laundry off the line when she’s angry and digs holes in the garden when she’s bored. The first time I leave her alone at the house she tears a hole through the solid wood kitchen door and squeezes herself inside, then can’t get out when she gets sick and I come home to puke and shit and pee. Everywhere.

Everywhere.

But she’s mine. And when my life falls to pieces just a few months after I bring her home, I find a way to keep her. She bounces between friends and when she digs under their fences and tears up their lawns she spends two months in kennels, where I can visit on Saturdays and I can hear her screaming for me the moment I step through the gate despite two hundred other dogs barking between us.

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***

We move to our tiny cottage on the farm and she jumps over two gates and a fence to go looking for me when I go away to work, then has the good sense to knock on someone’s gate when she realises she’s lost and they have the good sense to let her in and call the vet. I arrive to pick her up, frantic and desperate, after racing home from work 40km away, and find her lazing about in their living room making friends with their dogs.

I raise the fence.

She shreds her chest climbing over it.

But she doesn’t leave the property alone again.

She follows on my heels as I ride my horse around the block and through the veld. Her long legs eat up the ground and we ride for hours, travelling in a great loop through the long grass, picking our way over stones and through wetland mush. She hardly looks like she’s making an effort as she floats over puddles and ditches. Dogs yell at her from behind high fences, even rush her out of open gates, and she drifts past them as if they were smoke, her whole attention focused on me.

***

I take her camping in the mountains, where we laze around and gaze at clouds. She scratches and snaps at the bugs buzzing around her head but doesn’t do much else. She wanders off to find another patch of shade, or damp earth, to cool herself in the summer swelter. Every now and then I lead her to the shower. She climbs straight in and sits down, waiting for the cold spray to tumble down onto her head, squeezing her eyes shut and shaking the water out of her ears.

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***

She stretches her horse legs to full extension chasing a rabbit across the field in front of our house. She’s remarkably fast, for such a big dog. I hold my breath for the rabbit and I feel my heart racing as it just makes it through the fence, leaving her trotting high-stepping down the wires, lolling pink tongue spilling out of the side of her mouth.

She’s caught four of them, that I know of. I’ve found three on my lawn, one half eaten, and one she carries proudly to my car door as I arrive home from work. It’s a youngster, not wily and wise enough to escape her quick-turn action, and still warm when she drops it at my feet. I only get close enough to make sure it’s dead, but there’s still an aura of life floating around the supple little body. I can’t scold her though: my girl, my huntress. She’s much too proud of what she’s done.

She catches rats and guinea fowl too. She and Hercules engage in a tug of war over a freshly killed rat, and I look away, afraid this time will be the time they tear it apart.

Not yet, though. She always gives it up to him.

***

It’s Friday evening, last weekend. I’m lying in bed. I’ve been sick, so I’ve been home with her all day. She jumps onto the bed with me, tounge lolling, panting, so I think she’s been running silly buggers outside and I poke a toe at her to get off. She’s shaking the whole bed and she must go get a drink.

She climbs down, and her back legs collapse underneath her. She walks two steps and she falls. Her breathing is harder than I’ve ever heard it but she won’t stop moving. She’s spinning in circles, falling on the floor, on the rocks, on the edge of the barrels which are sharp as knives because I haven’t got around to protecting them with rubber yet. She can still kind of walk so I race her to the car, sending frantic messages to L to meet me at the vet. I talk to her: you’ll be ok, hush baby, you’re ok. She cries on the seat behind me as she scrabbles for purchase, trying to stand. You’ll be ok, you’re ok, shhhhh, hush baby, don’t stand up …

When we arrive at the vet, she can’t walk any more. I collapse weeping as more efficient people try to get her out of the back seat of my undersized car. She’s seizing, though, and her legs keep stiffening against the door. There is drool everywhere. She has shat herself. We carry her inside between three of us and lie her on the floor, where she continues to shake, and spin, and drool, and cry, and her head is all sideways and her tongue is hanging the wrong way and she keeps trying to stand up and the vet says the chances are slim and I’m screaming I’m not ready I’m not ready she’s supposed to only go when she’s twelve …

But she’s mine. And I’m not leaving her lying in a cage to die I don’t care how many drugs she has in her. So we bring her home and she seizes again while we’re carrying her inside and we manage to get her onto a pile of blankets where the shoes normally are and luckily she doesn’t try to get up again and luckily the Valium kicks in and luckily she starts to fall asleep and I just want to stroke her and stroke her and tell her she’s precious and I love her and I don’t want her ever to leave me but the vet said I mustn’t bother her so I just wait till she’s quiet and then leave her to rest and go message my mother that I’m losing my dog and I don’t know what to do …

And then she stands up and staggers outside to me and climbs on the couch.

And ten minutes later, her face isn’t that awful crooked shape and she’s breathing quietly and I can count the breaths and I don’t dare to hope.

But when we all go to bed her back legs aren’t even wobbling any more.

And on Saturday morning she’s fine.

She’s slower now, though. The greyhound streak across the pasture has turned into more of an amble.

But she’s alive.

And she’s with me.

And she’s mine.

And on Sunday she turned nine.

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I just can’t write a thing tonight

Tonight I cleaned my workspace: put the pens back in their jar, brushed the cat hair off my chair, sorted through the ever-reproducing pile of store slips gathering dust in a corner between the magazine-which-shall-become-art and the hard copies of writing competitions and calls for submissions and inspirational quotes by great authors.

I think that’ll be enough for the evening. I can go now curl up in the enormous leather armchair sitting on the porch and smoke, read a book, play some games, surf some internet. I’m tired, you see, and I’ve had a really long day at work. We woke up late this morning because L’s phone turned off in the middle of the night, so we got home from the office when it was already dark and you know I need my wind-down time before writing.

You KNOW I need that. I can’t just come home and sit down and write something. My brain is fried. Without the perfect routine and the perfect homecoming and no distractions and no changes of plan I can’t possibly be expected to access the deep recesses of my creative mind and actually DO something with it.

Can I?

I mean … reading a book is anyway just as valuable as writing things down, isn’t it? If I don’t read, how can I ever write anything? I learn things from those great authors, those oft-quoted crusaders of the mightier staff. They teach me how to speak, how to turn a phrase, how to imagine how people speak to each other. They show me places I can only dream of going. Their grand descriptions of the green, rolling hills of Ireland, ponies trip-trapping across them, allow me to imagine my own world that I’m building. So you see, reading is very important and at least it’s not watching TV.

I can do more tomorrow – oh, wait, not tomorrow, we have a thing on. We’re going to tattoo roulette. We’ll be too late home tomorrow to write a single word, and anyway we’ll be too excited to settle down. And then it’s Friday so we need to chill out. This week’s been fucking hectic. I could try to write on Saturday – oh, wait, no I have friends coming over for a braai so I need to prep for that. And Sunday’s a write-off (ha.ha). Arnold is coming to help me build a fence and heaven knows I’m not going to write after that. I’ll be much too sore.

I should really just stop torturing myself. I mean, even the greats take days off, right?

OK. But it’s only one night – well except for tomorrow and Friday and the weekend which I really can’t avoid – and I have plenty of time to finish the story and write the blog and smash out the book and cut up the magazine and colour in the colouring book and paint the picture and draw the pastel portrait of my love. I’m still young and as long as I get into some kind of routine before the end of this year then I’m still doing fine.

And anyway I’m so exhausted my eyes are closing and there is just no way I can muster up the inspiration to write one single word tonight …

Steven King Go To Work

Oh.