When I was a very naive first-year university student, I was told that an ex-boyfriend had called me a “loose woman”. I was mortified and highly indignant. Not only was it untrue (the comment had been prompted, I think, by my flirting with another guy at a party, which I admit to doing, a lot – that’s how I met Peter!) but I was worried that it might tarnish my reputation at the university yacht club, which I had just joined. Of course, looking back on it now, it probably would have boosted my reputation, but that’s not the point. I went to the library on campus in a huff and I happened to bump into another member of the yacht club. He could see that I was upset and asked me what was wrong. When I told him, he replied, as quick as a wink and absolutely deadpan, “Really? I hadn’t noticed that you rattle when you walk.” Then we both started to laugh; at how stupid (and somewhat archaic) the comment was and at my foolishness for taking it and myself so seriously. And the incident was over, just like that. It’s amazing what problems one can solve by laughing at them (and equally amazing that I can remember that incident, I wonder if he can).
This morning I read this quote from my little book of 1001 Ways to Live in the Moment by Barbara Ann Kipfer:
Opportunities love disguises. They may even dress themselves up as problems … or, sometimes, as burdens. Look at all unexpected situations from all angles – from one viewpoint out of the many available you may well glimpse that inviting open door.
I have to confess that when Angelina’s boys presented themselves at my gate, I received them with mixed emotions. On the one hand I was relieved to see them again and to find out that they were okay, relatively speaking of course. But on the other hand I was anxious that they might expect more from me than I could, or was prepared to, give. When I expressed this concern to a friend, she pointed out to me that they really were not my responsibility. For some reason I didn’t want to buy that. If they were not my responsibility, then whose were they? I decided that what I could commit to was to take them grocery shopping once a month and to help them with their homework. So they visit me at the farm and I visit them at Mafakathini from time to time and I help Njabulo with internet searches (he has no access to a computer) and I read to James, whose English is negligible. What started out as a duty has turned into a pleasure and I really look forward to seeing them. But it’s not for the fainthearted.
There are few things humans are more dedicated to than unhappiness. Had we been placed on earth by a malign creator for the exclusive purpose of suffering, we would have good reason to congratulate ourselves on our enthusiastic response to the task. Reasons to be inconsolable abound: the frailty of our bodies, the fickleness of love, the insincerities of social life, the compromises of friendship, the deadening effects of habit. In the face of such persistent ills, we might naturally expect that no event would be awaited with greater anticipation than the moment of our own extinction.
(Alain de Botton)
This marvellous extract from de Botton’s book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, is the first paragraph in chapter one, entitled How To Love Life Today. I have never read Proust, but Kiera, as a French honours student, has and I remember the day she introduced him to me. It was a lovely summer’s morning and I was pottering around in the Durban garden. Kiera was sitting on the front steps and translating for me a passage from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Proust was pontificating about how certain experiences can trigger powerful involuntary memories; in his case it involved eating petites madeleines. The next day I actually went to Adams’ kitchen shop to buy a madeleine baking tin, but they were imported from France and it was too much money for me to spend on the folly of attempting to bake little cakes.
My memory of that Proustian discussion was triggered when I visited Njabulo and James this weekend. I met Njabulo at Shoprite Checkers in Howick; we did the grocery shopping and I then took him back to Mafakathini, where I got to see James as well. When we got to their house I asked Njabulo if I could make myself some tea. Immediately a tea cup and saucer (taken from the display cabinet), a tea bag, a sugar bowl and an enamel cup of milk were placed on the tiny table in the middle of the sitting room. As I drank my tea, Njabulo talked a bit about his childhood; where he was born, where the family had lived and the school he attended before Angelina got sick and they moved. He then brought out a large picture frame without glass. On it had been stuck cut outs of family photos. He pointed out pictures of himself and James as babies, of his parents, Angelina and Paulus, and told me where they had been taken. He can’t possibly remember where his family had lived when he was born, but his parents must’ve told him stories about it which have stuck in his mind and I think he really just needed to talk to someone who knows where he had come from.
It’s an hour’s drive home from Mafakathini, from one world to another, and as I drove back I put my music on, full blast, Coldplay’s Mylo Xyloto, which Alex gave me for Christmas and every tear was indeed a waterfall. I thought of all my photos; in albums, in filing cabinet drawers and on my computer. I thought of all the memories still to come that my children will have of us as parents. What is there to be unhappy about?