EXTRACT: Mzansi Zen

An excerpt from ANTONY OSLER’s new book.

Antony Osler

The news tonight is a recital of collapsing infrastructure, financial mismanagement and violence. It feels as if we are sliding irreversibly towards a precipice. I am overwhelmed by discouragement.

Because I have nailed my flag to the mast of things as they are, I can’t pretend all is well when it isn’t. I can’t run away from the suffering or deny it; I can’t invent a silver lining. No going forward, no going back. I am stuck. So what now? How do I find my life in the midst of all this? Here is the only thing I know how to do – I get up from my chair, I take a deep breath, and I walk beyond argument into my Zen practice. When I am here, I sit very, very still. Then, without looking for any particular outcome, I let myself down like a plumb line, inch by inch right into the very heart of my discontent.

It is dark in here. Completely dark. I wait. And I wait. I listen – past what the voices are saying, tuning into the voiceless. The words grow softer, less insistent. The blaming subsides. And the fear. Faintly, in the far corners of my ear, a sweet and unnameable singing … slivers of blue sky appear, and possibilities – the healing balm of a wider, more forgiving, view. Once more I inhabit the sacred ground where my connection to the world is restored. From here I can open my eyes. It is true we have bad governance. It is true we have great music. It is true that my heart is beating and that the cat is sleeping in the apricot tree. It is true that the small boy at the corner of the supermarket in town has no shoes. Now I know that I am facing home. And from here the direction is straight forward and right ahead – right into the arms of the world.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

BOOK CLUB: Mzansi Zen

Antony Osler’s exquisite Mzansi Zen gently reminds a travel-weary ALEXANDER MATTHEWS about the power of quiet attention.Mzansi Zen

At the end of July last year, I moved out of the flat I was sharing in Cape Town and became a nomad. Since then, I’ve visited Lesotho, Malawi and Zimbabwe once, Mozambique six times, and Swaziland five. In South Africa, the past year has seen three Kruger trips, a traversing of the Waterberg biosphere reserve, a few Cape Town visits, and too many times in Joburg to count. But the very first stop, marking the beginning of nomadic life, was a night spent at Poplar Grove, the farm where Antony Osler lives with his wife Margie.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Oslers lately, a lot about Poplar Grove, about sitting in the zendo listening to the roof gently expand in the morning heat. I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about the way I’m living my life — about how out-of-kilter it feels like I’ve become. Initially, the relentless movement was exhilarating — it felt right, a response to the wanderlust that had been coursing through me, wanderlust so powerful that it had made sense to stop renting in Cape Town in the first place.

But at some point in the past few weeks, the pendulum has swung. While I’ve been stimulated by all the places I’ve been to, all the people that I’ve met, I’m also flailing, slightly. After a relative lull, my OCD has flared up again: irrational, anxious thoughts bombard me like waves against a harbour’s wall, fuelled, perhaps, by the uncertainty and stress inherent in an itinerant lifestyle. Productivity is at best inconsistent — finding focus or establishing routines on the road has proven difficult. There is thinking, sure, but it’s often thinking of the murky, befuddled kind: the thoughts flow past, rather than being allowed to sink into stillness so that they can amass into something of substance. I’m growing tired of being a tumbleweed: there’s a yearning now that is perhaps almost the opposite of wanderlust — to become much more sedentary again, to put down roots again for a time — however shallow those roots may be.

I recently returned to Cape Town where a copy of Mzansi Zen has been waiting patiently for me — like a wise and gentle friend. I am grateful for it. It is exquisite: a vividly wrought, eclectic patchwork of poetry, parable and memory. In the acknowledgments, Osler says his wife read the first draft and told him, “Now write it as if you are telling it to me on the stoep.” He clearly followed her advice, because these stories brim with warmth and twinkly-eyed humour. Whether it’s about singing the then-banned Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika in a township community hall or his Indian friend, Raj, learning to play jukskei with a bunch of boere, each anecdote sounds as if it is being regaled to me while I sit on an old couch with a glass of whisky — as we did all those months ago — watching the last of the sun dance on the cypresses.

Mzansi Zen doesn’t shy away from life’s difficulties and complexities — instead, like a warm bath in a rainstorm or a cup of honey-sweetened rooibos, it makes them bearable. The book is no mere emollient, however. Like Osler’s previous works (Stoep Zen and Zen Dust), it is a gentle introduction to a way of life, a way of seeing the world, and a way of responding to it. You won’t find didactic proselytising, no shoulds and musts — it’s not a rulebook, not a manifesto. It is an example, an inspiration. It is a celebration of the power of attention, stillness, of being open, of being truly here and now. But unlike so much of mindfulness’s rhetoric — phrases which are sometimes used over and over till they are bleached of meaning — the power of the present is explored here in life, in colour.

Woven between snapshots of Karoo life are explanations of what unfolds on the weeklong silent retreats that the Oslers host on their farm. While there is listening, work, walking and eating, it is meditation which sits at the heart of these retreats — and at the heart of this book. Meditation is when we stop moving, stop searching and let the world come to us, letting it flood in, in all its richness. Osler shows us that by paying attention (on our breathing, on the sounds, however subtle, that we hear when we are seated), we are — as he once told me in an interview — strengthening “the muscle of attention”. The quiet concentration of such a practice strengthens our ability to inhabit the present in a fuller and more generous way. And as the book’s stories show, this naturally and inevitably leads us to find beauty in the quotidian, to acknowledge the remarkable in the ordinary. And as we learn to face “whatever is in front of us” — as we practise seeing it, acknowledging it — we become at peace with it; clarity emerges and we find a way to move forward.

As someone who compulsively observes our fraught political landscape with a mixture of fascination and alarm, I love the way this book embraces how tightly intertwined politics is with the personal in South Africa. Politics is close to home (and even closer to heart) in a way that it simply isn’t in many other countries. As he reflects on our country’s turbulent past and its uncertain future, Osler shows us how his Zen practice is not something adjacent to the broader social and political milieu we’re part of; it is not something divorced from the headlines we see, the radio’s murmurings, the highs and lows of a nation in transition — a bewildering state of corruption and decay, of courage and rebirth. He does not ask us to ignore our fears; instead he invites us to feel hope — hope in the warmth and the humour of the people he meets, in the beauty of a winter’s day.

I was particularly touched by this:

There are fistfights in parliament and police on the take, and past the window runs a small boy with water spilling from his hands and we ask ourselves what kind of world will we leave our children?

This question itself is the way. Our difficulty is our friend. We begin where we are, in our stuckness and helplessness and in our concern for the other. If we are patient in this, and willing to be surprised, we will wake up one morning to find that a gentle rain has been washing the leaves while we sleep. In this space our natural connectedness appears — with ourselves, with each other, and with the world around us. So, instead of trying to pull ourselves up by our bootlaces, let’s take off our shoes altogether, feel the earth under our feet and the sun in our hair. Then, when we step forward with helping hands, we will leave no trace.

Through his work as lawyer, and as the host of seasonal weekend retreats for local Karoo kids (many of whom have suffered from abuse and neglect), Osler has some inkling of the trauma, the seemingly boundless pain this country contains. What do we do in the face of this — overwhelmed, do we simply ignore it? He writes:

Of course there is still unhappiness and suffering on every corner. It doesn’t help to romanticise the children’s weekends, as if that is enough. Our work is never done. In Zen, that is called the Bodhisattva vow; as long as anyone is suffering I will keep going. This is not a vow of measurement, comparing the unthinkable magnitude of suffering with the smallness of my actions. It is just a promise to myself that whenever I am faced with pain I will not turn away.

Since I became a nomad, since that night in August last year, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to return to Poplar Grove. What I do have, though, is Mzansi Zen to remind me of what we carry within ourselves. While the Karoo is particularly conducive to silence and attention, these are elements that can practised anywhere.

I don’t know where the next months will take me or where I’ll be a year from now. I do intend, though, to move less and notice more. To focus on the what-is, rather than the what-is-not. To listen to the birdsong and feel the brush of breeze on skin. And to breathe, and breathe again, and again. I’m going to try set aspiration and dreaming and yearning aside sometimes, and revel in the moment — this, here, now — revel in it being enough, being everything, being nothing. Thank you, Antony, thank you, Mzansi Zen, for the reminder. It is enough.

Mzansi Zen is published by Jacana.

GIVEAWAY: Win one of three copies of Mzansi Zen! To enter, email competition(at)aerodrome.co.za, with the book’s title in the subject line. In the body of the email please include your full name, contact number and physical address (including the postal code). Only readers resident in South Africa are eligible. Entries close on 15 October 2016. By entering, you agree to join AERODROME’s monthly newsletter mailing list.

EXTRACT: In Gratitude

An excerpt from the memoir by JENNY DISKI.Jenny-Diski-8-790x430

When she died in November at the age of ninety-four, I’d known Doris for fifty years. In all that time, I’ve never managed to gure out a designation for her that properly and succinctly describes her role in my life, let alone my role in hers. We have the handy set of words to describe our nearest relations: mother, father, daughter, son, uncle, aunt, cousin, although that’s as far as it usually goes in contemporary Western society.

Doris wasn’t my mother. I didn’t meet her until she opened the door of her house in Charrington Street, north of King’s Cross, after I had knocked on it to be allowed in to live with her. What should I call her to others? For several months I lived with Doris, and worked in the office of a friend of hers. Then, after some effort, she persuaded my father to allow me to go back to school. As a punishment, he had vetoed further schooling after I was expelled – for climbing out of the first-floor bathroom window to go to a party in the town – from the progressive, co-ed boarding school that Camden Council had sent me to some years before. (‘We think you will be better living away from your mother for some of the time. Normally, we would send you to one of our schools for maladjusted children, but because your IQ is so high, we’re going to send you to a private school, St Christopher’s, which takes a few local authority cases like yours,’ the psychologists at University College Hospital had said to me, rather unpsychologically. I was eleven.) My father relented and Doris sent me to a progressive day school.

At the new school, aged 15 as I tried to ease myself back into being a schoolgirl after my adventures in real life (working full time in a shoe shop, a grocery shop, and then being a patient in a psychiatric hospital), I discovered I had to have some way of referring to the person I lived with to my classmates. It turned out that teenagers constantly refer to and complain about their parents and they use the regular handles. Not that I would, under the circumstances, have complained. But could I refer to Doris as my adoptive mother? She hadn’t adopted me, although she’d suggested it. We even went to see a solicitor in the first month, who must have had a wilful teenager of his own, because instead of coolly discussing the legal situation, he turned to me and ranted about the awfulness of teenagers these days, my undeserved good fortune, the selfishness of giving my parents so much worry and his inability to believe I had any psychological problems – I merely wanted special treatment and attention. I stared at him, feeling both slapped and in the middle of someone else’s cartoon, but before he could finish what sounded uncannily like the solicitor’s speech in John Osborne’s play Inadmissible Evidence, a year or so later, Doris grabbed my sleeve and we escaped down the winding wooden staircase, with the sound of his voice echoing behind us. In addition, my mother had one of her screaming fits and threatened to sue Doris for alienation of affection (hilarity ensued) if she tried to adopt me. So that was quietly dropped. I sometimes said ‘adoptive mother’ anyway, as an easy though inexact solution. It wasn’t only for form’s sake that it mattered how I referred to her; whenever I was called on to say ‘Doris, my, er . . . sort of, adoptive mother . . . my, er . . . Doris . . .’ to refer to my adult-in-charge, I was aware of giving the wrong impression.

In Gratitude is published by Bloomsbury. Read our review of the book here.

BOOK CLUB: In Gratitude

CHRISTINE EMMETT on Jenny Diski’s extraordinary memoir, which charts the final months of life with cancer.

In Gratitude

I recently heard of someone just outside my social circle who was bullshitting their cancer diagnosis. No one was really clear on what type of cancer he had, but all were clear that it was very serious and that much attention and care, along with furtive glances for text-updates, were required. It was unsettling to find out that it had all been concocted. Even more so because he had kept a blog in which he documented his ostensible battle with cancer. Hearing about this a few weeks ago, I couldn’t quite figure out how all the sympathetic and supportive do-gooders around him had missed the absence of oncology clinics, physical stress and exorbitant financial demands which cancer imposes. But then, perhaps, it also occurs to me that the narrative spin had value beyond the immediate desire to manipulate one’s friends.

There is something sacrosanct about the cancer/death narrative. Even this year, another “exceptional” “life-affirming” and “affecting” cancer biography has topped bestseller lists. That said, neither the bestseller nor the fictitious blog is the subject of this particular review (If this is your kind of thing, though, you can watch the book’s overwrought trailer here; the blog, though, has unfortunately been taken down). But what do these narratives, which we clearly believe to the point of exclusion, contribute to our lives? And why do their subjects continue to write them?

Death (à la Heidegger) is one angle through which to consider the impact of the cancer biography; that living “towards death” may lend authenticity to one’s life, as the phenomenologist claims. Nonetheless, the age-old tendency towards deathbed pronouncements remains the preserve of old guys spewing platitudes about the sanctity of life: magnanimous gestures, the raising and dropping of hands, some forgiveness and much condescension (do see Mr Hitchen’s attempt to subvert this in Mortality [2012], though his ‘intervention’ remains fairly grandiose and histrionic). From an alternative perspective, Siddartha Mukherjee in his masterful book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer suggests that cancer may itself stands as the ultimate figuration of death – the disease that functions as an evasive aporia of medical science, felling and disfiguring people for centuries without any formidable cure in sight.

Otherwise, as the fictitious blog seems to attest, is it not also possible that cancer biographies play into a desire for controlled pity and tragedy? In The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe (1974), DG Compton presents us with a dystopian future where the bewildered and dying Katherine Mortenhoe is hounded by a reality TV show. You see, in the world of Compton’s novel, medicine has progressed so far that barely anyone dies anymore (except for old people, but then no one seems to care about them), so a reality TV show allows the “pain-starved” public a glimpse into “real life” – an endlessly contradictory commodity. Within this context, though, the camera’s mediation is an absolute necessity – no one really wants to confront the physical messiness of disease and death; the same viewers who will experience these “orgies of compassion”, are those who must be kept at a distance: “It was only face to face that they feared her. It was only face to face that, given a leader, they’d have torn her limb from limb.”

I’m harping on, but it’s into this questionable morass that I’ve chosen Jenny Diski’s memoir/cancer-diary, In Gratitude, as my book of the month. On the most basic level, I’ve chosen it because my partner died of cancer last year, and around the time that his diagnosis became terrifying, Diski went public about hers and started writing monthly instalments on her experiences in the London Review of Books (LRB). This meant that I could read Diski’s ascerbic narration of chemotherapy and radiation (“weekends off, just like a regular job”), concurrent to attending its gruesome effects on my partner. I read her instalments as though they were an act of love, and when she died earlier this year I experienced my loss twice over.

The LRB instalments would later be collected and published as part of the main text of Diski’s book – what she describes as a “cancer memoir”. In keeping with the genre, the first essay/chapter describes Diski receiving her diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer; “So – we’d better get cooking the meth,” she tells her partner. And so Diski starts her treatment – a mixture of chemotherapy and radiation, exploring the muggy space of memory and uncertainty (how long do I have left?) and the last-ditch world of palliative oncology. If anything, rather than focusing on grander aspects of her life, Diski mines the banalities, petty feelings and generally unpleasant matters of her existence; the parts that have been excluded by the standard cancer biography.

On the one hand, to die pushing seventy years of age is not great tragedy, even if my id would like to know what the fuck age has got to do with being rubbed out. Even so, such reasonableness doesn’t take account of the kind of thoughts that run swiftly through my mind. Two to three years. Will the battery on the TV remote run out first? How many inches will the weeping birch grow, the one planted by the Poet for my sixtieth birthday (soppy old radical versifier)?

Alongside this account, she also details her relationship with Nobel prize-winning author Doris Lessing. Lessing took Diski in when she was 15. This act, itself remarkable, seems especially discordant when considered in the context of Lessing’s having left two of her own children in Zimbabwe when she moved to London some two decades before. Diski, in considering this contradiction, highlights both Lessing’s “immense personal bravery” as well as “her ruthlessness in pursuit of her cause,” that is, her writing  – a decision that affects all her children: those abandoned in Zimbabwe, the single child (Peter) taken with to London, and, later, the freshy adopted Diski. Diski may have been ‘rescued’ from her histrionic mother and con-artist father, but the adoption also introduced a profoundly ambiguous and embattled relationship between the two writers; Diski was considered a “waif” on Lessing’s doorstep, with her subsequent behaviour read as a lack of gratitude.

Funnily enough, a lack of conventional gratitude and communal feeling is exactly what has drawn me to Diski’s writing. It’s difficult to think of anyone else who could visit South Africa in the early 2000s, prior to the growing scepticism about “the miracle of truth and reconciliation”, and flatly state that her time in Cape Town was like “being in a wealthy nowhere-in-particular.” (Her essay is aptly titled, “On not liking South Africa”.)

But as she states “I am and have always been embarrassed by all social rituals that require me to participate in a predetermined script.” So given the now well-trodden path of the death/cancer narrative, Diski attempts to write against by emphasizing ‘pettiness’ and peculiarity of mind. For instance, in a few paragraphs she considers her prospective lifeline in terms of who will die first: her or Clive James? The winner, I can now attest, is unquestionably Clive James, who soldiers on, despite his leukaemia (he’s pointed out that he’s “highly embarrassed” to still be alive); while Diski died in April this year.

And this leads me to the creaky title of Diski’s memoir: In Gratitude which recalls the standard magnanimity of cancer memoirs, but also suggests its homophonic pair – ingratitude – a play on the interchangeability of the two feelings.

No one is actively ungrateful to anyone; it’s something of an “Ugly Feeling” in that it reflects a weak intentionality when compared with more directed emotions, like anger. Ingratitude therefore reflects more, perhaps, on the expectations of others – a deficiency of appreciation registered through the subject’s visual or verbal expression. In this way it is a feeling that is diagnosed, rather than experienced. But in this sense gratitude, itself, seems to come into conflict with individuality. And what makes Diski’s writing so piercing is her profound need to assert this individuality, throughout her illness, but also against her family, the beatniks she gets hammered with during the 70s and, most significantly, Doris Lessing.

Thus, if there is a struggle in this book, it is for Diski to retain her own aesthetic in the face of the “preordained banality” of cancer. And indeed, as banality has been read since Hannah Arendt, sickness and death are realms which easily lead to de-individualisation and dehumanisation. To see this in the context of cancer – the concept of palliative care (which we associate with Hospice) only came into being around 1950’s. The scepticism with which it was met meant that only in the 1980s did it come to Southern Africa; prior to which the end of your life was barely life at all. In so much is sickness still a realm apart, as Susan Sontag notes in her Illness as Metaphor (1978), that one is either construed as a suffering martyr, edified by one’s illness, or horrifying, decrepit and pitiable (poor Katherine Mortenhoe). These figurations collapse individuality; it is hard to imagine the desires or fears of the sick and dying, no less that these subjects may feel peevish or even lustful (in the interest of these issues, see Von Trier’s film, Breaking the Waves [1996], or HBO’s series, Getting On [2013]).

Diski’s light-handed humour is gradually weighed down towards the end of her book. The pace of the writing slows, and the text loses its breath. A seemingly endless capacity for mirth and irony in the face of death gives way to circumspection and anger, with much of her anger remaining focused on her relationship with Lessing.

At stake is the ambiguity of the relationship, as well as its potentially destructive effect of Lessing’s son, Peter. Peter was, to most observers “the chosen one”, the child who was actually taken to London. In this sense, Diski, upon her adoption became “a cuckoo in Peter’s nest” (even though he had suggested that they take Diski in). “Peter”, Diski notes, “is the great enigma in the story of Doris. He actually is the story of Doris, both in her youth and in her old age. It’s very hard to know how to present the two of them as the years went by, how to describe the dyad they made and which locked them together more and more grotesquely for the rest of both of their lives.”

Peter Lessing died just a few months before Doris – and when he died, by Diski’s account, he died a prisoner without an autonomous existence: agoraphobic, catatonic, empty and “gross”.

When we die, it seems we become public property. Likewise, grief will not necessarily be a question of just deserts. A manipulative and antagonistic colleague is likely to send out emails announcing their great love for the dearly departed; opportunistic acquaintances step in to fulfil societal roles that are meant for the closest of friends. It’s safe to say, that your narrative slips into the hands of others. In this way, we have yet to witness the rumblings and backlash from Diski’s characterisation of Lessing and her son’s relationship. For one thing, Lessing made Diski promise that she would never write about their relationship. But then Lessing had already used Diski as the subject of one of her novels (Memoirs of a Survivor [1974]). And so here, in this memoir, Diski wrestles the towering dame of letters, to retrieve her own narrative through a subjective, and at times fraught and possibly cruel, recasting of Lessing. What begins as the final stand of Lessing’s “waif” ends as a testament to writing against.

In Gratitude is published by Bloomsbury. Read an extract here.