POEM: Must travel

BY ABIGAIL GEORGE

(for my sister)

The day has
a mothlike quality to it. I make a cup of tea (always for one). Boil the
water in the
microwave oven while

old poems
make way for new poems. Once, I lived in grassroots country. Rural
countryside.
Mbabane, Swaziland.

(Boarding school). Slowly
my flesh is emptying out. Winter making way for spring’s milky sweetness,
summer’s pleasure and
waves of heat, autumn’s gift.

Slowly, I climb back
into their world. Standing in the sun sipping my cup of tea for one.
I sit and watch the
afternoon warming the page in front of me.

POEM: Winter Karoo Evening

BY CRAIG O’FLAHERTY

The dust road ahead
cuts dead straight
through the stony
semi-desert folds,
as if someone’s drawn it
from above.
To one side I see a
a small lit plaas window
winking in the darkness,
emboldened by the whistle
of a burnt kettle
sitting on its blue
ring of fire,
calling out into
the starlit cold.

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.

Between here and there

BY TARAH CHILDES

Questions of Travel shares its title with Elizabeth Bishop’s arresting poem and begins with the telling below excerpt:

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road
really exaggerated in their beauty

The eponymous poem is immediately and rather startling contrasted to another excerpt from EM Forster’s Howards End: “Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle …”

And therein lies the topics that de Kretser expounds and diverges to and from in her intricate but sluggish novel: travel, both trivial and terrible, of necessity and for leisure.

The languorous narrative alternates between two protagonists – Laura, a wanderlust-filled Australian travel writer, and Ravi, a Sinhalese web developer and later refugee-migrant, following them from the 1970s to the early 2000s. While untethered and lonely Laura spends years backpacking Europe, making and discarding acquaintances and lovers, Ravi has to live in the horror of a war-torn country, eventually fleeing when his wife and son are murdered by Tamil terrorists. De Kretser, Sri Lankan-born herself, has spoken about these two characters as representations of “the division between the global rich and the local poor: someone for whom travel is easy and someone for whom it’s difficult”.

And indeed, de Kretser is masterful is in her interrogation of tourism, while steering clear of anything overtly didactic. There are uncomfortable and all too familiar unfulfilled promises made to locals, relationships forged but just as easily lost, observations on different kinds of travellers: “They were serious, appreciative and archaic: travellers for whom the link between travel and holiness still held”, and the horrors of national stereotypes — “How many Balinese come to Australia to vomit on the street?”

This travel discourse is cloaked is sumptuous symbolism and playful description. Cities come alive under her skilful hand. Naples is “callous, a raddled grand dame with filth under her nails”; Shanghai is “all suspension … a glamour bar that floated in neon night”, while Sydney is felt up by an ocean: “The Pacific never tired of rubbing up the city, a lively blue hand slipping in to grope.”

After a near book full of parallel track narratives and a multitude of diversions, Laura and Ravi finally meet as colleagues at a Lonely Planet-style publishing house in Sydney in the early 2000s. However, de Kretser coolly belies conventional reader expectations about how much these two disparate lives should mean to one another and disappointingly, Laura and Ravi merely develop a passing workplace friendship before the former departs on a visit to Sri Lanka just before the 2004 tsunami.

Questions of Travel won the Miles Franklin Award – Australia’s leading prize for fiction – and it is not difficult to see why. De Kretser’s observations about travel, working life, family, friendship, and technology are elegant and thoughtful, her writing witty and imaginative. However, whether intentional or not, the narrative mimics travel in that the sheer numbers of juxtaposed chapters and plot diversions become, like too much travelling, rather exhausting, the wondrous moments too far apart and too often disrupted by meaningless diversions and “in-between time”.

Questions of Travel is published by Allen & Unwin and is available from Kalahari.com.