When The Last Tree Falls…

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

― Clare Boothe Luce

Today, our family is saying goodbye to the last surviving soul of a great generation – the backbone of our family: My aunt Hettie, who lived until the age of 94.

Over the past few days, since her passing on Thursday morning, I have been lost in the most comforting and beautiful memories of her in my childhood.

As an English teacher, she instilled in me a love for books, learning and languages. Visiting her meant no television, but rather picking up a book, drawing, building puzzles and figuring out crosswords and riddles… Knowledge is power. Use your mind. Think.

As a young woman, Hettie travelled a fair bit (an exotic luxury only a few enjoyed at the time). Her stories of foreign countries and strange cultures planted the seeds in me of wanting to discover and explore our wonderful planet. I still carry with me (and cherish) a pair of leather gloves she brought back from somewhere (I’d like to believe it was Paris) as a gift for me when I was 5 years old.

My bookshelves are bursting at the seams because of you Hettie and the travel bug inside me remains restless and thirsty for more places to see, foods to taste and people to meet… there is always more to experience, right?

Hettie was a dedicated homemaker with an impeccable sense of style – Africa with a hint of Scandinavia. The eclectic spaces she created, wherever she lived, told the story of who she was, where she had been and the beauty of how she viewed the world. She dressed simply – almost minimally. A wardrobe cut, sewn and knitted mostly with her own two hands. Linen. Cotton. Wool. Soft, pale and natural colours. Comfortable, practical and elegant.

When I look around my home, I can see your creative influence. I know a part of you has always been with me. Sadly, it’s only now that I recognise where that gift came from. 

She spent hours grooming her garden and flower pots, no matter what the season. We’d often arrive at her home and hear her talking to the tadpoles in her fish pond and gently (albeit it a bit impatient) encouraging her willow tree to grow. She had an astonishing talent to nurture plants on the brink of death back to life. Love. Care. Attention. Dedication.

Her dogs, Dandle and Jean, two Spaniels, were not just her companions and friends but four-legged soul mates who followed her everywhere. Spiders came to no harm in her home – they were regarded as friendly spirits who briefly visit. She adored all animals and was connected to nature in an admirable and almost Holy way — like we all should strive to be.

Hettie, your wicked and teasing sense of humour annoyed many of us. Your sharp and observational wit called a thing by its name and often caught us off guard. No nonsense. Just honesty. You made us laugh with your random quips and straightforward punch lines.

You always said to me: “You should find yourself a lovely English girl with rosy cheeks and blue eyes”, but you knew full-well that it was never going to happen. Accepting. Kind. Graceful.

As a single parent, she raised her children in an exemplary way. She loved her husband dearly. But once he passed away after just a short few years of being married, she never remarried and dedicated her life to living – not seeking, not wanting, not pondering. She knew who she was. She made her own rules and created a beautiful life.

There are so many things, Hettie, which I want to say. But ‘Thank you’ comes to mind first: Thank you for the impression you made on my life. Thank you for being a friend. I am so bitterly sorry that I let our relationship slip in the last decade, and that I carelessly neglected you. I did not forget you but I was selfish. I regret this. I am sorry.

May you rest in peace in a beautiful heavenly garden, among flowers and animals. I hope your reunion with all the others are joyful: Granddad Frankie (he did not like you calling him that… but you insisted), Grandma Tilly, Aunt Bella, Uncle Billy-Boy, Hector, Dandle, Jean, Dada and every single beautiful one that is no longer with us.

I know they’ve waited for your arrival with great anticipation – the same way we did when our family gathered for lunch on Sundays under the big old tree in Grandma’s front garden. You’d arrive a little late with sugar cookies, fruity fudge squares and Roly Poly – your signature dessert… and then the laughter started.

The last majestic tree has fallen in the forest. And now, all that remains for the saplings to look upon is the empty space it leaves behind.

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David Bowie — Giving Space To Oddity

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“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, “Fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.” David Bowie

Like so many kids in their early teens, I felt out of place and at odds with myself when I grew up: I lacked the masculinity expected of me from my environment, being a skinny sensitive introverted boy who liked to play “house” with my stepsisters — making doll’s dresses and staging mock weddings.

I made a beautiful bride.

At the time, unlike the other boys, I also showed no signs of reaching puberty and resorted to using a black marker pen to draw chest hair on my chest… and everywhere else my “shame” had to be covered.

My self-expression led to ridicule and apart from spending time with the few friends I had, I mostly kept myself to myself.

It was September 1987. I was 12 years old and growing up in Pretoria — a highly conservative and religious city, in South Africa. My step parents restricted my “television time” to 2 hours a week and classical music was the only music I was allowed to listen to. They “meant well”.

That spring, hidden in a box and covered with dust, I found a cassette tape of Elvis Presley’s 1968 Las Vegas comeback concert. When I heard the King’s music for the first time, Heartbreak Hotel, Jailhouse Rock, Wooden Heart, Teddy Bear, Are You Lonesome Tonight… a hunger, which I wasn’t even aware of, stirred inside me. I wanted to know more about this man! This music! And the outrage it caused.

Two problems: First, my stepdad’s stuff was out of bounds, so getting caught with the tape meant big trouble. Second, “Rock & Roll was the devil’s creation”, and listening to it was as good as bringing Satan himself into our home. (Goodness knows why my stepdad held onto that tape…)

My safe haven and key to escaping home life was our local library. I saved my pocket money and took a bus trip to the library every Saturday — at the great expense of 50 cents a trip. Fortunately, being an “academic”, my stepmom encouraged those library visits: “If the boy keeps himself busy with books, at least he is learning something and stays out of trouble.”

Little did she know. The library gave me access to an entire archive of books and vinyl records of the “devil’s music”. A whole new world opened up to me — not just Elvis but also Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ritchie Valens, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and many more.

Like the teenagers of the 1950’s, Rock & Roll revolutionised me albeit in 1987. And once my lust for 50s Rocks & Roll was exhausted, with a lot of catching up to do, I headed for the next three decades.

The Complete Encyclopaedia of Rock & Roll became an essential point of reference that introduced me to Brit Pop, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Simon & Garfunkel, Neil Young…  and David Bowie!

“The boy” found himself in the good company of  artists, poets, rebels, free-thinkers and creative geniuses.

A blessing.

When I saw the news of David Bowie’s passing, while running on a treadmill in Central London, 6am in the morning, I flush of sadness fell over me.

I remembered my younger self — a barefooted 12 year old boy completely overwhelmed by his isolation in an unkind environment — sitting on the library floor in his khaki shorts and yellow checked shirt, staring at a picture of David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane album cover: flash across his face, flaming red hair, pale skin, ruby lips, eye shadow and a humble subtle bow of his head: Undiscovered greatness.

He was sexy. Weird. Man-woman. Crazy. Clever. Poetic. Dark. Alien. Familiar. Exotic. Enigmatic. Mysterious. Angry. Kind. Provocative. Wicked. Amazing.

A man in lycra? Sequin? Glitter? Make up? Wigs? Extravagant and beautiful? Boys can do that?

“Thank God!” I thought. “There is hope for me. There are others like me. I can escape this place.”

Until yesterday, 11 January 2016, the day the world learned that the Star Man has returned to where he belongs, I did not realise the impact of that first image of David Bowie I laid eyes on, had on me. It was the first sign of a glimmer of hope.

That image opened the door for me to a journey of self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-expression that I hope never ends.

Of course, there is his music, his acting and his tremendous and impeccable sense of style. How could anyone ever ignore these Bowie trademarks? “Fame, makes a man take things over. Fame, lets him loose, hard to swallow…”

He will be remembered and admired for so many things and rightfully so. There is no measure to his monumental artistic accomplishments and contributions.

For me David Bowie was a lifeline — the man who gave space to oddity and who showed the world, in the multitude of all his exquisite manifestations, the importance and power of owning who you are.

“And the shame was on the other side. Oh we can beat them, forever and ever. Then we could be Heroes, just for one day…” Heroes, Dawid Bowie

AladdinSane

Aladdin Sane – David Bowie, 1973

 

A Year of Less… And A Year Of More

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“ ‘Ask and you shall receive’ is the rule, but you must learn how to ask and how to receive.”

― Gary Zukav ―

It’s taken me a while to eventually sit down and write this post, because it’s taken me quite some time to gather my thoughts as I (still) reflect on 2014 and to formulate my expectations for 2015.

In many ways, for me, the New Year of 2014 only began on Monday 3 March 2014.

I had been feeling lethargic, severely fatigued, unfocused and depressed since the end of November 2013. Thinking that it was simply a relentless bout of the winter flu, I eventually took 2 days off work to rest and recover. Starting the Wednesday evening, I slept straight through until the Sunday (2 March 2014).

On Sunday, I was a bit more energised and decided to meet a friend to catch a film. However, I soon felt worse for wear and thinking that a migraine attack was looming, I went home immediately after the film ended. By the time I got home I had lost all movement on the left side of my face. I couldn’t speak, had no sense of touch, smell or taste, and couldn’t hear or see anything on the left side of my face. I was rushed to the hospital as the paramedics were convinced I had a stroke.

After 19 dreadful hours in hospital the doctors finally confirmed that I had Ramsay Hunt Syndrome — a viral infection in the facial nerve (not Bell’s Palsy!). However, the loss of my sight, hearing, smell and taste led them to believe that the virus had spread to my brain and infected the Parietal lobe — the part of the brain that controls the five senses.

The doctors predicted a 6-18 month recovery period but had little hope for me to fully regain facial function. I was sent home with no action-or treatment plan other than a potent dosage of steroids and antiviral drugs.

I always joke and say: Vanity is my favourite sin.

This is true. What is also true, is the fact that vanity often cloaks deep-rooted self-loathing.

When I returned home that Monday evening (3 March 2014) and I saw myself in the mirror — facing the reality of possibly having to live without the use of one eye and not being able to speak, hear or smell properly — I wept.

I wept, not because I felt sorry for myself, but because what I saw in the mirror, for me, was a manifestation of  years of self-abuse. All the nasty things I said to myself on a daily basis, echoed in my head: I am unattractive, fat, have too thin lips and a slightly long neck. I am not muscular enough, have a door-knob nose and receding hairline… And I went deeper than: I’m a failure. I’m unlovable. I have no talent. I’m not good enough and have nothing to offer. I am stupid… blah, blah, blah. Day-in and day-out.

Once I stopped crying, I said to myself: I’m sorry. I REALLY am sorry for treating you like this and for not loving you and for not giving you what you deserve — the Grace to be human. That will never happen again. Never. And now I will fix this.

The next day, I started a regime of facial exercises for 15 minutes in the morning and evening, a diet of brain food (containing particular high quantities of fresh and organic beetroot, salmon, carrots, broccoli and quail eggs), supplementing with digestive enzymes and super dosages of iron and vitamin C, acupuncture, meditation, relaxation and journaling. It took a lot of patience, humility, persistence and love but 6 weeks later, I had regained the full function of my face: I could smile again without looking like Beetlejuice. My left eye closed on its own, without involuntarily popping open seconds later — enter The Bride Chucky. I tasted my food again and was able to chew without shredding the inside of my left cheek — very important for someone who loves his food. Spring was in the air and I was absolutely elated to be able smell Mother Nature everywhere as she turned her colours out.

Of course, it doesn’t take a mere 6 weeks to undo the damage of a lifetime of self-harm. But in those 6 weeks a foundation was laid. One that I still frequently use to assess and improve the relationship I have with myself and my body, as well as my relationship with others and my environment.

During the rest of 2014, I continued cleaning up my act, all in preparation for my 40th birthday. I let go of negative, draining, one-sided and destructive relationships as well as dubious business partnerships that didn’t respect or value my skills, experience and creativity.

I also successfully quit smoking (the easiest ‘difficult thing’ I have ever done) and stayed on track (with a newfound fondness) with my diet, fitness and meditation regime. In part, I believe the positive steps I took contributed to other amazing blessings manifesting in more areas of my life — flourishing creativity, unexpected gifts and financial reward, traveling to some of my bucket-list destinations, old friends reconnecting with me and receiving undeserved loyalty, encouragement and support.

My mantra for 2014 became this: When I turn 40, I am going to pass through a threshold. What stays on the other side, behind me, will be done with. The door will be closed and I will begin afresh.

That was my focus, my preparation and my mission. By all intents and purposes, I was going up the proverbial hill at a steady and strong pace. I was motivated, positive and most of all, ready to embrace the future.

Two days before my 40th birthday one of my best friends of 17 years, committed suicide. When I heard the news, it felt like someone had hit me with full force in the face with the flat-side of a shovel. I have never felt such an instant, terrifying amount of pain ripping through my entire being. My body went into lockdown. It was physical. It was emotional. It was spiritual.

My stomach still turns when I think about my friend. My heart still breaks. Sometimes it terrifies me, because I know that there once was a time when my own thoughts easily could’ve driven me to the same fate. It saddens me deeply that my friend lost the struggle against himself. I wish on nobody to ever stand alone in such a despairing place.

In his book, Seat of the Soul, Gary Zukav says that sometimes it takes an intervention — a massive trauma or deeply moving experience — to reconnect a person with his or her core. 2014 has left me in awe — humbled and inspired. I consider it one of the most profound physical and spiritual interventions of my life. I’ve learned a lot and would like to share some of my lessons with you:

1. We do not attract what we want. We attract who we are.

2. It’s okay to put yourself first. There is a difference between being selfish (acting with self-love) and being self-centred (acting with little or no regard for the feelings and well-being of others).

3. The human body is a powerful and magnificent instrument. It can teach you a lot about yourself. Respect it. Learn to listen it.

4. Your thoughts (and inner dialogue) can be your greatest asset as much as it can be your worst enemy. Everything begins with YOU.

5. Do business with people who either match your skills, experience and expertise or those who compliment what you bring to the table. Don’t lower yourself.

6. True friends don’t tease with empty promises of “doing lunch sometime” and they don’t need cheap flattery to win your favour. Instead, their actions (more than their words) almost always confirms their love, loyalty and support. There is a big difference between people who only know you when they need or want something from you, and those who want to know and be with you simply because you are you.

7. Life is not fair. Life is not always kind. However, Life is always what you make of it.

8. Love. But love the things that nourish you and the people who love you back. You are worth it.

9. Find some silence for a few minutes every day, in a place where you can hear only your thoughts.

10. Once you have found your silence, pray. What else is prayer but a conversation with yourself that connects you with the part of you that yearns, and hopes, and delights, and hungers? When you pray, talk about what you have done and what you have failed to do; who you are and who you aspire to be. Talk about the people you love and the ones you dislike. Talk about the things that matter to you… Who knows, if you are lucky, God might listen… and who knows, perhaps He (or She) will lend you a hand.

However, even if you don’t believe that anyone is listening when you pray, at least you are listening. Everything begins with YOU. Pray.

As for 2015, I can’t express my wishes any better than what my sister has already done in an email that she sent on New Year’s Eve:

“Dearest family & friends,

As the year draws to a close I started to think about all the things I didn’t do this year, and immediately started to make resolutions for the New Year in an attempt to make amends for the unresolved issues of 2014.

But then I had a new thought, a thought that started with my message to our family on Christmas Day. It is based on an old Jewish proverb that says we will have to give account on Judgement Day of every good thing that we refused to enjoy when we might have done so. What an interesting and sobering thought… and I will probably have to give account for quite a few of those in 2014.

Therefore my thinking is this: God created each of us in a unique way with a unique purpose and I firmly believe He wants us to enjoy ourselves, our families and our journey through life not in a mediocre way; but to live life to the full with true joy in his creation & blessings!

When I then think about the things I haven’t done, I am inclined to be less critical of myself & others and to celebrate the past year; thankful for all the blessings we’ve received, all the wonderful moments of laughter with my kids and husband and the amazing grace I have experienced in 2014.

Therefore, I want to embrace 2015 with both arms and the only resolutions I have is to make the most of every opportunity given to me, to enjoy this great life I have with the people I love and to help bring joy to those around me.

For all you wonderful people, I pray that 2015 will be a year filled with true joy, love that is unconditional, grace for yourself & others and lots of laughter!

May you all be blessed with good health & success in whatever it is you decide to take on this year!

Here is to 2015 & a joyful new chapter!”

Happy New Year.


Credits.
Images: FR Lubbe For Little Red Shoes
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes
Letter: Carolien Andrews


A Letter To A Friend Who Committed Suicide

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“We will see where all of this will end…”

~ Jaco Marais ~

I’m  looking at the full moon gleaming in the sky and I see the Guy Fawkes fireworks exploding outside my window and there’s absolutely no reason to celebrate anything.

Instead, I want the whole world to come to a standstill in the same way that my little universe came to a screeching halt today. I want someone to sit with me in this pain because I do not know what to do with it on my own.

I am not angry with you – how can I be, you were my best friend – but what the fuck dude?

Somehow I sense you all around me… like you’ve not left this earth yet. So I’m writing this letter to you because I need to get some stuff off my chest. (Note: I might swear a lot, because my emotions are rather primal at this stage of my grieving.)

The past few weeks I’ve had an absolute blast preparing for my 40th birthday… You know this, because we talk about everything and I’ve kept you posted on ALL the details. As always, you have been my second opinion and my voice of reason. It’s how we’ve been operating for the best part of the past 18 years: We kept each other in the loop. I trusted you with everything and you trusted me back, right?

On Monday I told you that I’ll be celebrating my birthday in Paris this coming weekend. I told you about the apartment I rented and the lunch on Saturday that will be prepared by a Chef who knows everything about food intolerences. We laughed because lately we both bloat like blowfish at the mere thought of eating cake… “Forty is a fucker” you said. I told you I’m planning to change all that… Then I said that I’ll go to Shakespeare and Company, Jeanette Winterson’s favourite bookshop in Paris, especially for you because you couldn’t make the celebrations this year… You love Jeanette Winterson.

I also told you that I’ll send you a photo of me standing at the exact spot (Jim Morrison’s grave) in Pere La Chaise cemetery, which is where I want you to scatter my ashes if I end up dying before you… because we made a promise that we’ll be there for each other right ‘till the end, remember?

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you think if ever there was a cue for you to open your mouth and spit it out, that was it… Jeanette Winterson. Death. Ashes. Cemetery.

No?

Instead, you kept quiet…

On Monday, you told me that you wanted something ‘new’ to happen in your life. Here I was, thinking maybe you’ll dye your beard black, or you’ll move to another city… get a tattoo of Angelina Jolie on your hairy bum… explore taxidermy or some kind of other hobby equally macabre and fabulous.

Little did I know you had suicide in mind.

You have always been such a Drama Queen!

How can I not take that personal? What you did cannot be undone. It leaves me powerless and rendered me catatonic. Not a good look.

You used to say “sometimes I think it will be better to end it all.” I sometimes agreed with you. But the deal was that we were in this mess together and we were making the most of it!

We understood that, for some of us, we need to earn our belonging, we need to claim our celebration and make our own noise. At least that’s what you made me believe… You know, you could’ve told me anything. I was your ’let’s bury a body under a tree and never speak of it ever again’ kinda friend. I would’ve listened to you because I know how you can get – you go all dark, depressed and moody. You get prickly and become like barbedwire. You sometimes feel uncomfortable in your own skin and that makes you think that nobody loves you. I am the same way. It’s what made us click. But then we talk about that shit and we put the world right… and we laugh and joke about being so bitter and twisted… just like we did on Monday.

But by Monday you had long made up your mind, didn’t you? And that’s why you didn’t bother telling me.

You should’ve trusted me enough to know that I would not have tried to change your mind. You should have known that I don’t beg people to stay… If you want to leave, then leave… but don’t leave a mess behind like you did!

I know your suicide was not an act of hostility towards me. I know I was someone you loved dearly and I know I loved you back blindly and unconditionally – in equal measure. But it wasn’t enough anymore… nothing I would’ve said or done would’ve changed your mind: You wanted your life to end. That’s brutal.

So you’ll understand that I keep waiting for a WhatsApp message from you to explain yourself… say you are sorry and then end the conversation the way you always do: “I’m off my gay. I have minds to change and a life to live. Love you…”

But I won’t get that message because all I have is those awkward last words you sent me on Monday just before I went to bed: “Sometimes in life I am slightly amused.”

And with those words you have gone and left a big fat gaping hole – bigger than the unsightly split between Madonna’s front teeth – in our lives… and it cannot be fixed.

I plan to live at least another 40 years. Tomorrow and the day after, and the day after that one… every day from now on will not have you in it. Do you know how fucking bad that is for me and every other person who loved you and who drew inspiration from your life?

Yes, your life and who you were inspired others.

Fool.

You kept me afloat. You encouraged me to be better, to try again whenever I believed I failed. You put up with all the bad choices I made. You told me sooooo many times to get over myself and to stand tall, slap on a brave face and take responsibility for my actions. You never judged me and always gave me the benefit of the doubt.

If only you were a friend to yourself like you have been a friend to me.

Fuck you!

So, here’s the deal: You will not haunt or pester me with feelings of doom and gloom. When I cry about you, you will remind me of all the good times we had and the dreams we dreamed together.  You will be a voice in my head warning me every time an outfit does not blend together (except for when I wear pink and red together because we’ve agreed to disagree on that many years ago). You will be my guardian angel and when they find an elixir that stops gay men from bolding, you WILL poltergeist the shit out of the people who made it and you will get it for me…

And finally, since you’ve broken your part of our promise you will help me find another gay friend who will hold my hand when I am old… one who is far more reliable than you, because you were the only one who understood the value of wearing a fabulous hat to a funeral… but now you have gone and broken my heart into a million tiny little pieces and I don’t know if I can ever forgive you for that.

I love you.

Rest in peace.

P.S. I thought that writing this letter will make me feel better and stop the tears and this aching devostating hurt. But this pain will take a long time to lose its edge, won’t it?

I wish you were here, because you were the only person I could talk to during times like this.

Just the two of us

Just the two of us