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Anne Townsend

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Memoir ~ Write Yourself Home

  • Whom are you protecting? And why?
  • At what cost? Is it worth it?
  • If the person was no longer alive, would you speak out?
  • Realistically, is there any threat of violence or legal action?
  • Is the silence nourishing? To you, the other party, the world?
  • Is there a part of you that’s waiting for someone else to speak?
  • What if that ”someone else” you’re waiting for, is *you*?
  • Become the person you’ve been waiting for. Stop waiting.
  • Karoo KlipIMG_0080Karoo Klip
  • images by a townsend ~

Tokyo, Hello 東京

He wanted to catapult himself clear of himself, someplace far away where he ‘had no story’. People don’t pick up and move halfway around the world for the adventure, not that only. They do so in order to un-story themselves. But where to go? (Eric Weiner)

Japan holds the key to Perfection. Of this I have no doubt. Once she gets off the plane at Narita International Airport with her baby-pink Gucci suitcase, Anne will be different. She will  be improved, and she will be a lot thinner. The suitcase will have no space for her baggage, and this will be the Gateway to Happiness.

She will be met at the airport by a smiling delegation of English-speaking Japanese, (one of them a tall, low-key filmmaker, soon to be Anne’s Very Close Friend), and escorted to a spacious, light-filled loft apartment on the fourth floor of an art deco block. The high-ceilinged room will be quiet, the slatted blinds half-drawn to keep out the morning light. It is always 10:30 am in my Tokyo loft and the season is Spring. I know this because my rectangular window with the wooden frame overlooks a broad sidewalk lined with cherry blossom trees. Bicycles and pedestrians in black suits fill the view. There’s a purposeful scurrying but it’s friendly and intimate. As the powdery blossoms fall onto the cyclists, they flick back their glossy black hair and giggle.

Anne turns into a thoughtful, considerate citizen in her New World. She glides around her airy room in a silk kimono, sipping camomile tea and she rarely eats heavy meals. Porcelain bowls filled with miso soup, tofu and spring onion are placed on low lying wooden tables and chopsticks replace the clutter of the knife and fork. She gets by mainly on liquids (green tea, Evian water and broth) with occasional wafer thin slices of apple, sushi with pickled vegetables and shavings of ginger. As a treat, she nibbles squishy rice cakes filled with red bean paste.

Calm space, stable mind, soft voice, shimmering morning hours. Life in Japan will consist only of this. Anne will be elegant, dignified and at peace. She will absorb the best of Zen, and the most noble qualities of good citizenship. She will be sociable as Japan will offer better opportunities for making friends than anywhere else. Graceful visitors will plop down on salmon pink floor cushions, bearing gifts of candies and fresh ivory roses wrapped in tissue paper. Hailing from all over the planet, they will embody the flavour of global nuances. Anne’s African Roots & Global Vision will lure them to her Tokyo Loft for Good Times.

Japanese Days will be devoid of the vulgarities of sickness and death. Poverty, middle age blubber and sadness will waft out the large window and dissolve like mist in the spring air. Perfection will move in with Anne the Global Person.

It’s not going to happen.

What a relief.

Happy New Year to Reality.


images by a townsend ~


My mother’s birthday

24 August. It’s my mother’s birthday today. Once I started this letter, and I glanced at the date, I remembered. The last time I visited my mother’s grave, in a beautiful, overgrown cemetery in Plumstead, I froze in disbelief next to the ugly, sterile slab of marble  that had been installed, against my wishes, by two of my siblings. They felt the grave needed to be made more respectable and posh, perhaps. My mother was an avid gardener, and stipulated in her will that she wanted to be buried in a simple, plain wooden coffin. She would have hated that green marble. My mother was many things. But she had good taste.

Now she’s dead.

Should we respect the wishes of the deceased or the wishes of the living?

I wanted the grave covered with moss so that I could, at my leisure, cultivate a garden above the graves of my father (buried in 1964) and my mother (buried in 1999). I don’t know the exact date of my mother’s death. Intentionally, I have blanked out so much surrounding the whirl of activity, unleashed emotion and disbelief regarding that event, that all I can remember is that it was some time close to Easter, April 1999. I got the news while on holiday in Bali, from my sister in London, and I immediately filed the information in a mental box labeled ‘Don’t think about this. Keep tightly sealed.’

Denial has long been my speciality. It flourishes in my family like rats in sewers.

As I wandered around the cemetery where I, too, most likely will be buried, I felt reassured by the established trees, the flurry of guinea fowls, the soaring Egyptian geese hovering over the burial plots, and the deep blue skies. When I attended the funeral of a student in Hong Kong, who had drowned in a hotel pool in Bali, I remember standing in the church in Stanley, surrounded by the beautiful people of Hong Kong. A fleet of Rolls Royces and black BMW’s were parked outside by uniformed chauffeurs, the mother of the deceased was clutching a mobile phone, and the pews were packed. A choir sang a haunting French hymn. The children wept. I had ice in my heart.

Fervently I hoped I would never be buried in Hong Kong. Who would attend my funeral? How would my relatives get on with my students and colleagues? Would the slimy Hong Kong pollution be a guest at my grave? I want to be buried in Africa, I decided that day.

After much torrential rain, this morning the sun caressed my new garden. At 4:00am, during the heavy rains, I often wake up and find myself thinking (mostly with reluctance) of the flooded townships and the homeless down the road in Derry Street. More recently, I find myself deliberating whether to go downstairs with an umbrella with which to protect the seedlings.

As of today, my garden looks as follows: Withered, dry bougainvillea. (Will it survive the winter?) Parsley flourishing in soft, green clumps. Butter lettuces, voluptuous and juicy. Baby spinaches, holey, half-eaten, clearly delectable to caterpillars. Fennel sprouting like a green fountain, and my favourites, for their shameless exhibitionism, the bright, yellow vygies that open their hearts to the African sun.

Leonard Wolf, father of writer Naomi Wolf, says to pay attention to the symbols we attract into our lives. Boundaries. That is my practice for now. Having had my boundaries violated, obliterated, shamelessly intruded upon as a child, I have had porous, undefined boundaries for way too long. I let people in.

Two stained glass doors have recently been installed in my home. They symbolize the beauty of transparency, and the need for healthy boundaries. And then the fledgling garden. As I write about, and wrestle with, the notion of home, roots, belonging, transience, impermanence, belonging, tribes (and more, the list continues) I find myself with a balcony containing a rake, a hoe, two spades, shears, a watering can and potting soil.

Last night an acquaintance mentioned that she, her husband and two children are emigrating to New Zealand in December. My heart sank. I have dismissed her already. ‘How? Why? Are you kidding?’ The negatively-laden questions that used to incense me so, every time I set off for Anywhere but Here, came tumbling out. ‘Have you been to NZ? Isn’t it dead boring? But why…..?’ I make a mental note to withdraw from her, slowly. I don’t need this, now that I am putting down roots. Or I guess I could interview her for my book, I think. Nowhere am I really looking at what may be best for her. It’s about me, and my needs. Does her decision support my need to feel that this is the place for me?

In ‘True Perception’, Chogyam Trungpa writes:

“However, in the back of our minds, there may be some kind of problem: we may come along and actually want to find something out. And we may not find what we want, absolutely not. Our questions may not be answered one by one. But something else is taking place. Maybe the question mark itself is beginning to rot, become disheveled, and turn into a period, full stop. And maybe that seems to be the process of the whole journey: dissolving the question mark into a full stop. The question mark becomes a statement or an exclamation, rather than a hollow line longing to be filled by answers.”

Photo Credit Anne Townsend @ Vredehoek, Cape Town


The Terror of Roots

In the March/April 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller, acclaimed travel writer Daisann Mclane writes:

“I’m not noticing the neighbourhood foliage because I’m too busy eyeballing to the end of the block for the car service guy I called to take me to the airport. Once again I am leaving home, turning into a traveler. I don’t stop to think why it’s so important for me to be able to move around from place to place. I just do it: I pack up and go.”

Is this the global nomad in a nutshell? Always eyeing the horizon, missing what’s right under their noses? Driven by unconscious motives, running, running, running, never standing still long enough to get to the root of the impulse to be in perpetual motion?

Daisann continues: “There probably is nothing more disconcerting, more terrifying, for hard-core travelers to contemplate than the life of a tree. A traveler is by definition footloose; trees send down deep, abiding roots. They don’t stay put because they are timid or incurious or on a budget. Trees stay where they are because if they abandon their point of origin they will cease to exist.”

For years I’ve been fantasizing about a garden at my block of flats in Vredehoek. There is a long narrow patch of soil at our communal washing line that has clearly not been loved or cared for in a very long time. Last week, on a whim, I asked our gardening service to yank out the straggly poison ivy that clings to the fence in a miserable attempt at beautification. I am planning to plant a hedge of bougainvillea, a herb and vegetable patch, and a few deep pink proteas, pin cushions, with a border of snow drops. Yet every time I see the piles of vegetation that need to be carted off, and ponder the reality of what is to follow: buying gardening tools, compost and potting soil, and visiting a nursery to purchase a truckload of plants, my anxiety level shoots up.

When I was five, I was an obsessive little gardener. Next to the aviary in our suburban garden, I planted neat rows of vegetables and pasted the colourful seed packets on wooden sticks. Radishes, lettuces, onions, and carrots. Baby potatoes. Daily I watered, tended and visited my little patch. When the upheaval in our house became unbearable, gardening was my refuge. I was seldom alone as my pets usually ambled over to keep me company. Two tortoises, a pair of ducks, a few chickens, and a rabbit, Bollie. Indoors I had goldfish, hamsters and budgies but they never showed any interest in the garden.

My adult life has not included gardening. Looking back at all the places I’ve lived, there have been many opportunities for a garden, or at least flower beds. Even in Hong Kong, all my apartments were garden-friendly. On Lamma Island I stayed in two rooftop apartments and when I finally embraced city life by moving to Hong Kong Island, there was a large communal courtyard just begging for plants.

What does a garden represent that instills such resistance? Is it the fear of unpacking and committing fully? Is it the association with apron-clad hausfrauen swopping recipes for quince jelly over picket fences? There is no anxiety when I admire the garden at the Mount Nelson (bougainvillea, petunias, velvety purple pansies, hollyhocks, dusky pink rambling roses and rolling grass), and florists, in every city I’ve ever lived in, soon become my favourite stores.

For the past year I’ve been collecting seed packets at hardware stores and nurseries.

Seeds of success: Herb, Parsley Plain. A large-leaved strain of parsley with flat, dark green serrated leaves. Biennal. Keep moist. Varieties may differ in colour and shape.

Herb, Basil. Spicy-flavoured plant with aromatic leaves ideal for cooking. Annual. Full sun.

Garden Pea. Should be planted in moist loam soil. Sow in rows, press down, keep moist. Thin out at 10 cm. Days to harvest: 90 – 120 days.

Who knows how long Operation Garden will take? I have long stopped forcing things. The garden will unfold at whatever pace is healthy and natural. I will be watching closely.

(Photo Credit Anne Townsend @ Hong Kong)

Fantasies are compelling

Fantasies can become addictive as we are in control of the outcome. Unlike real life which is messy and unpredictable, fantasies see us becoming the cooked up version of our ideal selves that we remain convinced will transform our lives into sheer perfection.

Some people manage to live their entire lives side by side with reality. Stuck in the past (which they often remember as better, happier) or casting an ever hopeful spotlight on the future, they see the present as some kind of waiting room. As they say, real life happens while we’re making other plans.

My fantasies are becoming so predictable, so painstakingly repetitive, that I have to wonder what took me so long to catch on. Whether I am plotting my escape to Oman, India, Cairo, Saudi Arabia or Lamma Island, or whether I am planning a few weeks in Betty’s Bay, Bot River or the Karoo, this is the hopeful list of goodies that emerge:

  1. Meaningful employment (lucrative, enjoyable and glamorous).
  2. Write my book  (break occasionally to rest my fingers).
  3. Live frugally (despite high earnings).
  4. Exist on a semi-permanent detox of raw food and stir fries (lots of apples).
  5. Have a low-key stream of loyal friends and fascinating newcomers over to visit.
  6. Exercise daily, preferably outdoors (hiking, jogging) and indoors (swimming).
  7. Lose weight and sculpt physique to resemble Gisele Bundchen (beware of over-training).
  8. Mui Mui to frolic in scenic natural settings bonding with other canines.
  9. Blend my former life as global nomad with tentative local persona.
  10. Get it all together.
Somehow nothing can convince me that once the above effortlessly falls into place, my life won’t be bliss 24/7. Remarkably, I do occasionally manage to incorporate a few items on my list into my life. From time to time, I socialize, eat healthily, exercise and work. Occasionally I write for hours a day. I look up, notice the light has shifted from the front window to the back porch, and realize that I have not glanced at my watch for half a day.
Surreptitiously, awkwardly, I am becoming attuned to the local mores and less reluctant to say ‘I live here now, at least until May 2012.’ I read Facebook status updates of friends abroad and it feels remote. (‘Packing for six weeks in France!!! So little time as have just returned from heavenly drive to Repulse Bay with the roof down!!! Would rather spend the summer in Hong Kong!!!’) The tug of envy and longing has abated. (The irritation at the boast disguised as a complaint remains). I get text messages from my globetrotting executive former student who seems to spend his entire existence in first class airport lounges, in India, South America, New York, London, Johannesburg and Dubai, And I feel relieved to be engaged in vicarious travel as opposed to crouching in a confined space eating plastic chicken with a baby fork next to a snoring stranger. (‘Landed at Dubai Airport an hour ago. Very hot here, even inside the airport building. The Arabs really know how to do things well. Emirates Airlines is world class. Now I’m sitting gobsmacked by what’s around me, waiting for my connecting flight to India.’
I have a long chat to a friend who has just returned from a year in Korea and is tossing up between prospective jobs in Hawaii, Seoul, Hong Kong and UCT. ‘A few weeks in Cape Town and I am so ready to move on,’ he says.
And what I am realizing, with a fair amount of alarm, is that real life seldom meets up with the fantasy. My fantasies do not take into account that once I have exactly what I have schemed for weeks, months, even years to organize, the texture of reality often feels substantially different to the original plan. My fantasies rarely acknowledge that Anne is in fact a loner, prone to huddling under three duvets, with lemon pie and black coffee, wondering what else she can concoct for the next few hours to prevent writing, exercising, or finding gainful employment. That Anne is prone to shopping, taking long drives, and driving around gyms instead of entering them, to avoid writing her book.
In Hong Kong I had a recurring fantasy of living in the Karoo, hanging out at farmers’ markets and whipping up banoffi pie for grateful city friends. Last week (in Bot River), as I sat next to a crackling fire in a farm stall, surrounded by miles of craggy mountains, swirling mist, and  rusty trucks carrying freshly cut logs and bleating sheep to nearby farms, I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me before. The Atlanta in Bangkok! That’s where my book would get written as my fingers ceaselessly moved across the page and the keyboard for eight hours a day. Wait, let’s get real. Six hours a day, with occasional breaks for Thai massages, green curry and chilled coconut milk.
What was I thinking, holed up in a small town in winter with snow on the mountain?
Bangkok: hot, steamy, torrid, packed, a ceaseless mass of heaving traffic, hookers, tourists, misplaced Westerners and monks-in-training. Sleazy, hectic, soothing, familiar.
Everything will always fall into place, somewhere else, some time in the future. And what I fail to notice is that right now, right here, when I least expect it, everything totally comes together. I don’t need to be in Korea or Kuwait to gain perspective on my life in the City Bowl. Spending a month in a small town, 80 minutes’ drive from my home, gives me enough distance to see what I already have in Cape Town. It also gives me ample time to appreciate what lies on my doorstep a spectacular road trip away.
A train is rumbling by in Bot River. Mui Mui is sprawled out in the sun, next to a lavender bush on the back verandah, gazing at the wild birds hopping on the bird feeder. My dinner guests arrive shortly. The theme for our dinner is Roots and Transition. Chicken pie and basil salad, baby potatoes and lemon tart. Stained glass windows, a flickering candle and a hopeful Oriental doggy sniffing the air.
It’s not green papaya salad with beef satay, washed down with iced mint and lemon tea on the crowded sidewalk of a Thai back alley, lit up with neon, smelling of gasoline.
But it will just have to do.
(Photo Credit Anne Townsend, Bot River)

Limbo Central

I live in Limbo Central. Relationships, apartments, jobs, cities, purchases – my mind often swirls alarmingly around the decision. Stay/Go – this is who I am. It’s who I’ve become.

Stuckness can be all-encompassing. Sometimes one needs fewer options. People start their own businesses, they acquire dogs and children, they build houses. These can be ways to root oneself, or they can feel like entrapments. A friend recently suggested that I start a business in Cape Town but I baulk at the thought. Maybe it’s the answer. Or maybe all I can manage at this stage is an online TEFL consultancy that I can take with me on a plane.

Limboland can look like this:

In 1999 I went through a similar period of indecision. I was living on an outlying island in Hong Kong, considering moving home to South Africa. There I was on Lamma Island with my swirling thoughts. Stay/Go. This became particularly pertinent when I went grocery shopping. It was always the toilet paper that alerted me to my predicament. Should I buy one roll, ten, or twenty? Would I be on Lamma for days, weeks, or months?

My fantasies at these times are remarkably predictable: go home, grab toothbrush and passport. Head home. And in that line, I realise, lies my predicament. I often have two homes at any given time: my apartment abroad and what I consider my ‘real’ home in Cape Town. Right now I have only one home and I feel a sense of loss.

India is not happening. The school no longer needs an ESL teacher for the next academic year. I see the mail from Kodaikanal in my inbox, and feel a flutter of alarm. I read the news and watch myself register irritation (that I did so much admin for a job that no longer exists), rejection (surely if they wanted me badly enough they could have reshuffled the staff allocation) and then relief. Unmistakeable relief.

A friend suggests two ways to guage where I’m at. Flip a coin, she says. Check your gut reaction. I laugh out loud at the advice. Hours later I find myself in the lounge flipping a coin. Cape Town heads.  Hong Kong tails. Cape Town wins and my heart soars.

She also suggests that I imagine for a whole day that I’m staying and for another day that I’m leaving. One of my sisters suggested this years ago and I tried it but lacked the focus to stick with one place for an entire day. Did I sabotage the exercise? Again I scoff at the advice. ‘You’re keeping yourself stuck,’ my friend reckons. ‘Everything I suggest, you dismiss. Maybe you’re meant to move around. It’s your colour. It’s who you are.’

This morning I find myself at the Gardens Centre, flicking through the Cape Times. Fifty percent of black youths in the country are unemployed. I want to leave. Maybe I should be teaching at an NGO for unemployed black youths. Then I can stay. The front page is full of crime: cyclists, joggers, hikers, and drivers are all at risk on Table Mountain. Bricks through windows, knives at throats, it never ends. How I long to walk past the Trappist Monastery on Lantau Island in Hong Kong, late at night, alone. Jostling for attention with the local crime is Cairo, my almost home. There it is, chaos and mayhem in Egypt, where I could well be living if I’d followed my usual pattern of act now, think later, and just see what happens. I turned down a very tempting job offer in Cairo less than two months ago.

I ponder the notion of imagining for the whole of today that I’m leaving. Just the thought gives me stomach ache. How can I do this exercise in the place that I might be leaving? Surely it would work better in a neutral space. Even during my two months’ holiday in Cape Town, I was always devestated for the last few days before I returned to Asia. Then back in HK I felt safe, occupied, in the centre of the world, settled. Yet when I left HK in September last year after a ten day holiday, I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay on. Just glancing at the travel agent opposite the health shop fills me with trepidation.

How does one tell the difference between fear that is often a healthy, inevitable part of change, and a warning sign that something is wrong, or dangerous, and that one is perhaps overlooking the obvious?

I walk to the stationery shop to buy stamps for a letter to my HK bank. The shop assistant doesn’t return my greeting; he reluctantly serves me, in slow motion. I feel a rush of longing for the slick efficiency of HK. I walk past the the pet shop. Mui Mui, always at the heart of my life. Will she soon be staying with my neighbour Cheryl? Will I miss her? Will she miss me? Cheryl is carless and retired, and has frequent barbeques, far more visitors than I do, and a large ground floor apartment with a huge balcony and a back garden. MM adores her; she dotes on MM. Regularly my dog visits her at night to sit on the sofa and watch Isidingo. When Cheryl has a barbeque, MM cries when she smells the smoke, until I open the door at which she flies down the steps to gatecrash Cheryl’s party. She runs home at midnight reeking of smoke and lamb chops.

I am reminded of the drawn out saga when I shipped MM back to South Africa from HK.  Three months in advance I booked her flight and that gave me ample time to obsess. Would she pass the medical tests she had to undergo before being allowed on the plane? Would she panic in her crate? Would they look after her well during the flight? Would she reach South Africa alive? Would she survive quarantine? Would she pass the medical tests in South Africa? Would she even like Africa? Would people laugh at her in the streets? (As it turned out, yes). Would she be happy in my City Bowl home? For three weeks her crate stood mournfully in the corner of my HK bedroom, and every time I looked at it, my stomach twisted in anguish at the thought of my dog in that small prison in the air. It reminded me of the imminent upheaval and change in my life (and hers) and I wanted to weep.

One day over lunch, a colleague said, ‘You have way too much time to worry about this. If you’d had only one week to get her sorted and on the plane, you wouldn’t have time for all this panic.’

He was spot on, Maybe departures should be sudden. No goodbyes, no lingering.

Sarah Britten wrote a compelling chapter in Should I stay or should I go? To live in or leave South Africa. It was raw, honest and revealing. She wrote what presumably for her, at that time, was the truth. (And I am eternally grateful to writers who have the courage to share with strangers what to them, at any given time, is the truth.)

Her chapter was called ‘How Not to Emigrate’ and the opening line always sends shivers down my spine:

‘We were always going to leave. There was never any question about it. Even before we got married, we agreed that neither of us saw any future for ourselves in South Africa. We’d been optimistic, we’d waved the flag and believed in Madiba Magic, but we could see the writing on the wall – AA appointments only, life behind electric fencing, a gentle but steady spiralling into decay – and we were going to get on that plane as soon as we could. Where it was headed didn’t really matter, so long as we got out.  Emigration became our project.’

They considered Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and eventually, by default, they settled on Australia.

‘Australia, an entire country like Kempton Park, as Denis Beckett once described it.’

You’ll have to read Sarah’s riveting story to get the full drama, but after a trying time in Oz, Sarah is back in Johannesburg and judging by a recent blog entry, still lives in Limboland. I am haunted by the following lines describing her time in Sydney:

‘The first few months were good. When everything is new, it is easy to ignore the loneliness as the sheer momentum of curiosity keeps you going.’

I suspect many global nomads are snagged by exactly that: the addiction to the thrill of the newness of it all, they cunningly plan a life that resembles an emotional rollercoaster of change, movement, weighing up their options and investing all their energy into keeping the momentum going. Just as things get cosy, they start planning how to shift it all to start the whole process again.

Making a decision can be hugely uplifting. Resignation can unleash as much euphoria as accepting a job. Moving into a new apartment can be as energising as saying goodbye to one.

It’s when doubt sets in that Limboland takes over.


images by a townsend ~