Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Anne Townsend

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Chimney

Several years back, when I was still inclined to pursue unavailable people, places and merchandise, I read a small online article about a woman who suffocated in a chimney.

She was so desperate to either spy on, or make contact with a former lover, that she climbed onto his roof and prepared to sail down the chimney. Persistent attempts to gain entry to his house had failed so she did what any self-respecting determined woman does: she became creative.

Sadly, or perhaps fortuitously, her life ended in that narrow entrance.

What, I wondered, as I scanned the piece, were her final thoughts?

What were her options?

Had she tried climbing up, or had she wedged herself further downwards?

Here’s a thing:

The wrong path has only one destination.

Despair. Shrinkage. Death.

For those of us who pursued emotionally unavailable partners, friends, family members, for those of us who contorted, shrank, slimed, slithered and forced, we can only feel empathy and understanding for that desperate woman’s final journey.

Here’s another thing.

Once you’re on track, the path broadens, it’s huge; it’s the ocean.

Once you’re among soul mates, kindred spirits, genuinely empathetic and safe people, that chimney looks incredibly unappealing. That narrow slither, that wedged and forced manoeuvre is as appealing as eating a live toad.

Here’s a final thing.

The chimney doesn’t care. The chimney doesn’t discern. It’s a chimney and it does what chimneys do. It takes the smoke from the fire up to the roof. It’s not punishing you. It’s simply not designed to carry live humans from one spot to another. It’s a chimney and chimneys are narrow.

So once you notice that any interaction that keeps you shrunken, diminished, reduced and degraded is simply a sign that you’re incompatible, that you’re in the wrong place, exiting becomes almost laughably effortless. Exiting people and places and cities and careers, exiting family constellations, conversations, investigations and social events that have you panting for air, are merely indicators that you’re in the wrong place. The chimney itself is not bad, wrong or evil.

Home weighs more

whiteHome smells good.

Home is where you feel aligned.

Home is where you drag yourself out to walk up and down the streets to gape at the scenery, the gardens, the crooked and majestic houses and where people wave.

Home has been, since 2017, a series of rural villages and the most recent is a Free State town that used to be a mission station.

Home, when you follow your heart, your gut, your intuition (Google can explain about all the nerve endings and muscles involved in following that Holy Trinity) will become so spectacular and miraculous you will have to tone things down.

In the Northern Cape I resided in a historical building that used to be a butcher.

My new (very old) Free State home used to be a church. So I was told over the weekend.

When I set out to explore the meat industry and religion, I didn’t expect it to take me to a butcher and a church.

But so it did.

Here I am.

In a Free State house that used to be a church.

Home is elusive, home is slippery, home cannot always be quantified.

Home feels tender, soft, heart-based and muscular. It weighs more.

Home used to be a series of exotic countries and late night emails to the group of people I used to call *friends.*

Recently home has become a series of contortions, refurbishments, relocations and long periods of loneliness. Home has become quite literally whatever I feel fully.

Feelings take you to the heart of the house. There is no substitute for feeling.

If you’re still hoping to feel your way out of existence, if you’re still drinking your way home, if you’re still lying your way home, if you’re still flying or shopping or purchasing or bullshitting your way home, I have a very easy remedy.

Stop.

Pause.

Rest.

Feel.

Home follows.

For now, as a recent Free Stater, I know how home feels. It weighs more.

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.

IMG_0048[1]IMG_0027IMG_0065

images by a townsend ~

 

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.

IMG_0058IMG_0047IMG_0051

images by a townsend ~