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Anne Townsend

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

I was a continent away from my roots

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Lust & Wonder, by Augusten Burroughs

How does an attractive, famous, best-selling author remain in a ten year relationship that doesn’t feed his soul? How does somebody who’s been through rehab, therapy, Alcoholics Anonymous, and years of ‘brutal honesty from strangers’ that accompany his book launches, manage to overlook the obvious? He is deeply in love with someone other than the man he lives with. The man he lives with finds him annoying, much of the time. They are not a good match. They don’t complement one another. Neither of them is happy.

If you are like me, and you take a while, (years/decades) to ‘get’ stuff, Lust & Wonder is a heart-warming exploration of magical thinking, wilful blindness, avoidance, cognitive dissonance. We lie to ourselves until we get too sick to lie. Then the chaos of change, the disruption of the status quo, painful as it is, unfurls as we get out of our own way. His dreams knew the truth. His body never lied. It was his mind that went around in circles.

Augusten Burroughs has described the years he spent with his former partner as wasted years. I cannot agree. Those years produced Lust & Wonder. Those years were preparation for his current relationship with his agent and publicist. Those years have produced his best book since Dry. This man is an immense talent. Out of his nine books, Dry and Lust & Wonder are my favourites. A Wolf at the Table I can read only in small doses. I am left lurching after only a few pages. Dry and Lust & Wonder are easier to digest.

Thank you, Augusten, for putting yourself out there. You are indefatigable, relentless and persistent. I wish you well in your marriage with Christopher Schelling. I am counting the days till your next book.

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Photo Credit: AnneTownsend

The Majestic Cafe, Beach Road, Muizenberg

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Photo Credit Anne Townsend Majestic Cafe

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Photo Credit Anne Townsend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve never been happier than in Country X

We’ve all encountered them on social media. In my case, that would be Facebook. But I suspect they adopt a similar tone on other forms of social media. You know the type. They’re living in a small town Two Handsin the US, or in Boston, Perth, Vancouver, Wimbledon, or even Sydney. And they’re not happy. We know this because happy people don’t spend all day on the internet. More to the point, happy people don’t feel the need to make snide comments, again and again, about the country they used to call home. And even more to the point, happy people don’t need to tell you how happy and at peace they are in their new home, and how proud they are to be a permanent resident of Country X, Y, or Z. Happy people are engaged in the politics, the economy, the social life, the nature and the general buzz and vibe of their new homes. They’re out there. Engaged. They are not slagging off Jacob Zuma, or smiling about the devaluing of the rand, or/and sneering at the corruption. That’s not engagement, people. That’s obsession. Now that you’re a thirty three hour flight away from the man we call our president, don’t you have better things to do than to list all his evils?

Because here’s the thing about long-term snideness. It’s corrosive. Regardless of how justified your target, it’s the snideness that depletes. (Yes, I know. As in really, really know). So every time you have a strong urge to take one more dig at us, to mock us just that one more (teensy) time, rather snatch a sharp little kitchen knife off your Australian or Kiwi kitchen counter. And then nick yourself on the arm. Just a little scratch. Once it starts hurting, nick yourself again, a little deeper this time. There you go. That’s corrosion for you. It hurts. Now go outside and plant a tree in your New Country. Meet a local. Spend a dollar or a pound on something indulgent. Hug that strong new currency of yours in your Gorgeous New Country. You CAN do it. We are rooting for you. It takes guts, discipline and an iron will. But from behind our electric fences, high walls, and in my case, my very own security guard metres away from my front door (yes, isn’t that fabulous?) we are cheering you on.

You CAN do this. Go and be happy. Somewhere Else.

Chapter One, Passionate Nomad

Ch 1 Mountain

Photo credit Anne Townsend @ Vredehoek, Western Cape

A distant and gentle universe

On the first of May I sat in the front seat of a truck, wedged in between my dog and K, hurtling over De Waal Drive overlooking the City Bowl, the place I used to call home.

And it struck me that I was not only homeless but keyless.

Five minutes earlier I had dropped a large bunch of keys, that had been part of my life for twenty three years, into my postbox. The postbox that for the past month belonged to the new owner of my (actually her) flat that I had occupied as a tenant for one month post transfer. I should have had another set of keys made, I cursed. I could have fondled the keys and looked at them until the reality of the situation had sunk in.

I was being driven to my (temporary) new abode in Kalk Bay by K, who used to work as a para-medic in his old life in Zimbabwe. Every time I twisted my stiff neck to look at P, the mover, sitting at the back of the truck, on top of my desk next to my fridge, I said to K:

‘Are you sure he’s OK?’

‘Trust me’, said K. ‘He’s fine. Just trust me.’

Only once we were at the top of Boyes Drive, overlooking the south side of my hometown, the side that was soon to be my new home, did we hear a frantic banging on the roof of the truck. P was being swung from one side of my desk to the top of my fridge and he was frantic.

Kalk Bay lasted less than a fortnight. I received my new keys many hours after I arrived as my new home was still occupied by the previous tenant when I knocked on the door. A long-haired woman cradling a baby sat on the bed where mine belonged. As I sat outside for the next six hours, I ate a bunch of bananas, played with my dog, and watched the tenant, the son-in-law of the woman on the bed, wheel his possessions from my (new) home to his (new) home, around the corner up a steep cobbled-stone lane.

From the moment I put my flat on the market I started seeing homeless people everywhere. When the agent showed prospective buyers my flat, I fled to the closest park and hung out with the vagrants. When I checked my mail at the library, more often than not I found myself next to a homeless man from Malawi.

Now I have a new rented home in Muizenberg. As I type this I see cars and trucks crawling along Boyes Drive in the distance; from the front window I see the traffic circle at Sunrise Beach. Trucks gliding along the back drop of mountains. When I drag myself outside, I cross the vlei over a wooden foot bridge, past kite flyers, dog walkers, kayaks, hang gliders and young couples on wooden benches. A brisk walk through the old village and around the corner I find Muizenberg beach.

The beach I’ve been avoiding for three decades.

Vredehoek is a distant and gentle universe.

It was my prison too.

At Knead I watch the wetsuits on surfboards, and everything I own in the world is a ten minute walk away. Knead feels like my personal local café. Which it is. On previous visits, I was a day tripper at Surfer’s Corner. Now the surfers are day trippers visiting my neighbourhood.

I don’t need to move to a small town. Muizenberg, Lakeside and Marina da Gama are already small towns attached to a larger city. The City Bowl is a congested, expensive and in places very beautiful region where I no longer live. And even though only a week ago I told someone it felt like an amputation, today I feel unburdened and elated.

Home is where my fridge lives. Home is where I write. Home is where Mui Mui snores. Home is my present view of a tall hedge, a green roof with a white chimney, the twin peaks of the mountain and a telephone wire occupied by a long row of birds.

Muizenberg, despite a torrent of reservations and prejudices, and years of snide comments about how much I loathe hippies, is my new resting place.

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Why does Pam have an oval face?

IMG_0019[1]Why does Pam have an oval face and is that her mouth that’s moving?

How I wish I was joking. But no, this was winter in rural China, late 2002. I was teaching at a boarding school in Jiangsu Province and my new neighbour/co-teacher had returned early from her trip to Chengdu to see the pandas. Pam was a Harvard Law student and this was her gap year, after three years at college. She wanted to improve her Mandarin and take a breather from a ghastly relationship with a man that, as far as I could tell, should have been in prison.

‘But he stole all your money!!’

‘Yes, but I don’t want to see him go to jail.’

‘But he stole all your money!!!’

Other than this, Pam and I got on as only NBF’s (New Best Friends) in the Middle of Nowhere could. My former colleague had been fired – that’s another story for another time – and Pam had gone traveling, leaving me in my massive, very cold apartment, during the school holidays. It was an ordeal leaving the front door as I got too much attention (the only Westerner in town) and my desktop computer with fast-speed internet beckoned.

For four days I’d been on a British chat forum, in-between listening to Cape Talk and mailing friends. Hunched up in my freezing study, overlooking the flooded rice paddies, I listened to Lisa Chiat warning motorists traveling to the airport that there were cows wandering along the N2. Occasionally I would defrost a baguette in the microwave and open a tin of tuna followed by a few chunks of Cote d’Or chocolate, bought on my monthly trip to Carrefour in Shanghai. One night I put the chocolate in the microwave and told my online friends about my instant chocolate mousse.

The TV shows were in Mandarin, I’d read all the books I’d ordered on www.amazon.com, my Australian friend, Mark, who commuted between Sydney, Shanghai and Gugao, our neighbouring town, was in Australia, and I had literally not spoken to or seen another human being for four days. My doorbell rang, and there stood Pam.

‘Can I come in?’ she asked. ‘I’ve got so much to tell you!!’ She was wearing a cuddly woollen jacket and a knitted cap.

I was in shock. She wasn’t a square screen with words moving along a white A4 page. Sounds flew from her lips to the sides of my face but in my numb, dazed trance all I could think of was how to get her from my front door to hers. As I type this I marvel at how lucky I was to have her living one metre away, just the two of us on the sixth floor of an apartment block. It was like Friends or Melrose Place. Except that my British chat forum buddies were compelling. We’d been discussing a meet-up over Christmas at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford and I was being chatted up by a dude who fancied himself an eco-warrier.

But what about the luxury of a much younger foreign friend who could tell me first-hand about a part of China I’d never visited? (Pam was 22, I was 40).

It was too real. It was an effort. It was human contact. It was mouths moving and lips shaped to convey facial expressions. I ushered Pam back to her empty Arctic apartment with a few words: ‘I’m having a hectic debate with a couple of British dudes; it’s about the environment. I’m about to make my final points!!’

Shortly thereafter my year in China was at an end. Pam stood outside blubbing in the courtyard as Lily and I climbed into the school mini bus. I was wearing a full-length black coat; Pam was wrapped in a duvet. It was 6:00am and Mr. Shen, our neighbour from the fifth floor, was hauling my luggage into the boot. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,’ Pam said. That was the last time we saw each other.

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Many decisions lie ahead: whether to buy a car, where to rent while I look for a permanent home, whether to buy a house in Paarl or a flat in Woodstock.  (They cost the same.) But far more important, I’ve come to realize, is whether I continue to live in an internet-free home. Can I continue to sculpt a working life around a home that doesn’t encourage screen addiction? Without it, my days are textured and unpredictable. I’ve got my life back. When people warn me against Marina da Gama (Remember, it’s an island), or moving to Paarl (Won’t you be isolated?), what I recall is that screen addiction separated me from the good stuff. So no matter where I live next, if I end up spending my days with my oval face draped over a black keyboard, I’m going to be wasting my life.

‘Listen with your chest. You will feel a pendulum swing within you, favoring one direction or another. And that is your answer. The answer is always inside your chest. The right choice weighs more. That’s how you know. It causes you to lean in its direction.’ Augusten Burroughs, Stories for Christmas: You Better Not Cry.

I’ve been known to grapple with the pendulum and shove it in another direction. The bulk of my energy is then directed at trying to keep the pendulum in place.  Recovering alcoholics go to incredible lengths to design lives around their sobriety. They ditch jobs, homes, old friends and relationships, and cultivate new lives around that one non-negotiable: no alcohol allowed. And their lives flourish and prosper.

I don’t need to give up the internet. All I need is an internet-free home. The longer I stay off-line, the more vivid life becomes. The blurred vision caused by white noise and online static gives way to crisp and sharp focus. I feel more. Both the agony of moving and the exhilaration of living in a home surrounded by the blinding beauty of my country.

Life minus the buffer of screen addiction.

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Photo Credit Anne Townsend

Why I love Cape Town

An Update from Jeremy in Johannesburg:
My Cape Town tour ended up being a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of 2 days.  We ended up doing vineyards, Cape Point, Kalk Bay, and then I found myself on a flight back to JHB. I did not have a chance to see anyone really – except my 2 aunts and their kids.

After letting out all those skeletons a few months ago, I again realized that I am happy to wash my hands off of Cape Town and am at peace never to see the place again.  The 2-day tour was just enough time to rush in, land, keep busy, and leave.  I didn’t want to connect with anyone or anything – it was too painful.  I wanted it to be like a business trip I often take: go in, rush-rush-rush, leave.  No time to take in the surroundings or connect.

What I found though, was that something has changed – I was so proud of the incredible natural beauty of my exquisite city; I wanted to show these foreigners everything, and I took them into the Cape Flats where we ate home-cooked food served by aunties out of their kitchens. I was proud of it all.  I didn’t feel the need to stick within the City Bowl/Atlantic Seaboard perimeter as I always used to, only stepping outside the border to quickly visit a family member, and then rush straight back.

It reminds me of a time I was on board a BA flight to London on business.  As I was boarding, I noticed a Cape Town friend on the plane so during the flight I was on my way to go say hi. The cabin crew member asked me where I was going and I said, “To economy class – I saw a friend of mine there”.  She responded, “Urrghh…, be careful, it’s dangerous out there – and take a glass of champagne because it’s so fabulous being here!”

This is how I felt when visiting Cape Town in the past, ensuring I step out quickly because ‘it’s dangerous out there’ and always carrying my glass of champagne.  Cape Town has grown up, I thought, people have matured, and the people I’d rejected stood with open arms, waiting to see me.  I could see in their eyes the joy of having me around.  I’ve realized that the reasons for my rejecting others had nothing to do with them, but everything to do with me.  It has nothing to do with residing in Cape Town but everything to do with what was residing in me.  I don’t know if I’m completely over everything, but what I do know is that the ‘eina’ feeling of Cape Town has started to ease.

Am I feeling like packing up and moving back?

No.

But I’d like to visit more often, much more often.

Photo Credit Anne Townsend

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Quirky kitchen begs for creative overhaul

Have you noticed how city folk who move to small towns beg their old friends to visit?

The shrillness of the invitation terrifies.

I’m not ready for small town life.

My flat has been sold and several options beckon. A townhouse in Plumstead, a cottage at Marina da Gama, a mountain-facing flat in Fish Hoek.

Truth be told, none of these appeal. They terrify. Change frightens. Moving appalls.

Trust the process, well-meaning, settled folks advise.

I text myself sound-bites of wisdom and save them in my Nokia Inbox. At night, sleepless with relocation angst, I stare at the words glowing in the dark.

Once I accept the truth of transience, my struggle melts.

Solutions often arise from a state of alert calm as we gain a different perspective.

Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing you will not be able to know.

I snatch these quotes from books with ‘Happiness’ in the title, or from articles accompanied by a photo of the Dalai Lama.

All I really want is to live in the same place, keep my dog alive forever and never grow old.

All people ask for are the simple things in life. Keep our loved ones safe, never sell our homes and provide cash for the basics.

Death, funerals, Sold signs, poverty, overdrafts, dental implants, grey hairs, removal trucks. These things appear out of nowhere.

Trust that the universe has its own order, someone sends me via Yahoo. I seldom trust; I dread, I fear, I know that bad things happen.

The universe has no order. Nelson Mandela died. Cemeteries lie scattered the world over. Lovely people end up in coffins.

Real estate agents make for scary companions during transition. As neighbours withdraw and my furniture finds new owners, women I know only by their online profile coo into my voicemail. Are you free tonight? We could meet at 7pm to view cottage with sea view.

Somewhere my new home rests, waiting for me to find it, says Norman at the Spar. Norman owns so many properties my head spins. He shows me pics of his latest acquisition on his i-Pad. The owners cried when they moved out after twenty five years, he tells me.

Thanks, I feel better now.

My current home has been an anchor for over two decades, and I still remember our telephone number in Argyle Road, 021-689 2333, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. These are minor details, vapid technicalities. My new home needs to know where to get hold of me so that we can merge and move in together. Vredehoek will always be home, just as Lamma Island still feels like home. I bristle at the thought of strangers living in my cottage at 26 Rouwkoop Road next to the Rondebosch railway line in St Andrews Road.

In 1989 I moved out after eight years, never to return.

Soon I will have as many homes as Norman. Former homes, current homes, future homes. Fantasy homes recommended by Berenice and Indiana from Seeff and Remax.

Quirky kitchen and garage that begs for creative overhaul.

Stamp your loving touch all over this eccentric one-bedroom with view of spacious parking lot. You won’t regret it.

Other people are stuck. My life flows.

That’s as long as I stick to the messages in my Inbox. Nokia always know where I’m at.

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Photo Credit Anne Townsend