Island Blog 174 And Still I Rise

coal and diamond


In deference to Maya Angelou, that superbly magnificent woman poet who wrote from where she stood, square and proud, inside her life, I write today on Rising.  We all have to be able to do it, weak or strong, man or woman, adult or child, for, if we stay down we just get squashed underfoot as Life tramps on without us.

What is ‘Down’?  As everyone nowadays is quick to say whenever they hear something they don’t agree with, the definition of Down it is all a matter of perspective.  I only use that irritating and conversation-stopping cliche because it fits.  I suspect that, were I to spend time inventing a new phrase to ‘fit’ it would become a cliche itself and, therefore, just as irritating.

Down is the opposite to Up and, in this life we lead, someone else’s down might be another’s up and vice versa.  I guess Down is when life isn’t how we would ideally choose it to be, when the edges of our very self become wavy lines, vulnerable to weather and cliches, to cold and doubt. Down is when we hit the ground…….not running.

Yesterday, we watched the Mill Girls on tour at the Mitchell Theatre in Glasgow.  Woman were legion in the ticket queue, men, like black pepper, scattered among them, among us.  Many women were there because they had been Mill Girls themselves and were here to walk down memory lane, to resurrect together that powerful energy that kept the line tight through wars and hardship and paltry earnings.  65 pence per week was their wage and yet still they laughed and danced, loved and really lived through their days in damp and draughty homes all lined up together like street soldiers, their little paths sticking out like cheeky tongues.  They moved as one.  They bonded and banded together, they lifted up the Down and stood strong against those who expected everything from them, as if it was their due.

Their song is still here today, even if the mills are long gone, turning themselves into smart appartments for folk who will never know such unity in their lives, who live as islands, alone, lonely, the new way to live, if living is the right word.  The fabric they wove together is musical, strong, flowing, always flowing, beautiful to behold, fashioned with love and care.  Every morning they rose and not just out of bed.

If Down is considered a poor relation to Up, then it’s a shame; a shame, because, in this world, where everyone changes colour just because it’s raining, I feel we might have forgotten our historical roots from which we grow tall, able to move and bend, to flower and fruit, offering shade and shelter to our fellow beings.  From hardship grow heroes, never from ease.  Who needs to call on anything other than a taxi when times are easy?  And yet, the memory of what was, of how it was or is for those less warm and safe than I, is not enough, nor is it the whole truth, because every one of us faces Down at some point.  When I turn to look at it, Down can look like a wet lump of coal.  As I shake its hand, say hallo, sit with it for a while, I begin to notice it has many facets and some of them are reflecting the sunlight.  We rise and walk together each morning, and with each dawning I see new light, new opportunity.  It doesn’t look like coal any more.  It looks like the beginning of a diamond.

Island Blog 173 To Write a New Life

And so we begin to pack for our journey back to Scotland.  I hear it’s mild and please forgive my sudden guffaw!  It never gets as low as ten degrees out here so ‘mild’ is more like a warm bath to you or me who know what it’s like to wear sox over sox and a fleece to bed.

As I sit here on the hospital balcony with the sun burning my feet I ask myself how I feel about going home.  Roots is important, my dad’s gardener used to say and he is right, they is.  There is a lot of the inside of a bubble about this trip with its surprising twists and turns, the light falling on this surface or that, turning water into rainbows; the bubble lifting on a sudden luff of warm air, its slow float across elephant grass, the sharp-thorned sickle bush, the back of a sleepy lion.

It was 3 weeks, then it was almost 7 weeks and every moment of it has made a memory, every person, a mark; the girls in the kitchen at Dumela, big strong black african diamonds, every one of them; the volunteers on the conservation project and the team of staff who lead, including Prospect the Pup; the taxi and ambulance drivers, the medics, therapists, nurses, auxiliaries and cafe angels; the manager and the staff at the lodge we went home to each evening to braai, to eat, to fall asleep, to do it all again.  I honour every one of you and thank you right now, for you know not what you gave to us, this precious gift of human kindess and warmth.

I read Brain Pickings, an online paper, one that is all about books and words and wisdoms.  I recommend it highly, and it always give me inspiration or puts into words the way I am, or have been, feeling and for which I have no words, or, more usually, way too many.  Those who can concisely tell me exactly what is in my heart are rare birds indeed.

What I leave this massive and wonderful country with is faith (with a capital F) in my fellow humans.  I had it before, but it could get knocked about a bit, bashed and chipped at the edges.  What looked ugly at first became a thing of beauty.  What looked like loss became a gain nobody could foresee.  My arms were empty, now they are full, for we go back to paint a new canvas, write a new life and, although some things might be no longer possible, at least we did them, at least we took the risk and lived life wildly and crazily.  Now, we might find a different way to get where we want to go.  It’s called thinking out of the box and for me, for us, boxes are for keeping gifts safe.  I don’t keep the box,  but I do keep the gift.

In a particularly impassioned letter to his brother Theo from October 2, 1884, Van Gogh writes:

If one wants to be active, one mustn’t be afraid to do something wrong sometimes, not afraid to lapse into some mistakes. To be good – many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm – and that’s a lie… That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.

You don’t know how paralyzing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerizes some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.

Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas IS AFRAID of the truly passionate painter who dares – and who has once broken the spell of “you can’t.”

Today will be one of sorting and packing, of last minute this and last minute that, and a gathering of thoughts and memories to stow away in my heart.  I will be mindful of each moment within it as we prepare to fly back to Scotland, the home of my mother’s people, strong women of dignity and strength, humour, wisdom and an eye for nonsense.  I learned much from them both and, if nature and nurture have come together in me, distilling into a potent life force, then we are all in for a load of noisy fun, for many years to come.