I have been struggling, of late, with cantankerousness, an unusual meanness of spirit - a gnarly, bitter response to a world I find incomprehensible and terrifying.
It is fear that drives me to this outpost of the self, this solitary, embittered irritation towards the world. It is not anxiety. It is mortal fear. Steve Hofmeyer and Julius Malema frighten the kak out of me.
I remember this fear from when I was very young. Then it was a fear of terrorists. I didn't really know what terrorists did or why they did it, but their name evoked the precise and unequivocal feeling it was meant to: pure terror. We lived quite close to a shopping centre "they" once blew up, so it wasn't just academic.
If I didn't guard against the images the word evoked, then I would see an aerial view of the highveld beyond the city limits, teeming with scurrying, menacing dots pouring towards the city, towards the very block of flats in which I lived with my parents, to rip me away, to chop us up.
The image would come and I would banish it, forcefully. Like the time, as a toddler, I was trying to build a sandcastle at the water's edge and ordered the waves to back off. But just as the waves never ceased their assault on my structure, so the fear never ceased its assault on the freedom from worry I longed for.
I was terrified of terrorists.
The only times the fear subsided without effort were when I was lost in play or in a story. When I came back from watching Bedknobs and Broomsticks with my father and arranged a soccer match for my toys, who'd been transformed into all the little animals on Naboombu island. Or weekends when I was playing with my cousins in a stream or on a construction site, when we concocted complicated narratives that required cooperation and a complete tolerance of mad and often comic twists.
Terror remains my shameful underhalf.
When it wasn't terrorists I feared, it would be snakes. I mastered the art of jumping from the door of my bedroom on to the bed in just one tip-toed hop to avoid the snakes under the bed.
If I lay in the dark long enough with the curtains open - which I liked because I could see the stars - then a fat, long black cobra-mamba-thing would slide up the glass and rear up and thump down on the glass. I can still hear the sound of the metal wheels on the curtain rail whirring shut as I tried to cut myself off from the terrorist.
Then it was the rapists. Then it was the absolute conviction that if kneeled down, bending my toes, that the undersides of my feet would split and my foot guts would ooze out. Then it was AIDS. When I had a baby, I would look into his eyes as he breastfed and suddenly worry that someone would come along and stick a needle in his eyes.
Then the maggots - currently the most persistent and viscerally revolting horror - an image that pursues me through winter, through night, through consciousness: the image of maggots "rising like dough" (to steal an image from the writer Dot Serfontein) from rotting flesh.
I have an unstoppable, hideous streak of fear in me that is unrelated to and unmodified by reality.
In spite of this, I'm fairly functional.
Only lately, I seem to have forgotten the various tools I use for staying sane, for negating the endless issue of frightening images from some horrible little corner of my brain - and from real life.
There are days I feel shrunken with sourness and anger. And while I have always to greater or lesser degrees suffered from my terror, I have also always had what someone once called "a festering sliver of hope". As much as I am a nervous wreck, I also have lightness, comedy and optimism so encoded in me, that even in the most dire moments I find a salvaging levity.
Yet, it's gone. I find it hard to make myself laugh, to find anything funny. I used to write humour columns with ease. Even without knowing how it is done, I make people laugh. I can enter into the heart of bizarre, of peculiar, of ridiculous, of human, in a breath and lose myself there. I know from laughter.
But not lately.
Nothing is funny anymore. The terrorists have won.
I recently read about process philosophy in Life Lessons From Bergson, by Michael Foley. Process philosophy is, at base (this is my understanding) the fundamental acceptance of process and change and movement.
Foley writes that "old fogeyism" is one of the results of not rejecting or resisting the idea that change is a given - every single thing we are and that our senses apprehend is a thing in flux.
It's dangerous and unpleasant, Foley says.
"It is not just that this condition reduces the personal ability to experience and to enjoy but that it makes life so difficult and unpleasant for others: partners, family, colleagues and friends. The petrified are not easy to deal with. They have resolved to stop changing and so rage at the manifestations of change all around. And stinginess, both material and emotional, is likely to accompany this rage. The refusal to let anything in accompanied by a refusal to give anything out."
Foley writes: "PETRIFICATION ALERT! You there, with the rictus of outrage, loosen up!"
It sounded like he was shouting in my face. I think that's what he meant to do. Foley, I heard you.
Why have I become rigid? I rage at narrowing of roads, as more and more cars clog it, see here and realize how many cars are in transit now a days, it is insane. I rage at an unequal transport heritage, at capitalism, at the use of finite resources - which risks so much in war and stripping and pollution - in order for those of us who can (just barely) afford to own and run a car to continue doing so. I rage because what right do I - an active participant in this system - have to rage in the first place?
I flinch and cower and rage at what feels to me like the unbridled rise of rudeness on the internet, the inability of people to engage with ideas intelligently, perceptively, the penchant for sarcasm and intellectual bullying, for the personal attacks, the assumptions, the swearing. I rage at how stuck they are, at their old-fogeyism.
Recently, I was angry at the wind, the relentless southeaster slowly ripping apart the building in which I live. Then I raged at myself for taking it personally, reminding myself that I, lucky white me, does not live in a shack on the godforsaken Cape Flats, where the wind and sand and violence tears strips off everything.
But the specifics are not important. It doesn't matter whether it is the wind, or cars, or politicians that make me fearful. Or snakes or maggots. All of it has congealed into a vague, stultifying fury at the fundamental wrongness of everything. Truly, there are days when I can find nothing right with the world.
So bad, I cannot escape into play, or into stories. Or perhaps so bad, that the effects of my usual ways of fleeing the basic unsoundness of life are too weak to carry me between bouts of hopelessness, outrage and the resultant bile.
The world offers endless bitter affirmations of its badness. The trick, I know, is to find a way to live with it. To accept that this is so, and live - live well - in spite of it.
I remember this passage from Henry Miller: "The art of living is based on rhythm - on give and take, ebb and flow, light and dark, life and death. By acceptance of all aspects of life, good and bad, right and wrong, yours and mine, the static, defensive life, which is what most people are cursed with, is converted into a dance, 'the dance of life', metamorphosis... The acceptance of the situation, any situation, brings about a flow, a rhythmic impulse towards self-expression. To relax is, of course, the first thing a dancer must learn...it is the first thing anyone has to learn in order to live. It is extremely difficult, because it means surrender. Full surrender."
So I surrender. To fear and to change. And I try to keep moving along with the restless world. I batter my inclinations towards old-fogeyism.
I'm going to the library today. I'm going to dance this evening. I am reading David Sedaris to remember how to laugh.
I wrote a poem.
I wrote this.
"And some day," says Mary Gordon in an essay, "if I'm lucky, the movement of my hand, like a kind of dance, starts up another movement that allows me to forget the vanity, the folly, of what I am really about."
Dance me through the panic*
the studio crowded
with shadow people
swaying blind and
wide-armed. I couldn’t see
the teacher, or the mirror,
my place usurped
by the grey faceless
army-like in their cha-cha-cha
and relevé . Only I
was familiar - wild white hair -
to witness myself,
to keep the beat,
to dance untouched. I was
and ochlophobia -
with fear like anger
*The title is taken from lyrics to the Leonard Cohen poem "Dance me to the end of love".
16 March 2012