Saturday 31 December 2011

What will this year be like? I wonder...

When I look back on this past year, I see a tumultuous year of change and loss. 

Lost people. Lost jobs. And lost dreams.

For many, 2011 was a year that fundamentally changed their lives. Even those with the strongest foundations quaked.

From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, the old ways of life were challenged on a collective level.

From the loss of those people, values and material assets that we held dear, the old ways of life were challenged on an individual level.

Some, shaken and stirred, remained standing. Others, like my fabulous father-in-law, were swept away as the solid mountain is inexorably washed away by the river of time. A few, like my Dad with his gritty determination, still cling precariously to the last few moments of the old year.

What will this new year be like? I wonder…

A friend said to me that 2011 was a year in which God held a clearance sale. All those things that no longer served their purpose in our lives were cleared out. 

And that, of course, makes space for all that is new to come into our lives because change is not loss…it’s only different.

Throughout 2012 there will be loose ends from the previous cycles in our lives to tie up and pack neatly away. While I quake at the thought of what those final losses may mean, mostly I look forward to 2012 with a flicker of hope that can, with very little effort, burst into a flame of excitement at the new adventures that await.

A new year with twelve months...what’s so fearsome about that?

May 2012 be a year of clean endings, peaceful transformations
and of seeking dreams, both old & new.

Thursday 22 December 2011

The Skeleton Dance

Do you remember doing the Skeleton Dance as a toddler?  I remember my Mom, with her boundless enthusiasm and vibrant energy, teaching us the song.

“Dem bones, dem bones, dem dancing bones,” she’d warble as my strong, silent Dad  tapped his foot along. And then, because it wasn’t all fun, but a song to teach us about the different bones in our body, she’d make us repeat after her, “The footbone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the thigh bone,” and so on until, with gales of giggles, we’d work our way through all the connections until we had a complete skeleton and could do the Skeleton Dance (I still occasionally burst into the song, without the wiggly actions though!)

Those halcyon days of carefree childhood fun are lost for, as many of you know, over the past few years my beloved Dad has suffered a serious of strokes. He is more silent than ever, as the strokes have also diminished his verbal capacity. But he is no longer strong. 

My Mom, too, is fading as, at age 77, she deals with the hard task of physically caring for a man who is her husband and yet is no longer the same man who was the first person to love her after a sad and abandoned childhood in an orphanage. That strong spirit of hers, the one that helped her rise above so many of life’s challenges, is fading under the multiple losses she bears. 

We grieve for her too. Mainly because her joyous spirit is slowly being smothered under the dual pressure of emotional grief and sheer physical exhaustion.  We, her two daughters, are filled with anticipatory grief because everyone tells us - with morose 'comfort'? - that long-term caregivers always die first.

All we can do is be there as her support. We help in any way we can, but it’s never enough to bring either of my loving parents back to us.

Isaac & Dawn, my  much loved parents,
on their 50th wedding anniversary in 2005
My Mom’s world – as it must in the current circumstances – has narrowed to the single focus of caring for this man who was her protector and lover for nearly 60 years. She has no energy left for us; I, thinking myself a strong independent woman, have disappointed myself with how deeply I have felt the loss of the unconditional support she so generously showered on us all ...until now. Although she still tries so hard to be there for us, there is just not enough of her bright star left to spread around.

My Dad’s world is...well, let's say that at times it converges with our reality. He momentarily comes back to us, as he did the other day when we chatted about death quite rationally, and he picked up my hand and said, “I’ll miss you when I go to the moon.” In his mind, with its broken synapses and lost connections, the white light of the full moon has become associated with the Divine Light of the God he so faithfully believes in. But those moments of my Real Dad are further and further apart.

As the skeleton's bones become brittle with age and use, the sinews and ligaments that connect them begin to tear and wither too. With each successive stroke that my Dad is subjected too, the connections that hold our family together are taking more and more strain.

But sometimes, other connections are formed that return to those muscles the much needed strength and the ability to somehow dig deeper and go on with a renewed sense of the power of Love.

One such unexpected connection was a book review on Patricia’s Wisdom, a blog that also reviewed my own novel. Patricia reviewed a memoir called SO FAR AWAY: A Daughter’s Memoir of Life, Loss and Love. Written by Dr Christine Hartmann, this story chronicles the author’s journey through both her parents' very different deaths.

Her mother didn’t want to suffer a loss of her mental acuity through old age diseases and so become a burden. She openly planned her death by suicide. Hartmann’s father, like my Dad, saw his death as so far away that he (and his family) were caught unawares by a series of massive strokes that (again like my Dad) kept him physically alive, but at the cost of his mental and spiritual essence.

Browsing Hartmann’s website, I found another connection: like my Mom, Hartmann suffers with glaucoma. And, of course, Hartmann’s parents were teenagers in Nazi Germany during World War II. My parents where white South Africans during the rule of the Apartheid Nationalist Government.

No wonder SO FAR AWAY has had me crying – no, sobbing – inconsolably for the past two days as I read it. I am drained and exhausted and utterly relieved that I am no longer alone in my journey of grief. Another daughter has trodden this path and she has shown me that there is a way through this loss; there is even life and love at the end of this seemingly endless road that has drained all my energy, my enthusiasm and my optimism, turning me ever more isolationist and remote from real life and unable to write a word on the new novel that is hammering away inside my head. 

And, she says, addressing one of my most painful fears, when her father's physical body eventually died, she was able to recapture the spiritual essence and memories of how he was before the strokes stole his essence and left only a shell.  For too long, it has become more and more difficult to remember who my Dad was, before he was reduced to what he is.

What makes this book special is that Dr Hartmann’s life, losses and love are mine too. Reading Hartmann’s story allowed me to cry for her that which I cannot yet cry for myself: the loss of my hero, my “pardner,” my beloved Dad.

I could cry, too, for the fading of that strong light that was the hallmark of my courageous Mom, her joie de vivre overshadowed now by the endless day-to-day caring of the physical body that houses the lost soul of her husband and my father.

Hartmann’s compassionate caring, the relentless journey to understand both herself and her parent’s emotional wounds, fill this memoir and made me realise that I have carried the burden of this private grief and double loss inside me for too long.

I had forgotten that this cycle of life, too, can be a path of mutual love and respect between special parents and a daughter they had, despite their own wounds and private griefs, always surrounded in love and support. "Autumn," said John Keats in his most famous Ode, "thou hast thou beauty too."  Hartmann has reminded me to search for the beauty in even this, a challenging life situation.

The subtitle of this book is that it’s a “memoir about life, loss and love.”  Ultimately, SO FAR AWAY is simply an Ode to Love and it has gifted me with the memory of love at its best. Whether singing the Skeleton Dance or sitting with my Dad daily so my Mom can wallow for twenty uninterrupted minutes in a hot bath filled with bubbles, I know once again that connections forged in love ever remain.

SO FAR AWAY has "soothed the ragged tears of my heart" and, for that, I sincerely thank Christine Hartmann for having the courage to so honestly share her life, loss and love with us.

You can buy your own copy of SO FAR AWAY from Amazon and other major bookstores.

And, of course, this post would not be complete without one more rendition of The Skeleton Dance:

Friday 2 December 2011

Can We Both Condemn and Understand the Past?

My reading of the English translation of "The Reader" by Bernhard Schlink may be influenced by the outstanding movie version, which won Kate Winslet her (well-deserved) Oscar.

Often, when I read the book version of a movie that has moved me deeply I’m disappointed (or vice versa – the movie version of the emotional “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas” was a huge disappointment.)

The Reader doesn’t disappoint on any level.  Perhaps because of my personal experiences (a white South African born to the generation who voted the Apartheid government into power), this novel moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe.

Stripping away the love story between Michael and Hanna, the way this novel explored and articulated the nature of guilt reflected many of the questions in my own mind. The deceptively simple prose style is ideal for keeping the focus on the soul-wrenching and difficult issues the illogical love Michael feels for Hanna raises in the reader’s mind (excuse the pun.)

At times I wondered if Hanna wasn’t symbolic of Germany herself, and Michael’s statement “I wanted simultaneously to understand Hanna’s crime and to condemn it” is a poignant echo of the post-war (or, for that matter, post-apartheid) generation’s complex patriotism.

Is Hanna’s illiteracy and ignorance enough to excuse her? And is it a metaphor for previous generations of people the world over who were simply unaware of the darkness to which that ignorance/lack of education/whatever could lead them to? Should we condemn or understand them? And, if we condemn those who have lived before us, what will future generations – those yet-to-be-born generations who will have more knowledge on which to base their choices and actions than we have – find to condemn in our behaviour? Perhaps in a hundred years times vegetarian children will have to bear the guilt of previous generations who (considering themselves perfectly civilised and moral beings) today deliberately slaughter living creatures to eat.

This novel almost defies categorisation and review. As Michael himself says, “The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear.”

Sometimes I find it hard to bear that I and my beloved parents – good, ordinary people, all of us, or so I like to think – were simply too concerned with bread-and-butter issues to fight the evil of apartheid and become heroes of “the struggle.” Sometimes I find it hard to bear that, just as the German psyche will never be entirely free of the guilt of the Holocaust, so the white South African psyche will never be entirely free of the guilt of Apartheid.

Bernhard Schlink does an admirable job in addressing a topic that raises difficult moral and legal questions, none of which has easy answers.

Kate Winslet in her Oscar winning performance as Hanna Schmitz
“The Reader” is a necessary read for anyone who needs to learn that there are three sides to every story in our collective and individual histories: the victim’s side, the oppressor’s side and the truth that can never be fully known or understood. As Michael says “Whatever I had done or not done, whatever [Hanna] had done or not done…it was the path my life had taken…there are many different stories in addition to the one I have written.”

There are no guarantees that the story of the good and evil that mankind is capable of will not be repeated: the victim may become the oppressor, the oppressor the victim. As I write this review, the Palestinians live in ghettos under Israeli rule. On Black Tuesday 22-11-11, in South Africa, the black ANC government has voted in favour of an information bill, which limits the democratic freedom of speech, while the good, ordinary people (as in previous eras) were too concerned with bread-and-butter issues to care about some law whose significance they didn’t fully comprehend.

So, who knows what those who find it easier to condemn than to understand would do if a malicious Fate places them in Hanna’s shoes? “What would you have done?” Hanna asks the judge presiding over her war crimes trial. But she got no answer and nor did she expect one.

This simply written tale is a melancholy and insightful book that will linger in my mind for a long time. While it gives no easy solutions, it does provoke a deep and thoughtful analysis of how the human spirit copes when confronted with deep and horrifying truths about one’s individual and collective identity.