On Returning to the Home I Grew Up In

On Returning to the Home I Grew Up In

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.
―Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

I sit and watch the sun come up over Johannesburg from the windows of what used to be my sister Carolyn’s room when we were growing up. The skyline of this dusty city crouches in milky smog as the sun insists its way through the clouds. My view is latticed by the burglar bars, cordoned by ragged curtains of yellow and brown flowers, a pattern my folks’ chose for all three girls’ rooms, except in different colours. I guess Carolyn drew the short straw.

This old house and I are long time friends. We know one another’s every idiosyncrasy, creak and cranny even as we both wear the beatings of time and cannot hide the failures of upkeep.

Each year I come back to this home of my childhood to visit my parents, sisters and the few friends long distance hasn’t erased from my life. My old room is now the ‘computer’ and ‘cat’s’ room (replete with catlitter and bowls of food), luxuries of the empty nest. The ridiculous pink fluffy carpets I chose as a ten year still remain. There is a loyalty here to the past that is at once choking and cherishing.

I return to these walls each time with a suitcase full of Australian gifts, lugging it up the steep stairwell I used to tear up and down a hundred times a day as a girl. During my visit, I revisit each corner of this building, where memories curl around corners, and olden times nestle in nooks. ‘That’s where the mulberry tree used to be,’; ‘in that swimming pool change room we once made a library, ‘there’s the division between the interleading rooms that was built so each sister could have her privacy.’

The kitchen is just the same as I left it when I moved out as a young woman starting my own life. The empty glass jars on the windowsill haven’t moved in thirty years. The adult in me wants to sweep them into the bin. I have to stop myself from suggesting the sputtering shower in the bathroom needs to be upgraded. The child in me wants this place to never change. For nothing to be ‘fixed.’ How things were broken and remain so, is built into the scaffolding of my own inherited shattering, and I am comforted by all this chaos-going-nowhere.

This is the home that nursed my wounds – from the torn tendons in my hand as a toddler, to the heartbreaks of my first boyfriend’s betrayal. In this garden I celebrated parties, practiced my netball shot, got stung by a bee on my bum. In this driveway I was consumed by passion on the bonnet of a car and watched a man drive away not knowing if I’d ever see him again. Here I have been loved on purpose, too much and too little, by inches and by miles. Here is where I started. Though not for the thinking, my parents conceived me between these walls when love was easy and family was for the hopeful.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

On this sacred ground I uttered my first words, penned my first poems. Legends of my imagined future were hatched in these rooms; disappointments found me too, though I hid in the hide-n’-seek of life.

This is the home I first left at fifteen for a three month sojourn in Israel, and left again in my early twenties to study in America; it’s the home I returned to over and over, and the one I keep returning to on each visit after fifteen years in a country far far away. It is the home I dream of when I am ill, and it’s the place I pine for when I am lost. This architecture holds all my previous incarnations, and it is these rooms I long for when I am suffocated – often in moments of exiled happiness – by ‘homesickness,’ which sits like a vigil of loss on the sidelines of all I have gained since leaving.

Each time I return, my heart knows what it’s in for, and it comes prepared for a beating, like the wife at penitentiary visiting hours. My past sits behind the glass. I reach out and try to touch it. It’s there, still breathing in these walls. I can see it, smell it, taste it. It reaches for me too. ‘Don’t forget me,’ it whispers. I nod, my heart unspooling.

Here I am storied, historied, known, understood and misunderstood in only the way that the past can make something of us to which we both belong and have outgrown.

I manage my nostalgia, like an addiction, not letting it get its fingers around my throat. No thanks, I don’t do Longing-Things-Were-Different anymore. I’ve done my time. I’ve made my peace. The glass keeps me safe. There is life on the other side though it is made of different sky and earth and even love. Exile is a life built on grief. You can grow calluses in your softest places, eventually.

It’s to this address I arrived from the hospital as a newborn in the Spring of 1967, and to the same I keep returning on every visit back. Like all disciplines of return – prayer, meditation, writing, intimacy – it’s an ongoing act of devotion. Like all homecomings, I hold tenderly the haunting questions of the visitor: will it still be here next time? Will it remember me? Will we know each other through the glass again? And who will I be when it is gone?

Who Are You to Write? (On Stroke Correction and Conviction)

These are excerpts from my diary in 2001, four years before my first novel The Dreamcloth was published. Some years ago, I decided it was time to learn how to swim properly. I mean, I'd had swimming lessons as a kid, but stopped as soon as there was no danger I'd...

We Gather Stars in the Dark

My whole life changed when, at the age of 27, I was suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer.  At a time when my husband and I should have been focusing on our future, we filled our days with managing the side effects of my chemotherapy. Instead of starting a family we...

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When I was five years old, during a routine game of hide-n’-seek, I hid in the cupboard in the spare room, amongst the hanging fur coats and long sequined dresses my mother would never wear again. I was there a long time. Even when my seeker had ‘given up’ and rallied the adults to help find me, though I heard people calling my name, I kept silent, not wanting to betray the sanctuary of my hiding place.

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Signs You Could Be a Writer

Signs You Could Be a Writer

Signs You Could Be a Writer (No Matter What Your Day Job Is)

‘I’m not a writer,’ people often tell me. ‘But I’ve always wanted to write…’

You know, there was a time I also wasn’t a writer. But I always knew I wanted to write. This longing then, could be, as Rilke put it, ‘the future enter(ing) us long before it happens.’

Here are some signs that you could be a closet writer:

You love ‘beautiful’ writing

You appreciate writing that is careful, sculptural. You re-read sentences sometimes because … well, because they’re just so delicious. You sometimes read things aloud, to hear how they sound. The words become chocolates in your mouth.

You underline or highlight words, sentences or paragraphs in books.

You’re not one of those ‘don’t mark up your books’ person. You hate the idea of ebooks because you can’t underline things with your pencil or make notes in the margins. You have no idea why you do this, except some inkling that someday you might want to come back to the places you’ve marked and re-experience that sentence.

You like to eavesdrop on peoples’ conversations.
Sitting in a café or at the bus stop, you listen in on conversations between people: teenage girls gossiping, spouses bickering, boys flirting, or the banal and terrible stutterings and silences that happen between people. Writers are good listeners. We then imagine the stories behind the words. This is how we learn to write characters.

You love to people-watch.
You can sit and watch people go by for hours – the granny walking her wobbly poodle, the way the chubby guy rests his hand in his girlfriend’s lower back, the rabbi in his black furry hat perspiring in the heat, the young mum with her whining toddler talking on her mobile phone. Writers are keen observers – we look deeply, watching the rhythms and textures of all human interaction.

You notice the spaces around things.
Not only do you notice what people say and do, how they look and behave but you notice what isn’t there. The mother pushing the empty pram. The pregnant woman without a wedding ring. The guy in the bar who talks about his family. The newly renovated home that no-one moves into. The car parked at the end of the road that never moves. Writers don’t skim across the surface – we look in, around, through and between things. We look for where stories hide.

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

You read books and think to yourself, ‘Even I could write better than this…’
You get seriously irate when reading a badly written book. Sometimes you wonder, ‘how did this get published?’ Being able to recognize what works and doesn’t work in writing means you’re reading like a writer.

Sometimes words make you cry.
A sentence can brings tears to your eyes. Words move you.

You have empathy.
If you are naturally empathic, you’re able to imagine what it’s like to be someone else – a person in a wheelchair, homeless, kidnapped, raped, childless, lost… Writers imagine what it’s like to be other people all the time. We create fantasy worlds.

You have celebrity crushes on authors.
No matter how nerdy. John Green. Need I say more?

Being a ‘writer’ is an identity you choose, when you write. You don’t need permission, a degree or a certificate to write. You just do it. When you translate your longing into action and start putting words on the page, that’s when you graduate.

If you need permission, or a sign to go for it: this is it.

I Am Well if You Are Well

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6 Mistakes Authors Make When They Start Writing

How to Avoid These Mistakes When You Start Writing I consider the longing to write a noble calling to the voice hidden inside us. Helping others get their stories out is part of what gets me out of bed each day. I know our stories can change the lives of others, which...

Allow Me to Disappoint You

You wouldn't believe what an excellent track record I have in not disappointing people.I like to think it’s because I try hard to be a half-decent person. But what if it’s the consequence of pathology? A damaged neurological wiring that causes me to default into doing...

Writing about Ourselves So That Others Will Read It

  When we write about ourselves, it’s not dissimilar to writing about a fictional or imaginary character. In Hemingway’s iceberg, we see that what we need to know about a character is vast compared to what we show. This depth of knowledge helps us to...

The Art of Reframing

The Art of Reframing

I come from a family of Oh My Godders. In my family, everything was a potential calamity: a sore throat. An impending storm. A parking ticket. Being late. Being early.

Now if you grow up in OMG-hood, you learn to panic. Without much provocation. Everything in life is a drama. You default into clutching your chest and hyperventilating. Invariably, you grow up with an anxiety disorder because life is a joyride of the unexpected, uncomfortable and I-never-saw-that-coming’s.

My dad lost his mother when he was young and entire branches of our family tree were wiped out in the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It was no sunny childhood in the shadow of genocide and grief. Before his mother died, she told him, ‘It’s no good.’ And that’s the message he imbibed so even when things are good, it’s the prequel to disaster. Once a year when I visit him overseas, he bursts into tears as I arrive and says, ‘And you’re leaving in three weeks.’

I grew up with this gloomy sense of life as an untrustworthy experience where one should always expect the worst.

But let me tell you, this way of being is no fun. Not one bit. Not for me and not for anyone unfortunate enough to be in my vicinity.

Also, I noticed – particularly in movies – that those who panic in an emergency or unravel in a crisis are the ones who get their faces slapped just before they get eaten by the shark or get shot. They are also always the first to die. Those who remain calm are the heroes. They survive. And even if they don’t, we’re sad when they perish.

After watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian, I decided I want to be the person who gets everyone singing” Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in the midst of crucifixion. It was time to convert from OMG-ism to Serenity. To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling, I needed to learn to ‘keep my head when all about me are losing theirs and blaming it on me…’

Some years ago, Buddhism showed me a path through meditation. I was intrigued that you could potentially get control over your wayward thoughts and emotions and train them, like a puppy, to do their business in the appropriate place. There I learned to stay with difficult, unpredictable emotions. To breathe into fear, anxiety, uncertainty. This practice also helped me to look at fear more kindly. Not as a bully, but as a teacher. This was my first introduction into ‘reframing’ – the art of looking at difficult experiences, differently.

As Shakespeare said, ‘Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’

 

The 7 Day Writing Challenge

WINGS: Words Inspire, Nourish and Grow the Spirit

Here’s an example – my sister is deaf. She can’t hear announcements in a supermarket about the specials nor listen to music. In that context, she is disabled. However, put her in a noisy room and ask her what the person across the room is saying, and by the power of her lip-reading skills, she’ll tell you word for word. In that situation, I am disabled. (My sister would make a fabulous spy.) I discovered Daniel Kish on YouTube. He is blind. He also rides bikes and climbs mountains. He taught himself to ‘see’ by clicking his tongue (based on the same principle of echolocation used by bats). Some years ago, I interviewed people living with breast cancer. One woman told me, ‘Breast cancer gave me a chance to have an affair with myself.’

To experience life differently, perhaps we don’t need different circumstances, but simply to look at things differently.

What helps us to reframe? Firstly, a good dose of humour. If we can find what’s funny in a situation, no matter how hopeless, we’ve shifted our view. My husband is a master at this manoeuvre. Whenever I’m feeling guilty about something, he says, ‘Don’t beat yourself up just because it’s your fault.’ Humour is a solvent for self-pity.

Secondly, (and I know how corny this is), Big Picture thinking is always a frame-shifter. Okay, I didn’t get the contract, but I also don’t have to have root canal treatment today. A little gratitude for what we have, rather than a focus on what we don’t have helps us zoom out of the corner we’re facing. A woman having chemotherapy for breast cancer told me she used to put mascara on her one remaining eyelash. When I was moaning about my clothes being tight and how I needed to lose weight, my husband kindly suggested that I ‘just buy bigger clothes.’

In my own life, I have slowly learned to reframe experiences. I now see a back injury or a terrible flu as ‘an opportunity to give my body a complete rest.’ A big tax bill? It means I had a lucrative year. A parking ticket… at least – ah, bugger it, a parking ticket is practically impossible to reframe.

My mantras now include, ‘when one door closes, another one opens,’ and instead of focusing on what’s shut, I now look for what’s beckoning. I ask, What’s the lesson?’ What’s the pattern? What needs to change?

Being inside myself is a much cheerier experience. The beauty of course is that what we believe impacts on what we see. Our vision literally alters our experience. In the words of the British essayist Erich Heller, ‘Be careful how you see the world. It is that way.’

Paranoia is a warzone. And I no longer live there.

What Is My ‘Voice’ and How Do I Find It?

When we start writing, we’re told we have to find our ‘voice.’ Naturally, we begin looking for it.
It’s not under the pile of unopened mail.

6 Mistakes Authors Make When They Start Writing

How to Avoid These Mistakes When You Start Writing I consider the longing to write a noble calling to the voice hidden inside us. Helping others get their stories out is part of what gets me out of bed each day. I know our stories can change the lives of others, which...

How to Salvage Your Writing from the Crematorium of Cliche

Aspiring writers sometimes ask me, ‘How can I write like you?’ The answer is, ‘You don’t want to write like me, you want to write like you. You want to find your writing voice, and that will be nothing like mine.’ But I get what people are really asking me. They’re...

Buoy

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