It’s the end of the year – and you have the power to make things better

It’s time to say goodbye to 2020, with hopes of a better 2021.

Except, dear reader, you do know that’s not a thing?

I’ve written before about magical thinking – and some of that is worth repeating here:

The idea that somehow the sunset and sunrise on a particular day in our Western calendar have any bearing on the flow of life is what psychologists call magical thinking – defined in the online Sceptic’s Dictionary  thus: “magical thinking involves several elements, including a belief in the interconnectedness of all things through forces and powers that transcend both physical and spiritual connections. Magical thinking invests special powers and forces in many things that are seen as symbols”.

So, somehow, the very dawn on the new year of 2020 brought us the Covid-19 pandemic, and the dawn of 2021 will make it all better?

That’s patently not the case. The only thing that will make things better is something we all have personal control over – our willingness to observe the public health measures we have all been asked to observe. Wear a mask. Stay away from other people. Stay home as much as we are able to.

By all means, take a holiday as the year turns, by all means use this artificial transition to reflect on the past and plan for the future. Celebrate your blessings, eat a lot of food, do charitable good works. But for the love of all that is light and bright this festive season, stay safe and sane and sensible.

My first post of 2021 is scheduled for January 21 – see you then, when things will be no different from the way they are now unless we all behave like caring human beings.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media). And you can subscribe to my newsletter here.

Main picture: My light-loving summer solstice celebration table.

 

Thoughts at the end of a long year

Cricket is back, and I don’t know how I feel about that.

In the depths of South Africa’s strong lockdown, I remember wishing that there was some cricket to watch – it felt as though a leisurely Test match would help pass the time.

England is in South Africa for some T20 and ODI men’s matches. Ordinarily this would be an occasion of joy and interest, a sign of things getting back to normal.

Instead it feels that the matches just underscore how very peculiar things are.

The T20 at Newlands on November 27 was played in front of an empty stadium. I felt as though I was watching two different matches.

On the screen, the batsman hit a mighty six, straight into the stands. In my head was the memory of a roar from the crowd, a man reaching up to catch the ball (and not spilling a drop of his beer!) and throwing it cheerfully back to the fielder.

On the screen was a forlorn figure, the fielder trudging up the stand to fetch the ball, just as he would have done as a schoolboy.

The thing is sport is a collective endeavour: the players and the crowd together are the warm heart of humanity, loving and hating and hoping and despairing and eating and drinking and hugging and Mexican waving.

This is what the Covid pandemic has taken from us, or from the ones of us who are still alive and plodding our way through days that feel flat and long and tired.

I have been lighting two candles every night since March. As I do it, I think of all the other people who are having a hard time in the Covid. I am so much better off than them, I think, with gratitude and the certain knowledge that I have done nothing to deserve it.

No one I know and love has died, we have weathered the financial storm, we are not going hungry, we are not health workers on the front line. All we have to do is wear masks and organise small, cautious, open-air social gatherings with people we know well and can set the rules about what to do about cutlery and crockery. Summer is here and we can even go out for a beer or two to the local pubs where we can sit outside. (I am aware there are those who think even these activities are too risky – this article is a good articulation of the position our family has taken: Confessions of a Pandemic Risk-Taker

So, if things are sort-of-just-okay in this corner of Cape Town, why am I having terrible dreams? Why have I been unable to settle to my sewing and handwork? Why does everything feel like such an effort?

The cricket made me understand. We are all living and working and playing in a small circle of light while all around darkness and loneliness and isolation loom.

In times like these, I turn to poetry. And two poems come to mind. Nobody can express anguish quite like TS Eliot. Phrases from his Preludes keep going through my mind. They are about a different time and place, but the mood is exactly right for now. Part four goes like this:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;…

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

I will keep lighting my candles, thinking of the gentle things that we all miss. Because what else can we do now except hope? And that’s the second poem that keeps coming to mind. It’s hand-written in a book I have been keeping for years, where I copy down things that strike me. It is about a man and his cat.

My Cat and I (Alan Mathews)

When the clock uncovers me

and the day lies mean and flat.

I wrap myself in solitude

and breakfast with my cat.

 

High on kitchen stools we perch,

metabolism thin,

and ponder on the fates that move

the world of mice and men.

 

He understands me well, my cat.

He makes no smart replies.

Instinctive wisdom lies behind

his tranquil slitted eyes.

 

The monstrous tensions of our race

somehow he comprehends

and how life great simplicities

evade his giant friends.

 

So with his furred contentment

he absorbs my edge of pain,

assuring with a rounded purr

that good will rise again.

 

Restored, I pat him ‘au revoir’;

he bumps me with his head.

I hustle out to earn a bob.

He strolls to find a bed.

 

I have carried that poem with me for thirty years, and I didn’t write down the source publication*.  I hope you find it as sustaining as I do. Cricket matches will again be full to the brim of men drinking beer and catching sixes. Good will rise again. Until then, wear a mask and take as few risks as you can.

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* January 2021 update: I have made some progress on tracking down the source of the Alan Mathews poem. A search on Twitter led me to the Facebook page of poet Robyn J Black, who mentioned Alan Mathews in a post. I contacted Robyn, and she sent me this information: “Yes that is a poem by Alan Mathews, a long-time member of the Goulburn Valley Writers Group Inc., former founder and editor of Tamba magazine and award winning poet and short story writer. Alan was from Orrvale and Shepparton, Vic. Aust. and passed away a couple of years ago. He was a gentle and gentlemanly soul, and an exquisite writer. We miss him. ‘My Cat and I’ was printed in ‘Categories’ and in Alan’s book ‘Blackbird Singing’”. Blackbird Singing is listed in the Australian national book catalogue as published by Little River Press (which cannot be found online) and this article in a local newspaper about Mathews says that Blackbird Singing is self-published. I continue to search for the copyright holder!

 

 

The simple joys of stationery

Last weekend, I bought a little notebook.

A6, black, 192 pages, cream paper, quadrille.

I was killing an hour while waiting for a teen school event to finish, and felt I could retire to a coffee shop and spend the time dreaming up topics for future blog posts. (Obligatory Covid-19 disclaimer: the coffee shop observes all protocols, I wore my mask, I sanitised my hands.)

So I wandered into a stationery shop and purchased the aforesaid notebook, after hovering over lined versions. Something about quadrille just seemed right for a grey Saturday morning.

notebook and pen

The notebook, the pen, the coffee.

When I had finished the coffee, and put my mask back on, I stowed the notebook in my handbag.

Dear reader, this will shock you: Only at that point did I notice that I already had a notebook, with matching pen. Kept in my bag for the very purpose of opportunistic note-taking.

My name is Renee and I am a stationery addict.

New possibilities

I buy a ruinously expensive Moleskine planner every year because I like the feel of the paper.

I use only a particular range of Bic pen, in a particular shade of purple. It also comes in pink and blue, which can be used for highlighting different aspects of lists. (I am addicted to those too).

I have piles of unused and half-used notebooks. All of them, one day, will be useful, I just know it.

As addictions go, this one is relatively harmless. No one else if affected if I mindlessly buy yet another notebook.

But it is interesting to try to understand the source of it. What is it about the clean crisp pages of a new notebook that is so entrancing?

For me, its about hope, about a sense of new possibilities. And an anchor to reality: pen and paper tie us to the generations of people who have used them to navigate the world. In a world of online nastiness and IRL fear and uncertainty, there’s something consoling about the solidity of a new notebook.

I give you stationery, a simple pleasure in a complicated world.

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your organisational or communication needs (coaching, editing, writing, social media).

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Leadership in the time of plague

The Covid-19 pandemic has concentrated our minds on the question of leadership, across the globe. Donald Trump. Boris Johnson. John Pombe Magufuli. These men are flashpoints for discussion around a leader’s response to a clear and present danger.

South Africa has its own issues here, of course. Our leaders have taken strong action in response to the havoc wrought by the novel coronavirus, and the citizenry has been loud and contradictory in its response. We are an unruly lot, after all.

But none of the leadership challenges confronting the world are new. There have been plagues before, and there will be plagues again. The bigger questions remain: What is good leadership, actually? What is bad leadership? And what of followers? Continue reading

Thoughts on what it means to be a white South African

In the past few weeks, every United States email newsletter that I subscribe to has sent me some version of this: “We know about George Floyd, appalled, saddened. We promise to do better.”

I’ve read them, wondering if every single one of them is sincere, filtering them through my usual scepticism. I have also read them though a South African filter. And after thinking about it a lot, I have decided to try to express what I’ve been feeling. And what all this could mean for my fellow white “Saffers”. Continue reading

Farewell to Shiloh of the Ears

Dog with stick

Shiloh and the very first fabric toy stick that we bought for her. There are more pictures at the end of this post.

This Friday it will be three weeks since the death of Shiloh of the Ears.
Our dog, who was only eight years old, succumbed in the early hours of the morning of Friday August 17 to a horrible cancer, of the spleen thought the vet. We had an appointment to “put her to sleep”, as they say, but death came earlier, and I was glad of that. Better to go on her cushion next to my bed than in fear at the Horrible Place.
She and I had spent a lot of time in the Horrible Place in the run-up to her death, trying to find out what was wrong with her, coming and going with packets of pills and fear and hope in my heart. In her heart there was just fear. She would sit on the vet’s scale in the hope that being a good dog would make me take her home again (because she would always sit on it to be weighed, so obediently, not like other dogs who wriggle and bounce).
She had not been our dog – my dog – for long.
This coming September 24 will be the second anniversary of the day she came to live with us, a gift from a family emigrating to the United States and unable to take her with them. The Snymans posted her picture on Facebook, and since we had been looking for a new dog, and they said “good with cats”, she seemed perfect for us. And she was (good with cats, and perfect).
Her predecessor, our first dog Indiana, taught me the Way of the Dog, to like them, to understand the joyous and irritating and noisy and fun ways that dogs are are nothing like cats. Continue reading