Skinny-Legs-Spaghetti talks too much. She minds everybody’s business, and listens at doors. I hate Skinny-Legs-Spaghetti. I don’t want her to talk to me anymore. Nobody understands why I am depressive least of all me. Every secret chance I get I live on the edge vicariously through other people who assume wrong impressions like the aesthetic mishap that an artist painted on canvas of his subject like that of the narcissist Dorian Grey. The drowned, disowned; those who inherited a fate like tortured public perverts and fade away. Their black hearts and dark minds and black tongues, their weak and panic-stricken hearts racing. Money is their aphrodisiac, their dirty mouths filled with secrets and lies, they live at high speed, electric and in sunlight they can even be angelic and night time their beauty is on fire.
No one knows the meaning of this life. Life and death. The hobo curled up sleeping in a heap at the mosque is not letting us on the bigger picture. We are doing field research for my father on the next book he is writing. I am happy to be an interloper learning about my father’s past, our country’s painful history, the sorrow that yielded the strange, unforgiving stillness here by this fig tree that I am so touched by. The hateful images of these injustices of Apartheid and the Group Areas Act stay long after. From here you can see the harbour, fishing boats bopping up and down on the choppy waves still untouched in another passage in eternity.
The inner city has become an underground sin city, a ghost world, neon glowing urban and a wasteland wilderness. Pimps and drug-dealers, handsome, well heeled, well dressed, talk to a buyer on their cell phone. They are masters of disguise, vanishing acts, disappearing into thin air.
Thin prostitutes, prostitutes with slippery, shiny hair that falls down their back, curly, blonde, dyed, who don wigs, with beautiful, shiny, healthy afros, with their thigh high leather scuffed boots that skim their miniskirts or jeans, wasted or high, or pregnant, their foreheads invisible by a dark-haired, blonde, blunt fringe. Their lives are for rent. They do not smile or laugh; they draw invisible motifs of pretty and red tattoos on their skin with a needle or a chipped and dirty fingernail. They toss their hair back from their faces made-up with dirty make-up, their lies, vulnerability, tenderness is transparent and their shoulder blades are cool.
The criminal world of the drug dealers, some of who were immigrants, revealed to me that they had a celebrated affliction to harm not out of spite but out of a backward, awkward survival mechanism. They were self-styled nomads, hunters, warriors, gatherers and dreamers, survivors and freedom fighters trapped, trying against all odds to flee entrapment with a mechanical urgency, with the wisdom of awesome and powerful beasts. The way they viewed the world was not fresh and clean. Like the food they ate was neither a feast nor did it sate their appetite. The money that came to them, the more problems they saw.
There is a lifetime of ambition there of a prostitute using her mind at the devotion of her soul. They are artistic, sadistic voyeurs, fragile, their all-consuming greed, hunger attractive and yet, unspeakable. Their lifestyle is forbidden yet it is still permissive. It is frozen in time from the golden and ancient days of mistresses and courtesans. In the walls of the rooms of their love, I imagine, as our car speeds past the cheap, dingy hotels, love is not giving. It is a painful pill to swallow, their breath is like a sweet but unwholesome mist, and their vision distorted and burns a host of disturbing and troublesome portrayals of people on their brains that does not give any psychological relief.
If the evening or the tawdry affair has been a disaster there will be more hell to pay with more violence if there is not any money.
They are in this world but not of it. For the ladies of the night it is midnight all day for them and all night.
This is how my city, my hometown Port Elizabeth is at night.
Under water everything is distilled, cleansed and purified. Demonstrating the cool rebirth of your soul, leaving you coming up for air, shaking, trembling, breathless and warning you not to swallow more than a mouthful.
The cracks become gold flecked. Even as your lungs start to feel as if they could burst, you stay at the bottom of the pool, an ice queen frozen in time, a cold, ungenerous, unfeeling thing and an innocent. Deserts can bloom, even human ones but it is only red flowers that can bloom at the bottom of this swimming pool.
A swimming pool is like air. A temporary exercise in therapy, breathing lessons in survival, relevant and dangerous. Everything that is trapped in a box, that hums, which buzzes like bees inside my brain, like the drops of dewy water cling to my hair and my fingertips, like sound and tension escapes.
The kick, the telepathic life and birth of the first indescribable tug of a high reverses a lifetime of bad habits, self-destruction, makes your sad childhood seem breezy, it transforms the negative into the positive, the world is insatiable and you have to have all of it, be nourished by all of it before it destroys you and you come down. It is downhill from there afterwards as you search for your next fix.
The first kick as I pull away from the wall, the telepathic life, birth of every stroke, everything that sparked my reverie disappears. I am no longer infatuated with the black mood as it lifts. Each stranglehold no longer wipes me out. There is nobody here at the swimming pool to see me reaching for life that takes each breath away and gives me one back completing me. I am still in the land of the living and the world in which everything wrong seems dangerously right. It is almost as if it has become a nuisance to say that Africa is not normal. Normal is a very seductive word. It does not give you nightmares.
I imagine that food is too exotic to eat. I read somewhere that you do not eat when you are on a drug-induced high. It is like taking an appetite suppressant. I suppose that is why the modelling business went through a phase termed ‘heroine-chic’. Why pretty premature girls stuck needles into their arms, made themselves sick, did not eat and died from being malnourished.
Women who are not physically and emotionally there for them always inconvenience men. Especially alpha males with their fast cars, their degrees, their power trips. I can really see that it is not about love for them. We are all conditioned or socialised from the time that we are very young to be accepted.
I surrender delicate like scent to the light and to the sun’s rays. My lashes are wet. It is the end of the world for me. It is a new day. This feeling that I feel is a radical one.
I was running on my own personal velocity with a rock, paper and scissors in my hand and didn’t even know it. Often I would wonder about other people’s children. How they lived, what would make the corners of their mouths rise up into a smile or laughter, what their mothers and fathers were like, did they have emptiness and fear rushing through them, suggesting their every move and role in society. Did they play at mud pies, cowboys and crooks, tea parties and dolls and families like Ivy League scientists? Before I entered youth I wanted to be adventurous. When I did I was timid. Fear was my constant companion. I would never laugh like the class clown or the other children. I would pretend my childhood was shot in colour. I would click frame by frame into photograph-heaven. By the time I reached youth I had different pictures of children. All plays of innocence shot in colour inside my head.
They would tick alongside the sound of imagination, its roar hidden in the beautiful and symmetry. Rain hitting the pavement, branches hitting a window in the middle of the night like someone, people are trying to get into the house, song, the wind, a choir, music. Words being recited out loud as if a child was reading out loud from a book, an actor from a script. Youth and adulthood for me was childhood continued. I would dream in a filmmaker’s dream shot list. There were shots in my dream of Port Elizabeth but it wouldn’t be any kind of Port Elizabeth that I knew. It would be grainy, blurred, out of focus, disjointed. It would leave me feeling displaced and my features contorted by rage or a sense of futility. All that remained of Port Elizabeth was spaghetti thin me with my skinny legs walking into a city skyline at night, walking onto a luxurious ocean liner, a big, beautiful boat.
Surrounded by a crowd of extras, no an army of them really, who would vanish from my sight as the daylight filtered through the curtains in my bedroom. What is normal? Normal I discovered was to be the opposite of everything I said and represented, put forward in this world as truth and even my anger, when it spun out of control into rage or petered out, dissolved into the thin blue air. I was always open to suggestions. I cared for them with my whole heart to tell you the truth. My mother would either scream or shout them at me (always at me) with a heavy streak of venom and aggression in her voice. It would rise like the stars, the boots of pale soldiers marching to their doom until I couldn’t see or think straight. I could never wish that negative energy away that I heard inside her voice.
It made me feel that feeling (you know the one you get when you’re stuck in a situation, numb, terrified to the bone, a desolate wave washing over you, the shame of humiliation). I always got that feeling whenever I saw a swastika, Hitler, images from a concentration camp, survivors of a concentration camp being interviewed. I would feel desolate, a shrinking violet, a painted wallflower, cold, always cold, as if I was made up of a frozen wasteland and that was my lot in life and I would just have to accept it. And I have always wondered if she despised some part of me, and which part was it. The part that reminded her that I was like her or that I was different from her. It was always the sounds of imagination that would rescue me or more to the point its season (always summer sun), its feast (the roast on Sundays) and its pathways that would lead to a fork in the road.
It’s an enchanting feeling detaching yourself from the physical and feeling a giddy sense of displacement from what is real, chemical, skeleton and what is illusion. It is like watching an ant switched on with the magic of all their specific rituals through a magnifying glass as if a voyeur is watching it. Detaching ‘you’ from the personal velocity of places, things, buildings, marching people, engaging scenarios running on empty or the rush of familiarity.
She would hiss like a snake with her snake eyes, the curve of the snake in her hips and her spine or hiss at me like someone who had a lisp.
‘Get that devil out of your mouth. I command the spirit of smoking to leave you now. We don’t want it. We don’t need it. Go. Go. Go. Go now.’
‘I’m going to smack you if you don’t quit that now. I’ll be over there in a second. Watch it, woman.’
My father puts on his apron. He is going to wash the dishes. I close the bathroom door and hear the key clink in the door. Peace (alone?) at last. I am going to run a bath. I open the hot water tap and make lots of bubbles to cheer me up.
There are various ways to become a slave. One of them is becoming a child again, being bossed around by an authority figure, usually a parent. But there’s only one way to feel alone. We all feel lonely at some point in our lives. We come into this world armed with nothing and leave it the same way we came. Building walls around you and then usually the walls turned into a fence and left you wondering how you got here, how did ‘that’ get here complete with electrical wiring to keep everyone out, at a neat distance.
I’ll tell you a secret. Inside my head I have a picture of a child’s shoes, a child putting them on, tying the laces, reaching out for a parent’s hand. I call it ‘The Perfect Childhood’. A winning formula because it shows the perfect combination of emotional stability (sanity, darling) and an engaged parent. The other picture is one of my intense, goddess-like mother and she’s baking. She’s in the kitchen and she smells like freshly baked cookies and creamy goodness. I’m just a kid pouting, hoping she’ll let me lick the spoon and the bowl out. She is washing her hands under running water in the sink and takes off her ring and puts it, as an afterthought, on the kitchen windowsill. She has dough on her wedding ring. My father will have to take it in again and the last time we went they didn’t want to take it. I pout. Oh, I am becoming so good at this.
It hurts to think and that space between dream and reality seems to inch closer to each other until it becomes blurred and leaves me teary-eyed, sobbing into my pillow while everyone else in the house is sleeping. I am left wondering is there a day that will come that will be marked in some way or other when I will be entirely useless. When the words won’t come to take over my life every second, when I will be a child in a grown woman’s body, an invalid dependent on other people, a caregiver’s instinct? It’s not the most natural feeling in the world to think about death all the time. Being morbid about it, imagining the funeral, what you will wear, what people will say in your absence, sing in the church, what colours the flowers will be that are placed on your grave?
Imagining your soul suddenly being displaced from your physical body, your heart, lungs, tissue, organs, all the biological elements, your spirit but sometimes it feels like the most natural vibration in the universe to me. Maybe because I’m a poet. I’ve got a lot of things on my mind. I’ve got a lot things to say. I’ve got the time. I’m born to play with meaning, the English language, trivialise and over-emphasise the importance of this word or that and translate the light energies of a word into something much darker. Picture this. Visions shrouded in varying shades of black if you will. A blurry vision, totally out of focus, features not quite there as if someone forgot to take his or her finger off the lens and then slowly, slowly coming into view.
Today we’re just being the Abbott’s. My mother is drunk with spirit, talking in tongues under her breath, spitting the words out as if they were olive stones licked with salt. My father is pensive and looks as if he is about to cry. My brother is secretly laughing at all of us. My sister is working in a bank in another city, far away from the ‘home fires’ and ‘stony pitfalls’ that I have to keep putting out. I treasure these times. Life is good and I have never been better. (I’m a treacherous liar, a deceitful type of person, a ‘fake’, a poser, two personalities intertwined, battling it out. The ‘extrovert’ wearing the ‘introverted me’ out. Don’t believe a word I say.) Today has been another great escape. The world rushes around me. Whirls inside my head alongside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, and Winehouse. I’m inside my head again. The only dark times that I’ve ever experienced from my early twenties to my early thirties is the time I spent in hospital. It smells like rain. It’s in the air. It has been all this afternoon.
Running on Lithium. Head made of stone sound the alarm for here hallucinations abound like driftwood, a gull sweeping through the sky overhead. In the photograph her skin is as dark as dry blood as she stands in her white dress. She is the virgin bride on the surface. Is she happy standing next to her groom for her features communicate nothing to me? But her groom is smiling in the picture while the path to my heart lies in ruins. It’s a path that reflects my standing in society. I am unmarried at thirty, having born no children from a womb that spirals in a rush of air, an echo of a flurry of blood for five days. When I speak now, it is in whispers in the company of other women who have crossed the boundary from youth into wifedom and motherhood effortlessly. I have been left behind and books, reading only gives up so much to the intellect of a woman (I have learned that this is not what other women covet).
It is a hollow and empty existence that I am engaged in, what am I living for then if not to spread myself across the flame of the dead, yielding myself to the flesh of their book histories. Once there were altered states of imagination and now becomes mine to claim. To shut myself in when the world becomes cold, to commit myself to hide away, (no matter how unbearable it becomes it still feels like home. It is a life to live even if it is always winter agents that come upon me. Ah, my comrades, they comfort me in my skin’s glowering pose and that which is my sanctuary, where I lay my head to rest, to rejuvenate my senses that informs the psychology that I lead with. The canvas of the sun that breaks me like vultures and death.
The sun is silent over the sea mocking me while gliding across my shoulder blades like the falling water of a waterfall. Just as there is a miracle of life in seawater so there is in translation. She eats like a bird keeping all her secrets to herself like the surface of carrion passing triumphantly into a blue oblivion where closure is self-imposed like the intimacy of letters in a novel language as thin as the width of a thread all thumbs. The weight of water has lightness in it. I’ve endured her harvest, my sister’s time away from me, and the fact that summers have stolen her away from me. It has emptied my heart of wonder, of spells, locked me instead into building a wall around me, where I wait for her in silence. I wait for her to release me from the voice inside my head that has carried me from our childhood years, now to our passage as grown women. She has taught me to hold onto the familiar, the passing of the heavier moments slipping into time, pools, and curves of momentum and motion.
The land that time simply forgets to acknowledge. She seems to perfect everything. Her being is not as wooden as mine and her manners as stiff, her words are not strange and challenging. Words do not cure her like they do me instead my sister fills me up with meaning, with her marked pure rituals that came on the brink of her womanhood. Time has marked us as a minority, liberated us from a scheming mother, a quiet and gentle father. Now our parents have faded into the background like voids in the inner space of a lucid dream.
Flowers infect thoughts of death in the cemetery bittersweet like rage, a strange, demented vocabulary as if it were the memory of ill health. My emptiness dies with the dawn and finally calm I heal old wounds. I call this progress, obstacles and challenges have ceased to exist for me because all I see when I dig is the blade of the sun, I have to endure for there is no other way out of the abyss except to jump over the black edge.
If I was writing an anthem for the youth where would I place meaning, how would utopia fit, the missing link, the most primal of screams, the poverty of the mind, that great divide between place and time. Where would a helpless poet transformed by ripples of a half-life of drowning in garlic, the familiar, the discovered plate find herself? Where would the poet frightened to death to be smitten, who instead embraces to be cured of it and having deciphered enough of it in lovely words threaded through her head realise that the world is not her home. It is only a meeting point where the courage for the broken is exposed and where it no longer mocks immortality, marriage or takes possession of physical space in an agonising waiting game. Female poets see things in interiors, as instruments that can cut through the blue, the picture, and details of what a house means. For them it’s a song.
And when I fell in love the feeling was like the windsong windskin in Birches, throughout the branches of the tree brushing strands of my hair into my face. Love felt like a great escape but when he left the hospital he took the love with him and I became a stature of a woman, fearless, cold and heartless. I had notches on a belt. When I walked in the park it was not wilderness yet. It was only wilderness that I had to transcend in imagination. In a way it was love and in another way it was just a picture of love going up in flames, going up in smoke. I pocketed them all like silver keys calling them my dream keys for the future.
But doesn’t everyone live in a dream world. They don’t live like me with lithium.
Catching tales of love with lithium. So I stare at my reflection. The messy and dirty unkempt hair and tell myself, that smile suits you well. It’s a ghost of the past sinking back into childhood where you made negotiations of the sea with your sunflower-yellow bucket and brick-red spade, your cone dripping on your sandy foot. And later the grammar and spells of gifted stars will rise above dunes like scrolling parachutes. But now it feels like winter. As if it has been winter all my life. Everything is dying around me. It feels as if I am dying to let go.
In my nightmares there is the Mysterious Skin of a Haunted Street. All my old haunts figure. A school hallway, walking to school, in a classroom with a hated teacher, a friend’s sweet face, the bully I feared the most on the playground. Going up then down is no fun. Really it was just a basket of hell as if I was sitting in the dark by myself watching bad television.
Every day at the hospital, I walk from room to room in the ward. It is a day in recovery. It can inspire. You’re free to dream. No one can say anything if you do. The bright lights of the big city can hardly be seen from anywhere on the grounds. High walls and trees shield me. You can go from feeling like the most capable human in the world and then when that goes you feel extraordinarily incompetent, the introverted nature of being ill assumes fierce control and you are left retiring and docile, cooling your heels. My bright shouts draw a red line of emotional self-destructive behaviour through me. It doesn’t take much to get me to a plane of being piloted by the life lessons depression leaves me with. There is something of a sweet dream about it. I’ve grown to love to fall into that sleep. It’s a skill.
Sometimes you think the journey of the illness renders you invisible like air in your addiction for the tiny ball of golden light of health. So even if you’re self-conscious of any small mistake you make, it makes you feel beautifully humanoid as if you weren’t constructed by glorious organs, perfect tissue, cells, platelets, blood and bone and the image of genes in a jungle of veins. The doctors would like to think of change from being ill to an undeniable state of physical wellness was instant but I think that happened for the most part only in their dreams. Here, in this nameless, shapeless country, there were scenes of looking out into darkness, badly drawn addiction, and the act of alcoholism that had played a role in someone’s life, a life of a family. Sufferers and victims and survivors bonded over a meal, gossip, the chit-chat of small talk. We were all joined together in the pursuit of becoming an outpatient. Of escaping what so easily we had come to think of as a route to follow to reality, normalcy.
I was a discoverer of the fractured known and the terrible force of the unknown. The flow I had to come to grips with clasped battle lines. For the most part I felt like a pin in a pincushion, snow falling and given room to grow spreading itself across the landscape.
The jewel of mental health is to keep your spirit intact. You are at the mercy of the honesty of the illness. You’re always curious to succeed even though you’re at your most fragile. Humanity, normality still had the power to seduce. I had not completely abandoned that trail of thought. Hunger and hell became equals. The colour of the day was usually intensely blue (when I felt the depression articulate its nightmarish self), white (when I spent most of the day reading paperbacks, feeling acutely medicated and that it was most unnatural feeling that I had ever felt) or red. That was when I couldn’t put my rage and frustration and pack it into the life force of words. The only thing I could do was storing it up in reserves. It gave me energy. But that energy was temporary like a fuse that blows or a spark.
When I left the hospital all I wanted to do was read books that doctors had written about depression, that pharmaceutical companies printed in their bright little pamphlets filled with colour and magazine models demonstrating ‘sadness’, ‘family life affected by depression’ and the symptoms. I could tick them all off one by one. In no uncertain terms I was depressive. I read books on depression in which the detailed, uncompromising text left me reeling and scribbling away with a compelling and affecting urgency. I picked up memoirs or books on the lives of creative people who had suffered just like I had. I always found a vision, a better version of myself being reflected back at me.
The bottom of depression sinks further and further away into an abyss of nothingness. There is nothing I can do about it except stare into space until my eyes hurt and start to water or close them and wish the spell away. Once I was a city type of person rushing everywhere I needed to go but it soon paled. Poetry never did. And although poets were people whose lives where often not sanguine or bliss I believed in them, worshipped them. I discovered there were walls everywhere. To keep me in, protect me, to keep the death of me out.
I watch my weight constantly as if I’m under surveillance. I pick at my food. Nothing is good for me. I swear I eat in little bites as if it would help me in some way as if there is no dietician watching over my shoulder at the portion size. I don’t keep it down for long. My throat burns as I run water in the bathroom. Nothing is nourishing or filling enough. To me I never had a healthy relationship with food. I devoured the heaps of food on my plate with delight, savouring every crumb. All through high school I was skinny. But the world when it turns on me soon everything begins to hurt like the plague.
Why couldn’t all my eccentricities translate itself into something that was not touched by madness? But there is a powerful triumph in all of this – I can still write. It is my Source.
I wished I could shrug off blood, sweat and tears in high heels, with alluring self-confidence in an office space like my sister. But that is not me. It would not increase my knowledge of this planet; make me worthy of being in competition with my contemporaries.
It is disheartening feeling, thinking that you are never good enough. Never perfect. It came from a padded childhood and the reward of that had already shown up in my life. Already I had convinced myself I was less than zero, just a blurred negative. Imagine thinking so little of yourself that you thought being self-destructive was redemptive in some way.
When the world went black and the sky became hard, wrapped in stone, magic would course through me, my fingertips tingling, promising me a slight reprieve.