Steve Fataar: Outside The Machine

The first time I met Steve Fataar I was 16 and he was a legend.

Wearing a long multi-coloured patchwork leather coat and boots, he held my hand for a long time in both of his and looked down at me, saying nothing.  That first encounter – which impressed me though few words were spoken – lingered as a lesson in what it meant to have presence.    The shimmering star-flooded sky seemed an apt backdrop, that Durban night at the Open Air Theatre as Steve and his band played Jackson Browne’s Everyman building up the mesmerising rolling thunder of drums to the final crescendo.  The song’s momentum pulled the crowd into a vortex of sound that kept us all in breathless suspense until we exhaled as one into wild applause.

Today, almost 40 years later, he’s standing at my gate.

‘I don’t breathe too easy anymore,’ he says as he hands me his heavy guitar case so I can carry it inside for him.  It has cost him to walk from the car to my gate. He smiles, ‘but hey, I can still sing!’

He’s here in Cape Town for a number of gigs and he’s invited me to sing with him, a song we’d performed often together several decades ago –  Dylan’s Mozambique.

Steve Fataar Durban KZN campus c 1981

Nina & Steve singing Mozambique at KZN University Concert c. 1981

 In the mid-70’s Steve traveled to Mozambique on a road trip with friends.  They slept on beaches, playing their way across the border and through road blocks.  On one of their adventures, they came across a fortress-like crenellated building with barred windows.  Curious, they looked for a way in – and discovered they were trying to enter a prison.   The guards had long since fled, believing Frelimo was on its way,  but the two remaining prisoners continued to lock themselves dutifully back in after going out for supplies, taking care of the place, not realising the war was over and they could go home.

Dave Barkham

The Prison in Mozambique Photo: Dave Barkham

In those days Steve wore an iconic bright red poncho and he shows me a recently discovered photo of him wearing it, guitar slung round his back as he’s peering into one of the windows of the jail.  Now 50 years later he says, someone remarked the photo would make a great album cover.

‘I like to think,’ says Steve chuckling ‘that somewhere on one those beaches, there was a young Jewish man writing a song about Mozambique the same time we were there.’ (Dylan first released the song on his album Desire in 1976)

We’re sitting in my lounge and as we talk, Steve’s idly pulling a tapestry of tunes out of his favourite battered nylon string acoustic guitar. I’m remembering playing music in Durban decades ago; Rapson Rd, Overport  Rd and attending word-of-mouth  impromptu concerts in the Valley View house.  Those houses are now long gone.

Practice sessions were ramshackle as the commune houses themselves, wreathed in the earth-smoke aroma of cigarettes, marijuana and rooibos tea brewing on the stove. If my memory of those times is a pleasant drifting haze, there were vivid and sharply lit moments too. The astonishing never to-be-repeated guitar riffs, ringing vocal harmonies that hung like bright resonating bells riveted in the air, a staccato muttering drum sequence that kept everything stitched together.  It was a kind of loose spaciousness that Steve created which allowed music to move through freely, while at the same time stay held in place by a collective desire to capture it alive.

Memories of Steve’s younger brother Issy surface in the melodies Steve’s threading together.  Issy’s sheer wizardry, the way he drew enchanted chords out of his guitar with that wide-eyed smile of surprised delight at his own genius  is what we’re both remembering – both missing –  right now.  Issy and I had done a couple of our own shows too at the time. The longing is ephemeral, hollow as the feeling of empty space, a silence that shouldn’t be there. Issy was just 44 when he died of leukaemia.

Issy Fataar

Issy Fataar c.1981

‘And Abby?’ I ask ‘what became of Abby Joyce?’ Abby and I had sung a couple of soulful songs together with the band then.   I had had a huge crush on the beautiful young Sydenham man with a voice that ripped my heart out every time he sang. In my fantasies, with all the privileged blind arrogance of a white girl, I carelessly shrugged off the hazards of South Africa’s immorality act. This was traumatic territory Steve and his girlfriend Marianne were traversing themselves at the time.

Now Steve tells me Abby had become well known as a performer in Melbourne until he too died in 2008.

Zane Adams?  Is he still around?  Zane with his soaring vocal showmanship, his sexy-sleek elegant stage strut.  Steve goes quiet. I thought you knew.  Mark Park, Charl Phyfer, the list goes on of people we once knew. Now gone.

steve Fataar, Issy Fataar

Steve, Zane, Issy

But we’re still here.  And it’s time to rehearse.

‘I’m gonna have to learn this song all over again!’ laughs Steve as he searches his guitar, looking for old chords, excavating the tune.  He comes upon it suddenly, stumbling on it like an ancient seam of gold, the old familiarity of it gleaming.  We fall easily into the harmony, the words coming back to us, returning verse by verse like slightly forgetful migrating birds.  We go through it just once, no repeats or bridges.

‘That’s it!’ exclaims Steve. ‘We got it down.’  Really? After going through it once? I’m left unsettled.  Too much uncertainty for me.

He hands me his guitar so he can take a call.  It feels warm, used, loved.  I start playing a few chords, riffs my fingers remember all on their own. I haven’t picked up my guitar in 2 years.  Once he’s done with the call, we talk about me doing a song on my own.

‘How about the one you’re playing right now?’ says Steve. ‘It’s beautiful! In fact, I’m gonna ask Errol to play it with you.’

Right then and there he calls Errol Dyers.

‘Hey Errol! You know this song….?’

He holds the phone in front of me. ‘Sing a few bars, Nina…’

I’ve heard of the guitar maestro Errol Dyers of course, but I’ve never met him.  I play the opening and sing a verse of Manhattan Transfer’s Scotch & Soda into Steve’s phone.

‘You got that?’ he asks Errol. All I can hear is muffled static in response.  ‘Yeah, Errol says he already knows the song … ok great…. We’re gonna do that one too.’ It’s rehearsal Fataar style – riding the wave that’s here now, a singular trust in the inventiveness of the moment.

Now Steve’s playing an eloquent dark chord sequence, elegiac, somehow wrenching.   ‘Here’s a song I wrote in 1969. I dunno why I never recorded it. And now I quite like it. All those years I coulda been playing it.  It’s called Dove.’

Dawn sees a dove

lift its wings to the sun

While a leaf gently glides

to the ground

 Love lifts her head

Smiles a smile and sighs a sigh

While the dew on the grass

goes to sleep

Why do I suddenly want to weep?   The way the melody cuts open my chest is like surgery.  A clot of emotion that needs release.   Steve’s chortling quietly to himself. ‘It’s about an accidental acid trip I went on. I was in California in some house we visited. This woman just popped something in my mouth saying, here, you’ll enjoy this. Turns out it’s Orange Sunshine. Suddenly the world came alive in a whole new way…. But man, after 18 hours you’re kinda longing for it to stop, y’know.  Like the stairway to heaven has turned into the road to hell.”  Even as he speaks, Steve’s listening to his own playing like there’s a message hidden inside. His head tilted to the side as if maybe listening at just the right angle of obliqueness will give him the answer he’s been waiting for.

It’s a conversation and the part I can’t hear is the part I feel.

A week later I arrive at the Alma Café at the appointed time ready to do a sound check. But the doors are locked and through the windows I see the chairs still piled up on the tables.   I briefly wonder if I have the right night. I wonder up and down the road and a while later a young woman arrives, cigarette in hand.  She lets me in and I tune my guitar while she energetically sweeps and then washes the floors, cigarette now clamped between her lips as she works. The minutes tick by.  My mouth is dry. She’s taking the chairs off the tables. It’s just an hour until show time.   I have no idea how this evening is going to work out and no one has arrived.  I’m clinging to the idea that at least Errol knows the song I’m about to play with him without a single rehearsal.

It’s only later, when I’m already on stage in front of a full house that I find out the truth. I’m telling the story of how I came to be playing with Errol when we’ve only just met for the first time.  I get to the part about Steve asking Errol whether he knows the song after I’d played him the first verse over the phone.  And Steve interjects with “Yeah, and then Errol said to me ‘Well I do now!’ ”

Not that I need have worried. Errol played seamlessly, with an attentiveness to the shape of the song that was not so much embellishment as a fresh restructuring, his guitar revealing new arrangements I could never have imagined. Even as he played, I was aware of him listening intently. Not to me, but to the idea of the song.  Reinventing what he heard through his guitar.

The least trustworthy part of the whole thing was me.  We could have had any number of rehearsals and that would always have remained true.  Where Steve and Errol were fluent deep-diving inhabitants of that soul-sea of sound, I would always be one who’d just learned to swim on the surface. In these waters, my classical training kept me afloat, it didn’t teach me how to ride the unpredictability of waves.

Nina & Errol Dyers at The Alma Café Nov 2016 Photo: Alex Boyle

Nina & Errol Dyers at The Alma Café Nov 2016 Photo: Alex Boyle

That evening, Steve’s friend Dave Barkham had arrived with a painting tucked under his arm.  The background is a muted whitewashed wall. In the foreground, a man wearing a red poncho, Gibson slung around his back, is peering  into a jail-room window.  The words ‘Knocking on Heaven’s door’ in pale blue cursive written alongside.  When the time comes to sing Mozambique,  it’s this story of a painting of a photograph that stands on stage in silent chorus, the whole room echoing with history.  It had been Dave who’d taken the original photograph and he’s gifted Steve with the painting.

Steve Fataar Dave Barkham  

The original photograph of Steve in Mozambique Photo: Dave Barkham

 

Painting by Dave Barkham

Painting by Dave Barkham

From the moment I saw that painting, I wanted it,’ says Steve when the song is done. ‘Thanks so much Dave.‘

‘That’s ok,’ replies Dave from the audience. ‘It’ll just cost you an album.’

The past has a way of claiming its dues from the present. The songs are waiting.  The cover is done. And it’s a fitting image: a man with a guitar looking through the bars of a prison window from the outside. Steve was never inside the machine.

Whether or not the album ever becomes reality is immaterial.  It’s by living from this place of freedom that Steve Fataar will always be legend.

Steve (Abduragman, Marnie) Fataar,  together with his brothers, Ricky and Edries (Brother),  was one of the founding members of the band The Flames (aka:The Flame formed in 1963) which became one of South Africa’s most famous bands of the 60’s and early 70’s recording a total of 5 albums and 15 singles.  

 The Flames were “discovered” by Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys while performing in Blaise, a London club in 1969. One of the first bands to be signed to the Beach Boys’ label, Brother Records, The Flames recorded their first internationally-released album, The Flame, the following year.  

 The Flames disbanded shortly afterwards with Steve and Edries returning home to Durban, South Africa while Ricky and drummer Blondie Chapman joined the Beach Boys’ touring band.  Steve went on to build a music career playing gigs collaboratively with a host of well-known South African musicians around the country. Today at 74, Steve feels deep gratitude for being able to continue doing what he loves best, playing live music with other musicians for audiences who love and appreciate the magic they create together.

Purchase albums here.

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undressed in aachen

Undressed in Aachen

I’m in a tropical downpour.  At first the rain is soft and warm but then it starts pelting down heavily, the rain needle-sharp and coming at me from all directions in cool streams.  It stops abruptly and I step out of the curved tiled space I’m standing in and consider where I will go next in Aachen’s famous and fabulous Carolus Mineral Spa. The Tropical Shower is just the beginning, and here I am, naked in public once more.

The spa brochure tells me there are sound health reasons for requiring guests to go unbekleidert in the sauna areas.   While it’s acceptable to walk around in a bathrobe and waterproof sandals, complete nudity is obligatory within the shower areas, saunas, steam rooms and in the pools.  It goes on to say that for those women who prefer greater privacy, there is a very pleasant Feminarium sauna and steam room, however the majority of the spa offerings are open to both men and women together.  And it’s this which makes me pause.  Apart from segregated sports changing rooms, public nudity is unknown in South Africa.

But I am a visitor in a strange city, I know only the 2 friends I am staying with, Michaela and Gabriele, and the idea of being naked in front of strangers doesn’t seem all that troubling to me.   In fact, looking around on this very quiet Monday afternoon, I see mostly elderly men and women, walking around quite uninhibitedly naked.  Their nudity is neutral and has no sexual undertones; it all feels very unthreatening and gemütlich.

I start with the indoor saunas and select one which offers an intriguing AufgussHoney Unction.  It starts at 4 30 and I see the time is just after.  I step inside quickly and immediately 12 pairs of naked eyes swivel towards me and then narrow with disapproval.   I’m late, I know it. Rapidly I find a place, lay out my towel and sit down. Looking around me, I see men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, some on their own, some in couples. They look vulnerable in their nakedness, their skin glowing palely in the twilight mist of the sauna.

Why do they all keep staring at me like that?

 Then I realise: I’m still wearing my bathrobe and I begin to appreciate that context is everything.  It’s the exact opposite of those dreams when you’re at a formal business meeting and look down to see you’re in some mortifying state of undress.  I only just have time to tear off my bathrobe and scrunch it into a ball behind me, when a Spa assistant enters bearing a tray.  “Please put your feet on your towels,” she advises.  She appears to be addressing the space above our heads but she’s really talking to me for I see I still have my rubber shoes on. Embarrassed, I shove them out of sight beneath the wooden slatted bench I’m on and pull my feet up onto my towel.

Now she hands out small containers filled with pure honey, mixed with finely crushed almond shells.  The honey, she explains, has excellent skin beautifying properties and the pulverised almond shells make a wonderful skin scrub.

As soon as we’ve all smeared ourselves with honey (some of us more thoroughly than others; the grey-haired well-built man lying next to me with knees splayed apart has spent a long slow time voluptuously rubbing the honey mixture into his hairy nether region), the assistant returns with a bowl of herb scented water which she throws onto the hot sauna stones. Immediately, a delicious cloud of steam erupts and we’re all bathed for several minutes in wafts of herb-scented mist.  It’s so hot, my outbreath sears my upper lip and whenever I blink, my eyeballs feel scorched.  With the air hot and redolent with the sweet stickiness of honey, I close my eyes and lie back, relishing the warmth of honey melting into my skin, inhaling the steamy green fragrance of herbs and  begin to fret about my shoes dissolving into a rubbery puddle beneath me.

After 15 minutes of honey-saturated bliss, I retrieve my well-baked but still recognisable shoes and emerge in search of a shower.

Undressed in Aachen 2

Outside, there’s a notice informing me of the next treatment in 30 minutes.  But penis-fondler is idling around too and I decide to give Yoghurt and Tropical Fruit Unction a miss. There’s so much else still to explore and I head off outdoors.

*******

In the Baltic Saunaland, the décor is Finnish stone and timber-cabin style and the sauna rooms are situated in pretty flower-filled gardens where the roofs have grasses and wildflowers growing on them.  I decide on a sauna called Bakoven.  The name suggests a particularly hot sauna but I haven’t taken into account the German penchant for literal-minded practicality.  I discover it has in fact a baking oven built right inside it. The notice outside announces that in a short while Brödchen will be baked and whoever happens to be there will receive a freshly baked snack straight from the oven. It sounds delightful!

Having hung up my bathrobe (I’m learning fast), I open the door and instantly freeze – if such a thing is possible at 75°C.  What I see makes every instinct scream at me to turn around and flee at once.  Inside the small sauna, 3 enormous naked men are talking boisterously.  Two are shaven-headed and heavily tattooed all over:  the one, dark, swarthy and Hispanic looking is covered in a jumbled cacophony of designs, the other is ginger-bearded and menacingly illustrated with a huge leering skull on one shoulder. The third man is blonde with a Wagnerian Norse look to him – he’s clearly built to take medieval armour –  and has only one tattoo on his chest in the form of a gigantic lock over his heart. He also has two large solid black stretcher flesh plugs in his earlobes and a flaming gothic dragon winging its way down one thigh.  It feels as if I’ve stumbled into the Götterdammerung version of a Druglord’s den and much as I remind myself I’m in a fake Baltic timber-cabin called Bakoven with breadrolls in the oven for godssakethe cognitive dissonance continues to jangle.

The thing is, I’m standing in the doorway and can’t back out now without feeling ridiculous. So assuming an air of worldly assuredness and with all of my naked middle-aged years cringing, I step inside.  The Druglords register my entrance with barely a flick of a sideways glance and continue their conversation.  I try to arrange myself as far away as possible and settle down to eavesdrop since I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.  Thor the Norseman is speaking and Swarthy Dark and Ginger-beard listen intently.

“So there was this time where I took a really big tough guy into the sauna and he was like hey, I’m so tough, I can take this heat, this is easy. But you see, he hadn’t drunk enough water beforehand during the day and there he was showing off how tough he is.  Then he refused to leave when it was getting too hot for him and eventually he gets up, goes out the door and the next thing, I hear this big crash, and boom – he’s down, fainted from overheating!” Thor sniggers and slaps his great gothic thigh.  “Hope you guys have drunk enough water today!”  The other men laugh uneasily.

“Man, I am so hot” mutters Swarthy Dark under his breath shaking his head as sweat streams down his face.  He’s the man closest to me and his tattoos gleam in a sheen of sweat, shining with iridescence as he shifts uncomfortably on his towel.  “This is my first time in a sauna and man…I don’t think I’ve drunk enough water… man it is hot!”  He casts a queasy smile in my direction. I return the smile, uncertainly.  Am I being invited into the conversation?  I’m unsure of sauna etiquette with Druglords.

A trim good-looking man enters and Swarthy Dark darts a longing look at the door feeling the brief drop in temperature but then visibly checks himself. Nah. He’s tough.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” says Ginger-beard  “but every one of my girlfriends loved saunas and was also a vegan.”  At which point all 3 Druglords begin discussing favourite vegan restaurants they have been to.  Some ironic grinning thing prods at me inside as I listen. Vegan?  It’s painfully obvious my assumptions about heavily tattooed men are flummoxed by such placid dining preferences.

“Man! It’s too hot! I just gotta get outta here!” blurts Swarthy Dark suddenly and bolts out the door.  The other two smirk at each other.

“Well I haven’t heard a crash yet, so I guess he must be ok,” says Thor after a moment’s silence.  Ginger-beard mops sweat from his face. “You think maybe we should go check up on him?”  There’s a note of hopefulness in his voice.

“Yeah, sure!” says Thor knowingly.  And both Druglords depart, leaving me alone with Handsome Forty-something.  The oven clicks with heat and I think with pleasure of the rolls baking inside.  An electric mechanism now hums softly, activating a copper bowl which has been collecting drops of water, moves it slowly along a copper rod, tilts the bowl so the water gets poured onto the sauna hot stones, raising the heat.  A brief hissing and then silence.

“So,” says Handsome Forty-Something who is sitting on the level above where I’m lying.  “You must be Nina from Cape Town.”

I think if I can survive being naked in the presence of Druglords, I can survive being stunned by this new turn of events. I turn my head towards him.

“How,” I say very carefully “do you know this?” He laughs.

“Ah, they announced it in today’s Aachen newspapers!” I lie there bemused.

“No, really.” I say.  “How the hell do you know who I am?”  He chuckles again.

“Actually, I bumped into my friend Gabriele outside on my way in and she told me I’d find you in here.”

Hah! I smile. Wicked Gabriele.

Feeling at a disadvantage, I sit up. “Then since you already know who I am, perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself?” He grins.

“I’m Georg.”  And we shake hands. Do I need to say that this is the first time I’ve ever met someone socially stark naked?

I notice I’m holding my towel in front of me, suddenly shy. Absurdly, it seems I can manage being naked in front of strangers, but the moment we’ve introduced ourselves I have to cover up.  Are my breasts suddenly more modest now they’re attached to Nina from Cape Town?  Am I sexualising nudity and would I feel the same meeting another woman?

As Georg and I chat, a Spa staff member is taking hot steaming bread rolls out of the oven and putting them into a basket.  He offers them to us.  They are perfectly formed, darling little rolls sprinkled with some salt and look adorable nestled in their basket.

Georg and I exchange the usual social histories – our respective professions, our travels, our shared acquaintances and once again, I’m struck by the quick intimacy that being naked encourages. The social cues of clothing are absent and there’s no image to uphold. Together, we nibble on delicious Brödchen and laugh, bantering pleasantries back and forth for all the world as if we’re at some cocktail party.

“It’s too hot. I need to get out of here.” I say after a while. I’ve finally reached my own limit for absorbing heat.

Once outside, I stand in the cool refreshing air and catch sight of the Druglords disporting themselves in the outdoor pool. Even at their most playful splashing about in the water, their tattoos writhe and twist, projecting an aggressive rippling confidence, an unmistakeable aura of sleek, dangerous masculine power.

Georg emerges from the sauna and casts an appraising eye over the Druglords.

“At least one of them is gay,” he observes and laughs merrily at my doubt when he tells me which one, for secretly I believe I know better.

*******

I end my day at the Odorium, a fragrant dimly lit sanctuary where herbal and floral scents are released into the warm air as you relax on comfortable reclining chairs.

And I contemplate all the different ways we undress ourselves, what we allow others to see and what we keep covered up. I see how people wear even their nudity as they might their clothing; it can be just as much of a disguise.  Naked, we may feel exposed or empowered, but we can just as easily hide in our nakedness.  And while the naked body shows something of our inner being, I think we say more in how and when we choose to cover ourselves, hide what we don’t want to be seen.  Wrapping my turquoise oriental flower print bathrobe around me, I wonder what I reveal to perfect strangers when I write about how I got undressed in Aachen.

I suspect it may be more than I imagine. And perhaps mean a lot less than I think.

 

 

travels in a story without borders

dinner combo

I never thought I’d do this. But it was because of my enjoyable interactions with Misha which got me thinking about how planes, trains and the internet connect us to people who live elsewhere and yet enter our lives bringing in a whole new atmosphere. This story begins with food, but it’s also about what happens when people’s inner worlds collide and we find ourselves tipped into a new country.   

We were expecting an interesting guest for dinner – a visitor who’d arrived from the Netherlands.  He’s a well-travelled medical doctor who now does wonderful work in organic farming development.  A man who has met both kings, queens and farmers in remote rural areas in the course of his work, and who was instrumental in pioneering the first Dutch health insurance scheme in the 1980’s to accept alternative practices such as homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture.

And being the cook of the family, I begin to muse on that maddeningly unresolved-until-the-last-minute daily question: what to make for dinner?

Short on time, I look in the fridge to see what remains of the weekly organic Harvest of Hope veggie box we subscribe to: a pack of gooseberries, an avocado. Sweet potatoes. Some lettuce leaves.  Dash to the shops to buy other ingredients. And what emerges is this: a sweet potato recipe remembered from reading a foodie magazine years ago.  Now I’m no good with quantities so please don’t ask me. Just sweet potatoes – I like the orange Beauregard best,  chopped and baked with a little olive oil and salt in the oven covered until just tender and then uncovered for 30 minutes to brown-roast them a little.

Meanwhile mix a good wedge of butter – oh gosh, I don’t know – 4-6 tablespoons? – with a bunch of freshly chopped chives, a grated thumb of ginger, the zest of one orange, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and some salt.  Add this mixture to the sweet potatoes as soon as they come out of the oven and let it stand so the butter melts and the flavours meld.   When you taste this, you will want to say to yourself: mmmm it’s the garlic which makes it so… no…wait… actually it’s the orange zest….although no …  really it’s the interesting addition of the ginger… and of course it’s no one of those ingredients. It’s in the mix.

The Japanese have a wonderful expression for the indescribable good taste of something that isn’t just salty, sweet, sour or bitter: it’s a fifth taste they’ve called umami. Roughly translated as yummy deliciousness, or a pleasant savouriness.

It looked so pretty when it came out of the oven I decided to take a picture. Which made me think of Misha and his wonderful blog the poor man’s kitchen. I’ve enjoyed reading his recipe stories and have even tried a few of the Japanese ones myself – albeit taking great improvisational liberties in following them. We’ve pleasantly exchanged a comment or two. But here’s the thing; it’s because of those exchanges that I’m writing about food,  something I never thought I’d do.

Sweet potato dish

But that’s not all.

It seemed we had a visitor at the table who knew how to tell a good tale and the story which unfolds is unexpectedly personal. Riveting. Deep. By the time he’s half-way done we have all stopped eating.

Our guest pauses in his narrative and takes a mouthful of guacamole with warm melted cheese-drizzled nachos. He pronounces it to be very good.  The crunch of the nachos a satisfying complement to the soft creaminess of avocado.  This somehow gives us all permission to eat some more, spellbound as we have been with the story.  I have – weirdly I know but it was because of the avocado in the fridge – chosen this along with a fresh salad and a dish of olives to accompany the sweet potatoes.  The guacamole I make, with its usual ingredients of avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, is probably not to be reconciled with its Mexican origins including as it does dried black olives, fresh diced baby tomatoes, roughly chopped piquant coriander leaves and slices of soft goat’s cheese. The trick – taught to me many years ago by a friend –  is to mix these ingredients together very minimally so the avocado is still chunky and the different tastes – and colours – don’t get smudged into each other.

Guacamole 4 1500 x1125

Once told, his story lingers and although we began the evening as relative strangers,  it now feels as if we’ve stepped over the borders of each other’s lives. As the dishes are cleared and I prepare the next course,  I think about how we open a window to ourselves in our stories.  And perhaps because our guest is a man of a certain age who has traveled a long way bringing his story with him,  I am reminded of how another stranger offered me just such a vivid glimpse into his life that remains with me still.

On the platform waiting for the train into London at Heathrow, I stand next to a man from Bahrain.  I know he’s from Bahrain because I’ve overheard him telling someone on his phone that he left there yesterday.  He looks like a business-man, expensively dressed in a suit and coat, briefcase and carrier bag in one hand, his suitcase on wheels standing next to him. Although he has grey hair and appears to be in his mid-60’s, he has a smooth olive complexion and despite his dark melancholy eyes an air of anxious excitement.

“Are you going to Paddington Station?” he asks me.  I am and we exchange the relieved smiles of uncertain travellers who have confirmed with each other they are in the right place after all, and if they’re not, well there’s now at least two of them who have got it wrong.

He takes a peek inside the carrier bag he’s holding as if to check that what he’s bought is still the right thing, and impulsively shows me the purchase of an ipad he’s made at Duty Free.  “For my daughter, ”  he says and his eyes shine with a sudden intense reverence. “The one I thought I’d lost for 42 years,”  he adds, a huge smile of sheer happiness breaking open his face.  And now he has my full attention.  So it seems quite natural that when it arrives, we should sit next to each other on the Heathrow Express as it speeds us towards evening in London.

He begins. “Her mother and I…well…”  and then pauses, glancing at me as if to check with himself that he should be even telling me such intimate things.  Something in my face must have reassured him because he continues.

“It was not a successful romance.  So we parted ways and then she let me know she was pregnant. You can imagine,  I was beside myself.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this child of mine.  When it was born, she told me I had a daughter, only she refused to let me see her. I missed so much.” His face softens with regret, crumples momentarily.

“It was as if she were punishing me somehow, for the relationship not working out. That’s what I think now of course. At the time all I could see was her irrationally refusing to let me see my own child.”  He sighs heavily. Looks out of the train window at the shadowy landscape rushing by. Our reflections against the darkness.

“I begged her, you know. But she continued to refuse and one day she was no longer there. She simply disappeared and I lost all contact with her.”

He tells me of his ongoing struggles, his frustrations as he tried everything in his power to locate his daughter. “ Eventually, after 40 years of searching, I just gave up.”   We are silent for a moment.

“And then what happened?”

“What happened? Well, then a miracle happened!” he laughs at the memory.  “Two years later when I’d given up all hope, I receive a letter out of the blue.  It’s from her…my daughter!  Can you believe it?   For all those years I was searching for her, she was  looking for me too!”   And his eyes fill up suddenly.  Now we both have tears in our eyes and we look away from each other.  When he speaks again his voice sounds muffled.

Almost to himself, as if he can hardly believe his own ears he murmurs “and so of course I  immediately jumped on the next plane to the UK.”  He looks at me now, eyes bright. “Once I reach London I still have a way to travel to get all the way to Liverpool. That’s where she lives now. ”

At Paddington we say our farewells.  Incredibly, a brass band is playing on the platform as if to welcome us and my friend is waiting to greet me.   I turn to watch the man from Bahrain as he walks away clutching his carrier bag, his pale trench coat flying in the wind of departing trains.  He half turns then as if remembering something he forgot to say, as if he thinks he may have left something behind.

And  in a way he has.  I feel tilted, held for a moment at an odd angle to the earth by what he has told me. Because although he could not possibly have known this, he chose to tell his story to a woman who was exactly 42 when she went in search of and found her own unknown Japanese father. She too found him by writing just such a letter, a letter out of the blue.

We affect each other – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly and often profoundly.  We need only walk into a room to change the mood of it. And even when we hurt each other, there’s redemption in it. We learn. We shift. The pain presses us into adopting a new position.  It’s just that sometimes we forget how much even the smallest of what we say and do can impact on another in a big way.

Stories have a way of meandering; they divide and multiply, straying along unforeseen paths ending up in the strangest territory.  How could the man from Bahrain ever have imagined a part of him would end up here.

And let’s not forget the gooseberries. They were cooked lightly with sugar and then blended with custard and thick cream to make gooseberry fool.  At the end of the meal the only sound was the clink of spoons scraping wistfully against empty dessert dishes.

There was nothing left over.

he’s not dying, only living more truly

Photo: Mike Visagie © www.mikevisagie.com

Photo: Mike Visagie © http://www.mikevisagie.com

There is a well-known Sufi saying which goes ” die before you die.”

How to make sense of this? I believe when we die, we leave behind only what we no longer need. We let go of this narrow earthly reality and go on to live in the wider truth of the spiritual world.  So too in life, if we can die to all that keeps us small and caged, die to our clever distractions keeping us from living purposefully, we might live the broader life our hearts and souls most long for.

I write this in tribute to my courageous 26 year old nephew who left us 3 days ago after a 5 year long struggle with  bone cancer, surviving numerous operations, gruelling chemotherapy and radiation treatment, an amputation of his shoulder and arm earlier this year, as well as a lifetime of profound deafness.

Despite tremendous discomfort, pain and ultimately a ravaged body, he met his life and what it brought him without flinching or self-pity, only open-eyed acceptance and steadfast clarity.  He was an extraordinary beautiful young man who was able to discern and set aside immediately all that was irrelevant and be guided only by where love took him, squeezing every drop of joyous juice he could out of his life to its fullest until his very last moment.

And then he flew.

When someone close is gravely ill or dying, something inside us softens and we’re able to say and do things we might shy away from otherwise.  How much more inclined we are to be gentle with one another, to say thank you,  I’m sorry, forgive me and I love you when we have a dying loved one in our midst.  We can more easily admit: I’m in pain. I’m in a difficult place. This is not easy. Please help me.  even as the dying have no other option but to be undeniably honest about what is happening in their lives.

As we draw together, our hearts rise to the surface of our lives instead of being walled away and armoured and for a short time we can tell the truth about ourselves.   Suddenly certain things no longer matter as much, things we felt strongly about before – our dignity perhaps, our pride, being right or nursing our grievances.  Our priorities change and everything unimportant falls away.  Being there and present for the dying person becomes paramount and we value above all else what we can now be least certain of: the life of the beloved person who is leaving us.

This is the gift of death and dying.  It strips us bare and brings us to our truth in a way little else can. Grief makes us honest.

Some weeks ago I wrote my nephew a letter which I am grateful he was able to receive in full consciousness. It may give a brief glimpse into the man he was and always will be as he lives on in my memory.

Dearest Keagan, I can’t imagine what you’re going through, facing what your life is now.  Nor do I have any idea if you’re about to leave this world or not. 

Miracles are always possibilities we haven’t yet believed in until they happen. 

What I do know is that when you go, you will do so whole. When I think of you, it’s as if your physical body fades and I see the essence of you. It is one of the many qualities I have always noticed  and been drawn to in you, the way your spirit shines through, never more so than lately. 

I guess it’s usual to think of your deafness as a handicap, a barrier to communications in the normal world.  But I think deafness can also remove a barrier between you and others.  You aren’t distracted  by how people present themselves through the words they wear.  Instead you see people as they are being.  I believe this is the gift you give to people around you – you see them truly. You aren’t deflected by the stories they tell about themselves, you just see them in a very pure way. That’s a powerfully attractive quality to have and why you are loved by so many.  While others get caught up in each other’s speeches,  you touch people with a generosity of feeling in a way not possible with words. That’s been my experience of you. 

I’m not wanting to diminish the tremendous difficulties you struggle with.     I know these are real too. 

When you were with us some years ago, I wrote a short poem about you and your mother.  Actually, it’s not so much a poem as a direct quote of your words which you sent her via text.  It’s called WHAT MATTERS, because it seemed to me then already that you had caught on to what’s important about life, both in the large awe-inspiring seriousness of it as well as the small wonder of it.  Here it is:   

WHAT MATTERS 

Finally she had to leave him for the night. 

She left him in the hospital with 

her love
the cancer
some fruit 

And he sent back a message 

thank you
the pear
so delicious

You see, in choosing to savour  that one small precious moment in the face of so much else, you showed yourself able to live fully in the vast and splendid mystery of life.    I love that about you. The truth is we’re all on the same journey you’re on Keagan.  You bring our awareness to it so that we might learn to live as truly as you do now, to find out what matters.

It is the work of heartbreak to soften our edges, break us open. We need only allow our hearts to be broken. There is true purpose in that.

a romantic man

It's not what you look at which matters

There’s no such thing as a romantic man.

However hard we try to conjure him up. We’ll write him into novels, films and our darkest noir erotic fantasies. We want him alright.  God we want him. But the most romantic part is that we can’t have him. He’ll always be the one on the horizon, never stacking the dishwasher after dinner.

To the man reading this, I know you are the exception; you couldn’t live without romance and I so like that about you. But on the whole, we women are blind to the true romance of men’s nature, it’s invisible to us.  Although sometimes we’re able to catch a glimpse of it in our romantic encounters.

Caught in a sudden torrential downpour she runs into the tiny Izakaya under a Tokyo bridge and orders a sake mojito. The place is set in grey concrete. The lantern outside is dingy, a faded red.  He arrives only minutes after her, softens inside as he sees her still dishevelled from the rain, flustered. He doesn’t know she’s lost the precious moments she was looking forward to, the pleasurable agony of waiting for him. Their eyes meet and everything slows and at the same time bursts brilliantly into life. They can’t breathe. Out of the corner of her eye she is miraculously able to track the progress of a single glistening raindrop as it splashes into a puddle.  Eyes locked, her heart expands with inexplicable happiness, blossoming wide open to let in the radiance of his energy. Outside, time ceases.  For the man in the dark overcoat hunched over his drink, it’s a dreary night;  the storm’s held him up, he’ll be home late and his querulous wife won’t give him any peace.  But for them, the lantern outside glows crimson, charging the rainy night alive with sorcery.

While they are talking, an entirely other conversation is happening between their hands.  Words blur and hum in their ears, their real attention is focussed on the tips and lengths of his fingers as they stroke her hand, he’s breathless at the touch of her exquisitely attentive fingertips exploring the soft naked places between his fingers. They can hold hands like this all evening and never grow tired of it – that’s romantic.

There’s the first kiss, fiercely sexual, hungry, searing and bone-melting, maybe. But if it’s romantic it will barely be there, yet still feel like a momentous meeting of souls through the soft tender agency of lips.

All these words. Romance is love in the language of symbols.  Which is of course the poet’s arena – we have our favourite lines the best of which pierce our defences with heart-excavating exactitude. Unable to bear the intensity of our own encounters, we spy through poetry’s keyhole instead hoping for perspective.  But there’s no relief to be found here.  If anything, it strips your eyes naked with its over-dazzling images of new-found love, love lost and perhaps most painful of all, love in limbo with no place to go. Now you have to see what you pretend you don’t already know to be true.  And it’s delivered with more kick and a whole lot more burn than if you’d been left to your own inarticulate bumbling about.  How else to explain the uprooting jolt of melancholy in such lines as:

The piers sadden when the afternoon moors there.
My life grows tired, hungry to no purpose.
I love what I do not have.

(Pablo Neruda – Here I love you)

And what can signal romance more soulfully than music?  Our lives are studded with soundtracks announcing the arrivals and departures of those we once loved. Who has not been taken elsewhere by a song, an aching refrain, a haunting of the past that reverberates in the body long after the last note has sounded. We can’t help but resonate with our own memories when music plays them back to us.   I hear an orchestra tuning up and she appears instantly; the girl I used to be in another time, another place.  And there is an even greater romance in making music with another. For then each shared note becomes a touch,  harmonies weave and breathe together, sound becomes sensation we melt into as something greater than we know how to properly hold is being made between us. Love.

Romance inhabits the memory of times and places. “the first time we ever…” and “where we once…”  It lives in the symbols of time spent together. I know of a man who left a brand new dish-washing brush in a tree outside his girlfriend’s house.  A romantic gesture?  She happens to be particular about her dishwashing tools – liking them to be clean and fresh and not grungy-looking.  It’s the queen in her.  Leaving that brush for her was paying homage to her queenliness yes, but even more deeply it said “I know you. I know you in your greatness, but I also know you in your small ways. And I love and appreciate it all.”  It made her smile. It made her feel seen and known in an unmistakeably romantic way.  A dish washing brush as romantic artefact! Who would have thought it?

So often the romantic gestures of men go unnoticed by the very women they are aimed at.  I love men, their passionate can-do-ness, their inspired testosterone drive that longs to create something special for their beloved no other can.  I’ve seen men build fires and furniture, write love songs, verses and paint pictures,  grow gardens, trees and families, make cups of tea and hot water bottles all all all for their beloveds. To impress them, cherish, move them.   And we women?  How often we find fault.  The new table wobbles, the cup of tea grows cold, the poetry is dismissed as sentimental twaddle and we refuse to be impressed. I’m as guilty as any.

My mother acknowledges romance exists, but says it has no endurance.  Romance in a man, she declares, is A Limited Edition. In other words a hard-to-find rarity and short lived.  It‘s why we say “the romance has gone” when a relationship goes stale, when life with the other person becomes predictable. I can’t agree it’s impossible to keep a space always open for romance, but there’s something real she points to nonetheless – its fleeting evanescent nature.  Romance isn’t meant to be sustainable. It’s necessarily of the moment – anything else and it would become an institution. Like marriage.

A man whose thoughts I value says romance is being able to see the other in their highest state, see the star of their best selves shining through the cracks of their flaws and foibles. It’s how we’re able to worship and adore someone when others see only their ordinary humdrumness.  But more than anything, he says, romance lives in the mystery of the other. For with mystery, there is the unknown and within the unknown winks the glint of danger. It could be a blade, but also a jewel. It’s the thrill of risk that is so arousing, the smell of something hidden and alluring that propels us trembling into desires we haven’t yet met.  And here is the erotic dilemma. For paradoxically, as another man who is a friend tells me,  there is the magical romance of true deep intimacy, the willingness to be vulnerable and open as one shares one soul, heart and body with another –so becoming known.  Love, says Esther Perel in Mating in Captivity wants closeness.  Eros and romance thrive on distance. I can’t yet see a way to live in the tension of that paradox except through believing we can never fully discover another’s essential mystery.

What I know now is we’re looking for the wrong thing when we seek a romantic man. We’re hooked on the artificial version, the one that lives in the MSG-clogged sensory-overload of the shopping mall culture like a snack bar; always available at a price, always leaving us dissatisfied and wanting more.  Make no mistake, romance is nourishment, it’s soul-food and we shouldn’t live without it.  But we’ve been raised on a junk diet concocted in a consumer-culture lab;  we no longer recognise romance unless it comes wrapped in American Swiss advertorial and the soft-focus lens of the corner candle-lit table for two.

Now I’m not knocking candle-lit dinners for two. I’m a sucker for them – which just goes to show.   But real romance is found in the most ordinary of moments if your eyes have the heart to see it.  For then what appears mundane becomes exalted:  a piano spilling out a swelling river of emotion as you walk past an open window, an unexpected glance of appreciation from a stranger as you step off the bus at dusk,  a recklessly tender kiss on an escalator.  No, it’s not just in the tickets for two to Paris. Nor in the arrival of 48 red velvet roses hiding a diamond bracelet.  That’s commonplace, not just in its execution but in its currency as the romantic ideal. There is more romance to be found in the everyday than you know.  It’s not what you look at which matters so much as how you see it.

I know the archetype of the lover slips readily enough into the hearts of men, but men fear the scorn of women. The romantic man we expect them to live up to does not exist. But there are men who know how to speak the romantic tongue of symbol and mystery with genuine sincerity, giving their unpredictable gifts in ways that need only our recognition.  I love a man who can do that.

Finally though, while the glow of romance is unmistakable when you step into its tingling aura, it’s impossible to put your finger on it. I just tried; it dissolves and vanishes under scrutiny. And I’m glad of it.  How it holds its own mystery intact.

 

That Justin Bieber Moment

WARNING: If you’re a Justin Bieber fan this may not be what you’re looking for. 

My daughter told me this: “Mum, Justin Bieber walked onto stage and the audience went mad. They clapped, screamed jumped up and down and just loved him for a whole 5 minutes. He just stood there…. and then he moved his hand to his heart and the crowd went completely wild.”

I thought about this man standing there absorbing these waves of love and adoration coming his way from thousands of people. What it must feel like to get such a huge response from so many at once. The instant gratification of it.  Of course I have no way of ever knowing what he really feels, but I figured it must be very strange, overwhelming, wonderful, surely humbling. And not at all easy.

Which pretty much sums up how I felt when I got freshly pressed. For one thing, I’ve been blogging for exactly 6 weeks. I’m brand new at this and I’m still working my way around the technology. I had just 10 followers, 7 of whom were good friends. My very first one was before I had even written a thing – to feel that person’s belief in me was a powerful and heartwarming thing and still is.

Then I have to confess that when I received the very nice email telling me about being freshly pressed, I had to google it. I didn’t even know what that meant. Now I do.

It felt like I’d gotten up out of bed, stumbled out of the bedroom still befuddled with sleep and walked right onto a stage into the glare of very bright lights with a whole bunch of people cheering me as I appeared. I wasn’t dressed for this.  My inbox bulged with likes, comments and follows. I hardly knew what to do with it all. But that’s life, hey.  It comes to get you ready or not.

Which brings me to you.

I’ve been blown away by your sheer generosity of spirit. For taking the time to read and comment. For the feelings and thoughts you have shared even though we don’t know each other.   For your acknowledgement, congratulations and your recognition.  What moves me  is the growing web of inter-connectedness between kindred souls. I have absolutely no idea where this blog is going, but it feels good to have you alongside on the journey. When you consider there are over 68 million wordpress sites out there, with over 361 million people viewing 48,5 million new posts a month, it’s a wonder we connected. Then again, it’s not surprising that we did.

So this has been an interesting moment for me. But I’m also mindful that it was only a moment, and it has passed. As one lovely new connection put it, one can be in this blogging world in a way that’s not always possible IRL (In Real Life). And it works the other way round too.   As I was busy being completely absorbed in responding to comments and reading other blogs, nothing could have illustrated that point more succinctly than these words:

“Mum, what’s for dinner?”

It’s way late, I haven’t prepared a thing and oh my god but it’s hard to live in two worlds.

Dark Summoning Beast vs Malevolent Nuzzler

The Battle You Won’t Win

 Yu-gi-oh! is a trading card game based on a Japanese TV series in which two players duel with each other according to a hugely complex set of elaborate rules. Children also swap cards or do  brisk business after school selling and buying individual cards.

When my son was 11, he fell in love with Yugioh. After school, I’d find him in a group with other small boys huddled over a table like eager gamblers, shuffling cards and muttering furtively about the right leg and arm of Exodia The Forbidden One.  Words like Ritual Monsters, Graveyards, Tribute Dolls and Trap cards were also part of this new schoolboy vocabulary: it all had a rather sinister ring to it.  Glancing at the cards, I saw the surface flash of glamour but didn’t find any of it appealing.  Grotesque and gothic, the images seemed unholy fusions of myth, machinery and monstrosities with a good bit of the occult thrown in.  What else to make of cards called Premature Burial ,  Dark Magician of Chaos,  Call of the Haunted and Tribe-infecting Virus?   And when you discover that the whole point of the game is to annihilate each other’s “life points” it seems obvious. These kids are trucking with the devil, right?

In my efforts to slow down my son’s ardour, I would casually dismiss Yugioh as a phase he would grow out of. I took to calling it  Yuckioh and Uglioh  – which only made Yugioh’s voodoo more potent.  Months passed. My son’s persistent devotion did not. He chipped away at me until my resistance caved in to that oldest and most mundane of ploys: the torture of relentless repetition.

I gave in; but not without a last token attempt to retrieve my credibility as a parental force to be reckoned with. There would be one condition.  And then I found myself in Wizards Book store, spending a whole heap of money (with a goodly contribution from my son’s carefully saved pocket money) on a Dragon Structure Pack.  Did I say a heap of money?  Make that two heaps.  The girl-child was with us and quite reasonably expected to get something out of this spree too.

Her choice was a magical crystal-encrusted fairy book all written in difficult-to-read old fashioned handwriting in brown ink. Full of mystery and sparkly bits, it was a treasure trove of tiny folded letters, secret pockets, teeny envelopes, one even containing a substance called  Invisible Fairy Lust.  I choked inwardly as an unexpected vision of uncensored Fairy Lust on the wing appeared without warning in my head. Good Grief! Is nothing sacred anymore?  On closer inspection it resolved itself into Invisible Fairy Dust (hence my fractious whinge about the handwriting). But by now you will have gotten the point. These entertaining toys for children nowadays are complex, elaborate beyond belief, expensive.

Sure, there were crazes when I was at school. We had yo-yo’s. Dingbats. Knockers.  But they went up and down, to and fro, backwards and forwards and made satisfyingly disruptive loud  noises that annoyed adults. You got the hang of it after trying it out once or twice. It was obvious. They did not turn your brain inside out trying to understand them.

You see, the condition I made was a foolish promise. I  would buy my son Yugioh cards on condition that I would figure out how this game works and play it with him because on the face of it, the whole thing was incomprehensible to me.  I wanted to understand what my boy was going to be spending his energy and attention on. I was totally confident that once I had a pack of cards and rule-book in my hands, my superior intellect and years of problem-solving abilities honed in corporate management would be sufficient to work it all out. Little – how easily we are tripped up by our own ignorant vanity  – did I know.

Googling Yugioh sites for help that night, I came across smug pronouncements like “Even if you are a rocket scientist or brain surgeon, you will still need the help of a 10 year old to explain the rules to you.” Hah! No kidding, people!  As another exasperated parent vented; the rules are designed to be totally impenetrable to grown-ups. Adult-proof.

Which is why I’m now asking you for help. So please – tell me what this means:

When this card is successfully Normal Summoned, Flip Summoned or Special Summoned, put one spell counter on a face-up card on the field that you can put a spell counter on. If this card is destroyed in battle, you can select 1 level 2 or lower spellcaster-type monster from your deck and special summon it to the field in face-down defense position.

Got it? Right.

You see.

And don’t even get me started on the addictively acquisitive nature of these games. This was a big deal for my son. He was truly thrilled and thankful to get these cards after lobbying for them for so long. This did not, however prevent him from settling down to examine his treasures once home and immediately announcing with urgent disappointment: “Ah no, mum, I’m missing a Mutant Mindmaster and a Polymerization card!”

Hellloooo? Gratitude? This was beyond built-in obsolescence. This was built-in dissatisfaction and a perpetual craving for more.

In the car afterwards driving home from this momentous purchase, my daughter caught my eye from the back in the rear view mirror.  She was looking at me sceptically. “You know mommy, you don’t actually look like a person who suits buying Yugioh cards for her child.”

Well there’s her first lesson in how appearances can be deceptive. I mean, could she ever be more wrong?

And what have I started?