It is my hope that putting this voice out into our world has value, not only for me, but for others, as well. I admit to sometimes entertaining dreams of it going viral, of infecting the world with my vision. But most of the time I am content to be motivated by Gandhi's assertion: whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tide & Time

I am old enough, now, to remember things that no longer exist in my world, or that have been irrevocably changed: silver metal ticky boxes (as my mother used to call them) with concertina doors, and heavy, black telephones inside that actually required you to turn a dial; military conscription; my mother herself. All of these were once a part of my life.

I am also old enough, now, to see the extent to which I am the sum of my experiences.

I saw out the end of my conscription years at the age of 19, mostly in a 4 by 4 meter room on the periphery of a large navel base with several other conscripts, and the three men who were in charge of us. Long days of languishing with little to do were punctuated from time to time by a regularly repeated decision to re-paint one of the harbour patrol boats, of which our unit was in charge. The decision to paint had very little to do with the needs of the boat, and although days of boredom stretched endlessly before us, with typical military logic, the decision once made, had to be implemented immediately.

I hated painting the boats, more than I hated the boredom of not painting them. But the decision had been made and the first task was to get the boat out of the water. There was a problem, though. It was spring low. The boats lay listlessly against the floating dock, far below the quay and beyond the reach of the slipway. This situation caused some discussion and some head scratching amongst the three men. They came up with elaborate solutions, eventually deciding to employ a crane to lift the boat directly onto the quay. To me the answer was completely clear: Simply wait for the tide to come in. But there was generally a clash between my world view and theirs, and they saw little merit in my suggestion.

It felt to me that during most of my time at Saldanha I was engaged, against my will, in painting the world grey. It didn't feel terribly constructive, or liberating. As I sit here writing and thinking, there are two memories of particular incidents during my time there, that come to mind. And these two memories invoke more or less opposite emotional responses in me.

The first is on a weekend. Over the weekends the three men are not there. It is unlikely that the enemy will attack over a weekend, so they can be with their families in the town, beyond the navel base. But just in case the enemy does in fact attack, we, the conscripts, are on duty. I prefer the weekends. Because the three men are not there and our base, below the hill, at the water's edge is largely deserted and peaceful. And we never paint the boats on weekends.

This weekend is during summer. It is a wind-still morning and the water stretching out into the bay and harbour is a dull, placid silver. I decide to do something I have not done before. I decide to swim out into the bay. I dive off the floating dock. As I swim, the base recedes until it no longer occupies a dominant proportion of the coastline. From here at water level, the land appears different, less important, as if it is the land that floats on the ocean, and not the other way around.

The water is not clear. It is not particularly beautiful. There is an uneasy murkiness that makes me wonder what might lurk below me in the depths. It has a faint whiff of petrol, of harbour, of caught fish. And while it moves with a certain freedom on the tides, this water is partly entrapped too, in this bay. More so since Marcus Island was joined to the mainland to create the iron ore port, which gave the mongooses free access to the penguin eggs. Such developments are generally good for some, not so good for others, good if you're a mongoose, bad if you're a penguin.

I remember, long before the iron ore jetty, the excitement with which I would sail out into this bay, with my father. Compared to the flat waters of the lagoon from which we had come, there was an unrestrained largeness and wildness about it, with the huge swells from the open ocean sweeping across it. It was a thrill for me to see the penguins here, ducking and diving amongst the mounds of moving water. They were creatures of the untamed, open ocean, not ones that we encountered around us in the still waters of the lagoon.

Some distance from the shore now, I am swimming amongst the yachts. A moored yacht, shut up and occupied only by a line of monotonously coloured cormorants, is not, in outward appearance, a thing of freedom. The hatches are securely shut against the elements, the sails and sheets furled and lashed, the knots tightened by salt and sun. Over time, all moving and see-through parts are increasingly sealed by streaks of bleached guano, white with shades of pink. The yachts are confined here, by their moorings to repeat short, pointless journeys back and forth, back and forth, and in formation with the yachts around them, at the whim of wind and tide.

And yet a yacht still holds strongly the possibility of freedom, the possibility of the open ocean, of escape. And out amongst them, I feel a sense of this freedom that is entirely invigorating.

In 1974 when I was 8 years old we went as a family to watch The Dove. I still remember scenes from the movie - when the cat was thrown from the boom into the ocean to be taken by a shark, when The Dove lay becalmed in the path of an approaching tanker. But what I remember most was the intoxicating sense of adventure and freedom, and the discovery of beauty and love out there in the wideness of the world. Robin Lee Graham was 16 when he started his 5 year voyage. The movie gave a thrilling sense of the possibilities that awaited me.

But instead of voyaging round the world at that age, I was conscripted to the navy. A year later I was transferred from the innocuous dump that was the navy base in Cape Town harbour to the innocuous dump that was the navy base in Saldanha, with the significant difference that the navy would now dominate a far larger proportion of my days and nights. It was a significant suppression of my freedom. Of course I was still hugely fortunate. Some of my friends were sent to fight a war against our countrymen. In comparison, painting boats grey, is positively constructive and liberating. But during that first call to my mother from a ticky box, with the bleakness of a year there stretching out far before me, I felt entirely hopeless.

The second incident that I remember takes place during one of the numerous re-paintings of the boats. It has none of the beauty of the first incident. I am railing against the pointlessness of re-painting the boat, again, as passively aggressive as I can risk. And for my resistance I am assigned the unpleasantly awkward underside of the boat, between the hulls. My resistance reaches a level of overwhelming frustration in the confined space. In response, the bucket of paint, balanced above me, teeters, then falls and inverts itself at the precise moment that my head is directly underneath it.

Nothing turns your world as unequivocally grey as having a bucket of navel, anti-fouling paint inverted on your head and oozing down your face and neck. Railing against the injustices of it doesn't help. I cannot even curse out loud because I must concentrate on keeping my mouth closed enough to prevent the paint from oozing into it, and yet open enough to allow me to breathe.

To the three men this was a comical diversion to the usual monotony of the day and well deserved justice for all the trouble I'd given them. Perhaps it was. Needless to say it was a humbling experience. And it took a lot of thinners as well as time to clean my head and my hair of all the paint. But it took much longer than that for me to be open to this incident's teaching.

I never made the journey that I imagined I would when I was eight, in the wake of Robin Lee Graham. Instead I turned inland to the mountains, to Stellenbosch, to Jonkershoek, and found, I think, equal measures of adventure and beauty and love here. This morning, in this coffee shop, in this town that is now my home, I am again celebrating a freedom, that has similarities to that swim amongst the yachts 26 years ago. Only this one is more enduring. No one will make me return to a pointless duty. It will be my choice to do so, or not to, and hopefully I have more wisdom to choose well, and to bring about a better outcome, without a bucket of anti-fouling paint over my head. Sometimes I wonder if I have earned this freedom. Or if I have just been bum-in-the-butter lucky.

De Oude Bank Bakkerij is styled in peeling paint, wood and warmth. Bags of stone ground flour are piled high in the loft above the expansive oven. Rich, brown, oversized loaves await collection from a wooden rack behind the counter. The chairs are squat, an odd mixture of wood, paint, metal and leather. The interior is filled with aromas of yeast and coffee, sepia tones, red cushions, beautiful, tall, black staff, and white clientèle in elegant long leather boots. Part of the roof space is open to the elements. The cobbled floor below that is wet from the rain.

It is a very different space to that 4 x 4 meter institutional room with military issue rusks in a metal cabinet, a kettle on an empty desk, an assortment of unmatched, stained and chipped mugs with silly slogans. The difference is in the deliberate intention to create interior space. This one is a space in which I can celebrate being.

But there is an irony in the black and whiteness of this long post apartheid coffee shop, for the 4 x 4 meter room was perhaps more integrated. By working in the South African military, two of the three men who were in charge of me, were supporting a regime that denied them the vote. By clinging to power through its military, the South African state would try to deny that right to their children as well. It seems bizarre that these men would be there. But it is often the detail of our lives that is most important to us - the income we earn doing what we do each day, the uniforms that we put on each morning, the status they give us. And so one might question: were they really supporting a hostile regime, or were they just ensuring that boats got painted?

De Oude Bank Bakkerij does not supply newspapers. It offers chess and backgammon instead. But a previous patron has left this morning's Business Day at my table. There is a big blob of bright red, sticky strawberry jam more or less in the middle of a front page story on the debate about whether 30% is an acceptable school pass mark. There is an oily translucence spreading out around the blob of jam into the surrounding print. And it has spread inside, through several pages, through a story on Julius Malema, a complaining statement issued by the national youth development agency, and a story on the unfolding of the Joule, the dream that was to be South Africa's electrical car of the future. For fear of the jam spreading even more, beyond the newspaper, I must fold it deftly and with conviction at each page change, in the way that I used to admire my father doing when I was young. Near the middle of the paper, where the strawberry jam has not yet reached, is a piece on Mandela.

Reading the newspaper leaves me wondering about our world. Direction, it seems to me, is often dictated purely by the whims of people who happen to be influential at the time. Perhaps God does worse than play dice. Perhaps he or she leaves the unfolding of life, to people. To us. Then again is it so different? The whims of people and the rolling of a dice? Dice is at least more equitable, and suffused with a certain elegant, mathematical intelligence. But here is a difference: while we cannot be held responsible for the roll of a dice, we are obliged, at least by decency, to take responsibility for our whims.

The newspaper and my memories of the navy mix in my mind, and I find myself wondering to what extent we are all just re-painting boats? To what extent is the media, the education system, the government, the economy, simply supporting an arbitrary decision, a whim, to re-paint boats, not for the needs of the boats, but for some need that has been created in the huge, unwieldy, system that is our society?

If, when I was in the navy, I had been assigned to being a chef, instead of to painting boats, my day to day activity might have been more purposeful. On weekends I would have fried eggs, lots of them, slightly discoloured and oily, laid out in rows in the unexciting, metallic silver of the bain maries. It is true, there is a point to preparing eggs, because people are hungry and need breakfast. But if one is cooking eggs only for people who are eating them, only because they are doing nothing more useful than re-paining boats that don't need it, then the foundation of purpose becomes somewhat shaky. And in different contexts too, such a search for purpose often ends in disappointment. So much of our effort simply spirals inwards. Where is it getting us? And to what end?

This is not how I felt the first time I went to De Oude Bank Bakkerij. The first time all I read, over my coffee, was Fritz's beautiful soliloquy about bread, handwritten on the back of the menu. I left that time much more hopeful about our world. And it is that, most of all, that makes me come back. That and the chocolate bread sticks.

Can our direction be wiser, less based upon someone else's whim? Of course there is a system, but we can choose our engagement with it. Before I leave I ask myself this: How much of what I do is simply re-painting boats, and how much is swimming, out beyond the confines of captivity, amongst yachts?

Towards the three men who largely controlled my life at Saldanha, I would be more generous now, at 45 than I was at 19. Who wouldn't? If I criticised them now, and I criticised them plenty at 19, now it would be only for this: for insufficiently imagining a better world. Not only for others, but for them. Not only for the future, but for then. I would criticise them for that, and of course, for not simply waiting for the coming in of the tide.

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