A missive to friends

Dear friends

It may be the function of our rapid descent into winter, or  more ominously, my special time of the month  but I feel weighed down by a strange melancholy. I have no real reason to be moping. I’ve been gifted very exciting opportunities. I have a damn, good job and last night I was able to lounge around our kitchen table, chatting to friends and cousins in unscripted harmony.

But there’s something gnawing at me relentlessly. There’s a restlessness in the pit of my stomach.

For some time now, I’ve been obsessing quietly about finding a “happy writing place” – a place I could return to week after week, to write like a writer does – to be a better writer. I’ve spent a few afternoons at the Europa in Parkview and aside from its Halaal menu, the cafe offered me none of the space for happy writing that I so desperately crave. On one afternoon there I listened as a pair of men from Houghton  spoke about buying property as if they were trading little squares on a board game. When they left, I listened in as  a group of middle-aged-women-in-denial cooed over a piece of jewelry from Dubai. When the nearby girls’ school closed for the day, the cafe was suddenly teeming with schoolgirls flirting with the waiters. One of their teachers sat beside me, chatting to her beau over skype. I could only guess he was her beau. She listened to him through her earphones but typed her replies, smiling every so often that special smile lovers reserve for themselves.

I got very little writing done.

And I found myself none  the happier for it.

And yet I desperately wanted the “halaal Europa” to be my special, happy place. It’s located conveniently mid-way between home and the office – that darned place that ought to be my happy writing place. And did I mention the food’s halaal?
I returned the next week, earlier in the day this time. Ready to sip on coffee while I churned out my day’s work.
And though I got more done than the previous week, it still was not the happy writing place I was searching for.
I’ve searched my head trying to think of other places that would suit my needs for a happy writing place. Motherland coffee, the boudoir of local hipsters is the more obvious choice. Free wifi -and the place teems with journalists. It’s just not my place though.
So this morning, with my faculties clouded by melancholy I allowed myself a leisurely drive along the M1. Uncharacteristically, I was not urged to veer crazily between lanes, collecting traffic offences. I was content to dawdle in the middle lane, unsure exactly where I was going. And as I passed the Jan Smuts Avenue offramp which would take me to the office, I felt the pinch of guilt. Melancholy, or not, this was a bout of self-indulgence. I eyed my fuel gauge absently – still a quarter tank. Even as the trade unions announce mass action against e-tolls, decrying the impact it’s bound to have on commuters – I was just driving, just driving. I could fill up the tank later and if the unions fail, I could also pay the e-tolls.  I drove on, forcing myself to think of an end to this drive.
Finally, I ascended Grayston Drive.
I steered my car into Sandton – the unabashed temple of opulence. And though I’ve tried to hate this place – and God knows I do hate it often – it is still one of the theatres of my childhood. The Exclusive Books in Mandela Square has long been a happy place. I’ve never been here to actually write for work before. And yet driving into the mall, I remember a day just over a year ago, when two friends and I walked in a light drizzle from the mall to the station. So much had happened since. Between now and then there is an unmoveable obstruction – time, life, I’m not really sure what to call it.
Sitting now in the Seattle Coffee Co cafe, surrounded by books, comforted by really, really good music, I want this to be my happy writing place. A few minutes ago, Moeletsi Mbeki sat at the table beside me. He had his back towards me – and though I smiled up at him shyly, I wasn’t sure how he’d react to me stretching out my hand and announcing, “I’m such a fan”. But him being here has made me want more desperately to make this my happy writing place. His being here lends this place some credibility as a stopover in the pursuit of serious work.
He just ordered a “short cappuccino” and pored over the Financial Times and then got up and left.
I ordered myself a long cappuccino and a tiny lemon-meringue cake.
I’ve sighed appreciatively into the depths of the blue mug. Any claim to grace or propriety I may have had, I’ve let go as I tucked into the cake.
I now must write.
I have my half-finished piece on the politics of the Bahrain grand prix waiting patiently in the word processor.
I’m still not sure if this is the happy writing place I want.
Even as I type on this on my sparkly, new Macbook Air, I’m not sure exactly what it is I crave to deliver me to writing better – writing things people actually read.
And I think part of my problem lies in the acquisition of this machine. As someone else put it more eloquently:

It’s strange, then, that after fifteen years I’ve finally found the perfect writer’s machine in the new 11.6-inch MacBook Air. It fuses together both the best software and hardware of which a writer could ever dream, while boasting all of the slender and effortless portability of a composition journal. It is a writer’s terminal in the purest sense: with its excellent battery life, ephemeral weight, satisfying keyboard and instant-on capabilities, the new MacBook Air is perfectly suited to be the nexus into the inner chaos of my own thoughts, feelings, hang-ups, pretensions and emotions as a blank page.

But in the MacBook Air’s perfection as a writer’s machine, it just as silently, just as elegantly robs me of the crutch of imperfect tools to explain my own mediocrity. The MacBook Air might be the perfect laptop for a writer, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not nearly as suited to the task of writing as it is.

The problem is that while computers have been perfectly suited to the task of text entry for decades, I wanted something more. I wanted a gadget that wasn’t just a receptacle for my words, but a device that would crystallize my thoughts. Each and every one of the gadgets I have ever used for writing was ultimately rejected because it was a computer, not a magic terminal that could tap into my emotions and make other people feel them just as palpably as I did. I wanted a laptop that would write for me.

So no longer being able to blame my inferior machinery for my medicority, I’ve been obsessed with securing the right environment – blaming my failure to writer better and faster on an imperfect environment. But even as I acknowledge that I’m not so much looking for a place that will help me write as much as a place that will write for me, I’m not likely to give up this pursuit of the happy writing place.
In my first year of undergrad studies, I visited the Braamfontein Centre to buy textbooks. After collecting my books from Van Schaik, I moved over to second-hand store across the way. And as I burst with joy in that dark, dusty store, I looked outside at the coffee store, at the adults sipping coffee and working – writing so effortlessly. I wanted to be those people.
I am those people now. Right now I am exactly where I want to be. And even if this isn’t my happy writing place, it has to be enough that I can be here.
PS. If you’ve read until here, please read my real work as well –
Blog Quoting Others

The air is thick with loss

Loss is like a fog choking off the city from the life of the sun.

Or in words better expressed,

“When the sun

falls behind the sumac

thicket the wild

yellow daisies

in diffuse evening shade

lose their

rigorous attention

half-wild with loss

turn any way the wind does

and lift their

petals up

to float

off their stems

and go. ”

Loss – by A.R. Ammons


Blog Quoting Others

Egypt, now what?

Image Source

The essential revolution in the mind has already been accomplished. A radical transformation of political and economic structures would be an even more extraordinary event. But achieving it won’t be easy, as Tunisia’s example already reveals; and Egypt’s own history warns us that the foundations of despotism are deep and wide. It is now clear that our virtual vigils will have to continue long after the western media’s very recent fascination with Egypt trails off, and assorted neocons and “liberal” hawks emerge from the woodwork to relaunch their bogey of “Islamism”. We may also have to steel ourselves, as victory appears in sight, for some more bitter setbacks in the long Egyptian battle for self-determination.

Pankaj Mishra

Blog Quoting Others

Lessons from the life of a great revolutionary

From the tribute Trevor Manuel, minister of national planning in South Africa, wrote to the late Johnny Issel, these two quotations from Almilcar Cabral stood out,

Always remember that people are not fighting for ideas. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward and to guarantee the future of their children.

Claim no easy victories, mask no difficulties, and tell no lies.

Johhny Issel, quoted by Manuel in the tribute, said about the struggle and the South Africa we now so liberally enjoy,

What spurred us on then, this spirit of freedom still burns within us. Finally we shall see what we’d fought for and sacrificed for.

May that spirit live long in the hearts of the Egyptians fighting for their own right to be free.

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