Friday, December 5, 2014

What does 'black' mean in America?

This lady - Gabrielle Reece - is black.
It fascinates me that different countries can have such very disparate ways of defining and talking about race. In America, apparently, when it comes to black and white, those are the only two options. If you have ever had a black person in your ancestry, you are, de facto, black (according to the article below, 'Celebs you didn't know were black' - and so much else in the media).

That seems weirdly simplistic to us South Africans, for whom 'black' is itself a broad simplification of a huge variety of tribal and cultural identities. And where 'coloured' means of mixed race, but of a certain, specific established culture and going back centuries, and 'mixed race' is something else entirely, but generally means your mom and dad were any kind of mix, whether black and white, or coloured and black, or indian and black, or white and coloured, or whatever.

Why we humans have to constantly classify each other in this way is another question - but right now, I am fascinated by WHY someone in America who is obviously mostly white, with a little black thrown in, is 'black'. This article (link below) is an example of what I mean - something that seems to me to smack of inherent racism, as if we're supposed to somehow be surprised and amazed that these 'celebs' are not 'white'. And - I've been wanting to ask this for years - why is Obama the "first black president", when he is obviously both black and white? His father is black, his mother is white. Why does the one fact outweigh the other? Why is he never called "the first Hawaiian President"? Or to put it another way, how come, when someone from mostly black ancestry has one white grandparent, the media never calls them 'white'?

Honestly, the American obsession with who is and isn't black strikes me as deeply racist, in an institutionalised, taken-for granted way that's more disturbing to me than the way my own country talks about and conceptualises race. For us, an article like this, singling out people because they 'look white' but happen to have 'black' genes - well, it would be unthinkable. Ludicrous. Offensive. It smacks of the kind of race classification that apartheid made infamous.

Is it just me - or is this article offensive to anyone else? I'd be interested to know.

This is the slideshow that got me pondering on this stuff...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

I Used to be a Genius

An extraordinary percentage of my relatives live from their creative talents, one way or another, including me. We have all grown up with the unshakable conviction that a life spent doing what you love is worthy, no matter what you earn or whether the world notices. We're an accepting and inclusive bunch, even when (as happens randomly in every generation) a mutant child or two is born, curiously uninterested in anything remotely artistic. Though such a child may show mystifying tendencies, such as an inexplicable interest in accountancy or town management, the only thing that really counts to us, that instantly wins family approval and respect, is passion. And we really, really like intelligence, too.

So it really was rather fortunate for me that I was such an exceptional child. I knew this, because so many of the children my age were clearly stupid, and also because, when I was 9 or 10, I overheard my class teacher telling a policeman that I had a genius-level IQ. At the time, I was standing in a sort of icy-cold daze in the corridor outside the classroom, overcome with terrified remorse for A) bunking history with my friend and then B) deciding, inexplicably, that we could totally get away with it if we said we had been trapped in the bathroom by a scary man in a black leather jacket, and C) completely and utterly failing to foresee that being believed would inevitably lead to the POLICE being called.

Consumed with guilt, and still horrified at my hitherto unsuspected capacity for spontaneous duplicity, I nevertheless could not help noticing the intriguing fact that a large number of adults had believed me. I had to at least consider the possibility that this could be because I was indeed a genius, in which case, I should probably be on the lookout for signs of any superior intellectual capacity. Modestly, of course. I was already a voracious locust of a reader, but now that I was most likely a genius, it seemed likely that I might have developed a taste for the books on my parents' bookshelf.

I sat cross-legged on the carpet and looked at the bland, mono-colour spines. Since I might very well be a genius, and geniuses doubtless read adult books without pictures, it followed logically that I probably liked these books, and just hadn't noticed it yet. Old habits die hard, though, and my eyes kept sliding to the only book on the shelf with a picture on it. The whole cover was, in fact, a black and white photograph, a simple title - The Yellow Star. As I reached for it, my mom walked into the room, and immediately sat down with me. "There are books on this shelf with some very difficult, horrible things in them, " she said. "Some people would not let children read them. But I think you are old enough to choose whether or not you want to. It's up to you."

I took that book up to my room, feeling solemnly mature and definitely of above average intelligence. I began to read and within moments, I was swept away, engulfed in a flood I had never imagined could exist, a tide of horror and disbelief at the unspeakable thing that was the Holocaust, at the wrenching, impossible news that people did this, people died like this, in my world, where my . I forgot that I was practicing to be a genius. I wept and I thought, and I wept and absorbed. I read it over and over again, searching for a key of some kind, a way to make sense of these impossible, unforgettable, terrible truths. When I finished it, I found I couldn't stop. I had to know more. I read every book that shelf, immersing myself in history from countless eras. I flew over words I didn't understand, hungry to KNOW, to understand why and how it could be possible for humans to do such terrible things.

I was a genius until I was twelve, the only kid in South Africa at the time to get 100% on the official aptitude test for language, a prodigy with the language skills of a varsity student and an astonishing grasp of European history. I was placed in a gifted kids' program, which was gratifying, though disappointingly bland. Still, there I was, secure in my clever little spot in the sun... And then the school district had the audacity to retest my IQ... And as far as I was concerned, I failed. In a crushing blow to my status as a child prodigy, not only was I not, in actual fact, a genius, but adding insult to ego injury, my little brother  - MY LITTLE BROTHER - had made the genius grade. How rude, after all the years I'd spent practising my mysteriously knowing, gently wise Genius Expression. When you have been a genius, 'Above Average' is cold comfort.

At least I still had my prodigious language skills, reading at varsity level, still special after all. Until one day, when I was 20, it suddenly dawned on me that my entire generation was now reading at Varsity Level. Just like that, I was ordinary. Any illusions of genius that I may have secretly been clinging to snuck away in embarrassment when someone pointed out that it took me until the age of 20 to figure out the 'everyone reading at varsity level' thing.

Having assumed for a long time that I would obviously be very good, and quite possibly GREAT at something one day, it took me a while to get comfortable with who I actually am, a 'Jack of all Trades, Master of None' type. It took longer still to grasp that this, in itself, is a different - and very valuable - kind of genius. I will never be 'great' at anything, which is a tremendous relief, since I am so very, very busy learning how to be passably competent at MANY things, and as it turns out, actually rather good at a few others, if I say so myself. It turns out I have an insatiable appetite for novelty and fresh challenges. And the dawning realisation, at long last, of what riches that holds for me?

Well, that's genius, that is.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Parable Dog

Ninja the Neurotic has just crawled on her belly to me. Silly thing - she is completely forgiven, as far as I am concerned, for the heinous deed of stealing a kitten. But in her head, I am apparently yelling, because a gentle scratch of the ears resulted in her slinking off with her tail between her legs.

There's pretty much nothing I can do about that. I have accepted her apology (belly-scraping crawl to my feet). I have shown love and acceptance (scratch between the ears, soft and loving voice). And still, she ran away, convinced that I hate her, as far as I can see.

She has to deal with this in her own way, and as I know her, tomorrow, she will be back to her normal neurotic self, with a slight measure of extra paranoia.

It does make make me think of my own reaction to God, my family, and everything around me. I suspect I love this dog partly because she reminds me of me. I get to laugh indulgently at her ridiculous ways, while studiously not noticing my own random and useless guilts, paranoia's and inexplicable behaviours.

Thanks, Ninja. With you around, I can always feel slightly more sorted.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly... of Pets

I was actually busy writing a post with almost the same heading, about clients. And I could rant for a while about that. But even as the words were on the screen, I heard loud squeaking, and had no choice but to down tools and run. Sure enough, I caught our mentally deranged dog, Ninja, with a kitten in her mouth.

Stop! Breathe, everyone. The 10-day old kitten is alive and well, though severely spat upon. The dog is suitably chastised and sitting in the garden under a bush with a look of utter weltschmerz upon her face. She knows she has done a Bad Bad Thing, but I'm pretty sure she has no idea exactly what that was.

We're soft on this dog, and we know it. We have to be, because she is neurotically challenged. She was born to an extremely surprised 13-year old labrador, on Christmas Eve three years ago. Suckers that we are, we fell in love with her without even seeing her, and helped with money for the highly expensive puppy formula to keep her alive. We should have known she'd be a total weirdo. What am I saying? She had us at 'ridiculous birth story'. It was a done deal...

The Blundertribe has an affinity for weird animals. And weird people. We're just like that. We pick the runt. Or the one with funky backwards paws. Yup.

So, yes, Ninja wants to eat kittens. This is bad. But she also waits every morning for each of us to appear from our bedrooms, and has to greet each one personally, and talk to them, and nuzzle. Big cuddles. She actually gets up on her hind legs and HUGS Sean, which is tear-jerkingly sweet. After that, she won't let you anywhere near her for the rest of the day, and regards most overtures of affection as proof that someone wants to kill her. Did I say neurotic? That doesn't really cover it.

I reckon she is our family lesson in how to accept someone really, really interesting, who is also really, really strange. Hmmm... Yup, she fits right in around here.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Addiction Valley

Some years ago, in a move strangely prophetic, since I was not yet an addict then, I found myself at Rehab for a month (a story for another time). Today, a friend and counsellor from that month, Colin, sent me a link to his video about "Addiction Valley". When I thanked him by email (the video was very well timed indeed and hit home) he kindly gave me his phone numbers and said he was available to talk any time. This was my response...

Dear Colin

I'd like to take you up on that, by making a time to talk to you, not a late night or early morning pity party call [note to reader - yup, I have done that a couple of times over the years]. I don’t want to take up your family time - I don’t say that looking for assurance or attention, but because I feel very strongly about people hogging that time from us on a weekend! My addictions aren’t going anywhere - they’ll still be here on Monday.

And funnily enough, the thought in my head is not “I don’t deserve this kind of caring and input.” What God has done in my heart and my life this year is glorious and mystifying, and I can see how He wouldn’t want to lose his investment... He goes to such extraordinary lengths to lavish good things on me - and for every paltry, wavering step I make vaguely in His direction, it seems, while I’m still hesitating at the first slightly confusing kink in the path - well, He throws a press conference and comes running down the mountain with armloads of presents.

God doesn’t care about the substance I use, I know. He cares about this because He misses me, because for some wonderful, infinitely unfathomable reason, He likes my company. As do my children and my parents and so many others, because I am a woman very well-loved indeed. So, to answer the excellent question in your lecture, what WAS it about this drug, CAT? Why this stuff, which I was obviously searching for through all the other experiments and dalliances that played out and were left behind? What did it give me then, and what do I imagine it will give me now?

It gave me power, the power to succeed, to actually do instead of dream, to finish the things that I started. Concentration. Motivation. How fabulously ironic that what I obviously desperately longed for was to work, and work really hard. Of course, that eventually became the opposite - but oh, it was magnificent while it lasted. It was very, very difficult to learn to work without it this year, and intensely satisfying to find out that I have it in me to work 12 hours a day without stimulants, when necessary, because I actually do love what I do.

It gave me rest for the first time in my life, from the nightly hallucinations and terrifying waking dreams that were my narcoleptic norm - because not sleeping for a couple of days made it possible to get a few hours of ‘normal’ sleep, and that’s more than I’d ever had on a regular basis. It also gave me the perfect excuse to remove myself from people. So busy, so much to do. It separated me more from my family than any amount of partying did in years gone by, and allowed me to feel self-righteous and justified about that. Look at me, providing for my family. Look at me, ‘succeeding’… So much to prove to no-one but myself.

But in truth, I gave CAT more than it gave me. I gave it a wide-open, well-trodden road into my life, one I had made myself, with my own feet, in countless ways... retreating into books as a way to shut all human input out, that’s what got that path stamped down in the beginning. Longer and longer walks, further and further away from home, that turned into directionless travelling, country to country with no purpose but solitude, and little enjoyment. A litany of ‘yes’s’ to men I did not love, a simple, relentless, cruel pattern of choosing always to be as far away from anyone who loved me as possible. My children’s adoration of me made me uncomfortable, even angry. I tried to teach them not to love me that much. I tried to protect them from loving me... oh man, the unutterable, terrible heartache when I saw what that had done to them... Thank God, thank God that He broke through to me before they were grown up. These last few years have been sweet beyond measure, for the healing of our family.

And this, finally, is what it comes down to for me. It is not a question of life or death, though I have no doubt the stuff could kill me if I head into this valley again. It is about love. On the one side of this road is love, and on the other, there is nothing. I have learnt to care whether I live or die, because I have been learning to love. It isn’t life or death - being afraid of death is not enough to make me choose life. It’s love or death.

Sometimes, and I just have to know this about myself for now, love of any kind makes me nervous. Even, sometimes especially, God’s love. And yes, I am beginning to grasp that this intermittent aversion is probably because - contrary to the story I told myself so very well for so long - I love extravagantly and deeply and will do almost anything to prevent myself feeling such depths, such terrible potential for loss. Instead of having a good cry (or twenty) over the fact that my youngest child has spread her wings, or that my pride and love and joy in all three of them is so enormous that it breaks my heart, instead of stopping to really think about the private repercussions of 'going public' with my story of being raped twice (which I really am fine about, but perhaps that was a bigger thing than I thought it was)... Instead of any of those thoughtful and accepting reactions, I frogmarched myself over to Valley Road.

But it’s okay. This time, I am not putting up a house here. I can still see the ruins of the last one, and frankly, the view is just way, way better up on the mountain, even if it does cost some effort to get back up there. And it may not be a wide road, but this little pathway is starting to look nicely worn - which is no doubt because of that extravagant running God keeps doing up and down it, bless Him. It is a simple matter of turning around, if you know you’re going the wrong way. Of course I knew that, but the journey (always easier and faster downhill) could have been a much longer one, if not for the bloody great signpost firmly planted in my way today.

So again - thank you. Thank you for planting that signpost. I see that I need to mark this path with plenty of those, and that I have neglected to do that lately. I’ll be looking out for module 2, and I’d like to sign up for the e-hab course, because I think I am ready to start doing the work.

Friday, November 14, 2014

What are the chances, van den Berg?

I have a really common surname. Sure, I spell it "Vandenberg" (because I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in Europe) but back here in the homeland, I have to face the fact that my name is actually van den Berg, and is about as interesting as "Smith" is in Britain. There are so many of us here, it never, ever even occurs to me to wonder if any of them are related to me. Which makes today's bizarre meeting that much more delicious. There I was, MC-ing for an educational workshop event thing, and hey! There were a couple of teachers (who were also an actual couple) with the same surname. Ha ha! A little laugh, a friendly joke about how many of us there are, and then something - something this nice man said made me sit up. "Sorry, what?" I could have sworn he just told me a special family story that is MY special family story. That one about my great-great-uncle who owned the farm where Winston Churchill was kept prisoner (in a POW camp) during the Boer War. "Say what now? Excuse me? Did you say 'Langkloof'?" For a surreal moment, I doubted that OUR family story was true. Had we picked this up somewhere, embellishing the family name with something historically interesting? But nah, that can't be it, because I KNOW that was my grandfather's uncle.... which (dawning realisation) means that... you are - oh my word - YOUR grandfather and my grandfather were cousins. Or something. Whatever. WE ARE RELATED?? Holy Smoke! I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised. After all, we've been dining out for years on the fact that my children's dad's great-uncle arrested Hitler, which means our kids are related to people who imprisoned both Hitler and Churchill. That's pretty marvellously weird, by itself. And yeah - their dad's side is definitely looking better in that story.

The classic first post

Here's where I say - Welcome to my new blog! The only way anyone is reading this is a) if you're my mother or b) one of my children or c) because you liked the rest of the stuff on my blog, and read everything, and eventually landed on the first post. If you are c) - I would apologise for the fact that there's nothing interesting here, but hey. It's your own fault, you obsessive blog-reader, you.