On an exposed rock face

It has been a long time since I have written a blog mostly because I have felt so disconnected from the intellectual task of doing a Phd and rather embroiled in a world or my sense of a world that is eating itself. I had a brief reunion with the Phd in August and then a weary fatigue descended and I suddenly could no longer get up in the early mornings to work. The mind fog, the unbelievable tiredness returned and I thought of my friends, like Nick (now in Cape Town) who battle with chronic fatigue and the surrender that it demands.

So I surrendered (with difficulty). I stopped forcing myself to rise up at 3:45am and slept until 6. I stopped working over weekends and instead took to rock climbing and spent my weekend days in the gym, with Donavan and Taryn, getting over my suddenly discovered fear of heights. We then took the real mountains and I rediscovered that deep peace of being in high places and looking down into valleys and across the infinitely diverse rock faces. I felt rock beneath my fingers and remembered my earlier life where I would escape from all conversation and all stress by clambering up mountains alone, not following any paths just setting my eyes on the top and making my way there through the bush and the rocks.

I remember one particular mountain that I scrambled up, on a farm near Cradock in the Eastern Cape, where I ended up crawling on my belly through the undergrowth on a steep slope. This was not rock climbing it was a reckless clambering, squeezing and scratching up the backs of mountains instead of up their sheer rock faces.

I carried on reading a bit. Not much as my eyes and mind would get too tired after a day of work to read other words and other ideas. I did start randomly exploring the revolutionaries. I got tired of reading about the great men and started looking for great women revolutionaries. I made a list:

Aung San Suu Kyi
Rosa Parks
Tawakul Kormon
Corazon Aquino
Phoolan Devi
Angela Davis
Golda Meir
Vilma Lucila
Janet Jaga
Nadezhda Krupskaya
Harriet Tubman
Constance Markieviez
Petra Herrera
Lakshmi Sehgal
Sophie Scholl
Blanca Conales
Celia Sanchez
Kathleen Neal Cleaver
Asmaa Mahfouz
Vilma Lucila Espin
Camandante Ramona
Maria Nikiforova

And I promised them that I would pay them  allegiance and I would find their words and their thoughts somewhere in the world. I’m still doing this. Some would say this is a distraction from the Phd – just get it done Jane – but how can I leave this silence and not find some way to hear the women who gave up their lives to fight for justice especially as I witness the women on the Changing Practice course that in their villages and homes are doing the same thing now.

I also read ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ by Che Guevara. One of the good looking hero type men. I’ve always wanted to read this book. It was both humorous and familiar. It is a story of a young man going on an adventure. Roughing it because his young body can and yet that saturation into the world gives him a perspective that can never be taken away. He describes the poor folk of South America, the women in their shit infested skirts. I remember in particular his description of the mining towns so like the one’s in South Africa.

…the couple who were heading for the sulpher mines in the mountains where the climate is so bad and the living conditions so hard that you don’t need a work permit and nobody asks you what your politics are. The only thing that matters is the enthusiasm with which the workers set to ruining their health in search of a few meager crumbs that barely provide their subsistence.” Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries

I remember my own journey’s: working in the Kat River Valley when I was 20 years old and how, coming home, I’d lie in the bath and sob uncontrollably so hit by the contradictions of working in an area where water was so precious and where children would shy away from my white skin with fear. I remember traveling up East Africa on public transport, hitching rides at the side of the road and being squashed for hours in buses hunching their way through dusty roads. I would feel the air crushed out of me as another person was forced into the bus and the uncontrollable shared dance of the passengers as we swayed as if one body with multiple legs and rocking heads. A naïve young white woman thinking she was on an adventure until, hallucinating with fever from dysentery that I caught on a train that stopped in the middle of nowhere for three days, I felt how some people would never be able to comprehend the gaps, no the caverns between those who have an economic access that is unprecedented and those who survive and whose means of survival is continually threatened. When I go back to what is perceived ‘normal’ for my middle class society the stories I would tell would be just stories. Just battle wounds of a young woman on an adventure. The emotional pain of the contradictions of this experience is inexpressible. It is still like this today except there are now additional stories and memories and fragments. I can see Che telling these stories as an outsider-insider-never-completely-insider and how this separation is both an agony and, behind the words, relief. But the agony is what drives something else, a small feeling that something else is possible. Che writes about this shift, this moment when he knew he would never forget:

He meets a man who could be a vision of his own future. A man that abandoned his own culture and his own place in society and took to traveling until his bones could travel no more. In a moment he summarized his life’s learning for Che and Che took these words into himself and took up the mantel of the dying man into his own life.

“The future belongs to the people, and gradually, or in one strike, they will take power, here and in every country. The terrible thing is that people need to be educated, and this they cannot do before taking power, only after. They can only learn at the cost of their own mistakes, which will be very serious and will cost many innocent lives. Or perhaps not, maybe those lives will not have been innocent because they will have committed the huge sin against nature; meaning, a lack of ability to adapt. All of them, those unable to adapt – die cursing the power they helped, through great sacrifice, to create. Revolution is impersonal; it will take their lives, even utilizing their memory as an example or as an instrument for domesticating the youth who follow them. My sin is greater because, I, more astute and with greater experience, call it what you like, will die knowing that my sacrifice stems only from an inflexibility symbolizing our rotten civilization, which is crumbling. I also know- and this won’t alter the course of history or your personal view of me – that you will die with a clenched fist and a tense jaw, the epitome of hatred and struggle, because you are not a symbol (some inanimate example) but a genuine member of a society to be destroyed; the spirit of the beehive speaks through your mouth and motivates your actions. You are as useful as I am, but you are not aware of how useful your contribution is to the society that sacrifices you.” An unknown, dying man recorded in Ernesto Che Guevara

Che, in his mind responds: “But despite his words, I now know.. I knew that when the great guiding spirit cleaves humanity into two antagonistic halves, I would be with the people. I know this, I see it printed in the night sky that I, eclectic dissembler of doctrine and psychoanalyst of dogma, howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon, and consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls in my hands… I steel my body, ready for battle, and prepare myself to be a sacred space within which the bestial howl of the triumphant proletariat can resound with new energy and new hope.” Ernesto Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries.

And he did just that until his body was broken and we are left to pick over his bones and consider whether he was the true liberation hero or a lost man who defied his civilization and made the mistakes which led to the death of the not so innocent. Whatever our verdict there is one thing that stands out and that triumphs – he believed that humanity could be different. He believed it could be more loving, more equal, more just.

In my mind I cannot let go of the contradictions of our time and this life. Some are able to live with these contradictions or live relatively comfortably with them. I have been cursed to wrestle with them and they embody me and flood me. I have never felt the blood thirsty call for battle nor do I feel that this time is the next battle ground although it may be as our earth becomes defiled by the half that will have it all. For me it has not been a battle of bodies on bodies, it is a battle of the mind and of the spirit which manifests in an exhaustion in my body. It is a battle for sanity in, what seems to be an insane world. It is at times when this internal, continual sense making needs to be still and I need to relinquish the role of serious adult in a serious world and abandon the serious tasks of acting as and becoming a professional, well educated being. I then, if I’m lucky, return to spaces where words create metaphors and images and lines and marks on a page. Like shapes in rocks they have no definition, no shape, no content and yet are satisfying. It is only here that there can be some integration as I look back over this year with my list of women liberators reverberating in my head. Paulo Freire writes:

“The more we become able to become a child again, to keep ourselves childlike, the more we can understand that because we love the world and we are open to understanding, to comprehension, that when we kill the child in us, we are no longer.” Paulo Freire, We make the road by walking.

Maybe this is what happens then. To stay open and childlike means to let go of the roles that society prescribes of ‘professional’, ‘learner’, ‘teacher’ and to rather swim in the vulnerabilities and weaknesses and openness of being human in this time. This means, right now, resting in the exhaustion of my own body while in the sea of chaotic contradictions in the world and the gentle innate compassion of the mind – to know it is okay to love and hope and feel too much and to fail. It is okay and imperfectly human to feel fear when on an open and exposed rock face. Can a PhD come to fruition and a professional life emerge from this space? Does it matter?

“..if I do not love the world if I do not love life if I do not love people I cannot enter into dialogue.” Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Opressed

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