In relativity, movement is continuous, causally determinate and well defined, while in quantum mechanics it is discontinuous, not causally determinate and not well defined.-David Bohm
I made a trip to Cape Town last August. It was a rough trip right from the beginning. It was my sixth time flying to South Africa, but this time was longer than ever before. I had already been to Jamaica and Atlanta in the weeks before, I’d been working on the road for many, many months. A trip to Egypt with a working four day layover in Italy loomed in the future. The flight took thirty five hours in total, including a nine hour layover in Amsterdam. I have learned how to go into a kind of dream state while travelling, reading, writing, a kind of timelessness. But this one was grueling. When I got there my bags were late, my rental car had no GPS, I struggled to find my way to my airbnb. The real chaos started the next morning, though.
I took my little rental car back to the downtown office to get a GPS (hereafter known by its infernal name, Garmin. Garmin the Terrible. Garmin the Destroyer) but they didn’t have one, so I drove round Table Mountain and back to the airport using Google Maps (you’d think I’d know the way by now) and got it me there, but my phone died. Cigarette lighter wouldn’t charge it. I was jet lagged. I was grumpy. My dear mentor Charlie Murphy was very ill with ALS and I was very far away. I was devastated. I was doing his work, our work, training youth workers and social artists, but I wanted to be near. I got back in the car, struggled to remain on the correct side of the road. I followed Garmin. And followed. And let the Cape Town radio blast out the windows, and breathed in what was, by now, familiar air, and after about forty minutes realized I had no idea where I was. I stopped on the side of the road, with wide fields on one side, and a steep slope up on the other, and in the distance very tall silos and smokestacks that I had never seen before. At least I had Garmin. I reprogrammed, gave it a shake for good measure, and propped it back up on the dashboard. The sun had begun to set. I turned the car around, set out again. I went in a long circle. The gas was down to half. I was back with the tall silos. I moved forward this time instead. I followed a long way. I got into wine country. I took a random turn, hoping to jiggle Garmin back to sense. Three hours had passed. I was getting very tired. I ended up in a township unlike any of the others I’d seen. The sun set. I went in circles in the township. Men in tuques with shiny faces and open bottles of liquor peered in the windows. Children ran in front of the car, so I had to slow, and sometimes stop. I finally found my way out of the township, back on the highway. I went back towards the silos.
I finally admitted that Garmin was not working. Don’t cry, I told myself. If you cry you’ll never find it. I had no phone. I was down to just over a quarter of gas. I remembered Mocheko chiding me while we drove here last year, when I’d just learned to drive. He said, never listen to that woman. (He meant Garmin.) Always follow your heart. Your heart always knows where it’s going. Mocheko is a gentle, sophisticated, philosophical soul; a Rasta who has survived many years on the streets and in the slums of Joburg. It was dark. I followed the road. Eventually I realized my heart did know. The choking tears lodged in my throat melted. Finally, I saw the N5. I took it, found a convenience store. Got directions to the children’s hospital. I’d been lost near there last year, so I knew how to follow it to town. Stopped at a gas station. Got directions to Woodstock. After more than five hours I made it back to the airbnb. When I got into my room, and laid on the bed I started to cry. I texted two of my friends. I realized I couldn’t breathe. I was exhausted. One of them sent me some soothing music to tune into on spotify, and I played it on repeat in my head phones and after many hours my pounding heart settled and drifted to sleep.
This was the beginning of that trip. I wrote a few weeks ago about the trip the year before, where the chaos was inside me. This year it was outside, but I was equally scathed. The airbnb was run by a lovely but very strange couple. They were Burners, Burning Man folks, but they were white South Africans. Part of the group that had started Africa Burn. Their house was full of the things you will expect if you know that scene. Skulls. Beads. Art. Fur. Animals. Costumes. An espresso machine. Drinking water from Table Mountain (another round of stomach torture. Why do I never learn?) To be honest, I felt quite at home. There was a gorgeous living shower. Some very sweet dogs and irritating cats. He was a locksmith and she was a criminologist who was following the money to make claims against the perpetrators of apartheid. Very interesting. I began to work after a day of rest. I love my South African friends and colleagues. But in my heart, I was tense. I was so worried about Charlie.
I met Charlie Murphy in 2002 after the first time I attended a Power of Hope youth arts camp as a visiting artist. I’d just read Arnold Mindell’s Quantum Mind and I thought (then) that it made a lot of sense. All the my workshops that year were focused on synchronicity, and the living consciousness of matter. Ah. I should describe those to you one day. That camp was a turning point in my life. In every way, it is the reason I’m writing this essay now. My ability to tune into the creativity and spontaneity that are going to propel me through these fifty-two pieces came from there. And the story I want to tell you today is about one of those camps. My fiftieth camp, a few hours outside of Cape Town. The model has come to be called The Creative Community Model (soon to change its name again) but it’s not really a very official kind of thing. It’s an organic thing, a living structure for how to come together in groups and practice taking creative risks together, practice making and reflecting and deepening and more than anything just being real. That’s what attracted me to it work in the first place. It was one of the first times in my life (granted I was only twenty four then) that I felt like it was really okay to just be myself. I’ll tell you more about that first camp another time, maybe. But after the camp I was invited to a meeting, at the home of someone who would become very dear to me later. And there was a man there. He was thin and tall, very handsome in the face, with eyes that were both sharp and incisive and warm and gentle. His fingers were long, and his gestures were romantic and dramatic. He was utterly compelling in his speech. Lilting, funny, persuasive. He had founded this camp organization with Peggy Taylor, who I’d met during the course of the week before. He asked if I wanted to come along to Lund, BC, to do another camp. I said I couldn’t think of anything better to do with my time, and that remains true until today.
So we’re in Cape Town. And we try to give Garmin another chance. The people from the airport had come in, fiddled with it, recalibrated it, they swore. A few friends packed into my car, and there were a few other cars on their way out. Our camp was about three hours out of Cape Town, along the incredible coast. South Africa, of course, is on both the Atlantic and the Indian coasts. They have very different characters. The coast we were on was rough, swooningly blue, write foamy orgasmic crests tumbling up hundreds of feets and crashing down, filling the air with a kind of medicine, a kind of vitality that drenches and reinvigorates the soul. But Garmin was of no help. We used our phones. I had a car full of young men, the men I’d been training for some years, Thandile, Theo and Siyanda. Thandile is a gentle spirit, tall and long and fun and determined in his learning. His hobby is to watch preachers on YouTube. He often preaches on Sundays. He makes you feel the very worst is all in God’s hands. Theo is an artist. He is powerful, and tightly wound, ultra-confident, well spoken, well dressed. He started a youth government in Mfuleni, the township where he grew up. His dream is to be a motivational speaker. And then Siyanda. Siyanda is a national champion long jumper, a profoundly gifted dancer and dance teacher and an international winner in indigenous games. They’re all from Mfuleni, and I’ve been so blessed that they’ve become dear friends over the years. Theo was going to lead the camp, with one of the women from our partner organization, Linci.
I’m concerned that I’m getting into too much detail for you here. I’m never sure how much to write, and in a first draft, of course it all comes out. It’s so different to try to tell a story, rather than just let my mind stream out for sixty minutes. I’m going to skip ahead.
I wanted this story to be about transformation. A particular transformation. I didn’t mean to tell you about Charlie, but since he died during this camp, I have to tell you both stories. It wasn’t really a surprise. I had a feeling it was going to happen, right from that night I got lost. I called Rup on Facebook messenger and told him I didn’t think I was going to see Charlie again.
There was a young intern at the partner org. The org is called Earthchild, and it is a wonderful entity. Very small and nimble, it teaches yoga, mindfulness and environmental sustainability in township schools, and then trains the older youth to run the programs themselves, teaching meditation and asana to their younger siblings and neighbours. It’s run by a racially diverse group of women, many of whom are from those communities. They are spectacularly graceful and the perfect balance tothe powerful, gregarious young men in my car. The Earthchild camp runs on the Power of Hope style model, but it’s specially intended to help youth from township communities, black and coloured, to mix and meet each other, and build bridges across difference. Earthchild often has international interns come to work with them. They had two this year. Dominique, a new yoga teacher from San Francisco that used to be a professional volleyball player, until she realized her anger and competitiveness weren’t serving her, and Leah. Leah was a young German woman whose job was to take photos at the camp.
The camp was going very well with Theo and Linci running it. It’s a big job to lead a group of eighty or so people through these kinds of processes. It’s emotional, it’s physically taxing, and it’s spiritually both energizing and draining. But it was going well. The youth were so happy to be on the ocean, and I swear the ocean was happy to see us too. One day, though Dom came to me. Where’s Leah, I asked her. I haven’t seen her. She’s in bed, Dom said. She won’t come out. Why not? I asked. I don’t know, I tried to talk to her, but she won’t say. Something’s wrong. Concerned, I went and knocked on Leah’s door. She’s a tall girl, long limbs, a square jaw, smooth blond hair, dark intelligent eyes, a long straight nose, the kind of nose you think can smell a rat if there’s one around. She didn’t seem to suffer fools. I was slightly intimidated by her, I think maybe, until this moment. Some people make me feel like the things I know for sure just don’t make any sense. I stepped into their dark room. She was a large lump under the thin cotton cover. Leah? What’s happening? I don’t know what to do here, she said. I don’t know what to say. They don’t want me to be here. Who? The kids. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t know. I sat on the edge of the bed, and she sat up. Her face was melty and misshapen with tears. After about a half hour kind of going in the upward spiral of the specific coaching techniques I’ve been taught for these kinds of conversations it came out. Leah was nineteen. Id assumed she was much older. She had never experienced anything like this. We spend hours making time and space of every kind for these children to be listened to, but no one had ever listened to Leah in the way we were asking her to offer to others.
This is a story about collective power. You’ll see. I do have a thesis here, but it’s all buried in the story. Ah. Next week’s essay. I long for you already. I miss the structure of the heady bits. But, I’ve only got eleven minutes left.
Well, the short of it is that Leah and I decided that she should make an offering. Instead of trying to get the kids to like her (it wasn’t that they didn’t, but just connecting between themselves form the coloured township of Lavender Hill and the black township of Kayelitsha is a lot. Plus they’d grown up in the Earthchild program, most of them. It was a lot for everyone. Also, to be suddenly out in nature like that, with the ocean pounding the air into swirls of dream and chi. It’s a lot) instead of trying to get them to like her, she would offer a workshop. In what? I could teach German, she said. Great, I said, glad to have a small win, and ready to get out of the dark, warm room. Let’s do it. In my mind I thought, okay, how successful is this really going to be. English isn’t comfortable to some of these youth. What are they going to do with German? But, we did it that afternoon. I went along.
And the strangest thing happened. The strangest thing, and the simplest, and the reason I’m writing you this story.
The kids from Lavender Hill were raised in Afrikaans. But in these kinds of camps it’s more usual to sing and do cultural games from Bantu culture, in Xhosa, or maybe another African language. One of the leads, Linci, is fluent in Afrikaans, but it isn’t really a culture that is being actively preserved amongst the social change oriented people of colour. But here we were and the Afrikaans-speaking coloured teens were picking up the German like wildfire. Well, it started to seem cool. We found cool words to translate some of camp jargon. It caught on. Before we knew it we were singing in Afrikaans, children’s song they remembered. The whole camp. And there was a balancing effect, and then it deepened. I wish I had the powers to describe to you the strange feeling of being there in that little camp, on that massive ocean, in a circle of black and brown faces, singing in Afrikaans about how to cross the darkest night and everyone knowing and feeling the healing that was passing through. Leah was the only white person at the camp. Her contribution brought these youth from these two places where the whiteness of the colonizing influence had pressed and oppressed, and taken and appropriated, all these stories that I’d been told over the years, all the walls that seemed to flash down and build back up almost immediately, barely a few years later, all the hope, and all the intention, and here it was with this seventy minute German class that broke this language barrier, which is the barrier before the future of the amply imagined New South Africa I’d been hearing about since 2005. The Afrikaans the coloured folk speak is a vestige of their dislocation, and it was the material from which the bridge was built here.
But what is the thesis? What is the why? I’ll tell you what I think. I think that regardless of her social location, it was Leah who was in the most pain. And in any group, I think, if you can find the person (not the peoples, not the group, but the individual) and turn the group’s focus towards them in a spirit of openness and healing and receiving and giving, and without pity, but with faith, then the principles that I referred to in the last essay come into play. From Polyani’s work. New affordances. Emergence. What did not seem to be available before, now, with the new extensions of the self, become apparent.
And, there’s the time. My hour with you is up for the week. Maybe next week I’ll get to pick up a little more about Charlie. Suffice for now to tell you he passed while we were at that camp. And the ocean scooped up my grief and sent it up to the clouds, and I heard him there. I saw him watch our little camp. I know he saw the power of his work, and the simple enormity of what it means to come together for no other reason than to be with each other in a real way. In a human way. Short, messy, beautiful, irreplaceable, and yet, endlessly streaming forth from wherever we come from to wherever we go, with just this short stop in between.