Featured Illustration: Ann Chen
A year ago, soon after I returned from an emotionally exhausting Civil Rights trip to the USA, I had the opportunity to take stock at a women’s retreat that I attended. I realised that there had been many positives hidden among the personal challenges of the previous year. Determined to begin the new decade well, I decided to start a gratitude journal and to jot down at least three things that I was thankful for every day.
My first entry on 12 November 2019 was:
Today I am grateful for —
Having a group of women who I can call on for support.
The opportunity to retreat, reflect, and prepare for 2020.
The support and energy of my two children.
Little did I realise that it would be exactly those gifts that would sustain me in the year to follow.
In the ensuing weeks, I was happy to get back into swimming at the gym and meeting an old friend for a regular “cultural outing”. I took my young nephew on a sunset cable car trip up Table Mountain and swam in the ocean in Muizenberg, both long on my to-do list.
Over Christmas, I welcomed having my house full with my children and their friends and was grateful for meeting young people committed to making a difference in South Africa. A journal article I wrote was accepted for publication and I started exploring the possibilities of publishing a book.
As 2019 ended and the new decade began, I noted my gratitude for attending clay classes, visiting Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, and finding a yoga studio 10 minutes from home — all of which would soon be inaccessible due to a global pandemic lurking in the wings.
Many days I was simply grateful for buying flowers, eating a good meal, sitting outside with a view of the mountain, time to write, and taking books out of the local library. I was often thankful for the quiet of my own space, being able to walk in my neighbourhood safely, speaking to my son who was in the USA on the phone, having coffee with a friend or my nephew for a sleepover. As January became February, it was the arrival of friends from Australia on their first visit back in 18 years that filled me with gratitude, getting to see Cape Town with new appreciation with them.
And then in March, a runaway fire on the mountain resulted in my neighbourhood being evacuated. Faced with what to take with me, I chose my laptop, personal documents, and analogue photographs of my children when they were little. Afterwards, I was grateful to have a smoky and sooty house to clean at all. And that attitude set the tone for the lockdown we were plunged into ten days later. I cleaned and sorted and donated what I didn’t need, setting to rights my little house, all the while with deep appreciation for the shelter it offered in a world that had seemingly gone mad.
I was meant to start isiXhosa classes four days after lockdown began but my old brain resisted online learning. Later, I would be grateful for developing the skills that would give me access to talks, theatre performances, and poetry readings globally, and my son’s graduation in Boston, for which I had booked flights and had to cancel. It was infinitely better that he had managed to get on the last direct flight to Cape Town days before we went into lockdown.
The internet provided the means to have a daily story time with my 6-year-old nephew every morning at 11, and “Lockdown Celebrations” became the name of the family WhatsApp group that started with my father’s 85th birthday and later included a wedding and a funeral.
I spent way too much time in front of a screen but was deeply appreciative for being able to watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and moved by the One Voice Choir singing Charlie Puth’s, See You Again. I became reacquainted with writing long emails reminiscent of letters of what my children like to refer to as “the old days”. And always, I was thankful for the conversations with friends from all over the world but also right here at home. I took time to cook comfort food like spaghetti bolognaise, chicken pie, bowls of soup, and dhal and rice, and rediscovered my grandmother’s recipe for bread-and-butter pudding.
My garden, with its handkerchief-sized lawn, was a constant source of pleasure — being able to walk outside and put my feet in the grass, to fill my lungs with deep breaths, and to feel the sunshine on my face while I sat and dunked a rusk into my coffee and listened to the wind rustling the leaves of the neighbour’s big old oak tree.
Some days I felt like I was on sabbatical with permission to read, listen, think, and learn — I ploughed through books and TED talks, participated in lectures online, listened to podcasts, and wrote. I became savvier with Instagram and it provided just the right outlet for me. I researched my posts, took photographs, and shared snippets of my work.
In winter, after three years of drought in Cape Town, the rain lashed down for days on end. I was thankful for all that kept me warm and dry — my clothes, my house, and being able to lie in bed listening to the sound of the rain on my roof and know that the dams were filling up. It snowed on Table Mountain, an unusual occurrence, and I appreciated my hot water bottle and hot baths.
And, when lockdown restrictions lifted a little, I took pleasure in walking out the door and through the neighbourhood, greeting the neighbours and having my nephew for a sleepover again, both for his mental health and my own.
Amidst it all, my daughter had to have surgery, spending a few anxiety-filled days in the ICU. I was indebted to the excellent medical care we had access to, the circle of women around both of us who buoyed us up with love and support from a distance. I felt lucky to be able to climb into bed next to her and fall asleep, watch movies with popcorn, and have dinner with her and her brother. My son’s new job was another casualty of the pandemic, but I was proud of the way he rallied and dealt with the setback, finding himself in a completely different place than he would have thought 6 months before.
I focused on what we could do, not on what we couldn’t — watching Free Willy and Little Rascals with my nephew, walking on the promenade with a friend, cinnamon buns, and virtual teas, my first swim at the gym in over six months, getting a haircut. I saw my parents. Time passed, we were still restricted, but life went on — a friend passed her masters, another was awarded her doctorate. The smell of spring turning into summer, Kirstenbosch and the library re-opening, planting vegetables, and completing isiXhosa level 2 were all sources of deep gratitude. I made to-do lists and ticked items off.
At the end of October, I felt safe enough to attend a wellness and tai chi retreat an hour’s drive away — I put Ta-Nehisi Coates on audio and spent the weekend relishing the company of women, my first tai chi class, and a dip in the river. While I was away, there was another fire on the mountain and the fire department asked that we hose down our homes as a precaution. I was grateful for my neighbours who kept me informed. It seemed symbolic that seven months of lockdown was bookended by something that I had no control over.
On 12 November this year, my entry is —
Today I am grateful for —
A tai chi lesson via Zoom.
Being able to sing happy birthday to my little nephew who turned 7.
Attending a (socially-distanced) poetry reading with a friend.
Three little notebooks and one year later, a year that has tested all of us beyond imagination, I have concrete proof that, though 2020 was an annus horribilis, it was not all bad. Roll on 2021. I am ready and grateful for the challenges that you may bring.