Thursday, June 16, 2011

Vineyards and Single-tracks and Stories for Healing

I don’t think about the war when I’m cycling.  Especially when I’m riding my mountain bike on a single-track.  When I was new to mountain biking I’d try to take in the view but would nearly come to grief in a ditch or would trundle off the path into the long grass.  Now I watch the track, or the back wheel of the bike in front.  I do this because I don’t like falling off.   It hurts.  There’s no time to think while I’m mountain biking, I’ve discovered.

Recently I rode into the vineyards with a friend.  Altydgedacht Estate is almost across the road from my house.  I didn’t think of the war as I rode between the autumn vines, their leaves turning first yellow, then burnt orange and finally deep autumn red.  The wasted grapes unharvested from the summer in piles of pleasantly wine-smelling heaps.  The only thing on my mind was the sheer joy of being out in the Tygerberg hills on my bike with an old friend.

My lungs burn and my heart thunders in my chest and suddenly we are haring down towards Bloemendal Estate, over to Nitida, around the top of Hillcrest with its rows of olive trees laden with black olives.  More pain and eventually, after some middle-aged bike-pushing, we reach the telecommunications masts. 

On top of the Tygerberg there is only one place to be with the panorama that stretches out in all directions:  The Present.  My body feels as if it’s celebrating, my mind is alive and awake and interested only in seeing Cape Point, Table Mountain, Robben Island and the distant Dassen Island.  Below is the patchwork of vineyards that have exhausted themselves in the cycle of growth that will produce some of my favourite wines.  We head down to Meerendal and then home. 

Not so sitting at my desk in Johannesburg.  I’m looking at some notes sent to me by James Clelland following a recent meeting.  The notes lay out themes we might discuss at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown next month.  I’m wondering about whether I want to talk about my part in killing, mutinies in the bush and the homosexual experiments of some of the guys. Guys who would without a doubt identify as heterosexual.  I’m not sure I want to talk about these things to an audience of strangers.  These are stories of pain and shame, grief and fear;  stories to be shared with buddies who were there, not strangers at a book event.

I mull this over all day.  I cut a gym session short because my energy is with the thinking and not with the working-out.  Unlike cycling the gym is monotonous, boring and my mind takes itself for a walk.  I take my problem for a walk around Zoo Lake.  Two laps.  The sun is setting, braai fires are gently smouldering their last as groups of friends finish eating and pack up to leave.  A group of teenagers are talking about whether one of them is drunk.  None of them look drunk, they’re just kids having a good time.  Kids who weren’t born when I was in the bush.  Born frees.  One moment I’m enjoying eves-dropping, the next I realise, with sadness, that I had fought so that they would be born oppressed.

Maybe I’ll talk about these things after all.  About the death and the nightmares and the mutiny and the friends playing at being effeminate until it becomes something else.  My stories aren’t particularly dramatic or extraordinary or even extreme in comparison to other stories I’ve heard.  But people should know what they sent their sons and brothers and boyfriends off to do.  They supported the system and the culture that put us there, whether by act or omission.  And they should know.  For without the space to tell these stories and to be heard, there can be no healing.  I believe that if we can’t find a healing path to follow for those of us who fought apartheid’s wars, we will not find a healing path for our society as a whole.  Maybe we should stop and look up from the single-track.  The view might surprise us all.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, Paul. Talking honestly about the issues in an open forum is very unusual. It's difficult enough talking honestly in private with other soldiers, as you and I have done. Partly because I detect a curving back in sentiment amongst the men who fought. Increasingly, they seem to romanticise our war, fueled by dissatisfaction with today's SA. Critical self-reflection never surfaces. I don't know how well-received it would be amongst our old comrades. Of course it'll find currency in Grahamstown but the exercise, like the festival, will always be a fringe event. Do it anyway. Rgds Steve.

Paul said...

Hi Steve, Thanks for your comment. I think you're right that many of us find it difficult to talk honestly about this. I also know from colleagues who are doing acedemic research in this area, that men do want to talk, and do talk if the right "space" is made. The safety of confidentiality for example.

I think many find some comfort in the old paradigm, which, as you say, is backed up by dissatisfaction or dissappointment with today's SA.

I didn't speak out back then. At least not publically. I hope that speaking out now will contribute in some small way to a process of opening up. There are plenty of us around, albeit perhaps a minority, who are capable of that critical reflection. We have an important role to play in the ongoing dialogue.

Thanks for your support and contributing to this broader conversation.


Mark said...

Very beautiful, dramatic and heart-felt language. This is a story that must be told. I look forward to reading more.

Paul said...

Thanks Mark

Anonymous said...

Paul - of course I agree with what you're saying. I'm one who's not afraid to speak of the impact the war had on me - not that everyone wants to listen, or agrees with my analysis of what we did up there. The latter was the point I wanted to make. As what you're doing opens more doors to self-forgiveness, I hope more guys will look inward and find their own healing. And you and me, too. rgds, Steve

Jeff said...

thanks Paul, stirred up many thoughts. I am sure that it is only by those who have experienced modern warfare discussing the effect of war honestly and in a non sensationalist manner that more people will be moved to realise not only the futility of war but the hidden effects on those involved directly in armed conflict. All steps ( or indeed cycle tracks ) along this road no matter how small can have an effect and eventually can achieve a tipping point. Self healing is vital and so is prevention.

Paul said...

Hi Jeff,

Meant to reply some time back and got sidetracked. Thanks for your comment. It's often easy to forget that small contributions can have an effect on the whole. Especially in a country where there is so much healing to be done. Have a look at the latest guest post where another ex-combat soldier tells his story.