To Nathan on His Seventh Birthday

As I write this, a week before your birthday, I am sitting four hundred kilometres away from you. It is nine o’ clock in the morning and it is already 30 degrees outside. The air is heavy with the heat. The cicadas hum steadily in the background and somewhere in the nearby acacias I can hear a bushshrike. There is an intensity to the stillness here; the indomitable assertion of life. Sometimes my work takes me to wonderful places. I have always felt most alive in the Lowveld, just as I know it makes your heart sing too. The African bush will always, I think, appeal to souls like ours – passionate, wild, intense. And, as so often I do when I am away, I wish you were here with me.


We will be back here, together, in few months. It has become a sort of annual pilgrimage. These things are necessary, I think. We need traditions to secure the bonds between us. Home, I think, is as much an internal structure as an external one, and these rituals form part of the architecture of a home. And so I will keep bringing you back here, just as my father did when I was a boy, and as I hope you will do for me when I am older. Sometimes, as the years roll by, inexorably as glaciers, memories are all that keep us together. The African bushveld remembers our stories, stores them deep in the iron hills, and reminds us of them as we sit together around the embers of a woodfire, beneath the wild impartiality of her star-strewn sky.


It has been a turbulent year for South Africa, and – I think – for you. Our friends have been emigrating in droves. We have considered it too, much as we love it here. And as I sit here, a whisper of a breeze offering some relief from the stifling heat, I know what an enormous sacrifice leaving would be. For all of us. Home is, after all, where the heart is. My heart – yours, I think, too – is here. What is a home, after all, if not an idea that we construct to lend stability to the ceaselessly changing chaos that is life. And because our hearts are entwined in our concepts of home, sound mental health requires a stable home.  Unfortunately,  neither your country’s DNA, nor your genetic coding, is predisposed towards stability.


You will never escape from the fact that you are – and I say this with no trace of criticism – a difficult person.  You had no choice in that: both your mother and I are difficult people. Those who experience life with passionate intensity always are.  It is both a blessing and a curse. It means that you feel what it means to be alive with an urgency and potency that can be quite overwhelming at times. When you love, you love fiercely. But when you suffer loss, the scars will run deep.


I have watched you this year, navigating your first year at school, with both pride and concern. Concern because you have not found it easy. You try so hard to please, to fit in. But the truth is that formal schooling is not a system that rewards the kind of person you are. It doesn’t really like passionate and intense; it likes meek and compliant. It will demand blind obedience to its attempts to conform you into the image of its ideal child, and it will squash you if you do not oblige. A culture driven by economics, as ours is, must invariably adopt a utilitarian approach to human relations. Human value, in other words, will be determined by how useful each person is perceived to be. And that requires an external measurement of usefulness. There is, consequently, an obsession with academic achievement and sporting prowess in South African schools. The beauty of your spirit, the fierce independence of your personality, all the beautiful parts of you that make you you, will go unrewarded. They may even be discouraged. And with all the best intentions in the world, your teachers will serve the imperial machine that is schooling. So will your school. It will continue to perpetuate the system by rewarding academic achievement in ways that equate high marks with academic success (in other words, they will value achievement over character). And that will always leave you feeling like you aren’t quite good enough. I so wish I could spare you that.


But I am proud too. I am proud of the person you are. I am proud of you for being willing to participate in everything, even when you are not the best at the particular activity. You made me burst with pride when you swam in your first gala. I could see how much it disappointed you when you did not win, but it was not your placing that impressed me: I saw a young man whose determination ensured that he completed, in total, four lengths of a large pool, and who kept going even when he was struggling towards the end. I was so proud when you chose to compete in your first karate tournament, even though I know you were scared. That meant more to me than your two medals. I am so immensely proud of the enormous effort you must be making to curb your impulsivity in class, so that you can be a “good” student. I am proud when we go on game drives and you ask the ranger a million questions instead of sitting quietly and just accepting everything. Because that is how you learn. Learning demands the asking of questions. Schooling demands the accepting of answers. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for you. But please know that the fault lies with the education system, not with you. For the sake of your happiness, I hope you learn that soon.


On your birthday, today, I want to celebrate everything you are. I want to honour your beautiful heart. I want to honour your fierce sense of justice, your boundless capacity to love, your courage. And I know that sometimes you feel lonely and inadequate. I know you feel the sting of rejection and “failure” more deeply than others. And I know that you internalise those feelings. You wonder what is wrong with you. But the problem is not you. The inadequate you that you experience is an illusion: a reflection in the mirror of a twisted social system that wants to turn you into something you are not. Take this truth from your dad, who has walked that road, and taken a long time to learn the important lesson: resisting society’s attempts to conform you into its likeness is very painful. So long as you judge yourself by its standards, which are brutally utilitarian and oblivious to individual needs (valuing, as they do, some utopian ideal of community over the actual people who make up that community), you will always be unhappy. So long as you remain uncritical of their judgments of you, you will always feel like a failure. People will simply not understand your resistance. Forgive them for that; they are as much victims of that system as you. But you must properly understand your resistance – that your being difficult is a strength, not a character flaw – and resist consciously and deliberately, if you want to find peace, despite the hardship.


But while it is a hard road, resistance is rewarding too. You will come to love yourself unshakeably. When you realise that the fault is not with you, but with systems of human relatedness that cannot value you (because they always serve some higher ideal – to which they wish to recruit you – before you as an individual), you will find the strength to accept yourself and to love others, even those with whom you profoundly disagree.


One day when you are old enough to read this, I hope you will take this message to heart. I pray that you will have the courage to accept that the fault is not in you, but with cultural and religious and educational systems that want to assimilate you. I pray that you will discover the peace that comes with resisting them (the systems, I mean, not the people who are trapped in them too, although it is easy to see them as synonymous). I pray you will come to see why I am so proud of you, why I love you; why – although I may celebrate them with you – your achievements will always mean less to me than the personality traits you exhibit in achieving them.


A blue-headed agama scurries up the trunk of the tree next to me. I cannot help but imagine how you would react: with unadulterated wonder. A squeal of laughter and you would try to catch it, chasing it further up the tree, just out of reach. You would lose interest shortly and go in search of the next small miracle of life. That’s how you live your life – and I think there is tremendous wisdom in it – refusing to get stuck in the in-betweens; living from wonder to wonder. May the system never rob you of that. Happy birthday, my wonder-ful boy.

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