See a feather, pick it up: a walking meditation

On Thursday I walked to work, even though I was a little late. I’d woken later than planned, having failed to set off both of my alarms (yes, I need two).

I felt tender and weepy upon waking. Maybe because I’d wanted to run round the reservoir, do a breathing meditation, sort out some clothes before setting off etc etc. All heroic goals. Which I’d failed. #BadStart

I reached the bottom of my road – the spot where the homeless guy normally sits in the afternoons, feeding the pigeons. Like a lot of wandering drunks, he is split, Janus-like, between spirituous and sage: Some days he’s slumped over, too sozzled to talk. Others he’s as clear as a seer.

It was too early for the friendliest hobo, but on the ground in his place lay a perfect white feather.

feather on path

Image: Grant MacDonald, Flickr

I’m rather partial to a well-placed feather, so I picked it up. Don’t roll your eyes: I don’t necessarily believe a feather is a sign of a guardian angel nearby. For me, noticing natural beauty, like a feather, can be a cue to more conscious awareness; to being present to what can be seen (and what is unseen) around us. See, stop, think: What’s going on for me right now? And apart from the heavy stuff, holding on to such an ethereal object that’s reached such lofty heights lifts my spirit instantly.

Lungs illustration

The lungs as birdhouse to the soul? (Illustration is my Carmen Ziervogel, I think.)

I thought about my relationship to breath, my lungs. I thought about my sore throat. I could be getting sick. But I blame having had a few social smokes over the holidays, after months of not smoking.

I had my first cigarette at 11. Since then, it’s been an on-and-off affair.

When I was 23, I went to see a medical intuitive who used her intuition to “read” messages about her clients in their organs. When she got to my lungs, her eyes welled up. She explained that the lungs are where we hold our emotions. She said she felt my loneliness. I was lonely all right. My identical twin sister and I had just separated, traumatically, and were living in separate cities for the first time.

Two years ago, I saw another intuitive healer (a birthday gift from my twin) who uses a kind of biofeedback coupled with channelling. She saw distress in my lungs, actually advised a doctor. And said: “Our lungs are where we hold our grief. You may think smoking is helping with that. It may initially block those feelings, but in the end all it does is trap them there.”

Why do some people desire that feeling of smoke rushing in to their lungs, even after they’ve kicked the nitotine addiction, while others never even get beyond that first sputtering attempt at smoking?

Maybe it’s inter-generational. The lungs feature heavily on my paternal side, the Irish side. My father smoked when we were kids; had a bout of pleurisy. His father had a very drawn-out end, battling to breathe for years as a result of emphysema. By the time we knew him, he’d long given up the fags. It was hard to watch him struggle to breathe. But as a teen in denial of death, I was more drawn to his old silver cigarette case, as it was engraved with the initials he and I shared.

What more could be going on in the pleura paternus?

Psychosomatic Disorders in General Practice traces the long history of linking the interconnected health of the body and mind, from the Bible’s Book of Job to Plato, including the first use of the term “psychosomatic” in 1818, and tracks its development into an interdisciplinary empirical science.

The authors say that since the first cry is the first sign of life of a new individual in the world, breathing and autonomy are linked. “Grief reduces the depth of respiration, while happiness increases it; anxious people have superficial and irregular breathing and so on.” Above all, “psychosomatic medicine attempts to recognise a person’s ‘organ language’… as an expression of emotional phenomena.”

In Eloquent Body, doctor, poet and author Dawn Garish brings together the two streams of her life: the scientific, doctor self and the poetic, dancer-writer self, to show how the body is a “battleground for feuding narratives”… how the drive to life manifests in the body, through illness as well as through the act of creating. Since we hardly know ourselves, our symptoms give us feedback on how we are doing in the world. She argues for a more artistic reading of the human body. She mentions Carl Jung’s view, that the soul, being formless, must take its shape through the body. Similarly, the late archetypal therapist and scholar James Hillman’s view on the daemon – the life force that directs you on your journey – suggests it will resort to anything to get our attention.

Eye roll permitted here: Louise L Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life’s little table of signs says:
Lung problems mean depression, grief, fear of taking in life, feeling unworthy of life.
Emphysema and heavy smoking are ways of denying life. Some of her ideas seem drawn from Chinese medicine.

Even if the mind forgets,
The skin remembers;
The organs keep a record of their guests.
-Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, from ‘The Quiet Conversation’

I crossed the road at the Mount Nelson, head still down, wondering about whether my lungs are holding on to a sense of grief and loss. On the other side, on the pavement outside Bertram House, an A5 book covered in red fabric was propped up on its side, page flapping open like an bird about to take flight. One word in capital letters could be seen from my vantage point: “BEREAVEMENT”.

I picked it up.

It looked like a journal of study notes. I rifled through it quickly, aware of the passengers in the cars beside me, but long enough to get the just of it. It was about carers: Make sure carers are taking care of themselves, it said.

The day before, I’d read a moving post by a blogger friend about her 2015 resolution, which came as an epiphany brought about by a bout of illness: To be more selfish; to take more care of her self.

Her post reminded me of the words of Thomas Moore. In an interview to promote his book on the Soul of Medicine, he said:

Illness is not just a physical thing. It’s not just your body, as modernistic philosophy suggests. A human being is never just a body. A person really needs to take care of themselves emotionally and spiritually. If they don’t do that they’re liable to inhibit healing. Insufficient support and an unrealistic vision for themselves can also inhibit healing. It’s really important to go beyond the physical.Out of all that comes a deepening – not automatically – but a gradual deepening of their sense of who they are as a person. Illness is an opportunity to ask difficult questions. People ask what is important and what isn’t.

As I walked past the Michaelis School of Fine Art, I smiled at the beauty of a single morning’s walk. I looked at the ground beneath me and what did I see?

Another white feather to greet me.

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Seen at sea

Like the majority of people around the world in January, I’ve thrown off the devil’s horns and dusted off that halo. And to make it shine, I have vowed to do more of two things this year: write and move.

So the #writeandrun31 challenge put out by Christine Frazier (who deconstructs bestselling books at the Better Novel Project) and her brother Matt Frazier (a vegan ultra-marathoner and author of No Meat Athlete: Run on Plants and Discover Your Fittest, Fastest, Happiest Self) felt tailor-made for me.

Basically, for 31 days, starting whenever, you devote some time every day for 31 days to writing (or any creative work) and running (or any form of fitness). The idea is to start small and that the two activities should reinforce each other.

I am aiming on the following each day:

  • 15 minutes of free writing with prompts (which the #writeandrun31 team offer on their Facebook page) or journalling
  • 30 minutes towards blogging
  • 30 minutes of movement (walking, run-walking, yoga or gym)
  • 20-30 minutes of breathing meditation, specifically the Sudarshan Kriya (a toughie for me)

Hope I haven’t set myself up for failure with this list. Anyway. Yesterday, day one, was good. Ticks all round… apart from the breathing.

(Doh! Must. Remember. To. Breathe.)

Today was day two of 31. I got my writing task done this morning, but was procrastinating on the walk part (baby steps) of #writeandrun31 all of the dull day. Finally decided to just get out to the Sea Point Promenade, my favourite place in Cape Town, this stunning city at the bottom of Africa.

Stepped out… into drizzle.

But I headed to the Prom anyway, and was glad I did: It wasn’t raining that side of the mountain. As I began walking, I looked at the public artworks that have caused such controversy, with many ardent articles written on them in recent months, and agreed that between the seal-shaped benches, the Ray Ban sunglasses sculpture and the like, the Prom is beginning to look like the bottom of a giant’s abandoned toybox.

As I moved, I wondered on the link between motion and memory and metaphor. I saw boys and girls in their Shabbat best. I saw a man with jeans caked in grit, inhaling glue from a plastic bread bag, dancing dangerously close to the railing’s edge in his inebriated bubble.

Where will his story end?

I felt blessed when I came to the photography exhibition plastered on the concrete Promenade wall. Called “Sea Change”, the term first coined by Shakespeare in The Tempest, the multimedia project looks at man’s transformative relationship with the sea and its kelp forests and aquatic creatures, starting with the first (wo)man. And in just several steps, I went from feeling glum to being in my head to noticing others to going way back in time to where the human story started.

Early San and the sea

Early hunter-gatherers relied on the sea.

One of the photograph’s captions spoke of divers finding their “sea eyes”, and seeing creatures they’d never spotted before with regular diving. I guess with this challenge, I am hoping that repetition and paying conscious attention to movement and writing will help me strengthen my writer’s eye.

As I was leaving, the sun burnt through the clouds. And the day felt that little bit brighter.

Click here for more on the Sea-Change project and their support for MPAs (Marine Protected Areas).

Navigating the rich kelp forests.

Navigating the rich kelp forests.

The spot for romance … in Roodepoort?!

Maybe it was seeing the bridal party as we arrived and stepping on their scattered rose confetti, or spying the couple sneaking a kiss under the trees away from their picnic party, but today’s visit to the botanical gardens near Roodepoort stirred a sense of romance in my soul.

It seems fitting that the gardens are named after the late anti-apartheid activist Walter Sisulu, as the romance he shared with his wife, Albertina, is the stuff of legends. (Learn more about it here.) I couldn’t help but think of the iconic couple when walking past the “dancing trees” – two trees that have grown beautifully entwined…

Situated about 30km from the Joburg CBD, the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens is one eight national botanic gardens in South Africa. It’s apparently been a popular picnic spot since the Gold Rush of the 1800s, and so it remains: the park has been voted the best place to get back to nature in Gauteng for nine years in a row.

There is grassland and savanna, a cycad garden, a bird hide, a restaurant and waterfall. You can also learn a bit about plants in the educational section, or brush up on the geology of the area on the JCI Geological Trail.

But if it’s romance you’re after, the shady kloofs and bubbling streams will be more to your liking. And with over 220 bird species spotted in the area, you’re guaranteed a soothing chirruping soundtrack to accompany your tranquil walk or picnic. Try spot the breeding pair of Verreaux’s (black) eagles, which nest above the gardens’ dramatic waterfall.

Graffiti on tree at Walter Sisulu Gardens

Forbidden love: Graffiti on a tree. Tsk, tsk…

The absence of litter, thanks to the park’s “take out what you take in” policy, means you can expect a clean, more natural experience, which makes a great alternative to lunch out at one of Joburg’s many malls.

For more information, visit the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden page on the SANBI site here.

There is also a Facebook group for the gardens.

memorial plaque at Walter Sisulu Gardens

Evidence of storge – “family love”, one of the four types of love the Ancient Greeks identified – in this memorial plaque for a son lost too soon.

Why it’s wise to plant a wild peach tree

A guided walk I took through Newlands Forest the other day, to identify indigenous Afromontane tree species, turned out to be uber interesting.

Did you know, for instance, that ‘Oom’ Jan Van Riebeek, the Dutch ‘founder’ of Cape Town, actually lived in Bishop’s Court, not the Castle, as widely believed? That the well-to-do Constantia moms fight with the council to remove bat poop, rich in seeds from the Outeniqua yellowood tree, from their crisp-white walls? Or that the iris was named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow?

Settler history, class gossip and Greek mythology aside, I also learnt a few things about local plants, such as: If there’s one indigenous tree you should plant in your Cape garden above all others, make it the wild peach.

Why?

As our guide Mark Hawthorne (great surname for a tree guide), from Table Mountain Treks and Tours, explained: “With Wild Peach in the garden, you create a whole ecosystem.”

Wild peach tree

Kiggelaria Africana / Wild peach tree

A Peachy World
Also known as Kiggelaria Africana, umKokoko (Xhosa), Lekgatsi (South Sotho), Monepenepe (North Sotho), wildeperske (Afrikaans), uMunwe (Zulu) and Muphatavhafu (Venda), the wild peach is a natural pioneer of the Afromontane forest. If an area is cleared of indigenous vegetation, it’ll likely be the first to return, paving the way for regeneration. They grow quickly, too, and are evergreen.

The wild peach attracts loads of birds and butterflies. On its leaves, we found these creepy critters – the caterpillar larvae of the Garden Acrea (Acraea horta) butterly that pollinates fynbos and has been so prolific in Cape Town of late.

In late October, the Oranjezicht City Farm posted on FB about the buttlerflies being all over their wild onion and trees in late October, getting a lot of responses from others who’d noticed a lot of them flitting round the city this spring.

The spiked caterpillar of the Acrea horta strip the wild peach of its leaves (Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

The spiked caterpillar of the Acrea horta strip the wild peach of its leaves (Picture courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

In nature, things that are poisonous or dangerous often look that way. This punky fella is pumped full of the cyanide that laces the leaves of the wild peach. This is why the caterpillar is not popular snack for birds, apart from Klaas’s Cuckoos – “they’re the only birds that can stomach it,” said Mark.

Another bird that loves the wild peach is the sweet-looking Cape white-eye. And if you watch your tree closely, you may even spot the shy boomslang waiting to prey on it… The tree that brings wildlife to your back garden will last for years, and in its old age it will develop this sturdy-looking ‘elephant foot’.

Wild peach trunk

Majestic wild peach elder’s ‘foot’

Our guided walk ended at the ruins of Paradise (Paradys), the former master woodcutter’s house that later became the holiday house for Lady Anne Barnard, the British socialite, artist and travel writer who lived in the Cape, on the property that is now the Vineyard hotel, with her husband Andrew Barnard from 1797 to 1802.

At varsity I was lucky enough to be taught by Professor Margaret Lenta, one of the editors of The Cape Diaries of Lady Anne Barnard, which documented how the Cape’s ‘First Lady’ overcame challenges to keep living in the style she was accustomed to (I recall the #ColonialProblem of keeping meat fresh for dinner guests in the African heat).

If you fantasise about time travel like I do, you can read some of her writing here and here. SA writer Anjie Krog also became fascinated by voyeuristic traveller back in the 1980s and published a volume of poems titled Lady Anne.

Paradise ruins at Newlands forest

The site of the ruins of Lady Anne Barnard’s home, Paradise. Now overgrown, it once would have had epic views. To the left is a large poplar tree. They were brought to the Cape as a windbreak for the oaks.

Lady Anne Barnard's paradise

Here is Lady Anne Barnard’s drawing of Paradise back in its day.

Lady Ane Barnard's drawing of Paradise, Newlands Forest

Picture courtesy of Wiki Commons

Some other things I saw…

Diospyros whyteana

The glossy leaves of the Diospyros whyteana (bladder-nut tree)

Wild almond tree trunk

The wild almond tree was the first indigenous tree to be propagated by the Dutch. Apparently one of Jan Van Riebeeck’s favourite, it was used to form a dense boundary fence to stop the Khoikhoi from grazing their livestock in Dutch areas and is so seen by some as one of the earliest examples of apartheid. While we were here, we heard a fiery-necked nightjar call. “That’s one for the books”, said Mark, who has never heard one call during the day in his 30-odd years of working in conservation. Eery.

Wild iris

The brilliant blue Aristea capitata

Mark and camphor bush

Our guide, Mark, in front of a camphor bush, which attracts nesting birds. A second later, a crow and a Jackal Buzzard flew by.

Rooiels

The ‘praying hands’ (baby leaves) of the Rooiels (Cunonia capensis/Butterspoon), usually found along river banks and in waterfall ravines. The ‘spoons’ beneath them secrete a kind of sunscreen to protect the baby leaves from UV rays.

Cape lappett

The gorgeous caterpillar of the Cape Lappett moth looks good enough to stroke. (Luckily I learned that lesson in nursery school.)