I know why Lot’s wife looked back

Joanne returns to her homeland.

joanne fedlerJoanne Fedler

The last time I saw my niece, she was a little girl. This time, on my return to South Africa, she is gently billowing into her adult self, as if someone’s fast-forwarded the story here. I force myself not to be tearful about the gaps, to stay present to the moment without withering into grief for all I’ve missed.

Returning to the country I left twelve years ago, I brace myself for the avalanche of family, the onslaught of kinfolk, all staking claims to spend time alone with me. And as I coffee with this one, and breakfast with that one, I feel the suppleness returning to a part of me that’s become stiff and neglected with disuse. There is something necessary about being with people who are SO goddamned happy to see you, as the missing pieces of your life suddenly slot into place, and just for a time, you feel like a whole person again, with a long loud history unforgotten.

I schedule my precious days like a speed-dater’s appointment card. I fit in parents, father-in-law, sister-in-law, sisters, brothers-in-law, niece and friends in various configurations of eating and nattering. Two of my dearest friends travel long distances to spend a few hours in my company. I suck in the affection like oxygen. Distance from people we love is an ongoing sorrow but the surge of urgency in our moments together compresses a sort of truth, a rare and mindful intimacy. We go straight into the deepest part of any conversation. I am choked with fullness.

People ask me about immigration. How it is. I try not to be glib. I strain for an honest response. ‘I’ve made a life for myself there,’ I say. I meet a woman who tells me she tried immigrating and lasted three months in Sydney. ‘I couldn’t do it,’ she confesses. ‘It’s not for everyone,’ I agree.

I try not to succumb, but the place you come from is like an old lover, who knows just how you like to be touched and where your ticklish spots are. It has a kidnapper’s hold over you. Brutal nostalgia waits for you around every corner. The streets remember you – you cannot get lost. I am a little afraid of the fluency I feel. I fear the familiarity of my comfort and that being here will unleash a savage yearning in me.

Wherever I go, I am greeted, met, welcomed, like someone long-lost. Here is where the people who have loved me the longest remain and I belong here in the way a donor’s organs belong in the donor’s body. When I’m here a kind of forgotten self revives. I feel assembled. Immigration has given me a lot of practice processing grief, the anguish Stanley Kunitz talks of when he asks: ‘How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?

IMG_4144Then it’s Mandela’s birthday and everywhere, people celebrate, despite the fact that he’s on life-support. I am brought irrationally to tears by signs outside a kindergarten declaring in happy colours: ‘Happy Birthday Mandela.’ There’s a naked goodwill that spills over into all conversation, interactions with passers-by. Some friends talk about the excitement of a new era of leadership after Mandela. Others predict violence and a backlash. I don’t know what to make of it anymore.

After a week with family, I travel to the Underberg to co-facilitate a writing retreat with my Buddhist teacher. I call the retreat, ‘Journey into Paradox: the Gifts of Contradiction.’ Enroute to the hermitage, we pick up a child hitchhiking on a road, and drive her eight kilometres to where she asks to be dropped off. This is her daily commute by foot to school. I fumble around for something to give this child – all I can find are two choc-chip biscuits that came with the takeaway coffees from the Shell garage. In the retreat, I listen to stories of rape, domestic violence, hijackings, terror, HIV. I feel a buried trauma rumble inside me, then a numbness takes over – the same anaesthesia that got me out of South Africa. I meet sister Abegail, a woman of 79 who looks after 20 children orphaned through HIV. She is petite and full of humour, and I think, ‘Nowhere else in the world could you find such special people.’ A woman next to me on the plane tells me of her 85 year old father who still feeds 3500 children every day from a small garage at the back of his house and won’t leave the country because feeding these kids helps give his life meaning since his wife died.

At the airport, a guy sitting next to me at the departure gate tells me without any solicitation, ‘This place is f***ed. I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m going for an interview in Perth next month.’ I wonder if I reek of immigration. If my Australian passport shows in my eyes – despite my dual citizenship.

I smile and wish him luck. But I want to tell him, that leaving is no joke. I want to say, ‘Look around you at these people, with their big hearts and big smiles – you will also be leaving all this behind.’ I don’t tell him what I know – that after a month in a new place, barren of your history and indifferent to your losses, you will find yourself, like Lot’s wife, looking back, despite the price you will pay for doing so. And you will wonder, ‘Was it really so bad?’ and ‘Did I make the right choice?’ And these questions will never really go away, though they might fade with time.

Leaving – again – I am caught in a swirl of memories. Some of them, as Mary Oliver says, ‘…I would give anything to forget. / Others I would not give up upon the point of / death, they are the bright hawks of my life.

Like an oyster, I have been shucked. I have been prised from my rock and now I bob around in the shallows of a safe lagoon. Part of me will always mourn. Part of me will always live in the sassy, terrifying madness of the country that is my first and deepest love.

I will always be departing and coming back, returning and leaving.

As the take-off thrust of QF64’s jets push me back into the discomfort of 48C, with my luggage safely stowed in the overhead lockers and beneath my feet, I am breathless, relieved, heart-broken, my blood aching with the pulls and pushes of this endless commute between what I’ve left behind and what I’m always hoping to find.

Joanne Fedler offers writing retreats for groups of up to 10 women. Her next retreat will be in Fiji in February 2014. For more information please email Katrina at mriesel@bigpond.net.au . For further details or early bird specials, you can sign up for her newsletter here:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Joanne-Fedler/156384901082945?sk=app_100265896690345 

Joanne Fedler –  Women’s Voices
Joanne is the author of six books including the international bestseller Secret Mothers’ Business. During her years as a women’s rights advocate, she was made Asshole of the Month by Hustler magazine (one of her proudest achievements). She is a motivational speaker, writing mentor and facilitator and takes women on writing adventures to Bali and Tuscany with Womens Own Adventures. Joanne can be contacted at: www.joannefedler.com
Life Balance = Exercise. Solitude. Cuddles.