Category Archives: faith

The Apartheid story with a Hearty Twist

downloadWhen little Winston had to spend a significant portion of his youth behind his mother’s wardrobe, he had no idea what Life had in store for him. He realised soon enough that he wasn’t dirty (scrubbing didn’t help), but that it was his complexion that put the family in danger.

His story is touching hearts around the world, resulting in comments like : “An extraordinary book“, “What a great read a must read book . Very good hard to put down . A 5 star book“, and “It was a beautifully well written, bittersweet story of great hardship and triumph.

The book? It’s actually two books – one published in South Africa by Naledi and the other a UK publication by Fonthill Media.

This is the story of the guy that was forced to fix Volkswagens in his backyard to survive – and then made medical history by transporting the first human heart destined for transplantation. It’s a story of hardship, triumph over insurmountable odds…and love.

Here’s the background:

Click to order in South Africa here, or the rest of the world, here. Let us spread stories of hope, rather than the doom and gloom we get fed every day.

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When Pointing Religious Fingers becomes Dangerous

Credit: spiegel.de

Credit: spiegel.de

“Look at this,” Gertruida says as she points to her laptop screen. She’s just acquired a dongle – upsetting Servaas very much. However, once the term was explained to him, he did relax a bit. As an astute guardian of the town’s morals, he takes no chances. “They’re saying that Germanwings crash is Germany’s own 9/11.”

She reads the report stating that the copilot was a recent convert to Islam and that he deliberately ploughed into the mountain, killing all on board. “Apparently this man, Andreas Lubitz, locked the captain out of the cockpit and flew the plane to destruction on purpose. If the suggestion that there is a link between his religion and the crash is true, it is a sad day for people of all faiths. I mean, would God command such a thing? No matter what you believe Him to be, surely killing innocent people, including babies, should be regarded as a sin. All life, after all, is sacred.”

“Ja, you’ll get two responses from government agencies in the next few days.” Kleinpiet loves urban legends – he says living in South Africa provides fertile ground for far-fetched ideas to grow. Lately he’s said a lot about how the officials remain silent about the 4000 jobs they’re cutting at PetroSa, the state refinery. He says the most dangerous tactic of any government is to say nothing. “Either they’ll do it the old-fashioned way and blame it on human error. You know: the co-pilot had a blackout, fell asleep or was mentally unstable. There must be a thousand ways to blame the crash on something unforeseen happening to the poor man. And the public would have no choice but to accept the official findings, because who can prove anything else? The only people to know what really happened, were those on board.

“Or, they’ll remain tight-lipped, feeding the public only enough to confuse the situation. Can you imagine the backlash in Germany – and the world – if Islam gets blamed? No government would encourage such instability within its borders.”

Facebook-page-in-support-of-Andreas-Lubitz“That may be true, Kleinpiet. But it also says here that the Islamic State is lauding Lubitz as a hero. That is enough to incite hatred already. I certainly hope it’s not true.”

“Ja,” Oudoom sighs, “beheading people and kidnapping westerners aren’t clever ways to promote the values of faith. If that crash has religious undertones, it could spark a lot of negativism towards Muslims who are sincere in their faith. Religious intolerance is a horrible thing. It’s caused wars in the past.”

“True, Oudoom. Most wars seem to have a religious or ideological basis. The Arab Conquests (632-732), the Crusades (1097-1291), the  Reformation Wars of the 16th century, Hitler’s stance against Jews…the list goes on. But…” and here Gertruida pauses dramatically, “the cause of war isn’t religion. It’s people. Neither the Quran nor the Bible commands us to kill each other. We may differ in our views, but in both doctrines there are more than enough to promote tolerance.

“The problem arises when some individuals start interpreting certain passages in a way to promote their own goals. That’s where the danger lies. It’s a matter of opinion – skewed as it might be – as opposed to religion, which directs us to harmony, not destruction.”

Vetfaan stares dolefully at the counter. “I like our isolation, Gertruida. Ever since you brought that dongle into our lives, we’ve been fed on a diet of bad news and conflict. I don’t want to be reminded of religious fanatics, social unrest and rising petrol prices. I want to talk about the drought and sheep. So, please, would you mind terribly much to keep that laptop at home?”

“Keeping the laptop at home won’t change what’s happening in the world, Vetfaan.” Her tone is soft, almost apologetic. “Events in the Alps do have an influence on us, even if it is indirectly. We can’t play ostrich all our lives.”

Oudoom holds up a hand. “Let’s not argue about the necessity of news – or not. Let’s think about the families and friends of the passengers who boarded that flight. We can’t change the world and neither can our arguments in this bar solve the question of why the plane crashed. But we can sympathise with the people who are directly involved.

“Blaming religion won’t solve the problem. The question to ask ourselves is: why would a normal, rational man be led astray to such an extent that he starts killing others? Why did radicalism seem so preferable? And the answer is simple: because people stopped caring about each other. Personal gain and personal glory are the matches to light that fire. If, in your quest, you happen to step on others, then that’s just too bad.

“So, a finger points back at the rest of humanity, as well. What are we doing to reflect the virtues of a kind and loving religion? Or has the world become so egocentric, so uncaring, that religion is something we fall back to only when we need something? What, my friends, do we do to live our faith?”

They fall silent after that. Copilot Lubitz may have crashed the plane on purpose, but – they realise – he might be only a symptom. If that is true, the disease is far too frightening to contemplate.

On Waiting

550“Why,” Gertruida asks, because for once she doesn’t know the answer, “do people spend their lives waiting?”

Questions like these crop up from time to time in Boggel’s Place – and the result is always the same: frowns, shrugs and another round of peach brandy. Once Gertruida gets into one of her rhetorical moods, the others occupy their minds with more practical things – like the drought or the pothole in Voortrekker Weg.

“No, seriously, guys.” A tinge of frustration adds an edge to her words. “People wait for rain. For a better political dispensation. For the ultimate love affair. For the petrol price to come down. For Escom the get its act together. For…”

“Blissful moments of silence.” Servaas interrupts her flow of examples. “Look, Gertruida, you can’t generalise like that. Take us for an example: we’re just sitting here. We’re not waiting.”

“Yes, you are. You’re constantly hoping Vetfaan will pay the next round…that’s waiting, too.” She rolls her eyes and sighs. “Life is wasted if you keep on waiting for something to happen. What about the now and the here? This is where Life happens, not somewhere in the future. You can’t live tomorrow today. You live in the moment, the now, the present second.”

“That may be true, Gertruida. But there is a difference between waiting and hoping. In fact, waiting is an important component of hope. Waiting with hope is called faith, and without that, the present moment becomes meaningless.” The way Oudoom says this, makes everybody nod. Of course! They wouldn’t dare argue with him. Encouraged, the clergyman continues. “And what do you get when you add faith, hope and waiting together?” He waits, but only Gertruida seems to ponder this seriously – the rest stare at the empty glasses in front of them. “Love! Beauty! That’s what you get.”

Realising his audience isn’t with him any more, Oudoom sinks back in his chair, mumbling something about  ‘waiting is sooo important‘.

“Ag, dominee, it’s okay.” Vetfaan pats the older man on the shoulder. “A successful waiter has learnt the fine art of patience.” He suddenly realises that he’s said something rather meaningful, smiles happily and snaps his fingers. “Now there’s a thought for you, Gertruida! We are all waiters at the Table of Life, hovering discreetly in the background before serving the next course.” Almost dizzy with this erudite line of thought – and thoroughly surprised by it – he pauses to compose his thoughts. “Er…yes, that’s it! We’re not sitting at the table, waiting to be served, no sir! We’re the waiters, there to obey orders and fulfill requests. Hey, we’re not even in charge of the menu, either!”

“Sometimes, Vetfaan, you do show signs of latent intelligence.” This must rate amongst the biggest compliments Gertruida is capable of. “An African proverb has it that at the bottom of patience, heaven is found. Marcus Aurelius likened the passage of time with the flowing of a river. He said all events, all issues, eventually disappear down the stream of Time. Patience then, represents two things: waiting for the current of Time to carry off those things we need to forget…or…running along the riverbank until the things we need, are swept to dry land.”

“And that, Gertruida, kills your rhetoric. You’ve just discovered that waiting is as much part of Life as rejoicing in the present. Patiently waiting on Life is what happiness is all about.” Boggel sees the look on Oudoom’s face and quickly adds: “And faith, as well. Faith is patience, too.”

***

An outsider walking into one of these conversations in the little bar in Rolbos might consider the patrons a bit odd, to say the least. The Rolbossers aren’t worried about that at all. The people in the bigger cities like Upington and Prieska don’t talk about the things that matter any more. They spend their days killing conversations by talking about stuff they can do absolutely nothing about. It’s no use lamenting the performance of the national cricket team, the failure of Escom or the amount of children the president has fathered. Sadly, these are the subjects of ‘discussion’ for bored people waiting for Life to serve them a better dish.

In Rolbos, the waiters hover quietly in the background, knowing Life owes them nothing, but that they’re there to serve, and not be served. Their waiting is a constructive act of faith, an affirmation of hope and an expression of love.

This realisation causes Gertruida to fall silent as the conversation drifts to the drought and the pothole in Voortrekker Weg. Waiting, she realises, when done in faith, is the essence of Life.

“Then impatience is the ultimate expression of stupidity,” she says finally. She gets a few nods while the patrons in the bar wait patiently for her to fall silent.

The So Religious Bar of Soap

images (1)Oudoom’s sermon on pride  and ambition caused a lot of talk amongst his flock. They did have their feet on the ground and (mostly) an eye on heaven…but the scathing remarks about the country they belong to, causes more debate in Boggel’s Place than the beautiful message of humility and kindness.

“We used to be a Christian nation,” Vetfaan says while they wait for Boggel to fetch the cold beer from the cooler. “Well, if not Christian, then at least we tried to be civil. Nowadays, everything goes. Farmers get murdered, the prisons are overfull, crime is a booming industry, rape and assault are  everyday occurrences. Corruption is rife.  And yet our government insists they subscribe to biblical guidelines.”

“Ja, remember when Jacob Zuma returned from Jordan in 2003? He said he had been to the river where Jesus was baptised – and that if he looked at someone, that person would be blessed.” Gertruida goes harrumph! adding that some of his family members can confirm that. “But he also said that God was with the ANC from its inception and that they’d rule until Jesus returns. In 2009 he said: ‘People who love God must not play with their votes, they must vote for the ANC…We in the ANC know God.’ And my favourite in 2011: ‘When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven… When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card you will be let through to go to heaven … the holy ones belong to the ANC.'”

“Don’t forget Ramaphosa.” Servaas loosens his tie and unbuttons his collar, like he always does when he’s angry, “He declared South Africa is a ‘a God-fearing country‘ and that the government ‘recognises the importance of the Lord‘. In the same speech he said the ANC always makes certain that they ‘stay close to God’s light.‘ and they conduct themselves ‘in accordance with what God prescribes’.

“What about the Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court? He said he got a ‘signal from God’ that he had to be appointed to that position.”

They fall silent as Boggel returns with a crate of beer, causing the bent little barman to look up in surprise.

“You guys been gossiping about me?”

“No Boggel. Not gossiping and not about you.” Precilla leans over to pat him on the shoulder. “We’re lamenting, like the old Israelites did. Our leaders are no longer thinking about the words of Nkosi Sikele’ i-Afrika when they sing the national anthem. The blessing they ask for has more to do with bank accounts than with compassion. So we were talking about the way they use religion to achieve their goals.”

Hunter S Thompson

Hunter S Thompson

“So what’s new? The old Nationalists had the church in their collective pocket as well. Remember how the Synod told everybody that Apartheid was right? And how many of our Prime Ministers had degrees in theology? South African politicians simply love telling the people how religious they are – especially when elections are just around the corner.” Boggel pauses as he slides the beers over the counter. “I read a wonderful book a while ago. The Rum diary, by Hunter S Thompson….”

“We’re discussing the political hijacking of religion in the country, Boggel, not the writings of an author I’ve never heard about!” His voice tinged with exasperation, Servaas knits his brows together in an angry scowl. “Don’t change the subject!”

“Wait,” Gertruida smiles as she holds up a restraining hand. “I think I know where Boggel is going to with this one.”

“An interesting book, to say the least. Thompson saw the way greed destroyed the lives of ordinary men and women and set about writing the novel in the early sixties. It was rejected by the publishers and only found its way to the shelves in 1998. I believe Johnny Depp discovered the manuscript amongst Thompson’s papers. The movie was made in 2011.”

“Tell them about the quote, Boggel. Go on…it’s so apt.”

Boggel blushes slightly at the encouragement, takes a deep breath while concentrating hard, and manages to recall the words Gertruida is hoping for. The words had stuck to his mind ever since he heard it first, simply because it was so absurdly true.

“It’s in the movie, Gertruida. Hunter didn’t write those words, Bruce Robinson did when he directed the film. Still, it is a fine way to reflect Hunter’s anger at the way the politicians corrupted the country.”

Afterwards, they all agree that Thompson might as well have written The Rum Diary  about South Africa. And that Robinson’s words were as true today as when the script was written.

‘This country was built on genocide and slavery, and then we brought in Jesus like a bar of soap.’

E volavo volavo felice
più in alto del sole ed ancora più su
mentre il mondo pian piano spariva

And I flew, flew happy
Higher the sun and even higher
While the world disappeared slowly’

In the movie Paul Kemp (Thompson in real life and played by Depp) has this to say about religion in a voiced-over scene:  “I wonder what it is you might think about our different worlds. He looked at me kinda sideways and said, “Human beings are the only creatures on Earth who claim a God, and the only living thing that behaves like it hasn’t got one. Does the world belong to no one but you?” And when he said it, I was taken aback. Not because of who was doing the talking. Because I finally understood the connection between children scavenging for food, and shiny brass plates on the front doors of banks.”

Today he might have replaced ‘banks‘ with ‘Nkandla‘.

The Rolbos Guide to 2015

d6Sweat the small stuff. Pay attention to detail, and the Big Stuff never becomes a problem. And never lose the wonder of even the smallest creatures around you.

d2Mother Nature has been around far longer than you have. Respect her, and by doing so, respect the world your children will live in. Never take anything for granted – even rocks decay with time.

d4There is beauty in everything – even in the harshest environment. Seek beauty, and Life will reward you in kind.

IMG_3851Take time off. Rest. Think. Reflect. And make sure you get enough me-time. Crowds and lots of friends may well have a place in your life; but that alone is insufficient to become who you should be. Nurture your uniqueness and avoid wishing you were somebody (or somewhere) else. And yes…you are good enough.

IMG_1189

Make sure you have at least one soft toy, and that it has a name. They are more loyal –  and give more solace and joy – than most people you know.

188_8855Be kind to older people. Visit them. Talk to them. Loneliness is the worst affliction of old age and more debilitating than any disease. Surprisingly, you’ll find that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

IMG_2629Study other cultures and history. You are a mere link in the very long chain of humanity. Losing sight of this simple fact. inflates the ego and kills humility.

IMG_2765Travel. See places you’ve never been to. There is no more sad a person than one who thinks the world ends at the city limits.

IMG_2801Birds fill your life with song. Learn the names of at least ten this year. And then study how they live. There are great lessons in this.

IMG_2876Learn to do things yourself. Depending on others inevitably leads to disappointment at some or other stage. It is the strong and independent mind  that survives the hardships we have to face every day.

IMG_3254Never cease to be amazed by the magic of  fire. Nor by the way light gets rid of darkness.

IMG_3349Never lose the ability to play. It’s the best way to stop taking yourself so seriously. Be loyal to those you love and they’ll join your fun.

IMG_3408If your mother is alive – then show her your love. If she has already passed on, never forget her legacy.

april 2009, amakhala 058 mod

Love your family – even the ones with bad manners. They are part of who you are. Rejecting them is to reject your own identity.

S

Enjoy wine in moderation. It’s the best social lubricant ever invented.

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Lastly – you will face giants in the next year. That is inevitable, for Life has a way of challenging the best out of you. Sit back, smile humbly, be patient and at peace. No situation is permanent – and often the threat to your existence is as uncertain as you are. Wait…it’ll pass. Every day is a gift – be grateful.x51

The Day After

Credit: jennykellet.com

Credit: jennykellet.com

And then, suddenly, unexpectedly – but still the way it happens every year – Christmas was over. The tinsel and the figurines, even the Star of Bethlehem, looked out of place. Tired, even. The mistletoe above the door of Boggel’s Place, once greeted with so many lewd but understanding smiles, no longer attracted a second (hopeful) glance. There was, once again, place in Life’s proverbial inn for everyday matters.

Sadly so.

Vetfaan had been thinking about this when he walked into Boggel’s Place..

“What did you get for Christmas?” He asked during a lull in the conversation.

He got a mixed-up chorus of answers, ranging from peach brandy to a new beer glass.

“No, that’s not what I asked. I asked: What did you GET for Christmas? You know? Up here?” He tapped his head. “And here?” His calloused hand rubbed his chest.

Silence.

“A hangover? And…heartburn?” Kleinpiet had no idea what Vetfaan was going on about.

“No, I get it!” Servaas brightened. “You mean on a…spiritual…level?”

“Too commercialised,” Gertruida quickly said. “Too many Jingle Bells and Drummer Boys. The spirit of Christmas is alive and well in the shops, but that’s all. I heard there was a queue in Pick ‘n Pay in Upington. Can you believe that? Unheard of! But Oudoom says Pastor Holiface delivered his Christmas sermon to three people: his wife, the janitor and a somewhat weird homeless person.”

“That’s the new reverend in that church where they threw out the organ and replaced it with  band? Shew! I thought they attracted so many people?”

“Just goes to show, Servaas. To change people, you need more than a guitar – unless your name is Elvis, then you change the world.”

They all laughed at that, of course, but not because they thought Gertruida had been so funny. No…because they realised how true her words were. Shock, rather than mirth.

“Sooo…why was he weird?” Boggel arched a curious eyebrow, steering the talk in a more relaxed direction.

“Oudoom says that man was already in the building when Holiface opened the doors yesterday morning. But it was Christmas, so he decided not to make a scene. If the man sought shelter there overnight, then it would have been wrong to throw him out. Anyway, the man had such a sad face that he decided to talk to him after the service. However, when he said Amen, the man just got up quietly and left. Holiface actually looked for him afterwards, but couldn’t find him.”

Anybody who knows rural life, knows how seemingly small, insignificant events tend to be subjects of lengthy discussions. It’s no different in the Kalahari. People get tired of talking about the drought and the president’s wives, so it’s not strange that the Weird Man became the subject of speculation. Who was he? Where did he come from? Where is he now? Is he really…homeless?

The ever-romantic Precilla said something about Jesus often being in our midst without us recognising Him. Oudoom scowled at that, turning the concept over in his mind, and decided not to say anything. Yes, The Saviour might be present in an invisible form, but to think of Him as more than a spiritual presence would be absurd. Still, getting into an argument about that – on the day after Christmas – would be unchristianlike, right?

Precilla’s remark did spark a discussion, though. What if (Servaas asked) Jesus returned to the earth? “To check up on things a bit, understand? Sort of like a pre-Rapture inventory before the real Apocalypse. I bet He wouldn’t be impressed…”

He wanted to go on, but this time Oudoom did break his silence to admonish his head elder. He was saying something about blasphemy when Sersant Dreyer walked in with the troubled look he got when there was work to do.

“There’s been an accident near Grootdrink. An unidentified male was killed while he was hiking. A lorry ran over him. I just had a call from Upington – said it appeared to be a homeless person. Still, they wanted to know if anybody from Rolbos was missing.”

One can assume that the shocked silence following his remark might have puzzled Dreyer.

“Dead? He’s dead?”

“That’s what they said, Precilla.”

They all thought it but didn’t dare say it.

“Well, that settles it. Couldn’t have been Him.” Servaas sounded much more confident than he was.

Dreyer frowned. “Who…?”

“Ag, you won’t understand.”

***

Although Vetfaan then said something about the drought  – a subject everybody suddenly seemed very keen about – the atmosphere in Boggel’s Place remained subdued. It was as if an inexplicable sadness settled amongst them – a melancholic post-Christmas feeling for a homeless man they didn’t even know.

Should one have asked Gertruida, she would have explained that it was the way of the world: we celebrate things we don’t understand simply to have a good time. The mad shopping, the wild parties and the too-often repeated (and therefore almost meaningless) wishes – according to her – aren’t really what Christmas is all about. Christmas, she would have reminded them, should be the culmination of a year-long quest for kindness and humility – and not just a single day dedicated to  frivolous partying. And, she could add, while Christmas represents  the end of another year’s struggle to achieve these goals, it also signifies the beginning of the next period of  effort to do the same.

And…she could have told the group at the counter that Jesus – during His time on earth – also didn’t have a fixed address.

But we all know Gertruida: she often retreats behind the walls of her immense intelligence, which is why she doesn’t always say everything that crops up there.

She sat there in her corner, listening to the rest talking about their hopes for a better season in 2015, and thought about how effectively the commercial world hijacked Christmas. It’s as if we took Christ out of Christmas and then drove over His legacy with our eighteen-wheel desire for a few superficial laughs.

The homeless man? Could have been anybody, really.

Or not.

He is, however, no longer with us.

Just like Christmas…

To eternity…and back (#9)

Matron, a painting by Edward Irvine Halliday

Matron, a painting by Edward Irvine Halliday

Matron sat down after making sure that nurse Botha had closed the door properly. To say she was uncertain would be an insult to the ruler of her hospital empire, but in reality, her heart was thumping away wildly. How was she to manage this situation? Yes, give her a shocked, comatose patient, and she’d be galvanised into organised activity immediately. Or bring on that difficult breech delivery – she could handle that with professional ease. But this….? What was she supposed to do with a rebellious nurse and a lover that ruined her life? She sighed and stared at her hands…she’d just have to come up with something…

The trio in front of her seemed equally unsettled – except for Vetfaan, who had a sardonic smile, as if he knew something she didn’t.

“Look, this is uncomfortable for all of us. I realise you didn’t expect me here, Jocobus.” Shorty shifted his weight, staring at his feet. “You expected to make amends with Servaas, not me. And I suppose one should commend you for that, despite my absolute misgivings about your past. You have singlehandedly been responsible for my unhappiness for the last four decades. You cannot expect me to simply smile and tell you everything is all right. I can’t because it isn’t. I’ll bear the scars of that time for the rest of my life. If you can’t understand that, you’re a bigger imbecile than even I have given you credit for.” There was no mistaking the suppressed anger in her words. “But…what was done, was done. You moved on, and so did I. I tried…Lord knows how I tried…to forget you and what you’d done. And, despite what I may feel about your rejection, I cannot undo the past.”

Shorty opened his mouth as if he wanted to say something, but she held up a silencing hand.

“Don’t! Don’t say anything, Jacobus de Lange. Let me finish. I hate what you did, even if I forgive you. I…I suppose I’m still mad at you – and probably will be till I lay down my head. That is my problem and I can deal with it…provided I hear from you what I hope you were on the point of saying.”

She looked up expectantly, uncertainty written all over her face.

“Matron….Alice…I don’t even know where to begin. I’ve apologised to Servaas – that was easy. But you? How do I say ‘sorry’ when I’ve been bogged down with more guilt than you can imagine? How can I apologise when I can’t even forgive myself? How do I make amends for something I buggered up so completely such a long time ago?” Shorty wiped away the embarrassing tear coursing down his cheek with an impatient gesture. “So I’ll just say I’m sorry. Really. I’ve ruined your life as much as I’ve done my own. I know what I went through – I can only imagine what the effect on your life had been. And I…I have to live with that. Every day you think about what I did, is another day I look at myself in the mirror…and want to smash the bloody glass! I’m sorry, Alice. I’m so sorry…”

Much to especially nurse Botha’s surprise, the woman she had come to know as an emotionless, automated perfectionist, sat completely quiet during Shorty’s apology. Then her impassive face crumbled, melted, slowly deepening the furrows and lines on her forehead while the skin over her chin crinkled as if it had a life of its own. A sound – soft at first, almost inaudible – picked up volume and became a primitive wail; the oldest expression of grief known to mankind. By the time the tears started, Shorty was at her side, patting her back with no apparent effect.

Nurse Botha stormed out to get more tea. Vetfaan stood rooted to the spot, without the faintest idea how to manage the situation. He’d never had a clue what to do with crying women, anyway…

It took two cups of strong, sweet tea to calm matron Krotz down. Vetfaan, at last galvanised into action, produced a half-jack of peach brandy, which they shared between the four of them. It helped more than the tea did.

“Oh, bugger! It’s such a mess.” Krotz blew her nose with gusto, sniffed even more loudly and managed a wobbly smile. “I’m just glad every day doesn’t start like this.”

It was a lame attempt to lighten the atmosphere, but it worked. Nurse Botha giggled, Shorty shuffled his feet and Vetfaan wished he had brought more peach brandy.

“Matron…” Nurse Botha used the silence to get Krotz’s attention.

“What is it, nurse Botha?”Something in the matron’s demeanour told everybody she was fighting to sound stern, like her old self, but was failing miserably.

“I’m sorry I called you a …a…lady dog, Matron. I didn’t mean it. Really…”

They laughed at that. Long and hard, like people do when they don’t know what words to use to make things better.

***

Servaas had another dream that night – not a lucid one like he had before, but a dream he tried to remember afterwards and couldn’t. When he woke up in his own bed in Rolbos, he did feel much refreshed. He ascribed his euphoria to his home environment, not knowing that the answer lay at a much deeper level.

In the dream he was back on the dune – the exact same one of his previous dream – reaching out to Shorty, who he found easy to recognise this time. He did, indeed, rescue Shorty from the quicksand, but not like he imagined in the original dream. This time he was helped by all his friends from Rolbos, as well as a rather portly but friendly nurse.

***

Shorty never goes to Upington without stopping to have a cup of tea with matron Krotz. They seem to have reached a new understanding, in which they manage to talk about the old days without the anger and guilt that had burdened them so. While they agreed to let bygones be bygones, they are both old and wise enough to know they cannot retrace the steps to a romantic relationship. They do, however, pop in to Boggel’s Place about once a year to join the group at the bar. Just for old time’s sake, nothing more. (For now, at least.)

Servaas has made a full recovery. He firmly believes his illness had a purpose – something they all agree on. Oudoom asked him to speak about his near-death experience during one of the Sunday services, having invited some of the pastors and reverends from Upington. While the Rolbossers hung on to his lips, absorbing every word, the visiting learned clergymen afterwards dismissed his experience as a mere hallucination. Old people, they concurred, tend to romanticise and dramatise everything.

And nurse Botha? Why, you’ll find her in every hospital you ever set your foot (or other bits of your anatomy) in. She’s the one with the soft eyes; the shy, hesitant smile; the young lass sitting next to the critically ill patient, holding a withered hand. She may not be a beauty queen, but you’ll recognise her compassion as much prettier than the girls strutting about on the Miss World stage. If you see her, be kind. Tell her how important she is in a world that recognises power and money as the only currency. And do tell her she’s special. After all, no matron can run a hospital without her. She is, when all is said and done, everything that nursing – and caring and love – is all about.

Lastly: Servaas said something during his recounting of his near death awareness in church that pleased – and upset – Gertruida tremendously. He emphasised that nothing – nothing – is ever a coincidence. Whenever fate forces you onto an unknown path, look for the kindness, the compassion, hidden somewhere even in the most unfortunate circumstances. People don’t see it, he said, because they are too absorbed in their own planning of what they think they want in life. He quoted eloquently from Desiderata, reminding them that the universe will unfold just the way it has to – not according to the rather short-sighted roster each of us draws up for our own lives. And, he emphasised, although we so often doubt the concept, the basis of everything – life, the universe, relationships – is love. Without it, nothing in the past makes sense. Nor, for that matter, does the future.

When he spoke to the congregation, he made them repeat a sentence: There is a purpose to everything under heaven. To his and Gertruida’s dismay, the visitors didn’t join in. But then…when faith is based only on theory, one cannot blame them, can one? Maybe one has to die – or almost die – to realise this basic truth.

Or travel to eternity and back…

THE END

To eternity…and back (#2)

IMG_2826During the time Servaas spent in hospital, a few strange things happened. There was Matron Krotz, for instance, a formidable huge woman with a  short temper and a large (if sagging) bosom. She reigned over ‘her’ hospital with an iron fist and a booming voice. Hardworking nurses sweated and trembled through her morning rounds, while even Doctor Welman deferred to her many opinions. Called Attila behind her back, she lived up to the name with gusto.

Whenever she came to Servaas’s bed, however, her entire demeanor changed – every time. She’d smile (a phenomenon previously thought to be completely impossible), ruffle the old man’s sparse hair and ever so coyly ask him if he’d had a good night’s rest. Her temper would flare back up to it’s usual and frightening intensity if she noticed that he hadn’t had his morning coffee or if there was the slightest hint that his bed wasn’t made up properly.

Another weird thing she did, was to take her lunch break at his bedside. She’d close the curtains around his bed (‘The patient needs counselling, nurse Botha, and you’re certainly not gifted or qualified to do that properly. Now get out while I attend to the patient you are so obviously neglecting! Go!) and then spend the thirty minutes or so chatting with Servaas.

Nurse Botha grudgingly noted that, while Attila Krotz might be partly human after all,  matron’s conduct was probably proof that hormonal replacement had more benefits than just preventing hot flashes. And, to everybody’s surprise and well-hidden amusement, matron asked nurse Botha the strangest questions about eyeliners, lipstick and perfumes.

Servaas had recovered well enough to be acutely aware of matron’s presence and found it surprisingly easy to talk to her. Whereas other people experienced matron Krotz as an unapproachable and imperious professional, Servaas discovered that she was, in fact, a lonely woman. Her fastidious insistence on perfection in the hospital was simply a way to – as she  put it – do something useful with her life. The hospital, she said, gave reason to her existence.

“The universe never cared about me, Servaas. I’m about to retire – I have to – and then what? After a lifetime of caring for the sick and the needy, I have nothing. What’s a matron after retirement? An old hag with a cupboard full of old uniforms? A nurse with nobody to care for? What use is that?”

Servaas tried to say something about believing that, when God closes a door, He opens a window, but she cut him off. There’s no such thing, she said, only fools believed in such nonsense.

“No, I never married,” she said during one of their lunch hour chats. Servaas had been progressing slowly over the past three weeks, during which their daily chats slowly became more and more personal. Eventually Servaas told matron about Siena – and asked about Krotz’s past. “I was engaged, once.” She blushed, a wry smile eventually fading to a scowl.”Then this hussey came along and he left. I was….twenty at the time. That’s when I said to myself – well, dammit! I shall never allow a man to humiliate me like that again. And…” here she hesitated and glanced with vulnerable uncertainty at Servaas, “…well, I decided to study hard and become the best I can be. I did course after course, ambitiously working myself up the nursing ladder, until I was appointed matron here. That was fifteen years ago. Suddenly there were no more rungs in the ladder, Servaas. I’m stuck in this crummy hospital until I retire. Heaven knows what I’ll do then.”

The other unusual occurrences during Servaas’s stay in hospital, were the lucid dreams he had. These in no way compared to the very real experience during his coma, but they were so intense that he had no problem recalling them afterwards. While most of the dreams concerned past experiences – simple, everyday events – some of them stood out because they seemed so utterly inappropriate.

“There was this dune, you see? One of those dunes with the steep sides and loose sand.” Matron Krotz always listened with rapt attention whenever Servaas told her about his dreams. “Somehow I knew I had to get to the top of that dune, but I didn’t know why. Every time I took a step upward, the loose sand would carry me right back. So there I was: one step up, slide back. One step up, slide back. I was exhausted when I woke up.”

The next day, Servaas could add to the dream.

“I’ve never dreamt in chapters before, Alice.” By now they were firmly on first-name terms. “But my dreams seem to be in sequence these days. Anyway, last night I made some progress up that dune. It was painfully slow, much like you experience in those dreams where you run away from something, but your legs don’t work properly. Eventually, I could see the top. There was somebody there, but I couldn’t see who it was. I reached out, and when I was about to touch that person, the sand slid back again and I had to start all over.”

And then he had one more dream – the last one – before these nightly experiences simply ceased to happen.

“The person at the top of the dune was Shorty de Lange.” If Servaas wasn’t so absorbed in the telling of his dream, he would have noticed matron Krotz’s sudden intake of breath and her pallor as colour drained from her cheeks. “I haven’t even thought about him in years and years, but there he was. Large as life, right on top of my dune. He was slowly sinking into the sand – like quicksand, I suppose – and was pleading that I should help him. I didn’t know what to do…and then I woke up.”

“Who…who did you see there?” Her voice shook as she fought for control.

“Shorty. Shorty de Lange. You won’t know him. A tall, gangling chap I used to know, way back when. He went on to study accounting, I think, and we lost touch. But before that, we went to school together and did a stint in the army – like everybody else in those days. We used to be rather close.”

“Shorty?” The incredulous note in her voice was unmistakable. “Shorty de Lange? Six foot something, thinnish, used to play flank for Prieska’s first team? Brown hair and a little extra pinkie on his left hand?”

Servaas looked up sharply. “Ye-e-e-s?”

“That’s the bastard who left me in the lurch…for that stupid bimbo. May he rot in hell…” Her voice told him: Attila was back. Time to tread softly.

“Then why…why did I dream about him?”

(To be continued…)

The Many Faces of Faith

Credit: demotix.com

Credit: demotix.com

“Don’t you wonder sometimes, Oudoom, about faith?”

This startles the old pastor, who puts down his beer slowly while formulating an answer.

“No disrespect, Dominee, but the thought has been bothering me for some time.” Kleinpiet’s furrowed brow speaks volumes. “I mean, over in the Middle East you have two groups of people at each other’s throats about religious differences – and now it’s spreading to the rest of the world. Surely one group must be wrong…but who?”

“And that’s not all. In Christianity there are 41,000 different denominations, each claiming to be representing the true faith. These days it is even popular to start up your own house-church because you differ from the conventional approach to religious matters.” Vetfaan joins the conversation. He ia standing up, of course, after his recent altercation with the surprised caracal. “And then there are other beliefs, too, complicating the situation even further.”

“Well, faith is an universal thing.” Abstaining from the subject is unthinkable for Gertruida, who has specific opinions about everything. “As far as history goes back, mankind has always revered some form of deity or other. It’s as if we were wired to accept the concept of a Higher Being, but only given enough data to process the basic idea – and not the full knowledge of what, exactly, happens after death. So people have solved the problem by falling back on belief. I believe this…you believe that, that sort of thing. The Bible contains the writings of men who struggled to describe heaven, for instance. Ezekiel tried to convey the glory of heaven by telling us about wheels of fire; while St John was more practical and gave us a vision of earthly riches in Paradise. I understand Kleinpiet’s confusion, but my only point of reference remains the Bible.”

“Faith,” Oudoom says gravely, “is one of the most complicated and yet simple things we have to deal with in this life. Complicated, because we tend to dissect our beliefs to the point where we simply cannot answer the questions. Simple, because we’re not supposed to.

“You see: Gertruida is right – as usual. We can, indeed, grasp the basics of who and what God is. He’s the Creator, the Planner, the Final Judge. All religions – in varying ways and different forms – agree on that. There’s no culture on earth that doesn’t have a story of how it all began – and, not surprisingly, these stories overlap to a remarkable degree. Everybody agrees that everything was created by a Superior Being. Equally, it is common consensus that there are such concepts of Good and Evil, Sin and Salvation.

“But after that, we as humans start complicating matters by wanting to explain everything. We want to analyze the Bible, God, our faith…and explain what happens to our souls once we die. We even imagine we know what it takes to be accepted in Heaven, or rejected in Hell. Fundamental extremists hold on to the most amazing ideas concerning this, and become fanatic about their absolute impression of what they are destined or commanded to do in this world. And don’t think I’m talking about any specific religion or faith here – it’s as true for us as Christians as it is for others. Remember the mass suicide at Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple in Guyana in 1978?

“So.” Oudoom sits back, satisfied that he’s made his point. “The bottom line of faith – by whatever name you call it – is Love. Loveless faith is an oxymoron. If the religion you follow isn’t characterised by Love and Kindness, I’m afraid that you are on the wrong track. We, as Christians, believe that Jesus was – or is – the epitome of loving kindness. Thats why we preach forgiveness. And moreover, our religion dictates that every word, every action, should be weighed against these two things – and that the way we interact with others, should leave reflect our faith. That’s how, in the end, our lives will be judged.

“Actually, this isn’t just about faith. It’s about common sense. You don’t have to be a genius to figure it out at all: if your life is characterised by your kindness towards your fellow man, surely that leads to harmony. And harmony is the basis of Love, is it not? Harmony is the flipside of conflict, as much as Love is the opposite of hate.”

“But then, Oudoom, it means that killing each other in the name of religion is wrong? I mean, what do I do if a heathen threatens to destroy my way of life?”

“Good question. But let me ask you another. Is it right to defend your faith?”

“Gee, of course!” Kleinpiet slams down a fist. “Nobody has the right to attack me because I believe in a certain way!”

“Read your Bible, Kleinpiet. And then think about the message of Love. Take a step down from your high perch and consider why you might be a target because of your faith. If you lived a kind and forgiving life, caring for your neighbour and looking after your own – would that not avoid conflict? Does living in harmony not tell the world who you are and what you believe in?”

“That’s easy to say, Dominee.” The flush in Kleinpiet’s neck spreads to his cheeks. “But that’s all just theory. Look at what’s happening in the world? How do we forgive those that trespass against us if these trespasses involve murder and rape and wanton aggression?”

Oudoom shakes his head. “That’s why I agree with Gertruida. We don’t know everything…but we do know right from wrong. The fact that others – according to our belief – are doing wrong, doesn’t justify us going down the wrong path as well. So…we forgive. Like Jesus did. The judgment isn’t our concern. Not at all. The Bible tells us to try to talk to such people, and if we are unsuccessful, to avoid them.”

“It’s an ageless conundrum, Oudoom.” Gertruida’s voice is soft, making her seem particularly vulnerable. “The world is threatened by Evil, and only through Faith will we find everlasting joy.”

“But that’s my question: which faith? Everybody can’t be right?”

“True, Kleinpiet, But look at your faith carefully. Is it Kind? Is it Loving? I’m not talking about Mills and Boon love here – I’m talking about Love with a capital ‘L‘.  Are you a believer in harmony? Do you acknowledge God? If you can answer affirmatively, you are – at least – on the right track.”

“But that means the world is filled with men and women who aren’t.”

“Indeed, my friend. That’s the tragic reality – has been like that since the beginning of time, will be thus until the end, unless you show people another way. Your job isn’t to convert the world to the one true faith – it’s to show the world what it means to be humble and kind. You can be a president or a king or even a nobody – but if you don’t start with these simple things, the world will never change.”

“But…”

“No buts, Kleinpiet. The churches of the world have made faith wear many coats, show many faces. That’s wrong. Stick to the basics, the things we understand, the things we can do. The rest like they say, will be history.”

It’s one of those discussions that’ll never reach a satisfactory conclusion. For everything Oudoom says, Kleinpiet and the others will have an answer and even more questions. In the end, Gertruida holds up a tired hand, motioning them all to sit down. “Let’s just agree on this: in your heart of hearts you know what you believe. We believe in Christian way of life – and this means we have a responsibility to live our faith. It implies many things, some of which we find particularly hard to do. But you know what? When the final whistle blows, God isn’t going to ask us to present Him with a scoreboard. He’s going to ask us if we played the game properly, Faith isn’t about winning, It’s about loving. You’re asking the wrong question, Kleinpiet. The question is: does faith prod you towards Love or not? That, my friend, is the only answer you should concern yourself with.”

Surprisingly, her statement is met with worried stares.