Sunday, 11 August 2019

Negative Space

Dear friends of South Africa

Eight years after leaving your shores, I wonder if I owe you an apology. I’m not sure I ever thanked you enough for the way you welcomed us into your space, for the way you made room for us. The thing is, I knew enough to recognise the sweetness of great friendships, the affirmation of open invitations into people’s hearts and homes, but at that point in my life I didn’t realise how rare are those gifts.

I do remember riding my moped over Boyes Drive one bright morning, looking out onto the seascape to my right and, just as aware of the fynbos covered hillside to my left, telling myself to savour this moment. Deep inside I knew that this wonderful synergy of knowing and being known, of beauty and grit, of colour and contrasts, wouldn’t last forever. And it didn’t - it was ours for a few short years, a gift that I couldn’t completely fantom until it came to an end.

So, thank you for sharing your friendship so easily. Thanks for being inclusive, for always being willing to add another steak to the braai, to pour another glass of wine, to pull up another chair to the table. I’m grateful that even when we were the ‘extras’ we were made to feel like we belonged. I have particular memories in my mind, of standing around the fire with people we’d just met, or being invited to share a neighbour’s pool, or weekend home. This generosity of spirit is rare and beautiful, and it changed us.

It changed our expectations and, right now, I’m not sure if that was a good thing. But I’m holding onto the hope that it will be good, some time soon.

Thank you that you never allowed our foreignness to be a reason to exclude us. You never asked us how long we were staying, in order to gauge whether it was worth your while to seek our friendship. You willingly translated for us the subtle complexities of life in your brave and beautiful nation - as far you understood them yourselves - and never made us feel disqualified from participating in the unspoken rules of engagement.

And thank you for reciprocating the friendship we sought to offer you. I realise now that this is the secret ingredient of all successful relationships, that both parties must share a desire to engage and be willing to put effort into the connection. Thank you for the text messages on weekend mornings, letting us know in a low-key way that if we wanted to join you for a hike, or a picnic, or a coffee, then we could. Thanks for the amazing camping trips, and the evening visits to theatre or music events. Thanks for making us feel that you wanted to be with us; that’s pretty damned precious. 

Your friendship was a great affirmation of who we were, made us feel that we were more than we were, somehow. We spent a decade with you and now, incredibly, it is almost a decade later. I can honestly say that, elsewhere, we have yet to find anything like the generous, spacious gifts of connection you so willingly shared. Do I feel diminished? Yes. Does the echo of your faith in me still sound in my soul? For sure. 

If the past eight years feel like a liminal space to me, then it is a transition to something deeper, and if not more full then certainly more filled with longing. Thank you for being part of the formation of desire in me - desire for connection, for soul hospitality, for belonging. If, for a time, I have inhabited the negative space spoken of in art and photography - the empty space surrounding an object - then it has worked to bring into sharper focus the gifts of friendship, to define the place of community in our lives, and to mark out the true value of connection.

It’s true that you cause me to know what I miss. You also cause me to know what I want. And for this, I thank you.