Flustered by life and overwhelmed by the aching worry that I would not pass my Honours year°°, I stood in the Anthropology office and cried. The door stays open, literally and figuratively. It’s a safe space. Before the tears, I had shook my head intently: “I’m not gonna make it. I’m not gonna make it. I mean, I guess I could go to UNISA? God knows I can’t re-do Honours here. The shame would eat me. I couldn’t face you all…” Andrea, our beloved administrator with her beautiful grey-streaked hair and kind eyes, shook her head back at me and said: “You know, Lebo, life will always happen at the same time as school but you have to remember why you’re on this journey. I promise you! Take control of just one thing…”
As any student in our department can tell you, that conversation with Andrea is exactly what I needed to keep me going. She’s a force of love and calm in the storm to every single one of us. And true of any life cycle: 2016 came with its big and small victories, an astounding heartbreak and some tough lessons. Now that I’m reflecting, I realise that her words heavily influenced how I rose to meet those challenges – which now also included undertaking my MA right after swearing off of academia! It’s honestly so masochistic how I carry on. I mutter Kreacher-like (yes, we Harry Potter around here) profanities under my breath about the workload, my tired, tired brain, how impossible certain lecturers’ standards are and “I literally have nothing to say! I have no great intellectual way to advance this argument. No, it came here to die, clearly! Like, I can’t!” – all while trying (and failing and trying) to apply myself and keep trudging the path. Underneath it all, I am convinced that I was born to be an Anthropologist.
In rising to meet the challenges, the greatest one happened in the middle of the year during Winter, a season that I hate with diabolical fervour. Everything hurts more when the sun is gone. I lost someone that I had dedicated myself to loving as purely as possible and it really left me bent out of shape to know that it wasn’t enough. It was incredibly painful because that isn’t how the story was supposed to end – both authors had agreed. It was abrupt. You’re enjoying the story and just like that when you think that more of the good parts are coming, you turn the page and everything after that is blank. Hot betrayal. It hurt and I had to fight myself to not resort to my familiar method of getting over – my comfortable, delicious wallowing in woe. I had to recalibrate how my brain understands loss and failure. I had to teach myself to put loss and failure to work.
I conditioned myself to see it as good, as a blessing, as a lemon: “I have more time and energy for myself. I have my youthful heart and my good love all to myself now. Why waste it?” I had to actively pour it all into my goals and my work because I have no control of anyone’s coming or going/leaving or staying but I do have control of my hands. I can’t wait with them idle and open and hoping. I had to get busy.
This isn’t to say that the year 2016 was characterised by this break up, it’s to say that there was a me, pre- and post- the event, and I quite love who I am right now. Wallowing is, of course, delicious and often necessary. I also happen to have the wildest PMS so, it gets quite indulgent around these parts. I could have stayed stagnant and created an endless melodrama of tragedy and chest pain, knowing that eventually the new year would force me to make steps towards getting over it. However, that would mean (w)allowing the last half of the year to go to shit. I would not let me. There was no boyfriend to visit instead of going to the library, to stay on the phone for hours with instead of attending to that deadline or just having someone to witness me lay my self-pity on thick like butter and still love me through it, anyway. I had to get busy. I had to take control of one thing.
That thing was the dream of being an Anthropologist. This would be the year that determines whether I’ll get the approval to sign up for the ultimate academic level: the shiny PhD that I’ve been eyeing since I realised how damn cool Anthropologists are. (Shout out Kelly, Nolwazi, Hylton, Julia, Carol & Sharad! ♡) Where most people would see the distinction between first and second semester on my academic results, I see the break up as the separation between the two. The wonder here is that all of that active pouring of love had tangibly resulted in some impressive percentages, even in the most unexpected places. I want to tell you about the certainty-destroying, mind-melting hurricane volcano hybrid that was the ‘Africa and the Anthropologist’ course and how shook we all were by everything about it. I want to tell you that sometimes I had to concede to: “I know that this is what you want us to do but this is how I am choosing to do it” as eloquently as possible and cross my fingers for the best because it was 4 AM and I had nothing left to give at that point. I want to tell you about spending up to three consecutive nights on various weeks sleeping on my yoga mat in the Masters’ students office because I would not leave until the break-through; until my paper was coherent and authentic – even if it meant a coherently authentic freestyle of hope, desperation and word count filling. (“Wow. A lie. You’re lying, Lebo. She’s lying, people.” I’d deliriously mutter to my pineapple slices while stuffing them into my mouth and frantically typing things. “Keep the cursor moving to the right!”) What I will tell you is that I fought myself and won.
In so many aspects of my life, I had enjoyed the indulgence of having someone I love to share every moment with and help me to make sense of my world. Mutual dependence and reliance are hard to avoid when you’re loving well. God knows, we loved well. And won’t He do it?! (You have to say that like Tamar Braxton.) I got over. I made it through. Gritting my teeth and fighting sleep and myself with equal measure, I got to feel what it’s like to not succumb to my ache. I had always known sadness as being productive especially for poetry, it always was. I got the chance to make something new of it. I pushed past it all and I got to breathe the rare, crisp air of prioritising my better self over my complacent self and it was exhilarating!
Have I mentioned how proud I am of myself? It’s small but it’s my favourite victory. I know that 2016 was immensely trying for many people and it was for me as well. I just choose to look back at it with deep gratitude because of the strength and resilience that showed up, on command, from deep inside me. I showed up for myself, brilliantly. I’m keen to continue to pour all of my love, energy and the best parts of myself into myself in this new year and see what kind of magic I will make. I look forward to the challenges and to taking control of one thing and another and another. And when that becomes hard to do, then just one.
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°°I work hard so there shouldn’t be, but there always is, a meltdown. I annoy myself after the fact but the anxiety, it grows legs!
Sending love to Mrs Andrea Johnson. You make us all better with your compassion, support and goodness. Thank you!