Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Seeing beyond the limits

It is nearly the end of 2013, and everything that we can do this year can only be done in the next six hours.

But while it is December 31 2013 in the Gregorian calendar, it is also 28th of Tevet, 5774 in the Hebrew calendar and so from another perspective, there’s still lots of time to do something meaningful.

Viktor E. Frankl is a man with no time left on this planet in any calendar. He will never feel the sun on his face again.  Or swim in the ocean or learn something new or listen to music or be with the people he truly loves.

He died 16 years ago, but I'm grateful he lived and worked because he helps me make sense of my world in a profound way. In my favourite passage in his book Man's Search for Meaning, he writes about another ending he witnessed in the Holocaust:

 “This young woman knew that she would die in the next few days. But when I talked to her she was cheerful in spite of this knowledge.
"I am grateful that fate has hit me so hard," she told me. "In my former life I was spoiled and did not take spiritual accomplishments seriously."
Pointing through the window of the hut, she said, "This tree here is the only friend I have in my loneliness." Through that window she could see just one branch of a chestnut tree, and on the branch were two blossoms. "I often talk to this tree," she said to me.
I was startled and didn't quite know how to take her words. Was she delirious? Did she have occasional hallucinations?
Anxiously I asked her if the tree replied.
What did it say to her?
She answered, "It said to me, 'I am here-I am here-I am life, eternal life”

But for Viktor Frankl, that woman’s powerful understanding might have been lost.
She might have died unnoticed
And unknown,
But there was someone was there
Who listened
And wrote about what he heard
And was part of the ripple that began with her experience of life, that reaches me today

We live in the illusion of limits, but it’s only when we see the limits
that we can glimpse at the power behind the illusion.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Spaces between words

When I was growing up in Cape Town, Friday night supper was a big thing.
We all sat around a big round table in our dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows. 
At night all you could see beneath were the lights of Sea Point and the black space of the ocean.    
Above, you could see the moon arc slowly across the dark sky.   
Sometimes it was a sliver and sometimes a glowing fullness.

On Friday nights, we always had challah, a fish main course and dessert.  
I always sat next to my grandmother.   
And it was always very loud.

In the battle for airtime at our table, you had to be quick and loud and funny.   Although she tried, my poor sister never quite learned the trick of sticking her verbal oar in.  My sister Lisa and I would say: hush, Gaby’s trying to talk, but no one would really listen.  That table took no prisoners.

Strangely, it’s the quiet conversations with my grandmother that I remember from those high octane nights.
I remember her favourite line of Grace after Meals.  She never sang it loudly like we did, she just shyly mouthed the words she loved.

The line comes near the end of the prayer:  "I was young and now I am old and I haven’t seen a righteous person abandoned"

I think she loved it because it was true for her. She had been young, she was now old and she sat now among people who loved her. I think my grandmother was a righteous woman.

I live now in London in my own big house. The view is not so beautiful here.  My grandmother is no longer alive and the house with the big windows has been knocked down.

But this is what I learned from being there:

It’s hard to hear anything when people are shouting. 
You can only hear someone else when you stop listening to yourself.
Words are shabby ways to explain ourselves.
Things fall apart but love is what remains.
There is more to know than I can ever see by myself.
I am limited, like all of us, by my time on this earth and my ability 
but I am not alone in trying to understand.

All we can do is look at the moon and describe what we can see as best we can.

I wonder what I will learn next.

Thursday, 5 December 2013


My brother Michael and me. 1966. Cape Town.

Nelson Mandela lived opposite me.
Me in my big house, him on Robben Island
Although I never knew that.
I would stand for hours by the fence, looking at the sea,
Looking at Robben Island and at the setting sun turning the buildings below golden.

I remember how lonely I felt.
I remember feeling like I was the only one,
Like I was the only one that felt ashamed of what I saw.
And ashamed of myself for not doing more

Today I learned I was not alone then.
My father felt that too.
This is how he tells it:

"I was a medical student at Cape Town Medical School in 1942.
Cape Town Medical School allowed White and Coloured students to go there, but not Black students..
Black students had to go to Medunza or Durban.
If a Coloured student came to Cape Town Medical School, their parents had to sign a letter saying their child would be admitted to Medical school under the following conditions:
1.       They could not dissect a white body
2.       they could not attend a white post-mortem
3.       They could not attend an operation on a white person or examine a white person
4.       They could not be taught on a white patient.

If they did any of these things, they would be expelled"

This was progress. Before 1942, Coloured students were not admitted to Cape Town Medical School at all. They had to qualify in London, Glasgow or Edinburgh.

My father remembers they had a brilliant professor who was an admirer of the Nazi party in Germany.

All the other teachers would teach on Coloured patients, but so as not to miss an opportunity to humiliate the Coloured students, this professor made a point of bringing in White patients.

My father remembers how the professor would look at the Coloured students, tilt his head toward the exit and say officiously:  “Come along, people”

The Coloured students would then have to get up and leave.  My father says all the White students just sat there in silence.

“Not one of us got up. We just felt ashamed” he says.

(Subsequently, they went to the Dean and complained and the professor moved to a different teaching hospital)

But that encounter in the moment, the opportunity to do something kind, something ethical, something moral, was gone.

When the professor died after a long and successful career, 5,000 people came to his funeral where he was buried with full honours. There is no Justice my father says.

But Nelson Mandela, the man across the water, taught me something else- that anything is possible.

It is shame that makes us blind to the possibility of action.

In each moment, there is always the possibility to transcend our loneliness, and see that we are all connected.

On the 6th of June 1966, when I was four years old, Robert Kennedy made a speech at the University of Cape Town.  My parents were there.

I was probably at home, looking across the sea at the time.
I like to imagine Mandela was looking over the rippling sea back at me.
I like to imagine us both listening to these words:

 “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance”

I like to imagine that in listening,  I am part of that ripple.  And that you are too.