Johannesburg, South Africa: I underestimated The Zahir by Paulo Coelho when I first picked it up from my brother’s apartment in downtown Jozi. It was just lying there like one of those old books that you’ve read and probably won’t want to read again. It has a thick hard cover and since I was a little more than restless I opened to see if it’s a book I’d want to spend my precious hours reading. I was also a little weary of Paul Coelho’s “aspirational/inspirational” tone in his novels, having read a number of them over the years. I just wanted to be real, you know no dreams of treasures hidden somewhere in your-back yard, no fantasies or pie-in the sky promises. I wanted to know what was possible in my life, in real terms. It was semi-autobiographical ( love fun biographies), mapping out Paul Coelho’s own journey to finding his love his wife – The Zahir – or love peace and happiness! Why! I had just been on a similar trip in search of something a bit more vague but I’m sure it had something to do with love, peace and happiness so I was interested to learn how he reasoned with himself; I wanted to know how a writer as accomplished and as wise as Paulo Coelho seems to be in his books, deals with loss, heartbreak, disappointment, failure, lack of confidence or self-worth. Another of the books’ main themes which appealed to me was about writing and how he suffered before he could sit down and write his first novel which we now all know as the “The Alchemist”. How the process of actually sitting down and writing unfolded. Why I had just been possessed by a writer I didn’t recognize, or know where they came from writing stuff that I would never verbalize ever, into to a couple of pages I submitted to a competition as a way of saying yo! I have nothing to do with that. I was so relieved when I clicked send, this person would finally stop bothering me I could have some sleep and get back to being myself the radio reporter with varying interests in everything. I wanted to learn from him, discover that I was not alone or crazy. I am still struggling to write, I don’t think writers struggle because they write, I actually think the term “struggling writer” comes from the inability to actually sit down and write so it’s a struggle, write no, I’ll do something, write no, I’m not a writer etc. They (we, I) struggle when they (we, I) Don’t write. It’s a new opinion on my part. So I still can’t say I am a “writer” even though I write for a living and for leisure, it’s still so unbelievable for me to say, I’m a writer. The fear of which is trumped only by having to come out to myself, every now and again. That still brings me to the point tears. I am gay. It surprises me. And for a long time I never found someone who mirrored my feelings until I went to see what’s fresh on WordPress this morning and Honey I’m a lesbian wrote in Coming Out to Yourself:
Even as I come out to old recently rekindled friends, I dance around my truth, but need to tell it anyway. I fear a whole truth, like saying that I might truly JUST be a lesbian, might be too much for me to bear. I also fear that putting that stamp on my forehead automatically makes me a liar if I ever meet a man I might fall in love with again<
I digress. But It’s always so good to know that we’re not alone in our fears of who we are. Paulo Coelho’s Zahir, got me thinking about mine. At once part human, part a geographical location, an idea, ideal, spiritual pursuit or Obsession. I have long been obsessed with the notion of spiritual enlightenment, from as early as five when I volunteered one morning to go to church on my own. I woke up and told my grandmother ” Mama today I’m going to church” and she said who is going to take you? I said I will go by myself. She asked, do you know anyone there? I said no, but I want to find out. She said well, we’ll see you when we get back” (I love you mama!) . Kinda reminds me of a conversation I had with her before I became a Pilgrim, on a journey to The Magal of Touba. Anyway I went on my own to the Church which still sits right there next to my primary school today. I remember the smell of the wooden pews which seemed to shine and glisten from the polish of human contact. And the song which we sung that day in church I still remember parts of it ” droppings, droppings, droppings, here the barn is full” as coins were being dropped into a bowl: Sunday’s (offerings) collection. I remember not having any coins to drop, and was given a cent or some such from an elder scolding me for having gone to church on my own and without money, I mean how dare you! I never went back but I wished I remembered that vivid childhood moment when it was demonstrated so clearly to me that it was all about the money when later in my early teens I poured through the Bible diligently praying, for God to speak to me, work through me, touch me like he did so many of his disciples such as Miles Munroe, his blackness making him an automatic role model for me ( He’s also a very gifted story-teller). But I got tired of not being used as a useful instrument in God’s temple, being over looked always, when after volunteering as a Sunday School teacher for some time, teaching (playing really) with children – I love children – someone younger and more anointed than me seemed to get God’s blessing to be appointed a Sunday school teacher, not only that my poverty and that of all the other church goers who looked like me was once demonstrated so opulently when on one “giving” Sunday all the rich white folk, brought items they no longer needed upfront, on the for charity, and all the black people became the scavengers after the service picking it all up! I’m sure there was something there I could have used, but something in me refused to be humiliated, to stand up in front of the entire congregation and fish through people’s discarded personal items. None of them went up there. I was proud. Still am. Sometimes to my detriment. I think it was after they had a muffin auction, in which one muffin was sold for 4,000 rands (+- 400 USD) towards missionary travel – abroad – and all the white rich children were chosen by god to go on those missions, despite other Pius blacks having come diligently to prayer meetings, I decided I couldn’t continue to go to church. So I told my parents I was overwhelmed with school work, but that’s the first time I suffered a real heartbreak, my heart was broken and I didn’t know who would fix it. Then I fell in love with New York, as a place for Idealist Ideas… the land of the free, free to be black, free to be me. And it has been my dream to forever be in New York. I went in 2008 and couldn’t believe how strange this lover of mine had become, so cold, but I walked with her, and she took me high and low, I hated her, despised her, loathed her, enjoyed her little red-brick buildings, her coffee shops, book shops, libraries, public spaces, her freedom, she was fast, wasted no time, but you could find your own time in her if you looked hard enough, she gave you the freedom to be whoever you want to be – but you have to do the defining yourself or else… I learnt how she moves, how she smells, how she’s like when she wakes up, when she hasn’t slept all night, when she’s happy, chatty, sad or withdrawing… I saw her mystery unfold in front of me and I began to fall, deeper and deeper in love…. I still have an appointment to go frolicking with new friends at Prospect Park… I still wanted to explore little china town to find my kinda Sunday Dim Sum restaurant. I love Chinese Food, I ate it in mainland China very salubrious too I might add, but it sure tastes better in New York. So here’s Hurricane Sandy, threatening to wash over my Zahir, I can’t even look at images of what’s going on. I want to call her and say baby are you okay? Are you safe, warm, having some soup somewhere, are you cold? can I hold you? I’m here, come home to me for a little while! Then I remember that I don’t have one ( a home that is ) and until I do I cannot afford to have a Zahir, which has taken me from New York, to Kenya , to Senegal. When I left New York my heart was torn to pieces, I didn’t want to let go, I even left Audre Lorde behind, when I left Kenya I cried all the way from my friend’s apartment to OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, when I left Senegal it felt like I was travelling through a spiritual tunnel that transcended time space, ages, generations and centuries, I was bent over in convulsions, as if being baptized over and over in the pool of my own salty tears, for the 14 thousand kilometer trip on air. I emerged on the other side of the OR Tambo Arrivals Terminal in disbelief – I was still alive. And now New York, My Zahir, has been sneaking up on me in my sleeping and waking dreams, keeping me awake, day and night, despite everything. One of my Good friends said to me while I was lamenting her haunting winks ” Well they say sometimes there’s always that one who “got away” they say no matter who else is in your life, you will always think and wonder about what if you were with the “one that got away”. It is frustrating because I know what it’s like to be – with the one that got away – I’ve been to New York, and not mesmerized in as much as I am comforted by the city, every one is a foreigner, even locals, so why do I keep dreaming of going back, to her. I hate the suggestion that my heart and mind will always be caught up in some dream, pie in the sky idea, when I could be living my life here right now. Fully, Warts and all.
In the end Paulo Coelho finds his wife, The Zahir, she was apparently waiting for him to find her, for two years. But she also kept herself busy. She is Pregnant. I remember a dream I had two years ago, I was holding my Zahir’s hand, encouraging her as sweat trickled down her crunched up face behind the curtain of brown wet locks, she was in labour – giving birth to a second child. A few months ago more recently I had another one of those vivid dreams in which I was released from the clutches of a disapproving mother- in- law- to- be, a place where I experienced tremendous loss, of a child, I convulsed in pain again in that dream again but woke up to a newer place where I was happy again, it seems this time I was surrounded by many children, and we were all singing and dancing together to none other than Frank Sinatra’s Iconic New York, New York song…..” start spreading the word, I’m leaving today I’m gonna be a part of this……. New York, New York!
I have to remind myself that dreams are not always literal. Jozi is here and I love her.
“Love is a disease no one wants to get rid of. Those who catch it never try to get better, and those who suffer do not wish to be cured.”