“I see my purpose as supporting individuals to nurture their greater potential,” I blurted out to Gabs when he asked me about my mission in life. I felt quite proud of myself for using words that sounded virtuous to my ears. After all, everyone else I said this to were impressed by this lofty purpose.
Gabs however, seemed unimpressed. We were in his office in Noordhoek for our weekly coaching session. I was sitting on the soft and comfortable black leather couch, and he was on a one-seater version opposite me. Even though we were in the middle of winter, natural light was streaming through his large office windows. The electric heater created a toasty warmth in the spacious urban-like studio. Aside from the space to sit and chat, there was room to work and many bookshelves filled with second-hand books. Behind Gabs’ chair was a big red heart – representing Gabs’ Heart Intelligence Coaching logo.
Gabs felt like the male version of me. We were born on the same day, both Aries. He from Venezuela, me from South Africa. He had a typical Latino sensual look, black hair and a two-day unshaved beard. Sometimes I convinced myself that Gabs’ good looks and accent that sealed the deal in me choosing him as my coach. However, in moments of radical truthfulness, the real reason we clicked was because he could see through my bullshit and call me on it, gently at times and at others taking a hard stance.
Gabs always said I’m like a Ferrari, that everything about me is in top form, I just need to be tuned in the right places – and he is the person to do it. I believe him, and know that coaching me was a big hairy challenge. He admitted to me in a moment of vulnerability when we celebrated our birthday together, that I intimidated the shit out of him when I first showed up at his studio. I could relate to this. When I am intimidated, I’ll fake it until I make it. The second quality that Gabs brought to our dynamic was a softness, one that I was not necessarily in touch with. I found it ironic that Gabs was more in touch with his feminine energy than I; to navigate this world I’ve shrouded myself in masculine energy.
Gabs continued to hold my gaze. I tried to distract myself by paying attention to the way his unruly hair kept falling into his face. Using his facial features as a focal point was a respite from a conversation that seemed to be heading into a danger zone. He knew I was stalling.
“Shamillah,” he said. “I wanna know the story behind what you just said. Tell me why you think that is what you are meant to do. If you want, tell me about the wound you are trying to heal.”
With a heightened sense of danger, and deep discomfort, I started fiddling with my fingers, changing my sitting position, and looking around the studio at the different pictures on the walls. My gaze landed on a sketch of a little girl in a field of flowers. The stark contrast of the girl sketched in black and white against the field of colourful flowers stirred my senses. I looked down at my hands, still avoiding his gaze.
The image on the wall evoked much more than I could handle. I felt myself gasping for breath, and realised that it was time to stop hiding. I looked at him, and made the brave decision to trust him and myself. ‘I am afraid to go there, Gabs,’ I whispered. In the most gentle way, he returned my gaze with unconditional love and acceptance. He said nothing and simply waited.
We had been doing these sessions for more than a year. Each week, I had to drive over Ou Kaapse Weg to get to Noordhoek. That drive over the mountainous pass was inevitably filled with noisy inner dialogue.
‘What more is there to say to Gabs? There’s nothing more that he can uncover. This is taking up too much of my time.’
On and on those voices went, rebuking me for continuing this very inconvenient trek up the mountain every week. Amidst all this noise, somehow, the voice I call my inner activist always managed to sound out all the others.
This voice would say: ‘Even if there is nothing more, making time for myself is a revolutionary act in and of itself.’ I liked the idea of an inner revolution.
Gabs continued holding space for me in that warm, soft manner. He sensed I was about to open a box, and that this was something I had never allowed myself to do before. So he simply waited, neither prodding nor encouraging. Letting me know that whatever I did would be ok.
I felt safe and held. So I said, ‘I am going to tell you something that I don’t think I have ever said out loud before. I have always prided myself on just getting on with life, of not dwelling on parts of my story, or to feel ‘sorry’ for myself. So, I don’t tell the story of my past or my circumstances that has made me who I am today. I am okay with others doing that, but I don’t give myself permission to do it.’
Although Gabs was saying nothing, I felt as if he was holding my hand – walking with me to gently open the box. Ready to catch me if I fall.
‘The truth about me and my wound, you ask? I have never even acknowledged this to myself. You have noticed this red birthmark on my face. When I was born, it was blue, and it covered half of my face. This mark, has not only visibly affected me, it is also one of the reasons I am who I am today.’
I began to tell the story of a little girl, born into a big family, who because of the mark on her face felt different. In this family, people often end up with nicknames, something related to a physical feature or character trait. This little girl’s nickname was ‘blou oog’ (blue eye) because of the appearance of the blue on her face, making her eye appear blue too. This nickname made her stand out even more, just like the ugly duckling amidst the other ducks, because she looked so different from her siblings and cousins.
In the years that she was growing up, everyone else was told they were beautiful or pretty, yet she cannot remember anyone saying those words to her. Like any other little girl, she craved acceptance, affirmation and acknowledgement, and in her child’s mind, the mark on her face prevented that. She imagined that the only way she could get positive regard was to be very good. She would be praised for being a good child, but soon she realised that being good over time meant you got even less attention, less acknowledgment. Not ready to give up, she decided to apply herself to be outstanding in everything. She completely shut her mind to the fact that she had a mark on her face, hardly looking into a mirror and avoiding being in photographs. Instead she focused all her energies on this mission to be exceptional.
The little girl grew into a teenager who discovered that because of the birthmark, she was completely blind in her right eye. Again, she absorbed this information, and never told anyone, except her mother. She was determined to maximize the use of her other eye, and managed this quite well without letting anyone know. The teenager was quite good at hiding, she cut and combed her hair so that her bangs would fall across her cheek and eye, so no one would notice. She excelled as the top student at her school, and at home she was the known as the most responsible and reliable member of her family. She was the only one in her entire school that got admitted to the University of Cape Town. Moving through early adulthood, even when she struggled, she kept at it – working on weekends to pay her fees and earn money for bus fare. The little girl had grown up to achieve the kind of success that others recognised and valued, for many years being the only one in her family who had a university degree, that had traveled outside Cape Town, that had traveled the world, and so much more. Even though she appeared as an adult, she was still nursing the wound of childhood. Up until her 30’s, she continued to hide her face from the world, afraid of being rejected or dismissed again.
This is one of the reasons she stumbled into the field of coaching, wanting to help young people who, for whatever reason are different, and may feel unseen, unloved, unworthy, and, as a result, might limit themselves. She supports these young people by helping them to discover their inner value so that they are not hurt when those around them do not recognise this. With a renewed confidence, they can set out to achieve what they want.
As I finished my story, I felt emotional and had to stop to control my breathing.
“So that is my wound, Gabs. Every time I work with the youth, and coach somebody, I want them to feel valued and accepted. Most of all, I want them to realise that the love and acceptance they need most is within themselves.”
Gabs helped me to see that the one who came up with the strategy of being exceptional was a child using childlike reasoning. He stood me in front of the mirror so that I could acknowledge a naked truth: as a result of my early experience, I had rejected myself. This truth bomb was the hardest to accept or own.
But I did.
Quietly, I stared at the reflection in the mirror, my naked face, my birthmark, my blind eye, and connected to a truth that the greatest rejection was actually within myself.
I knew that my healing journey had begun.
I had the offer in my hands. I was going to Joburg! Or was I? I wondered as I walked into the palace, that is, the very first house I ever bought for myself. It was a palace of two tiny bedrooms, each two steps away from the bathroom, three steps away from the kitchen, that was in turn just one step over the edging separating the kitchen tiles from the lounge carpeting. My palace, one of the decisions I took despite good advice. I had bought it earlier in the year after I came back from the December holidays.
It was while I was at home in Cala that I made the decision to buy myself a house. I told my friend, Bulelwa, as we were taking a walk into town. I particularly remember this moment because we were walking past La Gilda Hotel. Some guys we had grown up with were hanging out on the veranda and we stood and had a chat with them. One of them asked if I was married yet, to which I said no.
“So, you are still playing hard to get?” he scoffed.
“If not wanting you means playing hard to get, then I still am.”
“It’s gonna take you a long time to get married.”
“I still wouldn’t want to marry you,” I said, a bit irritated.
“Voetsek! I don’t want you either.” He threw the words at me and walked into the bar.
Bulelwa and I walked on, passed Nosizwe’s home where her kids were playing skipping rope made of old pantyhose.
“I want to buy myself a house next year,” I told her.
“A house?” she asked as if she did not know what a house was.
“Yes, a house. I am tired of paying rent.”
“Don’t do it.” She cautioned.
“You will never get married if you have your own house.”
“Men don’t want women with their own things. You already have a car. If you add a house to that, that says you are independent.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
We walked on in silence.
As we got to the corner of the second hotel in Cala, whose official name I never knew since everybody just called it KwaNkcenkce, the thought struck me: “What does having a house and a car have to do with being independent?” I asked Bulelwa.
“It says you can get your own things, you don’t need a man to provide for you,” she said slowly and clearly as if explaining to a child.
I was dumbstruck.
For days I was in doubt as to whether what Bulelwa said was true and whether I was prepared to follow my heart anyway. Her words had taken root in my mind because she was married and younger than me. I was not averse to marriage. In fact, I was hanging onto an on-off relationship that I was hoping would eventually blossom into something permanent.
I went back to Cape Town a woman of two minds. However, a month after yet another thing breaking in the flat I was renting in Claremont, I took the plunge and bought this palace. If I was meant to get married, it would happen despite the house and the car. Mind you, the car was not even mine. It was a company car.
Now, here I was on a Friday night, standing in the middle of my tiny lounge, with an offer of employment to a marketing and design agency in Joburg. I was thrilled by this offer. The company came highly recommended and I would be working with people I held in high regard in the field of marketing. But I also had some reservations. Joburg’s reputation as a fast-paced city with sophisticated and highly ambitious people scared me. Doubts flooded my mind – would I be able to live up to this image of sophistication and ambition? After all, I was only a girl from Cala. Lastly, even though I was sure my relationship with Themba was dead and gone, he kept making contact occasionally, making me wonder whether I had not been hasty in ending it. Some days I really thought we could make up and everything would be fine. On other days I would remember why we had broken up and wish I could get over him once and for all.
So I stood in the middle of my palace’s lounge wondering, “Where is that Voice when I need It?”
I had until end of Monday to accept or reject the offer. I sat on the tiny two-seater couch waiting for The Voice to come.
I thought of turning the TV on but decided against it. I wanted to hear The Voice loud and clear on this issue.
I got bored and went out to join some friends for a catch-up.
Saturday morning came in the continued silence. I went ahead with my day, running errands and shopping. The beauty of living in Kenilworth Park was that Kenilworth Centre was a short distance away. I could easily go and watch a movie there to while the day away.
“So, you are torn about the Joburg offer.” It was as if The Voice was waiting for me when I got home.
“Actually, yes!” I said with attitude.
“What are you torn about exactly?”
“Whether I should go or not.”
Was It stupid?
“What’s your heart telling you?”
“Well, on the one hand I want to go, but on the other I don’t want to give up the possibility of things working out between Themba and me.”
“So, what’s your heart telling you?” It asked again.
“I don’t know. That’s why I need your advice.”
“Really? Do you need my advice or do you want me to make this decision for you?”
That was odd. But, truth be told, it would be nice to have someone make this decision for me. I realised, as I went to into the kitchen to get some water, I had been making decisions by myself for a very long time now. I was tired, very tired. But I was not about to admit that to The Voice.
“No, I don’t want you to make the decision for me, I just need your advice,” I lied.
“Alright, here’s my advice – do what feels right for you.”
“Is that the best advice you can give me?”
“You must understand – every decision has consequences. It is better to make your decisions yourself because, if the consequences turn out bad, you are not burdened with living with them as well as the resentment and anger you’d feel if someone else had made the decision for you.”
“But I can’t tell the consequences of any decision I make now,” I protested.
“The trick is preparedness. Make a decision where the consequences, whether good or bad, you are prepared to live with.”
Good theory, I thought as I stood up and took the two steps into my bedroom. As far as I was concerned, that conversation was over.
That evening Themba came by. We had a conversation about the Joburg offer. I hoped that it was going to be a long conversation, covering the pros and cons of going or not going. I was even hoping he would ask me not to go. Instead, it was short.
“You must do what you want. It’s your career,” he said after I explained my predicament.
“Look, it’s not that I don’t want to be with you. It’s just that I have seen how important your career is to you. Right now, I can’t promise you anything in terms of where this relationship is going and I don’t want you to place your career on hold because of it.”
I could only nod to show my understanding.
As much as I felt Themba was rejecting me, there was some truth in what he was saying. In the journey of building a career in Cape Town I had had my fair share of tribulations. What had pulled me back from the brink of resigning from some jobs had been the mantra, “I came to Cape Town to work for my family.” At the hardest moments, this mantra held me together. It was no surprise that Themba understood that my career was important.
“So, what happens to us if I go to Joburg?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see.” He looked down.
At that moment I knew I was going to Joburg and that my relationship with Themba was finally over.
There was an awkward silence. We tried to get back to a comfortable, easy conversation. We even tried to cuddle, but we could not find a comfortable position. I understood, just as I was gone from Themba, he too was gone from me. We parted with a friendly hug at the door.
I was, yet again, back to being the queen of an empty palace. I cried over the death of this relationship. I cried for having to lay to rest any hopes of a future with Themba. I cried for the friends and family I would be leaving behind. I cried for leaving the palace I had not even lived in for a year. I cried for the advice Bulelwa had given me which I had ignored. I cried for this, I cried for that, I cried for any and everything. I cried until I was emptied out of any hopes and dreams I had of Cape Town. The hopes and dreams forming in my heart about Joburg were starting to shine brighter. I made contact with people who I had either grown up with or knew through work. Everyone was supportive. I remembered The Voice’s words from years ago when I was going to Mount Arthur, “Wherever you go, people will be sent ahead to receive you.”
My mantra changed from, “I came to Cape Town to work for my family” to “I came to the city to work for my family.” In accepting a job in Joburg, I came to realise that I was prepared to go to any city if it promised good prospects. Above all else, I was prepared to live with the consequences.
The small boy has come in for his therapy session. He is flushed and excited and filled with joy.
“And what has made you so happy, Lwazi? “I ask.
I am eager to know. The words tumble out from his mouth with six-year-old enthusiasm.
“I have been running with my friends,” he gushes. A game of catches on the school field at breaktime it seems. He proceeds to demonstrate. He flings his arms onto the wheels of his wheelchair and swings the chair with vigour around the physiotherapy gym in a few haphazard circles to prove the speed of his running.
“Well done!” I enthuse.
A week previously, he had said, “I wish I could run with my legs like the other boys do.”
His voice had been sad and tinged with hope.
“And so, you can,” I had responded. I proceeded to explain that while some children ran with their legs, others, like his friend Noah, ran with the help of a walking frame.
“You’ve seen Noah?” I asked. Yes, he had nodded.
“And what about Esihle?” I had continued. “He runs with his crutches!” The erstwhile despondent head was now nodding vigorously. “And as for you, show me your strong arms.” He showed me his bulging biceps muscles with pride. “With these you can push yourself fast in your wheelchair,” I said. “You have wheels. You can run. Your wheels are your legs!” By this stage his smile was broad. He giggled.
It was the encouragement he’d needed.
He changed from the boy with the flail legs in the wheelchair who could not run, to the boy who ran on the field with his friends.
A frantic flapping as I ran by, watching my feet
Avoiding the shit dog owners leave
In this our shared strip of semi-wildness
Between grey suburbia and the wetlands
Between tamed nature and the real thing.
And there you were, entangled in the strands
Of an electric fence, thankfully disarmed
Majestic, dark-eyed, razor-beaked, one wing
Wedged up between the strands
You, not knowing what had trapped you
Me, not understanding how you got there
The two of us ensnared by fear
Of each other, suddenly face to face
With a species we had little business with
But also had no need to be afraid of.
So I stopped, inhaled your magnificence
Your taloned feet, your red-dark plumage
But also your white-barred-black wing twisted up
Pondering how I might release you, this
Not being a skill they teach at school or college
Even though dear friends are avid birders
This circumstance had not been discussed, nor
Notes taken for future reference.
So I simply said: “It’s OK, stay calm, let the wing slide down
Don’t struggle, you will hurt yourself, gently does it”
Or words to that effect, to calm myself as much as you.
You stopped, the wing, held in the upper strand
Slowly glided down, and you gathered yourself.
Then you looked at me, as if to say: “Of course
I wasn’t panicking, you just startled me and I
Well, I just got a fright when you came running”
Which I had been doing from a long way off
And surely birds of prey are, well, eagle-eyed
But I did not correct you: it was not my place.
We contemplated each other, as strangers sometimes do
Looked each other obliquely in the eye, considered
Whether this encounter might continue or was over
All in all, for Africa it was very British, frosty, formal, aloof.
Then you dipped your rufous head, spread your wings
Now released but not quite yet re-tested
And took off to my right, around the houses, slowly
In no great hurry to part from our strange meeting.
Further down the path, which I then followed, you stopped
Perched by the side of the path, gathering yourself again
Hoping, I suppose, that full flight would still be possible.
And so it was, because as I jogged up beside you, off you soared
Circled, glided across rooftops and out of sight, encounter over.
And as I ran on past the vlei-side houses with their mountain views
My heart crash-landed meaning: power and freedom
A moment trapped in ignorance, requiring only calm
And self-belief to solve the shock, tackle the new
Inspired to find release and strength to soar again
To summit rooftops, find new flight paths, ways to live.