When the dreaded lurgy strikes

On hitting a wobbly.


I’m a glass half-full-ish kind of guy: erring (however foolishly) on the side of hope — both for myself and for the world in general. In late July, however, existential gloom swept over me — as surreptitious and fierce as a sneaker wave. The uncertain, beleaguered state of the world, of the USA, of media (and my career, as a writer), of South Africa and its wine and hospitality sectors — all this submerged me in a lurgy where I felt exhausted, down, overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, scared. (I should’ve followed my own advice: read the news sparingly.)

I’m acutely conscious that, for many, 2020 has been much worse. I sought to reason with myself: how dare I feel despondent when I’ve gotten off rather lightly? And yet. Like the weather, the blues follow their own capricious logic.

I decided to stop reading news online (pricey digital FT subscription notwithstanding!) for the month of August. I took some time off. I read lots of books, a few magazines. Most days, I walked and meditated. I also revisited the writings of Zen teacher Antony Osler which are relevant whether you live in the USA or in South Africa or some place else. From his most recent book, Mzansi Zen:

The news tonight is a recital of collapsing infrastructure, financial mismanagement and violence. It feels as if we are sliding irreversibly towards a precipice. I am overwhelmed by discouragement.

Because I have nailed my flag to the mast of things as they are, I can’t pretend all is well when it isn’t. I can’t run away from the suffering or deny it; I can’t invent a silver lining. No going forward, no going back. I am stuck. So what now? How do I find my life in the midst of all this? Here is the only thing I know how to do – I get up from my chair, I take a deep breath, and I walk beyond argument into my Zen practice. When I am here, I sit very, very still. Then, without looking for any particular outcome, I let myself down like a plumb line, inch by inch right into the very heart of my discontent.

It is dark in here. Completely dark. I wait. And I wait. I listen – past what the voices are saying, tuning into the voiceless. The words grow softer, less insistent. The blaming subsides. And the fear. Faintly, in the far corners of my ear, a sweet and unnameable singing … slivers of blue sky appear, and possibilities – the healing balm of a wider, more forgiving, view. Once more I inhabit the sacred ground where my connection to the world is restored. From here I can open my eyes. It is true we have bad governance. It is true we have great music. It is true that my heart is beating and that the cat is sleeping in the apricot tree. It is true that the small boy at the corner of the supermarket in town has no shoes. Now I know that I am facing home. And from here the direction is straight forward and right ahead – right into the arms of the world.

  • Read a longer a longer excerpt from this wonderful book here

California’s naked ladies

Amaryllis belladonna (pictured above) might be indigenous to South Africa, but here in Northern California they’re all over the place, and flowering right now. In the USA, they’re called naked ladies (in the Cape, they’re known as March lilies because that’s when they flower there). I’ve so enjoyed witnessing this dazzling, comforting reminder of home (as ethically dubious as delighting in a rampant invasive might be).

Other sources of solace this past month:

  • Star-gazing during a power outage

  • Gazing up at Big Hendy grove’s gigantic redwoods (pictured below)

  • Listening to:

  • Reading:

    • Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel — slow to start, but ultimately an elegant, engrossing and powerful portrait of the present day; clear-sighted yet hopeful

    • Loaded — Christos Tsiolkas’s fierce, urgent, exhilarating and sexy first novel

    • Swimming Home, Deborah Levy’s deliciously dark and oftentimes hilarious novel

    • At bedtime, a few pages nightly of Queen Luciathe first instalment of EF Benson’s light, silly and extremely amusing satire of life in a serene, affluent English village in the 1920s

  • Kayaking through sea caves and past suntanning harbour seals

  • Picnicking on the beach with local rosé and home-baked pretzel bread followed by a bracing dip

  • Cooking:

    • Homemade pasta — there’s something incredibly soothing about threading sheets of dough between the rollers of a pasta maker; in a departure from my usual pesto fettuccine, I used it to make chunky noodles for bulgogi Bolognese — the perfect Korean-Italian comfort food

    • A wildly improvised egg and bread soup inspired by the Açorda à alentejana I enjoyed on my hike on Portugal’s southwestern coast last year

    • Katherine Hepburn’s brownies upgraded with chunks of Skor and topped with a liberal sprinkling of Maldon flakes

What are the things that have helped you get through August?

You’ve made it to the end of my monthly dispatch. Keeping in touch is more crucial than ever before — but, because I’ve abandoned social media, I started these monthly-ish missives using old-fashioned email instead. Replies are always welcome and appreciated (especially if they contain a reading recommendation, playlists or a beloved recipe)!