MY MOST vivid memory of my primary school days in Durban, South Africa, is of standing on a wobbly wooden bench in “the babies playground” and “selling” lumps of my home-made toffee, wrapped in waxed-paper knots, to other small girls and boys, until a teacher came along and confiscated both my gains, and my toffee stock!
When I was seven we were to have a “visitor” to our religion class. This visitor was to be the “reverend mother”. She came in, quiet and very tall. I had a really important question to ask. Somehow, it was possible for me to go up the room and ask my question, face to face (well, face to waist). I said, “Where is my soul?” She didn’t laugh, she didn’t dismiss the question or me, nor try and give a long, clever answer. She just stayed still and peaceful. Then just for a second, she bent and touched my forehead with a finger. “I think it’s there,” she said. Although I was so small, I remember feeling totally respected and heard, and satisfactorily answered on a mutual conviction.
If she were alive today I would say, “The fact that you said ‘I think’ rather than ‘I know’ allowed me the freedom to go on steadily exploring the answer, and the question, for myself. It is a journey I have enjoyed being on, ever since, thanks to you. You also taught me to be equally respectful when children ask me their questions.”
My mother’s family came from Madeira, and she grew up in Guyana, South America, where my father, English, met her. They came to England briefly where I was born, and immediately moved to Africa, where I grew up, in South Africa. My family were uncomfortable with the apartheid system, so when I was 12, we moved further north into Zimbabwe.
I attended secondary school in Harare, Zimbabwe, and I remember the long lunch-breaks when we sat outside on our school “suitcases” in the African sunshine, sometimes being bitten by ants, under huge purple blossoming jacaranda trees.
I had travelled by train with my twin brother, mother, father and grandmother, for three days from South Africa to Zimbabwe. I was a basically sunny kind of child. I always loved waking up early, climbing out of my window and down a flowering tree into an African dawn.
Academically I had myself down as a write-off, though I knew myself as good at art and English. I believe now I did not understand how to “study” – until after I turned 40, when I suddenly woke out of academic terror and torpor, and absolutely ate up history and psychology, powering through exams, eventually getting two Master’s degrees in the same year.
We didn’t have “discos” in my day, but we had the dances, and we needed to organise one. I just “knew” how it would look, and how we would make this happen. I can’t believe I didn’t surely step on some toes achieving “the dream dance” scenario. I think that was also the first time I got kissed, having prayed that would happen for several weeks beforehand.
I have a leaning towards healing professions. I was trained as a teacher (Art, Divinity/Theology and Psychology). I knew how to fail, so having really learned (eventually) how to pass exams, I could communicate with “the kids” – first in the East End of London, and later, in Africa and Dublin.
Eventually, approaching mid-life I began one of several psychotherapy trainings. Alongside this I had trained in spiritual direction. I believe Carl Jung had the stages of life right when he speaks about mid-life individuation. Call it the sage stage: it is about an “investment” less in material things, than in things of soul value. Covid-19 tossed some people into this earlier than expected.
I believe and experience that we have an inner centre, where, like in a secret or sacred cave, we can live, survive, even thrive. Is it back to that first question, “Where is my soul?” For me, in Covid lockdown, the rhythm of the day was balanced. Out at 6.30am (still a lark), into the park with walking poles, back indoors for the day. Have a plan.
Writing, learn how to set up a website, grow tomatoes from seed, learn to “Zoom” and attend Zoom meetings, journal the current situation, and set specific times for meditation, and prayer. I also found it the right time to tear up my deceased mother’s letters and books, and complete final aspects of the grieving process (she died in 2013).
Rotary, a humanitarian organisation, seeks to work within the centre of any community. As a cocooner, I was on the receiving end of grocery shopping myself from fellow Rotarians.
I feel content, and especially since having had cancer five years ago, I feel deeply grateful for each moment of life. I say “thank you” rather a lot. I mean it.
Author Anne Alcock received the chain of office as Killarney Rotary Club president at its weekly meeting in the Killarney Great Southern on Wednesday