Ash Monday

This has nothing to do with health. It is simply a reflection on the devastating forest fires here in the Garden Route. So, if you’re pressed for time, please delete this email. I’m sending my marketing email tomorrow (fingers crossed), with the month’s specials, etc in it.

The past twelve days, all of us living in the Garden Route were affected by the forest fires raging out of control on our beloved mountains. At this time of writing, an area about one third as big as Cape Town has been devastated and fires are still burning in a dozen areas. Monday, a week ago, the smoke over our house was thick and heavy. Ash drifted down like snow, blanketing everything in a thin layer of grey-white soot.

In a crisis, communication systems break down – no landline, cell phones or wireless. No one knows how close the fire is. So, for the second time in as many years, we packed a bag and got ready to evacuate. In the end, the wind turned and nothing bad happened. The fire wasn’t even close. And so, like last year, we left our bag standing for a few days before unpacking it. Not because we were expecting the fire to return, but because unpacking this bag is an embarrassing and humiliating affair.

Let’s see what went into the bag…

Clothing. Of course. Who wants to wear stinky old clothing when everybody’s nose is blocked by smoke? You have to look presentable while sleeping on the floor of some church hall. We mostly wear clothing to hide and to fake. Hiding our shame, or hiding from weather or faking our true identity. Without clothing, we are vulnerable. So we pack clothes. What is confidence?

Medicines, toothbrushes and tooth paste. Who wants to get toothache while on evacuation? Not me. And if my medication runs out while I’m far away from a pharmacy, who will care for me? What is health?

ID, passports, birth certificates: Unpacking these, you realise that flimsy papers do not hold your identity. How strange that we become faceless when we lose these papers. Two hundred years ago, everyone in the village knew who you were. Today, even parents don’t recognise their teens. We need papers to prove that we are who we claim to be. What is identity?

Cell phone, lap top, data drives: You cannot go anywhere nowadays without telling people about it. I need my tech to earn income. But when the networks are down or overloaded, not even Mom knows where I am. Everyone phoning everyone to find out if everyone is safe. What is safety?

Money and credit cards: More flimsy paper. What separates me from a beggar, a homeless man or a tramp are a few sheets of paper. When I lie on the hard floor amid the unwashed masses, I will feel these papers in my purse and they will remind me that I’m not really homeless. That I’m able to buy my way out of this mess. Just give me some time. What is ambition?

Charger: What do you call a cellphone without a charger? A brick. Our devices need power. So you pack your charger to keep your devices powered. You forget that the city hall only has one socket, right in front, below the stage. Oh, and a hundred other people have the same idea as you. Even if someone brought a lead, the load will trip the circuit. That is, if folks remembered to pack adaptors, too. In the end, we’re all power-less in the midst of our personal, individualised crises, as the attention shifts from losing our shome to losing our connections. What is power?

Blanket: A night on a wooden floor can get really cold. One blanket has to cover a number of bodies . That means, pulling and shoving while all sorts of interesting bits get the chill. What is friendship?

Toilet paper: Toilets are at a premium during evacuations. Toilet paper is the new white gold. You either have it, or you are reduced to a smelly, second-class citizen. What is social status?

I finish unpacking the bag. My life just flashed before me. It was embarrassingly empty of substance. The things I valued so highly – the only items selected to survive my house burning down – are pitiful and meagre. Who am I? Really? Honestly?

I pack the suitcase back into the cupboard. If the fires return next year, I will walk out as I am. The clutter of things I call “important” is the real fire burning me up. I’ve allowed smoke and mirrors to rule my life.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall leave this life.”