The Miseducation of Gratitude

1. INTRO

I WAS NOT thought of yet. A wound in my mother had not formed yet. A wound in her mother had not been born yet. We were both not here, my mother and I, where we are now on both edges of love and contempt. I was eight, with a tongue quick enough to catch the secrets from slipping but also quick enough to spill them. She was twenty-six years old with a face growing tired of mothering and playing wife. But she was taught to always do her homework, as was I. Our democracy was four years old but walked like it was thirty. I had not known of it yet; I was covered in dust and eating up the streets for lunch when Lauryn Hill released her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was sixteen and the album was eight when we met.

I fell in love for the first time. And my tongue softened.

2. LOST ONES

I had lost the correct way to pronounce my name behind the teeth of white teachers who wouldn’t make an effort. The bell rings and, as always after our second lunch-break, a fight ensues. It is hot and sticky and we all smell like rotting heartbreaks, heartbreaks we are told to be too young to feel. So we hide them well. Today I want to be invisible. I want the ‘i’ in my name to be silent. The way it’s meant to be. To not sound how it reads. But Mrs. Whitehead won’t have it. My name crawls out of her mouth and into the air. Si-bo-ngi-le. I am somehow in a room with all the other prefects. Imagination says we are all in a brawl, or is it exaggeration? Or is it storytelling? However, in reality, it is just two girls fighting, and because we are early for a prefects’ meeting, we are also counted in. The sun has worked its temper into our skins. No one wants to apologize. I want to cry but the previous night had stolen all my rain. My mother is in the world working with one eye open, while the other eye tries to make sense of my father’s fist. I long to remain invisible. It is our last year in primary school, of life as we know it. Mrs. Whitehead listed our names with pride. We are called out during assembly. Two days later I lost my prefect badge and, along with it, my love for leadership.

I lost my pride for the first time. And my heart hardened.

3. EX-FACTOR

The dream of losing your virginity to the man you love had slept on my pillow for weeks now. Today was going to be special. I had choreographed my moves and was ready to lose a piece of myself I have never felt I had. In another wound, my cousin and I are fondling each other in a way young girls shouldn’t. Or they should. We watch my father’s porn collection and make our way across our developing countries. She is older and parts the seas with ease. We both make it out alive—or uncaught? We grow with age and stay touching until she meets a boy and leaves me with our secret. I find videos of women touching themselves on the Internet and I join them. In this wound, my lover is a man and he is not only my first lover but also the first man to see my thighs giggling. It is my second year in varsity and I am determined to pass on my secret to this man. On the day it happens I find myself let down. It feels no different from the time I fell off a bicycle, or the time I said a poem in front of people for the first time, or the time I fought a boy and tore the skin of my palm. Or the time I didn’t eat for a week because I wasn’t good enough for food. Or I ate and then vomited because I wasn’t good enough to be satisfied. Or the time I cried for three days because he left me for a girl, whom he later raped and asked me to believe that he didn’t. And I believed him because love is a wound you love having. Until you don’t want it anymore and you forgive your ugly and you lie in a bathtub and cry, and bathe, and cry and ask for forgiveness from the girl. And you tell her that you know he did it, that you have always known but the door was always open and you had hoped he’d leave her and come back to you.

I broke my heart for the first time. And my eyes opened.

4. TO ZION

The nurse smiles and says, “You are still far from delivering that baby but we have to monitor you because you have what we call a bloody show.”

I hesitate to contest and just nod. My lover is kept out of the room and told to go home. He will be called as soon as the baby has been delivered. We are at the maternal clinic and the nurses are filled with an unusual generosity and care. I miss him. There is a woman whose face translates into pain and is doing what seems to be a dance on her bed. I, on the other hand, feel my bones reaching into another world. Another girl joins us; she is wearing a pink night dress with a brown teddy bear in the centre. She is ripe and gives birth before the dancing woman and me. She leaves the room with no scent of her presence. Her bed is wheeled out by the midwife and two other nurses, tired but moving without option. My eyes slice envy and place it in my heart. I am growing impatient to see you. The ward is painted yellow with no sign of changing. There are four beds lined up next to one another. While the dancing woman is on the phone, another woman joins us and gives birth as the door opens. I am eating at everything green. I am in-between pain and waiting. The dancing woman finally gives birth after hours of her body jolting in a choreographed manner. There is a woman who leaves on an ambulance to the hospital. She has been in labour for twenty-four hours and nothing has come. It’s been twelve hours since I got to the clinic and the clock has winded all my kindness out. The nurse checks me again and says that I am still far. Another two hours later, we are both tired and the nurse sees this. We are saddled on a horse of an ambulance making its way through potholes and poverty to the public hospital where you will be born. The air is different here. There are at least twenty of us in a room that stretches no further than the wingspan of a tall man. We are hot and sticky and we all smell like rotting heartbreaks, heartbreaks we have no need to ask permission for. No one attends to me so I drag my body to the front desk of the maternity ward and ask to be assisted. Or demand it. At this point I am too tired to care. I am enveloped by rage and stirring the room into a cocktail. Out of sheer obligation of my rage-turned-madness, I am placed on a sheet-less bed that is cold and sticky. The wind outside is a train on its way to deliver the last dreams before twilight. It’s four o’clock in the morning. The midwife induces me. They drain out the pee and my water breaks onto the nurse’s face. I am made to push but I am too tired. First, it’s the faeces and a pool of blood; then your head struggles its way into this world. I have been cut and feel nothing of it. Suddenly, I am cold and my bones are doing the jive. It is as though for the past twenty hours winter had worn a different face. My whole body is covered in cold-defeat. The disheartened nurse slaps my thighs. They can’t keep still. She sews me up anyways. Your mouth kisses my breast and you suck on it like you have always been waiting to, waiting too.

I meet you. You are the one born soft.

5. DOO WOP (THAT THING)

I am seated at the back of my father’s car when he slows down and catcalls a woman. He is saying she is beautiful but he is sounding like she is not. Like she is the reason my mother’s eyes swell. Or she is one of the many. He stops the car and gets out. They talk and laugh out loud and talk some more. He is giving her a smile he hasn’t given my mother in a while. I can feel my heart disintegrate. It is headed for the floor and I can’t catch it, or I won’t. My hands are holding my mother’s heart and wish not to let go. In a wound that formed itself while I was searching, I am in the bed of a Rasta man, in a shanty with a window no larger than my fist or my heart at this point. There is no love between us. In the morning, I pull myself from out of his bed and begin the walk of shame.

6. SUPERSTAR

I win a prestigious writing prize and I still swallow my death each morning. Or it swallows me. I don’t have the courage to let go of what I know. So I stay alive with anxiety.

7. FINAL HOUR

My father has not been home for a week. My mother is ruined. It is on her face. I have been holding her heart for as long as I can remember. I hate her for this. For always doing her homework, even when my dad is absent. Weeks later he reappears only to leave again. My father left with his clothes in black bin bags. He wanted to leave. I remember my aunt and my uncle accompanying him. My mother knew what it meant as soon as they entered the house. She was tired of mothering and playing wife but she did not want to open the door. Over tea, my aunt smiled and broke our family. She wanted to. They left with a large piece of our family. My mother and I blacked out and although I remember nothing of that night, I doubt we slept how yesterday sounds. In my wound, I start writing poetry and I watch my hands become faster than my tongue. I want nothing of the world. I blame my mother for being too tired, for not doing her homework well and for inviting the poverty that comes with single-parenting into our house. My mother’s eyes are hallowing. She is spending more and more time on her knees. Filling God in the spaces where my father used to live. She is drowning her heart in holy tea and her body is covered in vapour rub. She believes that God will bring him back. When the wound is older, much older, my parents’ divorce is made final. And what was broken remains broken.

I bent my soul for the first time. And my hands bled.

8. WHEN IT HURTS SO BAD

Lauryn Hill: When it hurts so bad, when it hurts so bad/ Whys it feel so good/ When it hurts so bad, when it hurts so bad/ Whys it feel so good?

9. I USED TO LOVE HIM

We are commonly known as black but we are a thick brown belt on the waist of history. We are holding his pants up, doing the disservice of keeping him dressed. He unbuttons his shirt like someone who has won a bet. Like a rapper who just dropped a hot sixteen over a tight beat. Like the one who survived the war before coming home to be forgotten. His chest hairs blossom into season and I am left wanting another song. He lives in a backroom small enough to be a secret, but inside it, the world between us keeps expanding. I don’t want to be here but I remove my jeans like someone who has been waiting for this moment. I can still count them on one hand, the men I’ve slept with, and so I add him to the list while my bra finds a home on his floor. I will add others as the years grow my age. In another wound, I am in my history class and there is a small section on African Independence. I count the pages. There are twenty pages on African History covering all fifty-four countries—which are now said to be fifty-seven. Fifty-Four. I am displeased at how it took us a week to go through African History when we spent an entire month on World War I. I go to war with my teacher over this and find myself outside of her classroom, which was also a media centre, with books no one ever read, books that were older than the school and that spoke about nothing we knew, books that didn’t represent us. Here, however, in this wound, his dreadlocks brush against my skin in a way that I don’t want them to. He’s at the carnival and I at the desert, thirsting for the time when I once loved him. A time when he hid our relationship and I helped him, a time when he turned his back on me in front of his friends—our friends—and I shrunk into the word please. Once, he told me to stop talking to him. To remain a secret in his backroom and not be so loud about our bodies touching. I wanted to contest but just nodded instead. From a distance, I watched him love another woman and I thanked him later. I lit a cigarette and danced with the smoke. In the dance, I saw for the first time that he looked like my first love. That my love for him was a shadow of the things I still held on to. That day, with my bra on his floor and my jeans on his TV, I lay on his bed loveless and thankful.

10. FORGIVE THEM FATHER

There is no man named Jesus—only Yeshua, who, like my land and my identity, his religion and his identity were stolen. My heart has never been to church.

11. EVERY GHETTO, EVERY CITY

WELCOME TO THABONG, the sign reads as we enter our hometown. On the left is BONGANI HOSPITAL, where I was born. My mother was eighteen and afraid, not different from now as she is forty-three and still afraid. The dust sits on my shoulders like a childhood memory that won’t stop visiting. There are still no tarred roads apart from the main road, and poverty turns the landscape into obscure antiques. I haven’t been home in three years and bear no guilt. Things never change here. You can be gone for as long as the mind can hold memory and still come back to your childhood as you knew it. On my lap, my day-old son is sleeping, or living how day-olds do, enveloped by innocence and oblivion. In our house, my heart sits on her chair. She, as always, sat on the chair parallel to the front door for as long as I can remember. When I was much younger, my great-grandmother who is also my heart—may her soul rest in peace—was struck on the foot with a cane by a witch who lived up the road from our house. She was never able to walk again. And up until the day she met her death, months after my visit, she sat on her chair.

I will be home for three months. My heart, my aunt and my sister will help me turn water into human. I spend three months with my heart and I am home every waking second. The furniture here has outlived mines. There are ghosts of my great-grandfather and my grandmother and my uncles and my aunts circling our mouths. The shadow of her childhood is woven into a blanket that keeps me warm throughout the day. The stories are round and Earth-like and I walk through them barefooted. The red sofas had become brown with time. They were new and beautiful and modern. The white walls made me feel safe. My great grandmother made me feel safe. I am a mother now. The words swell in my mouth and are spewed out like a cuss. My great grandmother is holding a fourth generation medal in her hands; she grows tired and cries on her bed. She wishes she was stronger, and younger, to raise my son how she raised me—

12. NOTHING EVEN MATTERS

—with respect and religion, or is it love?

I arrive in Tembisa, with a friend of mine. They are having a hip-hop event where I will be performing a set of poems. I was recording one of the poems at his house earlier and we had decided to go help clean and prepare the venue for the event. Upon our arrival, a dark-skinned figurine rouses the sun by picking at the earth and letting its sweat soothe the sight in front of me. My heart—not the one at home but the one I carry with me—races to the finish line. I will only admit to this feeling two months later. I join in and help this man create a path that no one will even walk on. Or they will without noticing it exists. On the day of the event, I sleep in his car and watch his heartbreak at dawn. The event didn’t bring in enough revenue but it gave us a story to tell our son when he is much older. I am in love with a river that is flowing in my direction, always arriving where I am going. It has been three years since the event, and the broad shoulders of a dark-skinned figurine helped put together this album. Afterwards, we were in his room melting into water when he asked me to marry him. I said yes. He took my hand into his and held it. I lost nothing. He was a beautiful sentence in the perfect place so I said nothing. We sunk into his bed and only came out when the sun left.

We are on our way to the other world together. And here, nothing even matters at all.

13. EVERYTHING IS EVERYTHING

Lauryn Hill:

I wrote these words for everyone/ Who struggles in their youth/ Who wont accept deception/ Instead of what is truth/ It seems we lose the game/ Before we even start to play/ Who made these rules?/ Were so confused/ Easily led astray/ Let me tell ya that/ Everything is everything/ After winter, must come spring/ Everything is everything.

Sometimes it seems/ Well touch that dream/ But things come slow if not at all/ And the ones on top wont make it stop/ So convinced that they might fall/ Lets love ourselves then we cant fail/ To make a better situation/ Tomorrow our seeds will grow/ All we need is dedication.

  1. THE MISEDUCATION OF GRATITUDE

My surname cuts through my tongue like a sharp foreign object.

My father says it’s his.

His father says it’s his.

My mother carries it with pride and rolls her tongue to bend into positions acceptable to the language I write in.

My heart is in a foreign world, aging into an angel.

I am dust and angry of splitting,

I count to ten in my mother tongue and wish to spell the words right.

I hold on to the image of my mouth spilling a poem in Sesotho.

But as a child in a classroom as big as our kitchen,

I learned to speak in a way that will give my surname its rightful place,

I learn to count in the language that I write in.

At home—

—I am taught to say thank you instead.

I burn my god in other tongues and make room for the one who will speak to me in a language that I write in.

I give birth in isiZulu but mother in English.

I catch myself and force my tongue back home.

Here, my surname remains an unanswered question.

We are landlocked with our identity between seas.

Dispossessed in the mouth of others.

It is painful to write my last name down for the first time.

It becomes my first name and I wear it like a cloak.

At home—

—I am called by the one they are thankful for instead.

If memory serves me right,

My surname is the birth of a historical wound,

And we hang off the family tree,

Having forgotten how we bleed,

How it was received,

Silenced by the privilege it offers.

At home—

—I am taught to say thank you instead.

“The Miseducation of Gratitude” is taken from Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction curated by Basit Jamiu, forthcoming as a downloadable e-book on Brittle Paper.

 

About the Writer:

Photo by Nick Mulgrew

Sibongile Fisher is a poet, writer and drama facilitator from Johannesburg, South Africa. She holds a BCom degree in Marketing Management and a higher certificate in the Performing Arts and wishes to pursue an MA in Creative Writing. She is a co-founder of The Raising Zion Foundation, an arts organisation that focuses on promoting literature, poetry and the performing arts in high schools. Her short story, “A Door Ajar,” won the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize and was shortlisted for the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Fiction. Her short story, “A Sea of Secrets,” written for young adults, was published by Fundza, under their mentorship program, and appears in their “it takes two!” volume 2 anthology.

 

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