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KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

I never knew Eric, he was always Sam’s friend, but like many people in our city, I knew who he was. Riding a bicycle down Langalibalele Street, heading towards the city center of Pietermaritzburg, it was hard to miss his double bed jammed into the double doorway of the old and abandoned St. Anne’s hospital. It wasn’t just a double bed in width, but in height, with two bases and two mattresses, giving the impression that this was how the princess and her pea would live, if she were homeless.

Sam first noticed the hospital, before he noticed Eric, and he loved it, with its tangled garden and hanging shutters and star-cracked windows. A few meters from Eric’s bed, an embroidered heart flapped in the wind, given as a red get-well gift, now grey. Behind his bed, a chain padlocked the double doors. I pictured the floors shiny, disinfected, the corridors bustling with soft-shoed nurses one day, and the next day superintendent pulling the double doors to, winding the chain, clicking the lock, saying, “Well, that’s all folks. Thanks for everything.” More… “Eric Was Here”

Sarah Groves lives in an apartment in the inner city of Pietermaritzburg, South Africa with 1 husband, 5 children and 98 neighbours. She spends her afternoons writing, and her evenings enjoying the city. It’s dirty, noisy and busting with language and culture, from all over Africa. Her first childrens's book (Sbonelo Snoop) was published last year with Penguin SA.
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My daughter is in a coma. She’s non-responsive. Her brain damage is extensive. Her doctors aren’t hopeful. Since you have relevant experience in this area, what do you think I should do to help her? What can I do to help myself, to keep thinking positive? — J

 

Wow. From my experience, I think you should read to her; who cares if she’s not responsive right now? Something immeasurable could be going on. Keep reading to her, talking to her, surrounding her with language and the soothing cadence of your voice. She probably has a valve inserted into her brain that monitors the pressure, and I think you’ll find that her brain pressure will decrease when you read to her. That’s what my parents did for me when I was in a coma. I think this… More…

When I was about seven years old, I ran away from home. Today, the word “runaway” conjures images of pre-teens and teenagers going to the city, falling prey to pimps, sexual exploitation, and destructive drugs. I was just a chubby little girl with ribbons in her pigtails.

For some years I’ve tried to tease apart the strands of what I myself remember about my leaving and what I was told in family stories. At the end of Katherine Anne Porter’s “Old Mortality,” the protagonist muses, “At least I can know the truth about what happens to me, she assured herself silently, making a promise to herself, in her hopefulness, her ignorance.” Checking the text to write this, I found that I’d misremembered it. My version was, “At least I can know the truth about myself…” It’s a crucial difference, self-knowledge compared with knowledge about experience that acts on the self…. More…

Why are all the best poems sad?

— Your father

That’s a good question, though I’m sure not everybody feels that the best poems are sad; they think that the best poems are the erotic ones by the 14th-century Indian poet Kabir.

But seriously, people tend to think that the best poems are the ones they can understand and identify with, and it’s not difficult at all to understand and identify with sadness, so it’s true: A lot of people think that the best poems out there are the sad ones. I think that’s because many societies often encourage overlook feelings of sadness or pain. Something bad happens, and we are pushed to move on, look to the future and not to the past. That’s not necessarily bad; it’s society’s job to mold each member into a productive contributor in the present, and we aren’t very productive when we’re sad…. More…

 

Leszek Kolakowski died a couple of weeks ago. He was a philosopher, a man of letters, historian of ideas. He lived the 20th-century life. It sucked. But like many a Pole, he made the best of a bad situation. The opening lines of the Polish National Anthem are, after all, “Poland has not perished yet.” Poles know that everything will turn out for the worst. It always does.

Kolakowski grew up during the Nazi occupation of Poland and came of age when the Nazis were exchanged for the Soviets. Liberation, in Poland, is the name for a short period of chaos between oppressors. Kolakowski did his best to think with the times. He started out a Marxist — not a ridiculous position for a young anti-fascist to take in those days. It was not, however, a position that… More…

Our singular social interaction outside the building came two years ago. I invited him to a reading I was giving at a local Barnes & Noble to celebrate one of my books on censorship. But even at that festive occasion we men of words exchanged but few.

Over the years, I gleaned hardly anything else about Mr. Aronson. I can’t recall ever seeing him with company. He apparently enjoyed hiking. Sometimes in the summer he looked like a big kid in shorts, a T-shirt, tube socks, and hiking boots. And he must have loved jazz. Sax solos routinely burst through his black metal door. I imagined Mr. Aronson methodically removing a Charlie Parker record from the jacket stored in a plastic sleeve, checking both sides for scratches and gently placing the disk on a vintage turntable. But he could have owned a brand new MP3 player for all I knew, as I never set foot in his apartment. In Manhattan, proximity does… More…