Writing advice from bell hooks

I’m writing today’s advice from my lounge at home, listening to the helicopters that have been buzzing since Monday, searching for a man who is missing on the mountain. I learned about this case last night because my husband and I went up to the mountain for a walk, and the parking lot was crowded with men who had been looking for him. His disappearance and the fact that they haven’t yet found him is part of my soundscape.

The physical danger of the mountain, for many of us, is made worse by the danger posed by other people. The lack of safety we feel when walking alone.

A few weeks back my girlfriends and I went for a walk on the same mountain – one of the first socially distanced walks we’d been on. Spending time with these two women is an essential part of my wellbeing. They nourish my soul. I had been looking forward to the walk the whole week.

We had just rounded a bend on the mountain path, coming to a quieter part of the trail and feeling glad not to be navigating and negotiating the narrow path and other people with masks and without, when we came upon a man walking in the opposite direction from us. He was wearing a beanie and it was purple and glittery. He looked as though he was concentrating hard on appearing casual, walking in a way that you do when you’re thinking about walking instead of just doing it.

My fear radar began to sound, and I stopped, waiting for my friends to catch up to me. Then, behind the first man came a second man, running towards us, eyes taking up his whole face with terror. I began to backtrack as the first man spun back around and threatened the second. ‘Do you want to die here today?’ The second man stopped.

The first man turned back towards us, same casual look on his face as though nothing had happened. On the outside it seemed as he was unchanged and unfazed by the threat he had made, or by our witnessing it. My friends and I stood stock still, off the path, hands up as if in surrender, as we let the first man walk past us. ‘You’re fine girls’ he said, and it felt so strange that he wanted us to be at ease even as he checked us up and down.

He had taken the second man’s phone, we later learned, with a knife in one sleeve and a screwdriver in the other. He had threatened to take his life. By the time we walked back to our cars the robber had disappeared down a valley in the mountain, no longer visible from us. We told everyone we walked past to be careful, feeling the foolishness and futility of those words.

Of course, our walk was spoiled. We had that strange South African feeling of not quite being the victims of crime and so not really feeling justified in being traumatised because, well, ‘at least he didn’t hurt you.’ We went somewhere else, tried to let go of the adrenaline but the encounter stained our experience like ink in water, colouring everything.

In my old life, I worked in the field of gender-based violence. You don’t have to choose this as a career to know that our country is in crisis. I made a really difficult decision to stop doing this work this year because I couldn’t continue to bear the unbearable. I have lost hope in the ability of our government to change things. I don’t believe it will get better and I can’t continue to act as if I do. But the state of things continues to preoccupy me, the permanent ink in my water.

So while I listen to the helicopter hovering, and truly hope that they find this runner and that he is okay, I can’t help thinking about the people we don’t get the helicopters and search parties out for.

We don’t get the helicopters out when women and girls go missing every day. We don’t look for them or arrange big community search parties. There are no groups of men standing in rows and walking the streets to knock on doors and ask if anyone’s seen them. The men out there on the mountain today and the 200 volunteers that have allegedly signed up to help look for this single man are not the same people you see marching every women’s day or in the 16 days of activism.

Unfair, unjust, inequitable. These words seem as useless as trying to catch rain in a sieve.

So I turned to writing advice from someone who considers all of this, feminist writer and theorist bell hooks. I hope that today you find room to write out the things that are disturbing you, and that in some way you find healing.

“A distinction must be made between that writing which enables us to hold on to life even as we are clinging to old hurts and wounds and that writing which offers to us a space where we are able to confront reality in such a way that we live more fully. Such writing is not an anchor that we mistakenly cling to so as not to drown. It is writing that truly rescues, that enables us to reach the shore, to recover.”

bell hooks – remembered rapture, the writer at work