The greatest gift my parents gave me was hobbies.
My mother is an actress, but when she had me she stepped off the stage. She didn’t want to raise her daughter in the dressing room, she said. Instead, she started her own business working from home and producing a variety of crafts. In winter she would knit. In summer she would make beaded sunglass straps. In tourist season we’d do markets and stay up late into the night making stock. She was and still is always busy with her hands, always making something. Always creating. My childhood memories are peppered with occasions when she’d come bouncing up to me waving a new knitting pattern or some intricate beaded design that she wanted to make.
It was from her that I received a love of knitting. For years I would watch her needles clicking, wear the jerseys she made me, and get excited about the beautiful things she taught herself to create. I would sit with needles and wool and a scowl on my face and cries of frustration, wishing I could be like her, wishing it could be as easy as she made it seem.
And then all of a sudden it was. I graduated from knitting when I graduated from matric. That study time, in between pouring over history books and screaming at maths sums that refused to make sense, I sat in the lounge making a jersey and watching Dallas re-runs, laughing at shoulder pads and cowboy hats and shakey bottom lips.
Knitting was there for me again when my heart was broken; when my university degree seemed too difficult; when my first year of employment looked like it would end in me being fired; when my application for creative writing masters was rejected. Even when everything in life seemed to be going wrong, even when it seemed I was good at nothing else, I knew that I could do one killer cable stitch.
There’s something incredibly rewarding about pouring yourself into something and having a real tangible item to show at the end – something from nothing; the great alchemy of craft.
It was possibly this that first inspired me to draw, too. Although in that case it was my dad. My dad, with is fantastic imagination and library of art books, who would sit down with me as a very young child and take commissions.
“Draw me a princess!” I’d order.
I’d watch in awe as he sketched a beautiful woman in a shimmering gown upon the blank page. I wanted to be able to do it too. I asked him to teach me and he did. One of my earliest memories is sitting on the grass in front of our house on a hot Joburg summer’s day mixing colours. It was a kind of magic how the yellow and blue became green, how the green and blue became turquoise, how the colours changed as they dried, how the thick paint began to crack on my plastic plate palette as the sun beat down upon it. Even though he later lived far away and I only saw him for the long school holidays, we’d always at some stage sit down at the outside table – whether it be the outside table in Camps Bay or Port Edward or Fish Hoek or Sun City – and create worlds on blank pieces of paper.
For a long time I thought he was an artist. When people at school asked me what he did that’s what I’d say. I didn’t understand what it meant to be a stage manager or lighting technician. Whenever I saw him he was making art – cutting the translucent gels to fit the theatre lights so that colours danced across the stage, painting sets so that sheets of cardboard looked like house interiors. Years later he said to me, “I think you were right all along. I think I am an artist. What is art if not creating an illusion for the pleasure of the viewer? And isn’t that what theatre does?”
Theatre also tells stories. Falling asleep in dad’s lighting box and sitting doing homework in the dressing room when mom went back to the stage, I was shown all the elements that came together for a story. The dialogue of the scripts; the actions dictated by the director; the way that lighting can influence mood; how the way things are said can carry more meaning than the words themselves… and out of that was born my love of writing.
It is my dad’s theory that there was no help for it, considering how many times I saw the words of some of the world’s greatest playwrights come to life. I was doomed to either be an actress or an author (being trained as a journalist, does that mean I became both?). The truth is, however, that my love of story telling came long before the hushed audience and the rising of the velvet curtains. It came from the crib, when he’d weave tales of adventure and triumph for me. It came from those long days up in the tree with him, when a branch became a sailing ship and my teddy bear, a superhero. It came from the songs my mom wrote for me, the way she’d illustrate her domestic adventures, leaving no detail aside, no emotion unexpressed.
My parents could never afford to spoil me with the presents other children of my generation may have received: gaming consoles and computers, fancy rollerblades and eventually motorcars… but they gave me something much better. They gave me sanity and independence wrapped in their love.
For that’s what a good hobby is, really. It’s a safe harbour during life’s storms, an anchor when all around is confusion and doubt. An activity you love will automatically love you back and as long as you’re together, you’ll never ever feel alone.