(English) Edwin on the dreamline

27 June 2014.  At the end of a long day – which isn’t quite accurate as it’s 1:15 am and thus already the next day – and as I’m about to drop into my hotel bed in Berlin after a REALLY long day and then a couple of beers and cocktails with Thomas in the spaced out, Lost-in-Translation-like hotel bar at the Park Inn  (what were we talking about? John Willams’s ‘Stoner’; W.G. Seebald; the fact that most contemporary German literature doesn’t speak to us; ah yes: Heidegger and Gadamer and the strange obsession with professing allegiance to a ‘teacher’ that is characteristic for German academics. I will never get this: supposedly grown-up individuals regressing into primary school lingo and idolizing their intellectual heroes, most of whom were clearly as bright and original as they were troubled, pretty much like all of us are. Anyway, that’ll be another blog…  but you’ll see the connection just now) I check my mobile and there’s a message from Angela. Our friend Edwin is dying. He’s been in the ICU at George Provincial Hospital in South Africa for three weeks, in an artificial coma, and now his organs are packing up and someone’s about to act courageously and compassionately and switch off the respirator.

Blank. It takes a couple of seconds to sink in. Last time I saw Edwin must have been about 9 months ago; he was about to move to De Rust after finally loosing the battle over the Karoo family farm Omdraisvlei. It is so remote and in the middle of nowhere that you can actually find it on some old terrestrial globes.  And it is so remote that Google doesn’t know it and I should actually misspell its name here (have I?) to protect a dream from the cognitive fascism of machine learning and the idiocy of recommender algorithms. This is how it works:

Imagine 25.000 hectars of semi desert, with Bushman paintings, the remains of an airstrip and a school house and a train station and  black rocks and table mountains and endless skies and lone sheep and a patch of green grass irigated by wind motors that pump up ice cold water from 80 m below and glistening sheets of corrugated iron on the walls of the barn where the shearers sweat in 45 degree heat and heaps of wool get sorted into huge boxes and Edwin stands outside the farm kitchen the next morning with a mug of coffee in hand and it’s 6 am and he’s smiling and in the evening he will crank the handle of the old lister diesel generator and the machine will hammer through the icy Karoo night and the lights will go on and then eventually they will go off again and we’ll sit around the fire and Edwin will be full of stories, so full of stories, and you listen to him and you realize, this guy is crazy, seriously crazy, crazy in the most heartwarming and inspiring way, and yes, not everything about this is nice and there is quite a bit of collateral damage to come; he and Sue will break up, but for now it is still 1988 and we have just met him and Sue for the very first time on our very first trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Johnny told us about Edwin and that we’d be welcome there, and we just popped in without prior notice and even if Johnny did indeed tell Edwin about us coming Edwin had clearly forgotten or didn’t find it important for visitors to be announced – remember, we’re talking 1987: no cell phones, no internet – and in 1994, on our last journey to Cape Town before leaving SA for a couple of years, we’re at the farm again and I see: the huge wind pump next to the garden, a massive thing over 25 meters high, imported from Australia by Edwin’s dad or granddad and apparently once the highest in South Africa, is shattered to bits, the rotor blades flapping aimlessly in the breeze with a creaking, metallic noise, and it was then that I realized: from here on it’s down hill.

But I only realized that I had realized that then quite some years later. All of us kept on living, fighting, marching on with the determination of ants. And who’s to judge; at least we tried and we didn’t whimper either (here’s the connection with German contemporary literature and ‘Stoner’, this touching hymne to the stoicism of deed and language). Edwin in particular didn’t whimper. 15 years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Last time I saw him he was, simply put, frail, no doubt about it. But his mind was not just on fire – it was by then radio-nuclear and he still didn’t know any half-measure in anything. If a candle had three ends instead of two, Edwin would have lit them all. Which, as I said before, was not always nice, let alone fair to those who tried to be close to him. But he had a soul, and best of all: he didn’t need followers. I remember that in his first autobiographical account which he self-published he describes how he enters the dining hall in a Parkinson’s clinic for the very first time and there’s this strange rustling, like a gust of hot air tearing at the corrugated iron sheets of the barn on his farm, and he realizes: it’s the cutlery of the patients clanking on the enamel plates, and so he decides to join the symphony of the shaking limbs.

I sat down (we’re back in Berlin) and wrote an eMail to Angela:

“Just got your message, a strange feeling: a mix of sadness, resignation and thankfulness rises  instantaneously:  Edwin was/is a special and unique person in his astonishing mix of craziness, bliss, inspiration and autism. As self centered as he was he nevertheless enriched the lives of those he met. My lasting image of him is that of him standing outside the Omdraisvlei kitchen, coffee mug in hand, on a cold, overcast Karoo winter morning, his dog Gemma at his feet and waiting for some action to begin. There’s a smile on Edwins face and he’s already in dreamland again, tracing a path only visible to him. He’s wearing a roughly knit woolen jersey that perfectly matches his stubble and wiry hair, and his eyes are inquisitive and blue, open to the surprise of the world.”

I fall asleep with this image of Edwin, standing at the head of one of the countless dreamlines he explored during his life time.Three hours later I wake up in my 22nd floor East facing hotel room. The sun rises over Berlin, a glowing red eye looks straight at me, inquisitive. And I understand: Edwin’s on the trail of trails.

 It was a blessing to have met him and to have enjoyed the privilege of a glimpse into his world, contorted and idiosyncratic as it might have been and is destined to remain  forever after. 
Fare well, Edwin, compagnero: we’re bound to meet on the other side. May your journey be peaceful and fulfilling.
Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain
I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end
I’ve seen lonely times when I could not find a friend
But I always thought that I’d see you baby, one more time again…

James Taylor, ‘Fire and Rain’. A line I once wrote under a photograph taken of the broken windmill at Edwin’s farm in 1994.

PS: Who needs ‘teachers’ as long as we have companions?

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