Message in a T-shirt


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Category: Profiles Date: 22 Jan 98

‘Lack of charisma can be fatal. Money creates taste. Mothers shouldn’t make too many sacrifices’


‘Her ever vigilant razor sharp brain and quick wit never allowed sloppy thinking on my part to escape unscathed’


‘The only thing we ever know now about other people is what they tell us about themselves’


I have this old white T-shirt. It has 50 sayings on it laid out in alphabetical order neatly centred middle, in capital italics, beginning just under the neckline, and ending about six inches from its hem-line. For eight years it has braved the gym and the beach, heat, sweat and rain, and countless spins in the washing and drying machines. The white is beginning to look chalky, and the black type on it is turning grey, but it is resilient.


Today I picked it up, and did one of those inexplicable things people do when they are alone and unobserved. I crushed its softness to my face, closed my eyes and breathed in the familiar soap-powder and amazingly, Freesias. It is absurd to smell Freesias on it because I have never seen them here and even if I had I don’t think even I would go around rubbing flowers on a T-shirt. The memory of the flower - with its pungent perfume - (similar to jasmine or Lady of the night) jogged that of the day I was given the T-shirt one dusty London summer.


Twelve years ago, Sara and I had just had tea in Fortnum and Masons where the heat melted the ices and cakes on the trolleys and made the pianist drip sweat onto the keys as he played Chopin. The old English ladies cast side-long looks of fear and curiosity at these two girls who were penetrating the heart of a British tradition in army pants with flowers sticking out of our khaki knapsacks - like two hippies caught in a time warp. We were high on dissecting life, with the curiosity of children, the way a child would a flower, petal by petal, finally peeling the stem in half to peer at our true selves.


Later, we went to an experimental film in the ICN centre, after which Sara disappeared into the shop which sells postcards and arty paraphernalia and presented me with the Jenny Holzer T-shirt. I remember the delight with which I read it then, how I said the worst thing about wearing the T-shirt would be that I wouldn’t be able to read it. For many years, it has remained in my short sighted eyes, a blur of writing - but much of its content has stuck. In my memory. I hadn’t read it in a while perhaps because it is painful to remember people we have loved and been influenced by, lost in time and distance.


I have smoothed it and spread it out on my desk. I am reading it again after all these years. Each aphorism is on a separate line. On its left sleeve in tiny writing is the author’s name, Jenny Holzar, London 1988. To save space, I’ll let the sentences run on.


“Abuse of Power comes as no surprise. Action causes more trouble than thought. All things are delicately interconnected. An elite is inevitable. Any surplus is immoral. Awful punishment awaits really bad people. Being happy is more important than anything else. Boredom makes you do crazy things. Change is valuable when the oppressed become the tyrants. Children are the cruelest of all. Children are the hope of the future. Confusing yourself is a way to stay honest. If you live simply there is nothing to be worried about. Inheritance must be abolished. It is man’s fate to outsmart himself. It’s better to be naive than jaded. Its crucial to have an active fantasy life. Just believing something can make it happen. Lack of charisma can be fatal. Money creates taste. Mothers shouldn’t make too many sacrifices. Murder has its sexual side. Nothing upsets the balance of good and evil. People are boring unless they’re extremists. (Here I fold it in half to read the bottom half) People who go crazy are too sensitive. Private property created crime. Push yourself to the limit as often as possible. Raise boys and girls the same way. Romantic love was invented to manipulate women. Sacrificing yourself for a bad cause is not a moral act. Salvation can’t be bought and sold. Selfishness is the most basic motivation. Selflessness is the highest achievement. Slipping into madness is good for the sake of comparison. Sloppy thinking gets worse over time. Sometimes science advances faster than it should. The more you know the better off you are. There are too few immutable truths today. There is nothing except what you sense. Timidity is laughable. Torture is barbaric. True freedom is frightful. Using force to stop force is absurd. Wishing things away is not effective. You are guileless in your dreams. You are the past present and future. You own the world not the other way around. Your actions are pointless if no one notices.”


Then, with the enthusiasm of the impressionable, I agreed with everything. Today, it makes me think. Something Sara always did well. I have bashed my head against walls many times, gained unexpected happiness, humiliated and disappointed because of places my curiosity had led me, but according to the T-shirt, always “pushed myself to the limit as often as possible”. My one regret is that I’ve lost touch with Sara. She was, is, absurdly all-American, straight, slim, tall, athletic, sleek cropped blonde hair, clean features, sky blue eyes, uncompromising intellect, a Smithsonian (equal in stature to a women’s college in Oxford. It would mean something to Americans and lovers of Sylvia Plath’s poetry). We lived in the same halls. She was two floors up. We became best friends. We walked fast everywhere, my shorter legs hurrying to catch up with her on London’s pavements, gleaming in rain, cobbled or cracked. I soon came to relish the brisk movement of long strides, face braced against winter cold or turned in pleasure toward autumn or summer breezes. It was not just the city, although it can be explored for a life-time, and still glitter with possibilities. It was the intense conversation - a continual study of life. Her ever vigilant razor sharp brain and quick wit never allowed sloppy thinking on my part to escape unscathed, and pushed me to think.


When we were not going to the theatre and exhibitions, concerts and occasional classes, we read, and we found so much to laugh at that people thought we were on drugs. Once we spent all night watching every single Woody Allen film in a sleazy cinema at Kings Cross huddled with blankets like homeless tramps on the cinema floor drinking something to keep us warm, and staggered out at dawn our mouths stretched from laughing. We were immune to heartbreak because we had each another’s company. We made an odd sight - me with my long flower-girl hippie hair and she with her uncompromising American-ness. But we loved books and plays and writing and reading. She would sit for hours in my room not just writing but drawing in her diary.


If it weren’t for Sara, I would have never backpacked across Europe because she was the one with the sense of direction, and slept out on a freezing jagged floor on a hill in Florence in November under a tent, or become addicted to the Brandenburg Concertos.  All winter we worked hard to make money to travel. I would stagger into my room every night nauseous with stale beer and occasional puke and the dulcet sounds of English boys’ voices ringing in my ear, “Pint of larger please”. English students don’t drink to lime, they drink to puke, I would complain to her.


She, retching at the sight of mounds of sausages glistening with grease and soggy potatoes, serving spotty face after spotty face, stopped eating for days. But the pounds added up and we made enough to travel very cheaply. We made an odd sight. Me with my long dark hair and romantic notions and her with her Aryan sharpness. In Italy, we were followed by men crying “bella bella”, and she would grin and stride past the most lecherous of them. In Germany, they would come to touch me to see if my brown skin was real.


But I lost touch. She called me seven years ago to talk about being in an abusive relationship which shocked me. I wrote to her and when next she replied she went back to this man who had eroded her lilting confidence which used to intimidate insecure men and attract strong ones. My last memory is of a woman who sounded broken. I don’t know what’s harder to bear - that or the fact that I lost touch with her. Perhaps I did it deliberately because I wanted to hold those halcyon days intact. If there were ever a time in my life that I was actively in the pursuit of knowledge, happiness and experience, it was then.


Twelve years in between life has taught me that life becomes more mysterious, not less as time goes by. To make real contact we have to peel off layers of murky war paint people wear to protect themselves, or gain status in the real world, leaving each one of us alone, and sometimes lonely. The hard edges of stress and a society which plays by the rules of money = power = prestige, knots our souls into a fist, and clench them inward. Any sign of weakness is pounced on eagerly - a failed marriage, a lost job, a family humiliation in today’s jungle - these wounds leave you open for the kill. So we huddle in our safe corners, no longer so curious suspicious of honesty, or delight which used to come so easily to us.


The only thing we ever know now about other people is what they tell us about themselves, and even then we are not sure. But we all need at least one kindred spirit with whom we can bare our souls, even the bits we are ashamed of. It is the only thing that can help us to be true to ourselves, something which gets harder as we take our places in the world. Sara’s’ flinging herself on life, her unafraid striding, her curiosity, quickness, intellect, her furious sense of justice, has remained with me all these years. Many of the ideals we swore by are buried and made irrelevant by domesticity, work, struggle and all the faces we have to paint to face the world to survive. But somewhere, in each of us lies the pure kernel of what is really important, of being true to ourselves. And, Sara, if you are in pain or broken, just remember you once sent me a message on a T-shirt which says “Being happy is more important than anything else.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur