of charisma can be fatal. Money creates taste. Mothers shouldn’t make
too many sacrifices’
ever vigilant razor sharp brain and quick wit never allowed sloppy
thinking on my part to escape unscathed’
only thing we ever know now about other people is what they tell us about
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”