The Great Rift

I’ve changed sides. It was always Meryl but for a long time now it’s been Robert. Let me explain.

There’s a scene in Out of Africa where Karen Blixen, played by Meryl Streep, and Denys Finch Hatton, played by Robert Redford, discover their dealbreaker.

They are in love; a beautiful love story based their shared passion for conversation, music, literature, the way they both have of demanding so much from life, and above all the beauty of Africa’s vast spaces.

And yet, in the midst of all this, Denys sometimes vanishes from Karen’s ‘farm in Africa’ for days on end.

His absence gnaws away at her somehow. “When you go away…you don’t always go on safari do you? You just want to be away.”

“It’s not meant to hurt you.”

“It does.”

How I used to resent his obstinacy (I called it selfishness). His inability to accede to Karen’s need for someone to be physically THERE. His belief that you might love someone and still sometimes love your own company more.

Those things were all that was standing in the way of the happy ending I craved.

all or nothing

I watched Out of Africa again recently and fell back in love myself: with its breath-taking shots of the Great Rift Valley, the spare truth of the script – and, finally, the complexity of the grown up relationships within it.

Now I reached an age neither of them attained,  I understand the extent to which, actually, Denys knows Karen better than she herself and speaks for them both when he defends his disappearances: “I don’t want to live someone else’s idea of how to live. Don’t ask me to do that. I don’t want to find out one day that I’m at the end of someone else’s life.”

I see he speaks for me, and for many of us in knowing the importance of separation in order to come home to oneself; the times of stillness and empty spaces (that are anything but) that are so essential to our well-being.

Out of Africa is not one love story but many it turns out.

And one of those stories is about self-love: the importance of knowing ourselves well enough to honour our own needs, even when that means disappointing someone else.

It was in Africa that I discovered, for the first time, how essential to me are the quiet times; the times of meditation, escape, stillness, coming home to me.

For five months, as 50 of us rumbled through the continent in two Bedford trucks, skin pressed against each other, knees around our ears because the provisions we carried took up more space than us, my way of coping was to turn my back and, for hours, stare out at the landscapes we were passing through.

I remember writing in my journal at the time how astonishing it was to discover my huge capacity for alone time. And how, when I didn’t have it, even Africa’s vibrant colours dulled along with the edges of my own nature and capacity to enjoy what we were doing.

I think of Karen Blixen on her farm, working ever harder to tame the elements, to control nature and other people. To put gloves on her Kikuyu house servants, reroute the river, and battle the voices of disapproval coming from Happy Valley with all its codes and norms.

In the end those things can be infinitely more dangerous to us than the wildness that lay beyond the farm. The roar that threatens most isn’t the lions on the plain but the noise in our heads when we live according to others’ rules.

My wish for all of us this week is the courage to honour our needs, and sufficient space – whether we find it in the Great Rift Valley or the contours of our own quiet minds - to recognise what those are.

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