The Art of Getting By

Life is exceptionally good at hurling challenges at us— some minute, others massive. Gradually, we feel our way through the ups and the downs. If we’re lucky, we master the art of getting by.

Driving along the Salt River road with the car windows hazed-over by the cold, I almost didn’t notice them. The mother and child stood on the roadside, well-dressed and hitching a ride with the assured posture of royalty. The schoolgirl’s palms were pressed together as if in prayer, her eyes soundlessly pleaded for a ride.‘The pair looks like something out of a movie,’ was my first thought. And then, ‘Mum, stop the car!’ They climbed in and we passed time with cursory conversation, remarking the brutal winter weather. Then I asked, “Where do you live?” In all my time living in Knysna, I had never seen Lynda Gussenhoven or her daughter Raven. “We’re squatting in an old farmhouse,” came the sprightly answer from the back seat. Just like that, I was lost for words. Seconds of pensive silence felt like hours crumbling under the weight of the suddenly heavy air. The standard, “Oh, how nice,” or “the views must be lovely,” just didn’t cut it. I felt helpless. Fortunately, my mother came to the rescue. I cannot recall her exact words, however, I do remember feeling relieved as my wind pipes reopened, and I was no longer mute. 

In the days that followed, I began to assemble the fragments I had learned about the family into a narrative I could attempt to wrap my head around. There were far too many questions I did not yet have answers to. Without knowing their full story preconceptions of who they were, and where they had come from began to form. As time passed, the Gussenhoven family crept into my heart and that of my own family’s. Lynda was forthright in sharing stories of her past with us; she explained how she had moved away from a nearby town in order to escape an abusive husband. She explained, “I had nowhere else to go. I tried welfare services but they had nowhere for me to stay.” Driving Raven to school became routine, during this time I learned that Lynda used her home as a shelter for homeless and people struggling with drug addiction. Although the farmhouse had no electricity or running water, they made ends meet and helped others in every way they could. By just speaking with the Gussenhovens, I encountered the inexplicable detriment of my own preconception. The fact of the matter is, that we are all convinced of certain certainties. This is why we perpetually stereotype. This is why we frequently misjudge others. This is why, when I asked Lynda what it was like being homeless, she would say, “As soon as you’re homeless, people treat you differently. Completely, totally and utterly differently.” It was my wakeup call.

A while later I interviewed a spirited, but bed-ridden Lynda. She had fallen on crooked stairs the day before and had broken three ribs. Nevertheless, she agreed to talk with me; she recounted the happenings of the previous night. She explained how the Public Hospital had rashly discharged her, providing the bare minimum clinical care. The way the nurses had treated her was shocking. A nurse had scripted, “she’s homeless, that’s why she wants to stay in the hospital.” It was “bullshit,” Lynda said, and I agreed. She was discharged in the early hours, but the hospital refused to drive her back home in an ambulance. They wouldn’t even allow Louis, Lynda’s partner, to borrow a wheelchair to wheel her to the closest bus stop. Eventually they found a discarded shopping cart. Lynda described the agony of  “every bump and rattle,” as Louis pushed her back home in it. 

Lynda, Louis, and Raven

 

We learn the art of getting by based on an unspoken rulebook. According to Lynda, being jobless or homeless simply opens up a new set of rules. “Firstly, when you wake up in the morning you have to think of ten plans to feed your family for the day. You can’t just think of one thing—oh, I’m going to go to town and beg; there’s places in this town that you can’t go beg.” Lynda went on to explain how if she is in need of something, she asks multiple people for the same thing, “It’s just the way you have to think; at least one of them will come through.”  She explained an analogy that she uses in her daily life, “I always say: there can be four sides to a box. But if you look at it in three dimensions, there are always more than four sides!” In short: if you can’t go through, go around. 

Getting by is the capacity to learn from and adjust to the circumstances in front of you. At first, Lynda’s honesty had scared me, but I came to realise that she possessed something many people lack: Resilience to look truth right in the face—be it her own truths, or those of others. Essentially, all we can do is attempt to grasp the complexity of those around us, their individual paradigms or hardships, as we learn the Art of Getting By in our own world.

Lynda and Raven

 

Image Credit: Author