Inside Covid

This has been a hard week. And so, today’s letter is much more personal than any I’ve ever written to you. I hope that’s okay.

I still haven’t got the intellectual resources to dive into James Suzman’s book, but in a beautiful moment of serendipity The New York Times’ Ezra Klein interviewed Suzman this week, so if you’re growing tired of waiting on me you can take a listen here.

When I saw that he had done this interview it gave me a much-needed affirmation for my way of working. In non-Covid weeks I spend about 12 hours reading and researching. My intent is that between the reading and the work that I do with my clients by the time I sit down to write to you at the end of the week, I have a sense of forces that are moving in the world. The forces that are worth considering. And there can be no doubt that how our economies are organized and run, and how work is organized and experienced will be amongst the most important themes of the next few years. Cortisone willing, I will have the bandwidth to give you my view next week.

My optimism about being able to taste my naartjies was, it turns out, entirely misplaced. I have Covid. I am of course grateful to still have a sense of smell and taste.

The worst are the spasms that hit my body whenever I experience the slightest shift in temperature. On occasion I’ve had no choice but to lie down where I was standing. Cliched as it is, I was like a fish out of water. No other image quite conveys the convulsions, and the desperation, of those moments.
There’ve been moments of calm in the last week, reasons to be optimistic. I’ve learnt to savour them, but also not to view them as any sign that I can go skipping back into the world as invariably it has simply meant that the virus had been taking a breather before attempting another run at me, my immune system, and my spirit.

On Tuesday night, I had a peculiar dream. It had no language, nor images, it was a sensation. And actually, it wasn’t a dream, it was a nightmare. The sensation was akin to trying to build a complex financial model using a basic calculator. As the dream unfolded, I could feel the energy going into accomplishing a massively complex task with rudimentary tools, and eventually I woke, drenched in sweat, but victorious. Dazed, but content, I slid back into sleep only for the nightmare to restart. Six times in total.

Each time, I would get ‘it’ done. Each time the dream would restart. At the end of the sixth dream the closing frame shifted. I was in a whirlpool. I was tired. I didn’t see my way out. I was despairing. And then suddenly, I was free again, my temperature dropped, my oxygen normalized. And my next dream was of former president Jacob Zuma being airlifted from Nkandla by a helicopter headed to Mozambique. Thankfully, our country provides us with moments of distraction.

Thursday was a steadily worsening day. I watched my heart rate march through the 90s up to 110bpm, my temperature spiking at 40, and my oxygen dipping in and out of the hospitalization zone. At one point I said to Roxanne, “I am trying…” Behind those words lay so much fear. And then again, the fever broke. Since then, everything has been a bit more positive. I have no clue if I am en route to recovery, or if this virus is simply rooting around looking for another way to attack. I still get knocked off my feet with these desperate retching coughs. I wake up soaked in sweat, but I am eating more than soup for the first time in a week and the nausea comes and goes. I remain ever hopeful.

As I traveled my journey with Covid, I thought of all who’ve experienced this disease, the residue of pain and fear that is now laid down in our world.

I thought of all of those who have passed on. I mourned the fear and the pain they would have experienced. As I waited for my diagnosis, I concluded that at some level, positive or not, simply the lived fear of having got this disease is its own wounding.

My thoughts took me to these lines in Robert Jones heart-breaking debut novel, The Prophets, “The scars lined them the same way bark lined trees. But those weren’t the worst ones. The ones you couldn’t see: those were the ones that streaked the mind, squeezed the spirit, and left you standing outside in the rain, naked as birth, demanding that the drops stop touching you.”

We will emerge from this time scarred. Individually. Collectively. We will need to work for healing, consciously and intentionally.

Underpinning this week have been reasons to celebrate and lots of love.

I met David Alexander in 1997. He was the co-founder of an independent record label. Over the years he shifted into music publishing and built one of Africa’s most important operations. Dave is a rare figure. Passionate about music, culture, South Africa and the continent and an astute business person. Creative and pragmatic. A few years ago, his business was acquired by global player Downtown Music Holdings and a few weeks back they announced that he had been appointed as Senior Vice President of New Markets. In the early 2000s, I had the privilege of working with Siphiwe Mpye. Siphiwe, like Dave, is passionate about the role of creativity and culture in building society, in helping imagine ourselves and each other with greater possibility. Over the years, he has been a pioneer of different journalistic and culture-creating endeavors and so it was wonderful when this week Arena Holdings announced that they had appointed him as editor of Business Day Wanted. The successes of my friends, determinedly themselves, iconoclasts both, committed to excellence over decades of application, passionate about building a world that is more joyous for those around them, filled me with joy and hope. It kept me going this week.

All your messages have been a joy to receive. As I emerged out of a fitful sleep there were dozens of the kindest messages. Each one encouraging me. They’ve carried me. Thank you.

It’s been a rainy week in Cape Town. We are blessed with a view of Table Mountain, and so I lay in bed staring at the mountain through the sheets of rain and clouds of mist. The beauty was a welcome counterpoint to the evil unleashed inside in me. As I watched the mist gentle wrap itself through the branches, I was reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Except for the Body”.

Except for the body
of someone you love,
Including all its expressions
In privacy, and in public,

trees, I think.
are the most beautiful
forms on the earth.

Though, admittedly,
if this were a contest
the trees would come in an extremely distant second.

And so, the view of the trees was a blessing, but the far greater blessing was having Roxanne gently encouraging me through the pain.

As I end today, I realise this is far from our normal fare. It’s fair to say, I am a little anxious about that and I hope that perhaps somewhere in my reflections is something that helps you, or helps you help the ones you love.

All the best

Karl

(This letter was first written on 4 July 2021)

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