“What is essential is invisible to the eye”

By Michelle Constant

Thank you speech on being bestowed the Chevalier de l’Ordre national du Mérite (Knight of the French National Order of Merit) by Ambassador of France to South Africa, H.E. Mr Aurélien Lechevallier on behalf of the French President at the French Residence in Pretoria on Thursday, 19 August 2021.

Ambassador, colleagues and very dear friends, particularly Kia and Gael.

It is an extraordinary honour to receive this Chevalier. One was perfect, Ambassador but why turn down a second?

The work I do with IFAS and the French Embassy has been thought-provoking, it has challenged me to think about what we mean by citizenship, what we understand of our shared humanity, how shared culture is an active participant in creating a just society.

The gravity of the situation we are in is demonstrated by the economic ravages of the arts sector, the devastation of the tourism and hospitality sector, the not for profit or third sector likewise.  Is the binding constraint education, health,  climate change, governance, or an overarching lack of imagination?  How we think and act on the future, the futures, is critical now. What we advocate for, or action on,  needs less grandstanding, and more self-empowerment – Imagination, scenario planning, creativity and fresh thinking, policies and narrative strategies.

We all know this, and if you’ll allow me. I’d like to press the pause button.

On a normal day, I might have written something different. But what is a normal day after 19 months of Covid?  Today, in this liminal space, I want to highlight my gratitude for the invisible thread, the different invisibles that bind us all today – our need for community, connection and delight.

What is essential is invisible to the eye.
Antoine de Saint Exupery – Little Prince

On the 16 March last year, I was in Durban Ethekwini for the launch of TOW.  As usual, the balmy KZN weather reminded me of childhood days, and wove around my skin damply.  And yet there was also anxiety, hooking, like fish, on a line. The President was about to speak, we were told of the threat of this invisible virus, we learnt of Lockdown for the first time. I called Lindiwe, who sits with me on the SA Tourism Board, what should I do, I asked her. Go home now she said, catch the next plane home. I did, we all did, and entered the next year and a half, described by the Washington Post as one of “sorrow and stamina, defiance and despair”. This has been a brutal time, we have much to grieve and despair. None of us are untouched. And it’s not over. 

I have tried to find the language for this profound time, but have mostly been left bereft and silenced. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says “we don’t know how we will grieve, until we grieve.”

In trying to ‘understand’ Covid, I read every opinion piece, I listened to every news story, followed every link on Twitter to a bigger story.  I tried to make sense of it, and I could feel my anger, and my deep-seated fear feeding into my limbic or ancient lizard brain. My instinctive, reactive brain took over many a time.  I fed my addiction to anxiety, I doomscrolled through social media.  Apparently, all that swiping produces dopamine, and you’re addicted. 

[I feel my resilience weakening, I am frozen, I am in flight, I am in fight.]  They call it an amygdala hijacking, or “addicted to distraction”.  Or as artist Maria Kalnan writes  “We hope. We despair. We hope. We despair.

But let’s pause.  And return to The Little Prince. “What is essential is invisible to the eye”

It’s like asking does a bird ever fly for fun?

We need, I need, what is essential and invisible – connection with family, with friends, good colleagues. With each small moment of connection, a seed of delight that was frozen in Covid’s winter soil, pushes through, resists the cold,  and waves a gentle stem, with tiny buds.

This is self-empowerment.

It seems about right.  It was this memory of community as empowerment, a desire for my community, that has made me look forward with every inch of my being to today. It doesn’t matter that we are masked, or even that we can only be few.  What matters is that we can bump elbows and connect.  We can discuss work, our vaccination experience, the future, the past.  We can look into each other’s eyes, and check-in.  We can identify moments of grief and loss.  We can be kind. And of course, we can drink the finest French champopo.

Probably my most joyous book of the last two years was Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. In it, the author writes a daily essay on the smallest moments of delight.  Gay notes that he trained his delight radar, or his delight muscle. He notes  “I also learned that my delight grows — much like love and joy — when I share it.” And this is very much what I hope today can be – a sharing and growing of delight, a sharing and growing of kindness, of joy and a precious moment.

In the interests of sharing, my relation to France is apparently part of an ancient bloodline. Whilst my immediate heritage is Dutch – it appears that my Constant ancestors may well have been a Huguenot family fleeing religious persecution from France to the Netherlands. They were refugees. Refugees in need of a new community, a safe haven. Today we cannot fail those who need safe haven and community.

In the further desire to share, and make the circle bigger, my interest in all things French appears to have been instilled at a young age.  As a small toddler, I have a memory of a French family friend calling me FilleFille, little girl. But memory is a transient thing. The psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has described remembrance as “flimsy curtain that separates our imagination and our memory.” I like to think of memory as a ball of wool. Whether we choose to knit it, crochet it, or even drop a few stitches, it is in that making that we tell the story, but it can be unravelled and told differently, depending on the weaving.  

Nevertheless, imagined or real, the nickname stuck, and to this day my extremely adult brothers, Marco and Luke, and mom, and family, still call me Fifi, Fee, or Fief, a far cry from Michelle (which also has a fabulous French ring to it). 

Owing to great distances and Covid, my family can’t be here to call me by my French nickname and celebrate this honour with me, and so, in the spirit of community – I’m sharing my nickname with you, (not just because it’s French, or because it makes a good story) but in recognition of a nickname as another invisible thread, like delight of family and good historical friendship.  We are a broad family, a community of knowing, of different and intimate invisibles.  And as Gay says, when we share delight and love and joy, it grows.

In closing, today we celebrate a conscious moment, an acting against the dominant, of being present in the pain, but still acknowledging the presence of light. Cultural activist Maria Popova calls it a “counter-cultural force of resistance”.  Journalist Rebecca Solnit describes it as hope in the dark, arguing that hope can be an act of defiance.  Our former statistician Padi Lehohlo once quoted the bible to me, saying we are prisoners of hope.   

Ambassador, thank you for the Chevalier. It is, as I said, an extraordinary honour. Thank you for hosting us. Friends, thank you for being here today.  Yes we are afraid, and conflicted, we cannot pretend differently, but, as the psychologist Oliver Sacks wrote, “we are sentient beings who are living an extraordinary adventure”. Let’s go out and live it. Thank you.


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