Happy Birthday, Uys Krige

Today is the birthday of the Afrikaans poet Uys Krige – and mine too, which is why I’m plucking his book from the dusty shelf today. Uys Krige (1910-1987) was a famous Afrikaans poet who made his debut in 1935 with the anthology Kentering. Much can be written about this interesting, multi-lingual poet and writer who, among so many other things, played rugby in Europe, travelled extensively and spent time in a POW camp in Italy during the Second World War. But instead of trying to give you a summary of his life and works, I want to show you around one of my favourite pieces by Uys Krige, “First meeting with Roy Campbell”, one of the sketches in his anthology Orphan of the Desert (1967). Roy Campbell was a famous English South African poet he became friends with after looking him up in Provence where Campbell was living at the time.

Ek het heelwat later eers die oorspronklike Afrikaanse uitgawe, Sout van die Aarde (1960) waarin “Eerste ontmoeting met Roy Campbell” verskyn het, in die hande gekry. Die slotreëls van hierdie skets, verteenwoordig vir my een van die mooiste maniere om ‘n lewenslange vriendskap te beskryf:

Die volgende môre – toe die son stralend uit die Middellandse See opstaan om die lang grysgroen kanale van Martigues soos met bloed te laat loop – was Roy en ek, in dié volgorde, nog lank nie uitgepraat nie… (bl. 23).

Krige was a young man at the time and he went through a lot of trouble – even walking quite a big part of the way – to meet Campbell at his home in the south of France:

On a perfect autumn day in October, 1932, I got off the Marseille bus in the picturesque Provencal fishing village of Martigues. A few minutes later I almost came to blows in the local post office with the Postmaster, who, invoking pompously the unbreakable letter of the law, flatly refused to tell me where Monsieur Campbell lived. So I walked clean out of the ‘Provencal Venice’, due west in the direction of Spain. (p. 28)

His description of the landscape as he walks to Campbell’s house in “First Meeting with Roy Campbell” is like opening a parcel and suddenly a splash of sunshine from a painting falls out:

So there I was strolling, at half past eleven in the morning, through a long stately avenue of gigantic plane trees whose tops touched and many of those large leaves had already a red-gold flush to them. And in those high, leafy branches a dozen nightingales were singing joyously as if with the express purpose of fluting me along on that last stage of my forty-mile journey to the poet on whom as yet I had never set eyes, but whom, it seemed, I had already known for years; and soon I was feeling a lot better.

It was as if I was walking straight into a glowing Cézanne landscape. Behind me lay l’Estaque that Cézanne had painted so often with so much love; on my right, almost at my feet, the still blue lake, l’Etang de Berre, where he frequently came; and there, way back, over the lake and the north-western horizon, Mont Victoire, which he had immortalised in painting after painting, towered massively into a deep-blue sky. (…)

I was the only person on that long white road winding in and out among the vineyards, fruit and olive trees; and I felt so gay and carefree, I would have liked to compete with the jubilant nightingales, to sing exuberantly of my joy, if only I could, ‘tongueless nightingale’ that I was. (p.29)

He finds Campbell’s home and the young housekeeper goes and wake Campbell from his siesta while Krige waits. And now look at how he blends two landscapes in the song of one bird:

I stood on the doorstep, listening to the nightingales. The sunlight lay like a golden patina on that classic Mediterranean scene; and now for the first time I became aware of the cicadas, how everywhere, against the trees, amongst the bushes and shrubs, countless cicadas where singing, as if in a vibrant accompaniment, shrill and feverish, to the nightingales’ clear song.

My thoughts drifted away on a far journey to a scorching summer’s day on the Swellendam farm of my Uys grandfather, many, many years ago… Through the open window above me there floated, however, the expostulating, raucous voice of Mirelle. And I could hear a man grumbling sleepily.

Then a door slammed. (p.30)

And now follows Krige’s first meeting with Roy Campbell. I was struck by how fondly and vividly he remembers that meeting and his light-handed mixture of sadness and joy in the tone:

A tall figure came stumbling down the dark, rickety staircase. He wore a rough pair of sailor’s trousers and a dark blue jersey. It was obvious that he had slept in his clothes. The next moment he was standing on the doorstep, blinking his large greenish-blue eyes in the sudden sharp sunlight and shaking, vigorously, my hand.

Something big and generous seemed to flow out of the man in that firm clasp, that forthright look and Roy’s whole intensely alive, eager bearing. Touched by this warm reception form a famous poet who had never heard of me and to whom my coming was a complete surprise, I took a closer look at him.  (p.31)

The most amusing part for me of his detailed description of Campbell, is the part where he describes his voice. This time the variety of sounds and textures from remembered landscapes has the same shattering effect on the page in front of you as the bucket Campbell lowers into the water during their conversation at the well:

But it was when he opened his mouth that I got a shock. He had been on the binge last night with some Martigues fishermen, he said, he had a hell of a thirst, would I mind walking fifty yards to the well with him? There had been a Krige with him at Oxford, Jack Krige of Johannesburg, he’d studied law, been the best student of his year, a first rate fellow, must be one of my cousins…

It wasn’t his direct, brusque and half-grunted opening statement that had astonished me, but his accent. It was as bad as (or even “worse” than) my own English, so broadly South African that you could cut it with a Knysna notch-saw. It made me, as I stood there beside him, in the calm sun-drenched Virgilian landscape, feel quite nostalgic; conjuring up for me, in an instant, rugged flinty old Table Mountain, the high-crested combers at Umkomaas and the hazy blue-green undulations of the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

The large, dented bucket rattled to the bottom of the well, shattering our two calm images on its still surface into a thousand splinters of faintly gleaming light. Back wheezed the bucket. (p. 31-32)

After Campbell douses himself with some water, talking non-stop as throughout the rest of the story, he and Krige embark on a hilarious bike ride to go drink with some locals – and what a cast:

In the bistro down in the village our conversation had been like a marathon race, with Roy miles out in the front, followed by half-a-dozen fishermen, a French aristocrat and sculptor, a Spanish taxi-driver, cobbler, carpenter, basketmaker, an ex-circus clown, a punch-drunk boxer, a broken-down bullfighter, the local grave-digger, a strolling Irish guitar player and myself lost somewhere in the middle of that motley straggling field. (p. 37)

But it’s the bike ride itself that makes this story for me and that keeps me coming back to read it:

Forty seconds later I was perched high and dry, but rather uncomfortably, on the bike’s cross bar with a large wine jar in my arms; Roy vaulted into the saddle, jamming me up against the handlebars as he bent forward to get up to speed – and suddenly that peaceful landscape was no longer static, it came rushing at me and there was a roaring as of the Mistral in my ears, we were whizzing down that two-mile long hill with me clinging to the winejar for life and Roy shouting a ‘running commentary’ into my ear on my cousin, the surrounding landscape, rugby, the Martigues fishermen, their peculiar customs and habits, Roy’s particular passion for Pope and Byron, the special virtues of Provencal aromatic herbs such as rosemarin and marjolaine and heaven only knows what other topics besides. (p.32-33)

This picture of two great poets perched on a bicycle “flashing down that endless hill at breath-taking speed” (p.36) while they flit from one topic to another, never fails to warm my heart:

There was no doubt about it, all modern poetry derived from Baudelaire and Rimbaud. And how the French backs, and even their forwards handled a wet ball! (p.34)

I quoted the final lines of this sketch in Afrikaans at the beginning of this post, where the re-telling of their first conversation ends, even though the conversation was still going on the next morning. Uys Krige’s present to me on this birthday, where I sit down again to re-read a favourite piece of literature, is this image: a life-long friendship as a conversation that never ended.

Isn’t that a beautiful way to think of our best friendships?

Sources:

Krige, Uys (1960) Eerste ontmoeting met Roy Campbell. In: Sout van die Aarde. Kaapstad/Pretoria: Haum.

Krige, Uys ([1967] 1983). First meeting with Roy Campbell. In: Orphan of the Desert. Cape Town: John Malherbe.

Terblanche, Erika (2017) Uys Krige (1910-1987). In ATKV/Litnet Skrywersalbum.

Reading Paul Auster’s “4 3 2 1”

He wondered if he had it in him to write without a pen, if he could learn to speak instead, filling the darkness with his voice, speaking the words into the air, into the walls, into the city, even if the light never came back again. – Paul Auster, “City of Glass”, The New York Trilogy, p. 132

All I remember from “City of Glass” is somebody literally disappearing through the cracks of New York City towards the end – I’m not sure I remember even that right – and that there had been some sort of detective work involved. We were undergrads in our early twenties and the jagged thrill of post-modernism crackled through every tiny foamalite cup of strong milky instant coffee from the BJ’s snoepie across from the lecture hall. When I open Auster’s The New York Trilogy and catch a word here and there, I can feel the air from those lecture halls and the underground library we called “the coal mine” when we first saw it. I could hardly remember the story the next time I saw one of his books. I just remembered the excitement of those moments: we could be bleary-eyed philosophers under fluorescent lights, in damp shoes, digging out coins for coffee.

And that is why I picked up a Paul Auster title with the joy of meeting up with an old friend a couple of years later. I was studying in Germany this time and very earnest about improving my German. Trawling through German literature for my studies and reading only German books for fun too. And after a few months I was starved for reading anything that wasn’t German.

In the university library I wandered over to the English section and left clutching The Invention of Solitude. On a train through Salzburg to Vienna, Auster’s memoir of his relationship with his father and his experience of his own role as a father, coloured the grassy hills and neat villages that trundled past the windows.  Poignant isn’t a word I shell out very often, but it was that kind of story. And big part of why that book made such a lasting impression on me was due to the relief of sinking into some wonderfully slow, crafted, atmospheric English. English!

If there had ever been a time to fall back in love with a language, Auster was the way to do it.

In Zululand a few years later at a friend’s house, I met Timbuktu , the story of a homeless man and his dog Bones. The story is told from the dog’s perspective – a little bit like Jeanne Goosen’s ʼn Paw-Paw vir my darling.  It is filled with unusual moments of startling beauty, like when the homeless man, Willy, composes symphony for dogs made up of smells, especially for Bones – and the puzzled Bones indulges him.  I’m sketchy on the details, I may even have the names wrong, but I’ll never forget reading those scenes. Suddenly the visual world tilted and give way to a whole new layer of perception – and I never looked at my dog again the same way either.

A few more years lapsed and I ran into an Auster book again at an airport bookshop on the way back from a friend’s wedding.  Well, this time it was such a big book it was hard to miss. 4 3 2 1 was almost as big as my handbag and I shifted my bulging, spilling hand luggage around so that I had a free hand to turn over the book and read the description.  It’s the life story of one man, told in four different ways, set in New York. I didn’t grab it then and there to read of all the ways Archie Ferguson’s life could have turned out because, as you could probably tell, I didn’t have the luggage space. But I “tagged” it right there in my head for a next time.

Next time arrived sooner than I’d expected and I was leaving for a long trip and trying to figure out what to load on my Kindle so I wouldn’t run out of something to read. The gigantic Auster came to mind. I was barely halfway through it before I zealously started badgering friends to read it too.

A message pinged back:

“You could have just told me the thing is over 700 pages.”

Oops.

Wait… is it?

As with War and Peace the electronic version is much lighter on the arm muscles. But that’s only the one reason I didn’t always notice the length of this novel. In fact, I had wandered so far into that world I’d wanted it to go on. Funnily enough, it is actually a pretty straightforward novel to describe.

It basically tells the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of immigrants to America, throughout the 1940’, 50’s, 60’s and so on, in New York and New Jersey. The language could seem plain, but just look at what he does with the final sentence of the chapter. Typical Auster he manages to take a seemingly ordinary event and just tilt a sentence here and there slightly – and suddenly it becomes something momentous:

Her sister-in-law picked up on the third ring, and thus it was Millie who came to fetch her. During the short ride to the maternity ward at Beth Israel, Rose told her that she and Stanley had already chosen names for the child who was about to be born. If it was a girl, they were going to call her Esther Ann Ferguson. If it was a boy, he would go through life as Archibald Isaac Ferguson. Millie looked into the rearview mirror and studied Rose, who was sprawled out on the backseat. Archibald, she said. Are you sure about that one? Yes we’re sure, Rose answered, because of my Uncle Archie. And Isaac because of Stanley’s father. Let’s just hope he’s a tough kid, Millie said. She was about to go on, but before she could get another word out of her mouth, they had reached the hospital entrance. Millie rounded up the troops, and when Rose gave birth to her son at 2:07 the following morning, everyone was there: Stanley and her parents, Mildred and Joan, and even Stanley’s mother. Thus Ferguson was born, and for several seconds after he emerged from his mother’s body, he was the youngest human being on the face of the earth. – Paul Auster, 4 3 2 1

After the first bit, the book splits up into four different versions of Archie’s life, told in alternating chapters. So instead of reading one version after the other, or reading along diverging paths like in the choose-your-adventure-type books we read as kids, the reader reads four versions of each stage of life before proceeding with the next one. And it’s not four versions as in four different perspectives. It shows four completely different lives, affected by different events and different outcomes of events. So that’s why it feels like four novels: because it actually could have been. It is as if the reader gets drawn even deeper into a certain period of American and World History because the variations allow a deep and multi-faceted experience of key events and movements. See how he draws together a few different recurring themes in the novel (movies, the link between past and present, the nature of reality, the way we shape places and places shape us…) with this description of Paris:

Paris was the movie of Paris, an agglomeration of all the Paris movies Ferguson had seen, and how inspiring it was to find himself in the real place now, real in all of its sumptuous and stimulating reality, and yet to walk around feeling that it was an imaginary place as well, a place both in his head and out in the air that encircled his body, a simultaneous here and there, a black-and-white past and a full-color present, and Ferguson took pleasure in shuttling between the two of them, his thoughts moving so fast at times that the two blurred into one. – Paul Auster,  4 3 2 1

After putting down the novel, I felt like I’d walked criss-cross through the streets of New York City or had gone time-traveling. The extraordinary detail of each version is reason enough to call this novel a masterpiece.

When I look back over my reading history, there are always some books that stand out like beacons on the way, lighting up a different direction or marking an important stage in life.

4 3 2 1 made it to that list within the first few chapters.

The books that become landmarks on the map of my reading landscape are not just there because they are exceptionally good, some are also on the list for making me see life or myself or a certain situation in a new light, books that opened up worlds or offered up moments of recognition and explanation, books that gather less dust than the many others because they get picked up and re-read and doled out like medication.

4 3 2 1 is one of those books that make you think about life. The massive expanse of events and fine details ram home the point that even the smallest, most insignificant-looking event can have vast consequences. But it also made me realise that if there’s something that you should be doing with your life, it won’t leave you. It will either fill up your existence or haunt you in vague taunts from the fringes.

Don’t know what I mean?

Go read the book first; I don’t want to spoil it for you. It is a grand piece of literature, and well worth the effort.

This morning I dusted-off my copy of The New York Trilogy. It’s time to visit an old friend and smell the rainy mornings and remember.

Topic Tuesday #2: Italian

There will be a lot of talk of languages here at the Dusty Shelf because my own dusty shelves are full of them. Someday I’ll sit down here and write the story of the two little faded Greek phrasebooks that started it all. I love little dictionaries and phrasebooks. Mostly just because I like holding them, and looking at them and flipping through them. Picking up random words here and there like shells on a beach. Shoving them into my pocket only to remember them again when I hear the cracking sound as I sit on them.

Ek het al ‘n taal of wat baasgeraak en toe vir ‘n klompie jare nie ‘n nuwe een aangedurf nie. A friend was going on a trip to Russia and when I started digging around to see if I could possibly learn a language by myself, I stumbled upon the work of an excellent bunch of polyglots like Alex Rawlings and felt like I found “my people”. And I still enjoy reading their blogs and trying out their advice and experiments. But one of the interesting things that I found, especially when I started toying around with Italian, was all the other dusty shelves closer to mine at home.

Mentioning learning Italian in random conversations, brought out people who felt something for the language too. One friend had learnt Italian before and could recommend some easy things to me to read. We’d chew and spit out halting phrases together – hers a bit rusty, mine very wobbly, and laugh. Imagine running into someone at a place like your local supermarket every week and then “bam!” you’re on a bus in Rome! This is what the Dusty Shelf Academy is all about, not just re-discovering the things that have been gathering dust on your shelves, but also sharing those things with others. Who knows, a few halting “bene’s” later you might bump into a real Italian, far away from her home and yours, and be all chuffed with yourself – like was when I met my friend Florenza.

Don’t say “I want to learn Italian”, say: “Buongiorno!” – Barbara Sher

When you like something that appears random, like learning Italian in a little village in South Africa just for the hell of it, you often get discouraged talking about it.

“What will you use it for? So are you going to Italy?”

“But how long will it take you to get fluent?”

I have a lot to say about this idea that one has to be fluent in a language to benefit from learning it. But I digress. Let me ask you instead what it is about Italian. It’s different for different people. You read our man Goethe’s or Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class or Irma Joubert’s Anderkant Pontenilo – for some it’s the sound, for some it’s the food, the country, the people the opera… What is it about Italian for you?

Without even recognising the name or knowing anything about the author – or understanding a word of it – I bought Giovanni Verga’s Tutte le Novelle  in a second-hand shop this holiday. Or at least, I tried to. The lady was so surprised and relieved to find the two Italian books in my pile that she gave them to me for free (more about the rest of that pile on one of the next Dusty Books). At the moment I’m not a very dedicated language learner, too busy shaking my full sleeve. I make that dear little Duolingo owl very miserable – yes, you whiny little squeaky toy, I have no idea what the word for breakfast is. But yesterday I sat in front of my computer gawping at an article about Verga’s work, pointing excitedly like a child at the table of contents in front of me at every story title I find that the article talks about and scratching around in my own copy to re-read the sentences he quotes.

I still knew only a tiny bit more than squat about that Sicilian writer, but suddenly I knew again what it was about Italian and about languages. Not just the fact that I enjoy pronouncing *all* the letters again after all that French or using my hands after all that German. And the flour sticking to my hands after the home-made pasta experiment wasn’t the whole story either.  Listening and repeating scraps from the computer or the CD in my car, venturing into delighted exclamations saying nothing at all to a friend who’s having just as much fun, flicking through a dictionary stopping at words that I might never need and mulling them over… All of that is what Italian and languages are to me: a chance to be me, but different…

And you know what, I’ll still go back to the part where I listen to shells breaking under my backside. Because that is the part I enjoy the most, the part that reminds me of being a kid and sitting open-mouthed in front of an English tv-programme, laughing and not understanding a word. For me, right now, Italian is stumbling around in the dark, picking up things and stuffing them into my pockets and then carrying them out into swift glimpses of light, thrilled with what is gliding through my fingers.

So, if there’s Italian on your shelf, I ask you again, what is it for you?

Dust-off Creativity #1: Holiday Season Chat with Jade Herriman

Many of you wish you knew a way of keeping up your creative practice even during the holiday season or other busy times of the year. Baie van julle wens julle kan meer tyd maak daarvoor om iets kreatiefs te doen. And how can you stick to your goals during the coming year? One of the things we like doing here, is dusting off neglected or forgotten knowledge and skills. From time to time I’ll ask some experts to unpack some of the things on their shelves. I asked an art therapist and coach, Jade Herriman – all the way from Sydney, Australia – about creativity, art therapy and setting goals for 2016.

Over to you, Jade!

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What would you tell someone who says “But I’m not creative at all!”

“I disagree – you can’t help but be creative!”  We are all creative beings, we are kept alive by about a zillion fascinating and awe inspiring creative processes in our bodies and the world around us, and we are constantly creating.

I bet most people are involved in some of the creativity that happens every day: thinking up new ideas, creating new relationships, making things around the house whether that be a new garden bed, a pot of pasta, a knitting project, or even selecting colours to wear, choosing which font to use on their report at work, arranging furniture in our houses, pottering in our sheds with tools – these are all creative acts, where we bring to life something new through our ingenuity and resources.

I think the challenge for adults is that we become fixed on outcomes, and we get a certain fixed idea in our heads of what creative looks like. An artist, a famous composer, a wildly eccentric inventor. We discount all the ordinary little acts of creativity that we are involved with, and because we don’t match these grand visions of creativity we start to think that creativity belongs to the special people – someone other than us. I think if we can accept that creativity comes out in many different ways, that it’s not the same thing as having mastered a particular skill (like drawing for example) we can loosen up a bit. Once we lose the fear, or quiet down the fear or work around the fear, the creativity comes out like a torrential flow. We learn over time that being kind to ourselves, and seeing ourselves as creative paves the way to us taking risks and being more creative out in the world.

Why does Barbara Sher‘s work appeal to you?

It works with you exactly where you are! ‘Lazy?’ Fine. ‘Unmotivated?’ No problem. ‘Scared to death of getting the actual thing you want the most?’ Yep, no worries, aren’t we all. I love that she doesn’t seek to blame or shame anyone, and provides a road map for getting what you want, even with all your very normal human weaknesses and quirks. This somehow shortcuts all the self talk that says ‘well, when I’m more peaceful, and nicer and more organized and have shinier hair… THEN I’m allowed to be happy and go after what I want’.

It is refreshingly frank and balances both the need to accept ourselves with all our human foibles and our wonderful grand dreams, and the need to make practical movement towards what we love, so that we can come alive and have happy and fulfilling lives.

Oh and she’s so genuinely compassionate but also blunt, no B.S. and funny!

What is one of the most surprising things art therapy/working as an art therapist has taught you?

Most people, given the right setting and the right encouragement, can make art and find meaning in it for themselves and their life situation.

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Art and Photograph by Jade Herrimann

During the holiday season most of us find it difficult to keep up a creative practice or stay on track with our goals in general. Any advice?

Be kind to yourself! It’s ok to have downtime from our creative pursuits just like it’s ok to have time away from a job. Sometimes we can run ourselves into the ground trying to do everything all year round, especially if we tend towards perfectionism or we fear that once we stop we will never engage with our creative pursuit or goal again.

If seeing family and friends is taking extra time, if you have to travel long distances, if you have extra responsibilities for cooking, gift giving, charitable works, keeping in touch etc this time of year, then really take the time to acknowledge that for yourself. It can help to realise that it doesn’t mean you have abandoned your creative works if you give yourself a week off – it just means your plate is super full, and maybe rest and getting enough sleep take priority just now. I think rhythm over time is a great concept and I find my own creative projects tend to run in cycles. Not every day has to be identical.

That said, creative expression can be a great release from stress and provide comfort and calm during busy times. Maybe see if you can think of one tiny thing you will do over the season to nourish yourself creatively – if and when you get time and feel like it. I like journaling, or taking photos as my core creative practice, even when traveling. Journaling helps me process my feelings and involves no pressure for a particular outcome as its private, and photography helps orient me towards appreciating beauty and keeps a record of my experiences.

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One such photograph by Jade Herrimann

 

As a coach, what are your tips for going after a dream in 2016?

–       name the dream out loud – to yourself and a trusted other

–       if you can make the dream have a physical presence in your life do that – a vision board with images of that holiday destination, a few books on your coffee table that feature that hobby you’d like to try, a hopeful pair of second hand dancing shoes arranged prettily on your dressing table..

–       find your tribe so you have inspiring role models and can see how people a few steps ahead got there. It also helps to make it more real to hear from people who have done or want to do the same thing as you.

–       use structure to your advantage – join a class, participate in an online group, subscribe to a specialist magazine – anything that means you will have more frequent reminders of the thing you love and make you feel more connected to it

–       take the smallest step – a series of very small steps help a lot. Much better to make some tiny but tangible progress than make a lofty grand plan that is so scary you can’t begin

–       get help and support – ask for help! Ask trusted and well-meaning friends or family for ideas, for materials, for someone to lend you the equipment you need, to talk to someone who’s done it before.

–       if you want to work with someone to help keep you accountable or who has real world experience doing what you are trying to do, or just helping people work towards their dreams try working with a coach or a mentor from your field.

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*All images courtesy of Jade Herriman

Jade Herriman is a transpersonal art therapist and coach who also has her IMG_1105own active arts practice. She draws on over 15 years experience working in teams within diverse organisations as a sustainability professional, researcher and facilitator. Jade integrates the principles of client centered counseling and group facilitation with art therapy processes, Barbara Sher Life Coaching methods and her own experience of creative practice. She runs art therapy and coaching workshops within organisations and for the general public; and works with individual clients face to face and by Skype.

Want to know more about our Expert?

Jade Herriman

Art therapy, Coaching and Creative Play  

Mob: 0420 980 178

email: info@jadeherriman.com

www.jadeherriman.com