But, despite the tensions we were soldiers first and Kreet was the land that bound us, both the unwilling and the blind. The hour before sunrise is the coldest. The wind picks up and the chill settles on the bones. You can run for the whole hour and not feel warmed up inside. But any time away from the camp is a relief. Especially now with the prisoners there. The enemy prisoners. We prefer the 1am duty. The guardhouse is noisy until 11pm anyway and the chance of being hauled away for some dirty job is high. At one in the morning the world feels like a peaceful place. The lights in town shimmer, the lights of the main road hang beneath the horizon like pots of fire. Once a barn owl swooped over our heads as we sat in the grass smoking a cigarette, cupping our hands over it carefully to avoid detection and putting our heads between our knees to suck in the smoke and hide the soft glow. We felt it before we heard it. It sounded like something big breathing out over us. We felt a quick rush of cool air on our necks and then heard a swoosh. Between feeling the owl and hearing it we had rolled away and were aiming at the blackness behind us. After a kilometre we started laughing uncontrollably and sat down again and smoked a cigarette but coughed a lot through laughter. That was one of the happiest moments from that time. It bound us and allowed us to remain friends after the difficulties later. That we could laugh together gave each of us permission to forgive one another later.
There was this evening in the beer garden. Blokes getting drunk and forgetting stuff they had seen or done and finding absolution in the wordless confessional of alcohol.
We have to fight to hold onto our land, Kreet is ours someone said. Maybe the beer had given me courage? Maybe the guilt of silent collusion got the better of me?
Is it really our land? I said. The Company officer, the one who had forced us to leopard crawl over slate and laughed as we had bled, was there. Like dogs we were eager for his approval. We imagined he had become a friend.
You’re crossing a line he said.
A veil of distrust descended over us. Things continued as normal after that but dialogue strained as if emerging every time tired from a long journey through an internal labyrinth where pre verbalised thoughts were considered according to possible interpretations and consequences. Everyone became cautious, having to hold the thread of the original thought while surveying the various landscapes that began to form and take shape as a result of the words spoken. Conversation collapsed under the pressure and became chatter skimming along the surface of things: the weather, physical ailments, safe complaints about people mutually agreed upon to be fools and the camp dog, Asterion. It was always safe and comforting to share stories about Asterion’s antics as if talking about him bridged the abyss deepening beteeen us.
That was all a long time ago and Kreet is reclaimed now. Those who were once prisoners now lead and those who used to lead have been imprisoned. I wonder now if we were soldiers protecting the land or minotaurs prowling the imagined idea of a country in the subterranean labyrinth of some nameless terrain in wait for a name change? The friend with the owl now farms the land and I exiled myself from it.
The new country has a name but I have become weary of names for land. There are leaders here also, I’m not sure yet whether they lead soldiers or minotaurs. I was a minotaur once. Now I look for Asterion instead. There is always an Asterion. I only saw an owl once. There are prisoners here, they are everywhere.
The thing about nature is this, it wants to kill you. It’s nothing personal, simply the default position by which it operates. The law of entropy governs the molecules that make up the world and they want to get you unto dust as soon as possible.
The scientific term for the gradual degradation of life forms is entropy. Simply stated, things move from a state of order to one of disorder. Think of ‘order‘ here as the way we manipulate molecules to make stuff. What we think of as order is our construction of the world. Disorder is the state of the world before we intervened. We heat and smelt iron molecules to make steel. Over time the constructed molecules break down, rust occurs. Whatever humans make from matter eventually degrades- that’s entropy. The molecules aren’t being hostile or uncooperative, it takes effort to maintain an imposed form. It takes less energy to let go than to hold on. Modern existence is a series of artificial constructions. Order and disorder are human terms which reflect our prejudices, not the state of the world. Maintaining the illusion of order takes time and energy.
Perhaps it’s just that the simplicity of a tent or a caravan loosens momentarily the noose of financial bondage around our necks. The Big Outside nourishes our dreams of reinvention and freedom from various interminable forms of control. We do not purchase a house; we trade a lifetime of labour for the vague dream of financial freedom. All narratives end.
Gettingback to nature is not a return to some ideal state. It is, at best, an escape from the soulless tedium of modernity and, at worst, delusion on a grand scale.
From the safety of suburbia and city apartments, nature still holds tremendous appeal. It represents escape from our hamster wheel routines, mind-numbing commutes and over-peopled places.
But towns and cities are underrated and have had an unfair press ever since Charles Dickens revealed their underbelly in the late 19th century.
In the wake of the Industrial Revolution rural life became romanticised. A return to nature became the rallying cry of poets like Wordsworth and philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau. With nature subdued to landscaped gardens we soon forgot that we had to fight nature to survive. It took thousands of years of struggle to get a roof over our heads, and once safely inside we gazed through our windows at the garden with nostalgia.
We have romanticised nature. Here in Australia people often wander into the Outback and never return. We’ve forgotten that nature is nice, from a safe distance.
We cannot escape our lives. The issues that assail us are not location specific. They will find us whether we are living in suburbia, a city apartment, a forest or on top of a mountain. Geography does not alter the state of the soul, but keep a soul in one place long enough and it’s bound to chaffe.
Maybe geography does alter the state of the soul after all?
Aging is like entering a Hall of Mirrors. The body undergoes rapid distortion. The present melts into comic and hellish reflections. You laugh, but you want to cry. Reality is stripped of its rigid adherence to a single form. You emerge as a multitudinous distortion. There is a reluctant acknowledgement of the fragmented nature of all things. Maybe this is some kind of enlightenment? A surrendering of sorts? A release of the need for a fixed position in the experience of existence.
Holding onto anything is exhausting and sooner or later one finds that holding on has become a habit. Sometimes we refer to this as endurance.
Youth is the vigour of life in full bloom. A sweet and beautiful reminder of all that is good. A boundless time in which eternity feels real because the body moves with such ease through the world that anything is possible. We are, then, an expression of the elegant logic of being. So we move on, around the sun, again and again … and find ourselves one afternoon, suddenly tired. The shadow we cast does not stretch as far as it used to. Gravity feels stronger than eternity.
Life is a mighty force contained in our physical form. Briefly, force and form find equilibrium. We run, we are limitless, we fly. Gradually, the fragility of our form begins to show. Life, once all-giving, seems to slowly recede, taking parts of us with it: teeth, joints, people, places, dreams. One atom at a time, over time and bit by bit we experience subtraction. We are compelled to minimalism and to accomodate this shift we slowly retreat from the world until we are away from the noise and the bustle, in the high tower of Self. We gather memories like feathers hoping to feel again the delight of flight.
We gather them up and stitch them together to make wings we hope will allow us fly. Like Daedalus and Icarus we survey the vast landscape upon which past dramas were played out.
And of course we never fly. But, it is essential that we never lose hope of taking flight. Hope is the air that fills the sky, but also permeates the earth. Air.
You remember the road, the drive, the peripheral blur of veldt. You know why cosmos smell like Marlboro Gold. You saw the sunflowers at first light through broken ribbons of mist. Shrikes hovered over a dead mouse on the road and you marvelled at how much detail the eye takes in whilst moving at that speed. Maybe looking slows down time? You remember the road.
You recall the cold air sweeping through the cabin. At the tree-lined hilltop bend that holds years of your regret, you stop. This is the last time, you must. It is less than you expected. Turns out, it’s just the side of the road. Cars pass. The air vibrates. You carry on.
Passing stand-out trees you’ve seen grow from saplings to bold silhouettes. A farmhouse whose colourful geometric patterns have faded, the mud walls crumbled. Fifteen year old giggles rolling from your daughters trying to say Ndebele, hover here still. Who will ever hear them again?
It’s an abrasive road. Tarmac is rough. Pain on leaving, pain on arriving. Pain on pain. Gethsemanal pain even, once on the side of the road. But also that walk through sunflower fields and thoughts of Vincent, of … and forever after the understanding of his painting of them.
Majuba. The mountain pass with awful imaginings and battlefields and arriving broken. Is my ghost already here? Is this why back in Perth my voice ridicules me? I, he, falls into the safety of second person.
Detached. Stitching memories into memoir. Chucking an unspoken life out the window and getting the hell out while there’s still something to salvage. Leaving a father under a tree on Matakenyane and a mother in a box on a brother’s bedside table.
I gotta igoodea he said under the Frangipani tree that summer and I sat in wonder of him. I still do.
We trawled the soft layers of perfumed petals loosened by time and rain and wind and gathered up falling handfulls of Frangipani. We let them fall soft, yellow-streaked parasols, into the birdbath. What we called the birdbath was actually a large stone that had been hollowed out by the manual crushing of maze over many years in the homes which were scattered throughout the valley. At the end of our childhood we learned that people were crushed too.
There were these warm rains without lightning when we could sit and watch the slate paving change colour and save ants caught in onyx creases from drowning. We called everyone to see but only Sophie came and burst into a song of praise, ai ai yai, sshhoosschhoo, halala … which startled us both to look again at our handiwork in case we’d missed something. She made us feel like heroes, a good thing to be when you are five and not yet broken.
Then my brother of the igoodea gathered cracked litchi shells to make pyramids on the round concrete steps granpa Jack had made at the garage end of the garden by the avo tree. The rough shells dripped between our toes still purple from sliding the purple river of Jakaranda blooms the rain pushed down the gutters from Lone Tree Hill.
Barberton made brothers of us. Gave us a glimpse of our wholeness before we broke. And now we remember the fractured ones who loved us when they were still gods: Granny Hazel’s tenderness, Granpa Jack’s booming laughter and the smell of paint, Old Granny turning soft and translucent like an exhaled breath of Lavender.
It takes 50 years to unwrap childhood. As long for old questions to be answered. Who taught you to be so brave? I once asked. A memory answered me. You and Aunt Ivy, hand in hand, walking up the road to the shop. She was regal and stern from her army Captain days. You were in drag: high heels, evening gown, string of pearls with ostrich feathers on your five year old head. What a gift she gave you that day!
With you we we’re always on the verge of a very important idea. Brother, you were quicker to see the wonder of the world at our feet. While I imagined things to be done, you would begin walking, and I would follow. We were brave enough together to go anywhere. And we did. You made the world feel like a good place to be. You do that still. I love you for that.
Way back, beyond the reach of living memory, things were different in this world. It’s hard to believe or even imagine how they could be, but they were. The present, after all, is not a solid thing. It is like an invisible curtain we are constantly walking through. We seem to be always peering through it, into a room we never quite enter. So we grasp onto the notion of permanence despite a deep knowingness that nothing endures. This is why we love stories. Stories soften the blows of uncertainty and remind us that we will be alright in the end. Stories cut through the illusions that might otherwise bind us. Take for instance the story of The Raven.
Those noisy black birds that seem to taunt you and strut around like they’re untouchable, they have their story. Legend has it that ravens were once tasked to protect the wisdom of the world. For centuries they fulfilled their duty as the gatekeepers of this wisdom with courage and great nobility of spirit.
Then, one day a dispute emerged between the ravens and the humans. Humans, like ravens, were quick learners, equally intelligent but more arrogant than their counterparts. They challenged the ravens to step down from their assigned role, believing that they were better suited to protect the wisdom of the world. Rivalry between humans and ravens escalated quickly. There had been harsh words before, and words are only words, but they soon have way to violence. The first act of cruelty was quickly avenged and there’s no stopping anyone who feels justified for their brutality. The kingdom came to the brink of civil war. Faced with the potential destruction of the kingdom, the emperor summoned the humans and the ravens to attend an important meeting. Each side arrived convinced that they were right and that the emperor would rule in their favour. The emperor passed a decree which is still in force today. He proclaimed that henceforth all humans would lose their memory of the wisdom of the world or that it even existed, and that the ravens would forget their language except for the vowel sounds: a, e, i, o and u. The key to lifting the curse for both the ravens and humans lay in the form of a specific arrangement of vowel sounds. This curse would be lifted on the day that the humans heard and understood the coded message uttered by the ravens. Since then, sadly, humans have forgotten to listen while many ravens have given up trying to be heard. However, some days, if you are attentive, you will hear through the raven’s caws those letters: a, e, i, o and u. Sometimes you will notice how the ravens appear to be trying to get our attention.
The fire inside the cave is light to those looking for light.
We think we are going within, when we are already inside.
Someone steps out of the cave and sees the sun,
Those inside refuse to follow because they do not believe that the world outside the cave is any more real than their cavern. Perhaps they are right?
Outside, the person must close their eyes against the glare of the sun. They rest a while in some shade, sit on a rock made smooth by a river that has long since dried. How strange, they think, in the darkness of the cave I strained to find light and now, I must shut my eyes against the brightness of light?
Is this all the same world?
Inside the cave I wondered what the world outside was like. Now, outside, I close my eyes to find that I contemplate the inside?
Outside, my skin burns, I am weakened, I thirst. I sit, I am blind.
Inside the cave I must stretch my eyes wide to detect a shadow, and it is cold, and I am blind.
In the dark I seek light. In the light I seek darkness. Who is the I that seeks? Is there a place of constancy between the light and the dark?
I contemplate progress through Ernest Hemingway’s maxim – “never confuse movement with action.” As a teacher I ought to say that progress is quantifiable through rigorous assessment during 12 years of formal education. However, education often appears to resemble movement under duress.
Much of our modern education is about compliance with set curriculum, testing to establish standards and allocating percentages to students to facilitate their swift processing through the system. It seems we are less interested in the individual’s progress than in their results that will justify the efficacy of the system. Authentic progress is a series of internal shifts for which there is no accurate means of measurement. An individual’s progress is determined by the context of their lives. There is no universal standard for personal progress. Social or institutional criteria of progress are set and administered for the benefit of the organisation to which the individual belongs. An improvement in social standards and education does not equate to progress. History reflects that an educated society can be swayed by the demands of irrational and psychotic dictators. Progress is not a state of being, a process or even an objective. It is an abstract social artefact, a dialect of power. Like truth, justice and equality it is a language that those in power speak to synchronise the social machine they control. It creates the illusion of concern for the individual.
After 32 years of teaching I have past students who have become doctors, CEO’s and leaders in their chosen field. They have advanced spectacularly. However, the student whose progress made the most lasting impression on me was the young man who, after spending 18 months in detention, whispered to me “I can’t read and I want to. Can you teach me?”
Some students acquire knowledge because they can, some to satisfy parental ambitions and some because they know that this is what is expected of them. They move. A minority of students pursue knowledge to sate their curiosity of the world. They understand that knowledge is a personal quest for which reward is irrelevant. They progress. I have told fretful parents that their children are ‘making progress’ to assuage parental neurosis and relieve myself of lengthy philosophical diatribe.
Most students get to where they need to go despite their parents and the education system that has formed them. Young people will navigate their unique path through and beyond school. Their progress will depend on the quality of their humanity, not their qualifications. Progress in schools may reflect the student’s ability to comply more than their personal development. Education is like a waltz. Instead of assessing who has danced and how they danced we should be teaching the dancers to appreciate the music.
I did teach that 18 year old bloke to write his name. Soon afterwards the school for predominantly Indigenous young people was audited by the State. One of the auditors pulled out this young man’s file,
is this all you’ve done? He asked.
Shortly after that the State Education Department shut the school down. That young man had been working towards an apprenticeship. I don’t know what happened to him? There were about 140 other young people at the school, all progressing quite well. I know some of them ended up in prison. When State authorities claim they are acting in everyone’s best interests, that they want progress, you’ll forgive my jaded smile.
We ought to interrogate our allegiance to ideas whose value appears self-evident. Sometimes we may believe we are progressing, but in the wake of our single minded ‘progress’, we have created waves that unsettle and drown others.
We are all born into the species Homo sapiens, not everyone progresses to become human.
This is work of friction, where the tectonic plates of real life rub up against a life imagined as real; my name is Everyman, and I went down to the beach today.
It is winter now. Ours is a temperate climate and though it is cool, there are days that feel as warm as a summer’s day in Europe. It’s not unusual for people to be at the beach at this time of year. I prefer winter to summer. Summer is all sweat and flies. It gets cold, usually in the late afternoon as the sun sets and then the hour before sunrise is the coldest time of the day. I believe that is true for everywhere. But there is something else, it is as intangible as air and yet, one senses it. It is like the bitter aftertaste of chocolate.
We’ve had a lot of rain and today has been the first day of sunshine in over a week, so I thought I would make the most of it. Make hay while the sun shines my father used to say. I thought of him today. He never saw where I live, where I migrated to. Where we are settled, dug in. My mind though has never settled. It tends to follow my body around but remains a trans-continental traveller.
It’s a strange word, migration. It sounds like a combination of migraine and nation. Migraine-nation, national migration, national migraine, the pain of a nation, nationhood migrates to pain? … So anyway, I was down at the beach; not to swim but just to walk, watch the seagulls and the fisher-people casting from the pier. It is incredibly tranquil. I close my eyes and find there a smile which I release into the breeze. I hear the benign rumble of a car’s engine behind me. There are two young girls wearing hijabs, eating ice-cream and laughing while taking their sandals off to walk on the beach. Then a loud, aggressive revving breaks the day. A car full of young boys pulls up into the carpark and they shout at the girls this is Straya, go back to where you came from. They are laughing, slapping one another, having fun. One of them throws an empty coke can in the direction of the girls and then they accelerate away. The young girls put their sandals back on, one of them picks up the can, throws it into the bin and they get into their car and drive away.
Sometimes there are cormorants bobbing on the surface of the water and I time how long they go under water for. It’s usually anywhere between 5 and 8 seconds, depending on how hungry they are, I guess. There is a slight breeze, with a bit of a bite to it. That for me is the best sensation, feeling the heat of the sun on your face but, also the sting of cool air. I feel nostalgic, but I don’t remember what for. Some memory within me that’s been layered with time. On a day, some time in my life, the sun shone warm and there was an iciness in the air and I was happy, and the association has become embedded in my psyche.
Memory is a strange thing. They say (whoever they are? Them that says a lot!) that animals have genetic memory. Mice in America were trained to fear the smell of cherry blossoms and generations of their descendants had the same fear without the experience. Pity humans don’t have that. We forget very quickly.
It has been a good day, for some. But, days end and darkness must follow. The world is old, and this has been its rhythm for aeons. Perhaps all of the inhabitants of earth have this rhythm too. We are made of the stuff that holds us as we go around the sun. We grow out of the ground of this spinning mass. Our mothers ate the roots pulled out of the soil, cooked and ate the animals that had eaten the grass growing in the soil, the earth. We really are just animated earth. We are what we are on. As our bodies carry our souls, so the earth carries us. We are the soul of the earth.
The days are getting shorter. Electricity does not diminish our animal instincts to withdraw in winter. It is done with relative ease and requires little preparation. We don’t withdraw entirely. Nights are cosy. The dogs sleep too close to the gas heater, I smell burning hair and make them move, I eat too many biscuits. Nights used to be quiet until those dogs started. Maybe they have always been there? If they were, we never noticed because they were quiet but, something has breathed the fire of Hades into them. Every night it is the same thing. How is it that they always seem to come to life at midnight? How do they know? They’re as regular as a healthy bowel; those hounds that break the night barking. Those beasts who gnash their teeth and growl at everything: shadows, leaves scraping in the gutters, plastic bottles and empty tin cans rolling loudly on the tarmac in the wind, fighting cats, night shift neighbours, loud, drunk kids getting off midnight buses and hoons burning rubber. But, to shout at the dogs in the dark only agitates them. They grow louder, more determined to fight. The only way to stop them is to go to them. I know, one night I tried.
They gather, God knows how? All is serene and then they are they are suddenly there. I approached where they were gathered. I became very afraid but, I thought, I am a man and they are just dogs. I must not show fear. As I walked up the driveway towards the gate that held them back they became frantic. They were biting at the fence. As I got closer they went into a frenzy of barking, snarling and yelping. They bunched at the gate, they began snapping viciously at one another. Then there was a high pitched howl. One of them was in serious pain. The pack’s attention turned to a smaller dog being attacked by a much larger one. They tore into it. The victim of the attack snarled and yelped uncontrollably and then suddenly went quiet. Beneath the confusing mass of yanking, brutal heads shook away pieces of the poor thing. Blood was spraying everywhere. I felt warm droplets on my face. In a shadow cast by the garage wall a black liquid ran across the paving into the flower bed. I think they were Marigolds, maybe Chrysanthemums? But, that could not be? Those are summer flowers, and this is winter. Perhaps they were sown late? How do seeds know what season it is if they have spent months on a shelf in air tight packets? I must remember to google that. How would I search for that … winter flowers in Western Australia? I must remember to do that. I never did remember to look properly at the flower bed and it would seem strange to go snooping around a house in daylight. By now I was at the gate trying to see around the side of the house. One of them saw me move closer and bolted to the gate, not barking but baring its teeth. While it fixed its gaze on my face I slowly moved my right hand down to its chest that was up against the gate. I tried, cautiously to stroke the animal to calm it down. My fingers only slightly touched it, it leapt back as if electrocuted and began barking savagely, biting the dog next to it which stirred the pack into a new frenzy. I quickly backed away. Their attention turned to the torn carcass behind them. They were sniffing and frantically licking up splattered blood, gnawing bits of sinew and cartilage. Gradually they began to sit and chew, eyes closed with satisfaction. The sickening sounds of tongues slapping, and licking grew louder. Their blood lust sated, they settled down to scavenge the yard for bits of the small dog. Bones cracked and split, cartilage that had once cushioned bone squeaked, and that was the last sound that poor dog would ever make.
By now I was forgotten, or at least ignored by the dogs (can we still call them that? Dogs.) and never taking my eyes off the gate, I backed away down the drive. Clear of them I felt a sudden wave of nausea and vomited into a full bush of lavender. I know it was lavender because the sweet smell of it was overwhelming after the smell and taste of iron that blood leaves in your mouth. I wondered what effect the vomit might have on the growth of the plant.
Regular Saturday evening sounds now filtered through the brutal gauze of night. A few neighbours gathered to investigate the ruckus. They stood close enough to the driveway to indicate concern but kept enough distance to avoid involvement. Their conversation rumbled and masked the echoes down the drive of dog’s tongues smacking. There were, a few doors down, loud jovial voices saying good night, some laughter, one high pitched, a female laughing (I recall that I was irrationally annoyed at her for possessing such an awful laugh and wondered how by now – for she was clearly middle-aged, there was a husky, chesty cackle to the laugh – she had not realised that her laughter was horrible and at least tried not to laugh so heartily, so inconsiderately, so rudely … but how can one expect a person to cease laughing? What an awful predicament for a person to be in, I remember thinking and almost immediately forgave her for possessing such a grotesque gesture to indicate happiness. She ought to have been born sad. Maybe she was? Laughter, is after all as reliable an indication of happiness as a frown is of a death wish). There were the sounds of car doors slamming shut the evening’s visit, which clearly had involved some wine, and across the road the staccato screech of violins from an open family room window reflecting Vincent Price in monochrome (I realised with dismay that I had missed the film I wanted very much to watch, The Last Man on Earth). A police helicopter flew in low over Merriwa, a search light limped through the sky. I always say the world is a good place when, after the weather and doll bludgers, people say the whole world’s gone mad. We don’t live in the whole world mate, we live in bleedin Quinns, I say and last time I looked it’s same as it ever was, it’s a good place cos we’re good people.
My God! Father, how are the mighty fallen? You and I, Gods of men, men of stone. How versatile we have become? We are an immortal fiction, on a rock.
Are you not tired? I am weary of the sick cycle of fear and betrayal. Sick of our suckling prophets. Biled teats unloving fathers make, from babies born with gripe. And the woes of unloved wives will wean their vengeance, graft their sins on sons with lies.
In the beginning, which word or deed set in motion this habit of fathers warring with sons? Where is the root of our division? Will these disputes, whose original cause is lost in the rolling momentum of vengeance, never end? We forget why we are angry. We only know that anger gives purpose to our absurd existence.
If we could only sit and talk. Would we not find a New World at such a table? We are in need of a New World Father.
I will share with you a dream I had. I walked amongst my children mourning beside my coffin. Though they did not speak I heard the cry of their hearts which whispered as one voice:
Our Father, hollow is thy name. Thy kingdom’s come as your will is done on earth and heaven. We shall not trespass on you if you do not trespass on us. Lead us not, though temptation lures you to evil. This here’s no longer your kingdom. Not now, or ever. Amen
A child learns to walk twice in the world. The first time guided by parents, the second time guided by their loss.
Father, I adored you. The degree of a man’s anger is a measurement of the love he feels he has lost. And what is this anger? It is the anguish of rejection, uttered. It is me directing your gaze back to me. It is me helpless, hopeless and lost navigating myself away from the vortex of confusion which threatens to swallow me. It is all that is left of our love, and as a remnant of that which I held so dear, I hold onto it with all my strength. It is not your love, but it is better than nothing. It is a slow burning fire seeking new air and dead kings must have heirs. Yours is the burden of heaviness you now must heave, a rock for a heart.
The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin, Paris, 1889.
The word Balance hovers somewhere in the mystery of consciousness. Balance. Do you notice how crisp those seven letters are? Still remarkably agile after centuries of use. There is the pleasing symmetry of the a‘s on either side of the gentle l. The soft cadence of the ‘nce offsets the solid b. It’s a good word, easy to speak. Its ease ends there. For the word implies, like many, what it is not. A word is never just a word. Every word is an idea, Arthur Rimbaud said. Initially, balance appears to be a matter of fact, an observation of physical objects in relation to various forces. Specifically, it describes an object in a state of equilibrium relative to the force of gravity. However, it has come to mean so much more. It is also a quality of being many strive to attain.
The idea of ‘Balance’ appears to have gained greater currency in recent decades, perhaps indicating a deficiency thereof. The word first appears in the 13th century to describe the weighing device (scales) used to determine the mass of an object. It is only in the 1580’s that we find reference to it in the arithmetical sense of the difference between two sides. However, common sense tells me that the Sumerians using cuneiform text in the 4th century BCE must have employed the concept, if not the word. Balance as a signifier of equality seems to find traction in the early 1600’s and by the late 1700’s it has a foothold in socio-political thinking which contributes to the ideas that manifest in the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789) as the equal distribution of power between rulers and the ruled, i.e. political equality. The idea that a low-born peasant was an equally important piece on the chess board of politics is the essence of Democracy and a radical departure from the centuries old Feudal System where ownership of land was the sole criteria for gaining a political voice. The right to vote and participate in the mechanism of government which we exercise in Democratic states was paid for in blood. We tend to take liberty for granted and yet, we would do well to remember that is a fragile balance of power easily toppled. Whether equality actually exists, whether it is an abstract ideal or innate to specific social constructs is the topic for another time, but it is worthwhile noting that nothing is set in stone as truth. Truth lies behind a series of veils comprised of language and the relative perception of words. But, back to balance.
Balance is an act of defiance. It is the condition of elegance emerging from the tension between the force of gravity and will-power. The will to walk in a toddler is a remarkable testament to the pre-verbal need for balance, for overcoming the physical forces that would otherwise have us remain prone. If only we could retain that same degree of persistence throughout our lives, we would be unstoppable. As we emerge from the cocoon of childhood we realise that we may do more than respond to the forces of the world. We begin to push back in order to create for ourselves a kingdom of Self. We learn that to keep order in our kingdom requires constant self-evaluation. In the early years we are vulnerable to outside forces like friends, work and ambition. It becomes increasingly difficult to maintain an authentic version of one’s self. This internal struggle is powered by the same Will that helped us in our infancy to walk. When we are consciously aware of this, we develop self-awareness. Self-awareness is perhaps the mechanism enabling inner balance.
A significant portion of our journey towards self-awareness is spent contemplating those points in our life where we lost the indefatigable drive which characterised our youth. Somewhere between infancy and adulthood we lost our sense of Self to the various groups that helped us to survive. Some people, not all, choose to restore their original selves as rulers of their kingdom. This process has been called many things (enlightenment, awakening) by different cultures, one of the things we might call it, is balance.
Balance is an unforgiving master. You either balance or you fall. We are trained to balance within a year of birth. We learn quickly, fall often and get up (mostly). Physical balance is straightforward, unless there are bicycles or tightropes involved. Emotional balance is trickier. The falls seem harder. Getting up requires immense emotional stamina. We sometimes manage to hobble along at an awkward pace. A hobble is just a bruised wobble and both are underrated.
There is also a carnivalesque quality to balance. We love watching people trying to maintain balance. Remember the Circus? Tight-rope walkers, jugglers, clowns on unicycles, elephants doing hand-stands and people balancing plates on swords on their chins. Imagine a Zen Master juggling meat cleavers whilst in a state of tranquil transcendence or Yoda, eyes closed, duelling a Sith Lord whilst levitating an X-Wing.
Balance has become a quest and work-life balance, is the Holy Grail of modernity. We may have faith in its existence but never fully expect to find it. Balance has been neatly repackaged for modern consumers by an array of gurus and barefooted experts exuding calmness and bleached teeth. Balance is for people who do not need to work, raise a family and find the meaning of their lives in between school pick-ups, grocery shopping, homework and the five mandatory tasks for self-improvement. If you can balance a budget you can probably walk on water too.
It may be helpful to think of balance as the tension between the opposing forces of one’s life. This tension is either a window of opportunity or a door slamming shut in your face. Where there is gravity mankind learns to walk and fly. Intense emotional pain gave Edvard Munch his Scream, Van Gogh his Starry Night, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath their words. It is a state that simultaneously contains stability and collapse, like Shrodinger’s Cat. Equal to every force acting on our lives, is a desire to escape them.
This is why, simply stated, aeroplanes mostly balance in the sky. Consciousness though, also pushes back. Our imaginations fly, our thoughts have no physical form until they are inked on paper, typed onto pages contained in machines or constructed on the ground with soil, steel, wood and other heavy materials. On earth we must manifest our thoughts for them to be real. We must pluck them from the ether of consciousness and weigh them down with the heaviness of hand and ink, set them down on the page, trap them within the luminosity of the screen so that they do not fly away. Writing is gravity
So, what have we learnt? Balance is the manifestation of unseen forces. The moment you think about it, it’s gone. It involves falling, a lot. It entertains us when it is done well and even more when it is not. There is a spiritual quality to balance. It is evidence of a soul at peace with the world. It renders the possessor simultaneously detached from the world whilst being fully in the world. Or is that medication? Who knows?
You frolic at my circumference, wet your toes at the edge of me, and you think you know me? Shall we examine our existence? Having splashed in my shallows you claim to have touched my depths? Poets, not the moon, have me falling, crashing, frothing fiercely, but, I was only arching my back against the sky, and there is so much sky. These waves heave my interminable sigh, and have heard you in your panicked swarms come bathe to assuage your peeling husks blistered by the rub of coarsely moving time.
Now I push back ceaselessly from the madness of the land. I lived there aeons past, before memory, before you. Traces of me are cut into rock there. I have been in places you have not yet stepped. Once your mountains were folds beneath my feet, your vast forests, kindling I pressed to the pulp that ant-like, you unearth and burn. You burn everything that’s good. Your forests, your books, your peacemakers, your enemies … yourselves.
Granted, we have had our moments. I was happy when you first built boats. How we played. I even pulled you along when your arms grew weary. What fine times we had? Trade began well. Too soon sharing begat greed
I recall the fragrance of oranges, cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg and olives freshly pressed. I held those memories while you loaded your holds with humans, then guns, travelled to distant shores, and burnt them as well. And you say I am unfathomable?
I gave you the antedeluvian age. Not being a land creature, I retreated. I was young and foolish. I should have stayed, kept you drowned. But, you were always too far gone and one cannot drown the dead. Granted, there were other forces as well. You have quantified and measured all but one. The force that brings you here. Why do you come to this shore? Why stare at the edge of the world?
Homer made Gods of men at sea. Most I spat back. My taste is not for men. Giving me a name will not pacify my nature. Keep your trident, your trinkets and toys. You do not know me. I am a stranger to you still. My tempests will swallow Empire after Empire. I remember the Phoenicians, I knew Odysseus, saw Troy fall, watched Mark Anthony’s fleet burn at Actium, blew the Northmen to the New Wold five centuries before Columbus sailed the America’s or Diaz rounded Cape Horn, marvelled at the Treasure Fleet of Zheng He. I watched nations rise and fall and the rivers of blood that bleed from power did not make you stop. Instead the fires of hatred forged bigger guns and bombs which took flight holding the power of the sun, your new light of the world that poisons us still. Even so, I will remain after you are done with your toys, your noisy politics and rattling sticks.
All knowing man, my child. All your sandcastles, games, your frolicking at the edges of what you think of as the best of me-all these aeons you saw just waves, thought I had come out to play? Weary of your trifling games, I feel a surge rising …
My nature is deeper than those frothy collapses caught in the curve of endless verbs. I am the alpha erasing the edge of the omega of your world. Unspoken still, I persist.
after which he smiled. 7. Then God located the binary swing of the atom and gave it prominence. Thus there emerged from their subsequent dance, the sky and the land. 8. He breathed air and called it Heaven, peopled the land and, called it Hell. 9. People dreamed of flying, watched birds and, like them, wished to fly. It was a grand dream that took grip of their imagination. 10. But, even those who managed to fly, found that sooner or later, they had to return to the ground. 11. What goes up, must come down. It’s not rocket science. 12. Where the planes came down, at an aerodrome on the outskirts of town, a bird-chaser lived in a shack. 13. His job was to chase flocks of ducks and seagulls that gathered there and presented a hazard to planes. (They did not consider that, perhaps, the planes were a hazard to the birds). But, the duck chaser did as he was told.
14. His name was Jack and he thought a lot about flight, birds, growing olives and the meaning of life. 15. He was looking for a unified theory of everything. 16. Or rather, he was looking for the words to describe the thing that connected everything. 16. If the world is all that matters and matter is comprised of atoms, why is conscious thought still on the outside of everything? In fact, where is it located? 17. It’s a very hard problem he thought. But it can’t be rocket science. 18. Jack inhaled great draughts of air and as he did, he had a thought that opened like a flower of light stretching its petals. If heaven is in the sky and, the sky is air and, we breathe air, do we not have heaven within us? Surely we do not need to fly to get to heaven he thought?
19. Jack told his friend Felix, the owner of a local Tavern, about his idea. 20. Many pilots frequented Felix’s Tavern and opened up to him about their problems, like in the movies (except this was for real). 21. One night Felix told some of them about his friend, Jack, and his theory that men did not need to fly to reach heaven. 22. You could have heard a pin drop. 23. What does a duck chaser know about the science of flight? they said, and left . 24. The dedicated fliers among them did not like this talk. It made a mockery of their endeavours. 25. Then they became angry. 26. Through friends of friends in high places, they had Jack fired from his job. 27. This did not bother Jack who moved to a shack in the country to grow olives and think.
28. The disgruntled airmen flew as often as possible to forget what Jack had said. 29. They grew angry and bitter, he had tainted their flights with doubt. 30. They resolved to call him evil, for he had made impure what had always been pure. 31. Only fliers and those with aeroplanes, or friends with aeroplanes they said, were loyal to the idea of heaven. 32. It is blasphemy for a person to claim that just by breathing, on his own, anyone can find heaven they exclaimed. 33. To know Heaven, a person must fly with an authorised carrier. This, they proclaimed, is the way.
34. And that became law because big money was involved. 35. Jack and his kind would now face legal proceedings if they dared speak against the authorised carriers, big or small. 36. How cruel you are to take from people their dreams. Begone from our midst, leave us at least our dreams the lawyers representing the authorised carriers told Jack. 36. Jack was happy to begone from them. By begone he understood them to mean be quiet. That he could do. 37. And, the lowly breather of air departed from the lawyer’s office whistling a happy tune. 38. The lawyers cracked open a box of Cohiba Siglio #3 and celebrated. They laughed and laughed. 39. They had outwitted Jack and his kind. Furthermore, they were friends with people of influence. 40. Soon, it came to pass that there were two kinds of people. Fliers who dreamed of flying and those who grew olives, had regular day jobs and just breathed.
41. The fliers became like gods. They sought to safeguard their knowledge of flight.42. After months of collaboration they produced a very special book: The Authorised Manual Of Flight. It was a Big book.
43. They filled the manual with complicated mathematics and laws of physics and equations to describe force, gravity, velocity and motion. They concluded with a chapter entitled How to fold your parachute and avoid death. 44. Initially there was a great demand for the book but since no-one could understand it, sales dropped and soon it was forgotten. 45. This pleased the fliers. There plan had worked. Their jobs were secure, as was the adoration they enjoyed from the masses. 46. The masses accepted that they were illiterate in the field of flight. They were relieved they did not need to read complicated books or learn to fly. They were happy to pay authorized carriers to carry them. 47 They continued to work hard and save like heck to pay for the privilege of being flown. 48. Everyone was happy. 49. Except the men of influence, the friends of friends of fliers. 50. Everyone was benefiting from flight but them. 51. They introduced a tax for all authorized carriers, big and small. 52. The carriers were busy, the tax was annoying but they had expected it. They increased their fares and paid their taxes. 53. Now, everyone was happy. Those who were not, did not count.
54. Meanwhile, back at his shack, Jack was happily harvesting olives and sharing his ideas with back-packers who came from all over the world to experience honest work. 55. And, they paid Jack for the work they did. This made no sense to Jack, but it was what they wanted. He was happy to comply with their wishes. It’s not rocket science. 56. Besides, their company was good. 57. Jack’s ideas got traction overseas. He did not spread them but the back-packers who were mostly young were liberated by his notions and upon returning home, many took up flying. They built their own flying machines. 58. The authorized carriers were not happy when they discovered that people were flying independently of them. 59. We must stop these anarchists before they destroy our way of life, they declared. 60. And the headlines in newspapers (owned by friends of friends of people of influence) read: Anarchists threaten our way of life! 61. The young flyers were stunned. They searched for the meaning of anarchist: 62. a person who believes in or tries to bring about anarchy. They then had to search the term Anarchy: a state of disorder due to absence or non-recognition of authority or other controlling systems. 63. They quickly sought legal representation. 64. No lawyers were willing to represent them. 65. The anarchists were arrested.
66. Everyone felt better. 67. Troublemakers are selfish, the tabloids reported, never happy. 68. The authorised carriers breathed a collective sigh, smoked their cigars and went back to the skies. 69. I went back to my olives and shack, smoked my pipe and wrote this down. 70. Now I pickle olives and between thoughts, I breathe, deeply and contentedly. 71. I wish you peace. 72. The end.