Category: creative non fiction

Collecting feathers to fly

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.

We live our lives forward,        and understand them backwards.                                            Montaigne

A history of the world in less than 10 minutes 

In the beginning there was man and the soil. In some places, notwithstanding occasional conflict, most people got on with the task of surviving together on the soil. In other places man toiled and the stronger among them claimed ownership of the soil.  Why in some places men claimed ownership and in other places only membership is a question for the ages. One man got clever and made a plough. For the machine to be effective he bought a horse and so the horse trader liked this machine. Soon everyone had a machine and a horse. Those who could afford neither machine nor horse nor land worked for those who could. Ownership determined wealth; it’s not rocket science. Where people did not own things it was different. They did not have a word for wealth.

Later the machine was improved, older ones sold or melted down to make newer, better machines. Some men left the land to make and sell machines. Other machines appeared to cut wheat, mill corn, spin yarn and weave cloth. This made some people glad and others who could not afford machines became angry. Those who had land and horses and machines became wealthier and more powerful and eventually owned all the land. Those who did not own land or machines were greater in number and worked for the powerful men. Amongst them all, powerful and powerless, there were good and bad men. In some places men were valued for their contribution to those around them, in other places a man’s position in relation to those in power determined his value.

Not all people thought of a man in terms of value but where there were machines, it seemed like the right thing to do, even logical. Machines made life easier, those who made and improved them were highly regarded. It’s not rocket science. It seemed to be the natural progression of things and people did not ask whether it could or should be otherwise, “Thus is the world” people said and as it was said, so it became true. If God had wanted it otherwise , he would have made it so. In the places without machines people said pretty much the same thing.

There were some places where people felt it was silly to claim ownership of land since they all lived off the land and the land had been there long before them. Land to them was not something you owned but a place where you lived. People belonged to the land. They respected the land and the animals and also every person’s place on the land. They did not make machines because they never wanted more, only enough.

Over time the machines got bigger and better and from out of the soil men dug old dead trees and burned them to power the machines. They called this fuel. Fuel begat steam which begat bigger machines which begat trains and boats. Men saw the value of land and powerful men trained soldiers to conquer other lands and put soldiers in boats to conquer them. Machines harnessed great forces. Force became the way of the world. The places without machines were easy to conquer. Where soldiers found people without machines they claimed ownership of these simpler people. The powerful, machined men thanked God for giving them the machines and assumed that those men without machines could not possibly have God so they gave them their God and killed any who refused to accept their gift. How could anyone who refused such a gift ever be trusted? It’s not rocket science.

By now there were many powerful men and fewer places with dead tree fuel so these men went to war and fought each other for control of the land. They did this for many hundreds of years. During the course of these wars the places these powerful men owned became clearly defined by boundaries and they called their allotted parts countries. To differentiate them from one another they took coloured cloth and wove these into flags, which they waved and they said that these signified their loyalty to their country. They said that those who lived together within their well-defined boundaries were different to other men with different cloths. Difference became more important than being alive. It was no longer sufficient to be alive. You had to live differently so that maintaining difference kept you too busy to ask questions like aren’t we actually the same?

And so the men of power wrote down what they had they said and it was believed because everyone knows that when something is written it must be true and if powerful men write it, it is so true we call it law.

Each country became peopled. Still, there were those who were powerful and those who were not. Those who were powerful claimed they were naturally in better positions to lead the many who were not. Since those who were powerful were most valued, this made a great deal of sense. To show their concern for the powerless, the men of power, in a great act of faith, offered the powerless an opportunity to share in the power. They presented to them, every four years, two men whom the powerless could choose between to lead them. Thus, having chosen, the men of power reminded the powerless when they were given to complain that the rules that bound them were their own rules. It’s not rocket science. Besides, if it were meant to be otherwise, God would have made it so.

Centuries passed. Countries became accustomed to their flags, their soldiers, their wars fought because of the natural differences that existed and their rulers and their rules. As people multiplied so did the rules. Machines became more sophisticated but they still needed dead tree fuel. The powerful became more powerful and the powerless more powerless. The differences between them became greater too. Stories were told of places and times where things were different and people loved these stories and the men of power liked these stories too because everyone enjoys a story and because it kept the people from complaining because, after all, they were only stories, and besides, they had not written them,

After many centuries people became confident that they represented the high point of human progress.  Life was well categorized. There were rules, borders and soldiers to protect the borders. There was a multitude of machines and machine makers and fixers. They invented ways to perpetuate their existence. Machines were made to break or else machine makers would have no one to sell their machines to. If machines were too well made the fixers would be out of work. It’s not rocket science. People expected things to break because nothing lasts in this world, even people break. Broken is good. The powerful men created rules, which they knew very few people could keep so that when men broke the rules they could be withdrawn from the society of their peers. This helped to reduce the numbers of people they had to rule and made the rest of the people more likely to obey the rules. They also modernised some of the older rules. For example, where before it had been wrong to kill another person, now it was all right if someone was killed upon instruction from the rule makers. It became complicated. Soon there were too many rules for the average person to know about so a new community was created in order to know all of the rules and people paid them to read what no one else could understand. The powerful men made an army just to catch offenders and to bring them before the Law. The poorer among them could not afford law interpreters and it became their lot to lose their land and spend much time in prison to amend for their sins. People became very compliant, most of them anyway.

Furthermore, people had to apply for identity, they had to pay for this and needed consent to marry, buy a house, have children and work. It was not possible to live without government consent, official written acknowledgment of your existence and this approval cost money. In return the leaders told people that they were free so long as they had official approval and as long as they did not break any of the rules which existed for their protection. If it is written that you are free on official government paper it must be true. People were happy to pay for the privilege of being free. In some places people were not free. In those places people did not have governments to make written declarations of happiness. Luckily that was changing fast. Wars were being fought to protect freedom and to extend these gifts of freedom to the lesser peoples of the world. The story is not yet complete but it’s an easy story to follow, it’s not rocket science.20170204_091153.jpg

Suburban Blues


Suburbia is the purgatory of modern development. It is neither nature nor city but straddles the space between. Here, people are frenzied shoppers   but are also desperate to escape the compulsion to consume. Once people lived in harmony with nature. Seasons guided our notion of time, objects were made and ownership was a foreign concept. It’s a life I romantically imagine I live when I trek through or camp in isolated places where there are more trees than people. Now we own stuff or pursue stuff and are surrounded by busy people constructing, selling, buying or breaking. There are trees in suburbia but it is very peopled, busy and seems to lack something, or so I thought.


My life is surrounded by objects which constantly threaten to own me. Maybe they do? They hold memories of my life in the way the landscape holds the lives of people living on it. I do not live on ‘the’ land. I live on a square of mortgaged real estate. I have made my peace with that. I respect it by caring for it. I bring beauty into it. I plant flowers, fruit trees and bottle my own olives. Inside my many walled dwelling I place objects that I have purchased. This is my ritual. I may not feel a cool breeze around an evening fire or wake up damp to birdsong, but if you look carefully it’s a rich place. Suburbia suggests the universal trend towards bland sameness, a middle class lego land. It’s more than that. It’s the space on this earth  where I live my life, find meaning and  constantly re-imagine existence.


Here is a part of a shadow cast by one of the objects of my life. But this steel chair doesn’t cast shadows here anymore, or anywhere else now because I threw it out. I rebelled against the voice of my father which has always gently cautioned me to never ‘throw away’. I shut my ears, my heart and shouldered my way through the memories imbedded in the rusty seat. Where the rust had swollen the joins I bent the chair in half and tossed it away. There were waves of guilt as I surrendered to the consumer mind – “I will buy another, a newer and better chair”. Then I did. It was easy. It was difficult. Nostalgia bit at me as yet another object that had migrated 6000km with me gave in and got chucked like it was just a thing-which it is, was.

The white wrought iron chair was a part of a set of three objects: A table and two chairs. Meals were had around it where we encountered some of the best words we had to offer each other. The salted coastal air eroded the table first, then the chairs. They went from holding us to the rubbish dump too quickly.


I must avoid being too bleak. Hope must be maintained. A life endured, even enjoyed, has a duty to look beyond current erosion. We must point our children to new experiences, to look beyond the rubble that gathers around a life. We all crumble,to varying degrees. Consumerism has its place, but objects carry history. We simply carry on.

Now we have two new chairs beside a table made of steel to endure the coastal air. I’m still not sure of the difference between steel and iron, I did once but I forget and maybe it’s not important. One kind lasts longer but neither lasts long enough. I wonder if whoever throws these out will at least pause before discarding them?

Meanwhile, new experiences open like blooms and a fresh beginning unfolds in suburbia. Ultimately, what will remain here? The trees I planted, some plants I grew from seedlings, a few paving blocks perhaps?  Maybe not? Suburbia is a battlefield between relentless, brutal  progress on the one hand and the lives of people held in fragile ceramic pots and weathered patio sets on the other. Thankfully the beauty of nature is there as well, if you look for it. Like us, it’s just somewhat contained.


By Mike Scallan

A mind in iron

Here is the great mystery of life: it ends.

So there I was …  am? I have no memory of my origin, only of being and it seems that I have always been. I feel that I have been here forever. Certainly, I am not as I was before, or will be. The ‘I’ who speaks now feels infinitely connected with everything that was here, is here or will be here. Something galvanises me to pronounce that this has always been the case. Still, there is a morbid tendency under current circumstances to contemplate ‘not’ being. This is unsettling. It is contrary to the nature of existence. It is traumatic and I fear this only hastens corrosion. I cannot fathom that in the course of my existence change has been so brutal, so sudden and yet always anticipated. I am all contradiction now. Resigned and angry, holding on and letting go. Time confounds the mind. A degree of material degeneration is expected, annihilation is altogether another matter. Consciousness feels ageless, an elegant sensitivity held hostage by imperfect design; a rotten receptacle. In every sense it is a degrading process. Before this moment, yesterday or last year or thirty years ago I was different. I am not sure when ‘before’ is or was? What has changed?


There has been some … rearrangement, shall we say. When does one begin to speak of oneself in the past tense? Memory is a wicked joke. Once I was not as decayed as I appear to you now. My clean lines sliced land and sky with cold precision. Sharp angles framed vast sections of smooth steel that were caressed in places to a polish where men stood, clung as they worked, held as they smoked. Rust began slowly. It settled at first as a warm patina of benign dust that at first light cast a hazy aura of smoked auburn on my form. Beautiful but deathly, subtle as smoke. Then this. Jagged edges, broken frame, an eroding core. It crept out from the inside, was it always there? I was solid. I felt solid. I passed through decades, almost a century. I never considered time a real player in my narrative. Was I arrogant?


Here is the surprise. I never noticed the decay until it seemed, without warning, to be everywhere. I was forever new and then I was in a heap. There were people everywhere then. Busy, busy. I was the centre of that activity.

Science softens the blow. It calls this the conservation of energy. I am undergoing my final conversion, becoming increasingly transformed. This conversion has the sense of displacement. It is a difficult conversation. So, the atoms which constitute my awareness, my consciousness … where do they go? Does it  all go back into the earth? Is this why on quiet days as the wind blows over me, I can almost feel it speak to me? In the earth around me are the voices of the previously converted; the displaced, the more thoroughly eroded ones. We should, if it is our mode, walk more gently on the ground. We are treading on those gone before us. I should have anticipated this. I did. What does one do with the knowledge that you will end? Anticipation is futile. The end comes anyway.


Against the nihilistic current of our existence we can only do what we have always done, stand fast. Stand until we fall. Then we hope for a soft landing, perhaps an acknowledgement of our having been here at all. Even that is a vanity; new things will be built, or not. Expecting Remembrance is a vanity. Memory evades the young but takes hold for a time on the near falling ones. When I finally crumble, I hope I remember to laugh at the absurdity of the rising and falling that is existence.