education, existentialism, philosophy, politics, suburbia

The philosophy of lawn

I water the lawn (initially I wrote grass but realised it is socially ambiguous) twice a week on the days allocated to me by the city council. Restrictions on use were implemented to save water. ‘Watering days’ are determined by property numbers. I have a number 4 type house, even numbered houses may water for 15 minutes on Tuesdays and Saturdays. I’ve set my reticulation system to water for 20 minutes. Only one station works. (It’s a long story). Sometimes on odd evenings I water manually using a hose-pipe. We are subversive here in suburbia.

If elected officialdom had been using some of my tax dollars to respond seriously to climate change I would be more supportive of their minor representatives. They spend millions, probably billions (it’s only money) on fear. Buying submarines, detaining refugees, translating xenophobia into policy, incarcerating young people they could be educating and funding wealthy private schools to prepare the next wave of party leadership. A few years back one beige politician took a lump of coal into parliament and waved it around to endorse his future commitment to the mineral. He is now prime minister, still beige, still imprisoning instead of supporting. So, I’m not against saving water. I’m against laws that contribute to the illusion of a progressive society. Democracy is in crisis, the social contract between government and it’s people has lost all moral integrity. I won’t be told what to do by unthinking bureaucrats. This is the frontline in the struggle against the looming Bureaucratic Dictatorship. It’s a war zone. If we cannot stand here, where will we ever make a stand? The forces of banality are massed against us. I will support life on the few square meters of earth that was forcefully taken by a corrupt government some 200 years ago and then sold to me by a banking system (recently investigated by a Royal Commission and found to be lacking) that seeks to keep me in debt as long as I’m alive. No, this is not idle insubordination, it’s satyagraha.

The sprinklers on the pavement have broken so the grass there is dying. There is always something breaking or broken. I focus on the lawn in front of the house. It’s starting to turn deep green and thicken. The plants are doing well because I feed them regularly with trace elements and, when I am brave, with a vile smelling concoction derived in part from fish (clearly very dead). When my oldest goldfish died last week, I buried her and felt I was honoring her and doing the apple tree a favour at the same time. The soil here is poor. It’s not soil, it’s sea sand. Last summer I planted a Jacaranda tree. I water it and my Frangipanis every other day. Usually odd days. To get one’s lawn green requires dedication. Photosynthesis alone is not enough. Where I don’t want grass, it grows weedlike. In the flowerbeds it is invasive. It strangles flowers. It feels personal, an act of defiance. To remove the serpentine growth I must gouge the soil and feel for the sinuous threads then pull and hope to hear the roots tearing. It brings out the beast in me. The white root snakes the air like wire as I yank it from its grip on the soil. The act of gardening is a therapy, maybe an act of vengeance against all the systems forever stacked against us.

I acknowledge it as an outward sign for an internal process, a clearing. I do not wish to say cleansing. Cleansing suggests trendy Instagram focused egoism whilst trying to cultivate inner peace with one eye on your audience and sipping green tea in the shade of a jasmine creeper. No. This is war. Habitual watering is a symbolic gesture. There is the idea that this action, this repeated action, this ritual is a foreshadowing of a similar, internal process. Perhaps this way of thinking is more the result of my Catholic upbringing than experience. What the things are that will be cleared I do not know. Perhaps they will present themselves to me and then I will understand. In the meantime I take comfort from Beckett. These interminable and, of themselves meaningless, habits become the rythm of our lives. To spend thirty years of one’s life nurturing lawn, watching it die, reviving it, cutting it, letting it grow then die and reviving it over and over again is absurd. All of this on sea sand. I have become Sisyphus and swapped my boulder for a hose-pipe. I can only sustain this habit (it has become habit) if I find a good reason to continue. That is where I am. The reason is not apparent, not overtly logical. I will need to dig deep. In the meantime plants begin to die. This is annoying. Is there none of the resilience in them that weeds have? Can they do nothing for themselves? For hundreds of kilometers along the coast wild flowers grow unaided in abundance. A week without pampering in my garden and they begin to die. Well, everything dies eventually.

Entropy is the way of the world. The slow and steady dismantling of the particles that make up matter is relentless. The particles will in time be beaten back into their original, chaotic and randomly dispersed form. So it is with us. We are pulled apart piece by piece, bit by bit. Our deaths are just the gradual elimination of our parts until, too tired to fight back, we surrender the last thing we have, our breath. Even that is not ours but borrowed. We simple cease our habit of borrowing. And in the face of this we still seek meaning? We look for beauty, create it and share it. We’re either foolhardy or incredibly brave. Because of the people I know and have loved and lost I must conclude that this is an admirable quality. It is the defining feature of humanity. Giving in to the inevitable demise is an option. I get that option. There’s a blunt bravery there too. Perhaps carrying on is something that we do, not for ourselves but for those who could not, and we don’t know everyones story and are in no position to judge. Also, it is for those who must still face that choice. Either way, it is an offering of hope. It is an act of defiance. It is open rebellion and I am determined to go down fighting. I will resume my ritual of watering. I will be the root that must be pulled out of the earth with force. I will embrace absurdity. I shall wait by the tree with Vladimir and Estragon.

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education, India, philosophy, Teaching

I learn, therefore I doubt.

Until I spoke to Ganesh, I thought I understood what learning was. I met Ganesh in 2003 in Mumbai. He was a blind in one eye street kid. He spoke some English, we talked a bit about his life, where we came from, the weather, the usual stuff. He showed us around for a while and we came to a local supermarket somewhere off the Colaba Causeway. To thank him for his help I bought him rice that came in a white linen bag with carry handles. He was grateful, so were we.

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He had attended school but now needed to help his mother care for his siblings. He said he could read so I told him to read as much as he could, more, as much as possible. In the Cafe Leopold I sensed the absurdity of such contrived advice to an 11 year old boy whose priority was survival. How uselessly abstract in this world of poverty, and I called myself a teacher? For days after, for years beyond that I felt I had ridiculed my own faith in literature. I began to doubt the power of books to change anything. Change is either loose coins in your pocket or an ideology. Reading had expanded my world, made it bigger. I had the luxury of imagining possibilities beyond my circumstances. Later studies in literature affirmed my devotion to writing but taught me to respect words the way you respect the sea for fear of it drowning you.
My time in Mumbai reminded me that Art, like God, is a personal thing. One’s own journey through either is not a template for humanity. Ganesh shone a light on my doubt. It has remained illuminated. I’ve learned to live with my ignorance. Maybe I don’t really teach. Sometimes it feels more like I’m assembling data as determined by policy makers who are in turn determined by elected officials whose priorities are in turn determined by elections. I feed a gargantuan social mechanism whose primary function is consuming basically functional, highly maleable cogs. I myself am also a cog.

So I don’t know much about learning. Twenty five years of teaching doesn’t build a skill set, it elevates ignorance to a more sophisticated level. It has enabled me to recognise the academic pretence of “experts” and see the greatest obstacle to learning is that their rhetoric has become the language of education. Teaching has become the craft of bureacratic window dressing, of marching young minds painstakingly through the ever narrowing arch of the final examinations. Years of ‘rigorous’ assessment press fresh minds into stale social moulds.

The term education is derived from the Latin word ‘educere‘ which means ‘to draw out’ or ‘to bring from’. Learning should not be about placing knowledge into people, that is what propaganda and politicians try to do. Besides, what is knowledge? Something to talk about another time perhaps? Education, in the real sense of the word, works from the inside out. Teachers ought to ignite within students the desire to know more about themselves and their world in order that they might extract from within themselves the means for living a meaningful life. In this respect I believe that teaching is a noble profession for what it professes to do-draw out of young people the best they have. Teaching, therefore, doesn’t pass knowledge on, it shows us where to look and where we start is where we end, with ourselves.

I believe schools are inherently places where learning is desired. I suspect it happens despite teachers or curriculum. It is possible that what we learn is simply what we need to know to survive life. And survival is what all of us do. Some do it in style in expensive mansions, some in surburbia and others in shanty towns or on the streets. I believe wisdom is what we learn about being alive and education is the commodity we purchase to make living comfortable. In the interim, between the wisdom and the knowledge, there is something far more important, love. Despite the trudgery and sadness of this flash of existence, we have to keep an open heart.

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I photographed this lady as we passed a beach close to a small community near the Sassoon Docks in Mumbai.

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I never saw her face and would not have photographed her if she were facing me. She walked to the edge of the beach with graceful dignity as waves crashed into shacks lodged precariously on the side of an embankment. She fixed her gaze on the horizon and did not look back for a long while.

Featured image: A washer takes a break in Dhobi Ghat, a huge open air landrey where the linen from the best hotels in the city are sent for cleaning and pressing.

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