education, existentialism, on looking, poetry, suburbia, teaching, words, writing

How to watch a sunrise: morning

I was going to title this piece something minimalist like “morning” but I’ve found that adding ‘How to‘, to anything seems to gain readership. It’s one of the things a writer does, write and then find readers. So, firstly, thank you for taking the time to read this and to those of you who regularly read what I put out, thank you. I do not take your continued support lightly. I am currently exploring another writing site that hosts some worthwhile content, it’s called Medium and you can click on the name to take you there, after you’ve read this. It’s well worth exploring since it caters to a variety of genres.

Morning

It’s 6:30 am. I’ve been up since 4:30 grading English papers. My students appear to be struggling more than I realised. Now I am. Self doubt rises. After the 10th paper it has convinced me I might better serve the community in some other way. I start an internet search for local jobs, anything … postman! That sounds appealing from where I sit. Bukowski did it.

But, I know I won’t. The same way I secretly know I’ll probably not do so many of the things I said I would: like skydive (why did I even say that?), like ride to Key West on a Harley or travel the world in an old panel van or climb Mt Kilimanjaro, swim with dolphins, smoke a cohiba in Havana, talk books ‘n stuff with Stephen Fry, or … the bucket list disappears beneath an endless pile of essays. No. I won’t become a postman. I would stroll rather than walk, forget to post the letters, talk for too long to lonely people waiting for news from someone, anyone. I’d be a rubbish postman. I owe the bank too much. I am locked in for life.

Soon I am approaching the shadow world I know only too well. The bull that lives there shudders, ready to charge. Its front hooves rake the ground, it snorts. I make a cup of coffee. Sit outside, knees propping up my elbows, the coffee has little appeal. I get Macbeth,

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;

I breathe in too deep, cough. I look up.

It is immense. How did the sky stretch so wide? Has it always been so? So high (it seems daft to state the obvious. It feels I am noticing it unfold from space for the first time) and so low it feels that if I held up my arms I could stir the colours like I was Monet and God. Something within, that unidentifiable aspect of ourselves that is lost in the day to day doingness of things alerts my senses. I want to find words and the voice from that inner region grabs me by the scruff of my nightgown and says: “just look. Just feel. That’s all you need to do.”

So I do. I lose the need for words. I soak in the glorious warmth of burning pastel light. As the light grows brighter and the sky shifts to blue I take out my phone again and start finding the words. I can’t help myself. It is an impulse too ingrained. If I have not squeezed words onto the page, it never happened.

But, soon the moment will strain under the weight of the day. Pressed cold, olive like, the essence of it anoints me. Not as king, my kingdom is overrun by barbarians who have taken my crown and placed a number to live by in its stead. No, I am anointed as something better than a king. The sun anoints me renegade, maverick on walkabout in a world gone mad. I grade the papers with my old eyes. The ones that prompt the tongue to say

“here are your grades, but what is more important, I saw you loved the book and that will stay with you longer. Trash the paper, let’s read. Let’s read about sunrises and mushrooms and walls and old men on blasted heaths and then you may stand a chance.”

“A chance for what they will say”.

To which I shall reply: “If you can hold onto a poem longer than your mortgage contract then you might just survive this life. Then, scattered randomly through the interminable days of drudgery ahead of you, there will be sunrises that will take your breath away and remind you that in the light of that, nothing else really matters.”

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existentialism, language and meaning, memoir, nationalism, philosophy

The philosophy of cupboards: a memoir.

People and countries are much like cupboards. They contain much but most of it is forgotten. These dark spaces create the illusion of abundance, unpacked they reveal the superficiality of our existence. We keep things we don’t need and forget too soon what we have. On the other hand, opening a long forgotten drawer is like finding gifts you forgot to enjoy. Cupboards and drawers have been an important part of my life.

Not everything needs light to grow. When I was a child I found an old slice of chocolate cake in the furthest recess of my cupboard. I had hastily hidden it there when I was interrupted by my brother. Clearly I had forgotten to eat it. Months later it had grown fur. I recall considering whether it might be salvaged but I threw it out, I was not that brave. The mould had prospered in the dark. Much like the political ideology of apartheid. Much like me.

But, it is those who live in darkness who are most afraid of the light. So it was in the Dark Ages in South Africa. Of course, as a child, I did not see that, how could I? We lived in Plato’s cave, watching a fire we were told was called truth, recoiling from the shadows crawling the walls. But even when people call the darkness by another name it remains darkness. Eventually children will find language, no matter how well it is hidden. They will discover all the hidden things. Eventually a hand will reach into the furthest corner of the cupboard.

In the shadows of the cooling towers and through the incessant thunder of the turbines I discovered that if you stray from the road into a corn field in winter it gets cold quickly and one is easily disoriented. If the corn is high and the leaves are dead and brown and if there is wind moving through them, the noise becomes deafening and frightening. It feels like the end of the world.

We lived in a village. That sounds too pastoral, too Dickensian. We lived in a house amongst similarly designed red facebrick houses where other workers lived. There were large cantilevered, plastered flower boxes jutting out of the wall beneath the main bedroom window of each house. They were big enough, if unplanted, for two boys to hide in. Constructed during the 1960’s and 70’s, the houses accomodated the families of miners who worked in the power station. Worker accommodation close to the means of production. My father and mother worked there and later on, so did I. South easterly winds blew ash over the village, I’m calling it a village. When it rained the running drops left grey ash streaks on cars and windows. Everyone complained about the ash.  Some days everything was covered in a fine layer of ash. The patina of sacrifice at the altar of the gods of consumerism. Heavy rain left the world looking clean. Light rain left streaks the way mascara stains the face after crying. It was beautifully bleak. The way Van Gogh’s potato peelers are beautiful or Whistler’s trains steaming in cold mist are simulatneously solid steel and ethereal. Sunsets set the sky on fire against the black coal dumps and over the gashed countryside scarred to extract carbon. I read later on that industrial skies are red from the iron content in the air. Iron oxide reflects red light. We had an iron sky.

On one side of the village we were bound by a railway line that cut the veldt to the west and stitched a sutured track to Richards Bay. (I had no idea where that was but it sounded warm, far and blue). To the north and south was farmland, as far as the eye could see, fields of corn (mielie fields we called them). Three hours south east was Barberton, where my father and I were born. Where I was formed. What do you call the process of becoming? (The town is still there but now it is like a thing in the far corner of a large cupboard). We left after my grandparents died because, though my parents wanted to keep the home, they never had the money to hold onto it. (Money strengthens one’s grip on the world. Without it, life is an interminable letting go). I never wanted to leave. I remember the last night in the house, in torchlight and with a pen knife, I carved my initials onto a section of the floorboard under the bed. I collected stones, seed pods and leaves from every corner of the garden. They remained in my bedroom cupboard until I had to leave that home too. Cupboards are made to accommodate our attachment to the world. A world I seemed determined to archive piece by piece. I still bring back stones from places I visit. I have only succeeded in relocating minute pieces of the earth. That childhood trauma of losing a place instilled a fear of loving a place. We always leave or lose the places we love. People too. A few stones in my pocket lessen the loss. It is delusion of course. For we move on and lose our connection to the land, the symbolic pebbles end up in a cupboard somewhere, forgotten and ultimately discarded.

The roads leading to the village were dark at night and always broken from the incessant traffic of heavy coal trucks. The coal dust powdered over their brake lights making them invisible and we lost a friend who drove into the back of a truck. She was placed in a cupboard in the ground. “Please God watch the coal trucks” became mother’s mantra when I was travelling home at night. Another time our school bus drove into the back of one and our neighbour’s daughter nearly died. We hated the coal trucks.

On Saturday nights everyone went to the “Rec Hall” (community recreational hall) to watch movies. Westerns were our favourites. Charles Bronson was my hero. My brother and I and our friends always got front row seats. Mrs Harley patrolled the aisles with a torch to ensure no hanky-panky took place. If there had been it probably happened up in the lighting box where the older boys worked the projector. We all aspired to do that job. By the time I was old enough the films had stopped and people were leaving because the power station was shutting down, being “moth balled” they said. Essentially they would shut the doors, switch off the power, lock up and leave. One big cupboard.

Before the village shut down it was our wide open world and we loved it. Despite the overarching fear of God and communists (I grew up feeling personally responsible for the Anglo-Boer war and the moral decay that apparently surrounded us) there was music. Once the Buddy Holly Story was going to show. Then I did something or said something wrong and my parents said I could not go. I remember the quiet rage I felt. I retreated with tears to my bedroom and stepped into the cupboard. I closed the doors behind me. I sat down on the cool floor and found a box of pencils and began breaking them in two. The smaller bits were harder to break. I remember how that fuelled the rage. I stayed there for a long time. I found comfort in the isolated darkness. I still do. Cupboards store stuff, but also memories and pain. Later, older, tired and somewhat broken I faced the cupboard of my youth and found that in the interim years demons had taken up residence there, replaced the pencils with sharp memories, and were waiting.

Cupboards are really just reconfigured trees used for storage. The earliest examples belonged to wealthy people, working class people had no need for them. The cupboard enters popular culture on a wide scale in the 17th century. By the late 18th century, with the industrial revolution and the rising middle class that it spawned, economically elevated humans sought to do what they had hitherto been unable to do, luxuriate in their dwellings. They traded labour for money for things. At first they were needful things like items of clothing and cutlery. Once needs were met, desire set in, took up residence and like a perpetually hungry child demanded attention. Cupboards soon become symbols of excess, status symbols. Their compartments held a darker purpose. Secrecy was domesticated. Now cupboard space is as important as real estate. We have a walk in cupboard. With the lights off it feels strangely comforting.

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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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existentialism, philosophy, Uncategorized

The naming of ducks: the philosophy of ducks

Mother died just before they first arrived. An arrival in return for a departure. I’d rather have had mother than the ducks but we take what we get. Besides, one does not really have anyone. Language anchors us to people in this way. Verbs, in the present tense at least, allow us to believe that we have ownership, that we belong. But we own little and seldom belong. I had a mother. I had a father. How much life that word ‘had’ contains. The illusion is that words speak us. Translate us into the world, for we are in our essence beyond language. Like ducks we are migratory souls and words are not our first language. A puddle catching the reflection of a few stars does not reflect the cosmos. There is such space within us and we pin it to a word here and there and believe we have spoken. It is maddening. So we have craftsmen and women who work to release the interior world. But, they must make do with words. They take what they can get.

My son once let go of a helium balloon and it lifted quickly into the sky. We are like the air in that balloon. Air in air, little and incomprehensibly vast, waiting to burst. Frantically naming the world before we do. What are words but air compressed through pipes, over chords, nudged with a tongue through a cavity? But they signify the world.

The last words mother spoke were garbled. The tubes distorted her. The words travelled 6000km. One expects clarity to be compromised. The conversation haunts you still. It was to be the last. And you, her son, did not hear her. Is it worse not to hear or not to see? How deaf, how blind have you been to everything else? Now you overcompensate. Listening too hard and hearing what is not there. Seeing what is not there. Looking, the way a blind man looks for Braille. Cautiously, fumbling but determined. Like the day the ducks came (oh you make me smile). You were looking at the rain pock-pattern the pool. You were staring right at them but not seeing them until one moved and you saw it was not a shadow. The world was all shadows then. It still is. We had never had ducks land in our pool. Mother had never died before either, not physically, not as quietly. There it was. Death, then ducks in the rain. Your Braille. But you could not read it.

So, they weren’t just ducks after all, were they? We find ways to pull the dead back. So it is with the ducks. There were three of them. The following year they arrived again, stayed a short while and left. The year after that there was another death and they arrived. This year they arrived early, and stayed. No one has died yet. There are two of them. The first became Columbus. He must have taken a wrong turn. There are other, better bodies of water than our swimming pool. We fed them their daily bread but discovered even low carb bread is bad for them. Of the poultry feed (duck feed is unobtainable) they eat the corn, oats and barley but left the field peas (brown marbles that are now everywhere) and wheat. Though cautious, they would eat from my hand. The second one is Lady Godiva, though I suspect she is the he. Nevertheless, they are a pair, whatever they are. The dogs and cat accepted them, they paid little attention to them, except when they were fed and then hovered close by hoping to catch something they could eat.

Then, just as suddenly as they arrived, they are gone. Columbus and Lady Godiva, flown away with their names and everything. They were (do I say were or are?) Pacific Black Ducks, their proper name. As I say their names, Columbus and Lady Godiva, there is a sense of a relationship, a cosy illusion. Strange things ducks. They took to the air like mother and that balloon. Maybe that’s why I look up so much, there’s a history up there.

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