Category: 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.

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.

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.

Welcome to country

This country is in my blood father said. I refer to him now as father but even then struggled to call him by the usual names like dad, daddy or pa. I would wait in his presence until he looked at me, then speak. After he died talking to him became easier. My father, in heaven, hollow sounds your name … I had an aversion to names. I thought all children suffered like this to speak? Maybe they do? It was only in later years that I began to understand my struggle with names, once my own had worn thin. To name something is to establish one’s own identity in relation to that. It is to claim that as one’s own. As it was for my father so it is with country. Even now I cannot bring myself to claim it as mine. It is not my country. Father loved me, that is how I can call him mine. Countries cannot love, only the people around us that live in them can love. My family is my country. That I am is arbitrary. That I am that which I am on soil named one way or another is of no significance to me. Flags have always been an oddity to me. Fervour over teams and states something beyond the realm of logic. Flags, countries, patriotism, loyalty … these are cultural curiosities that detract from the more pressing issue of being and how to be as if one were hatched in an unnamed forest.

How does a country get into your blood? A country is after all just soil and blood is blood. Mud gets on your boots, blood leaks when you cut your skin. Men who murder mix “blood and soil”. Motherland, fatherland, no-man’s land.

In our search for identity, why is it we become obsessed with place. Does place form us? Perhaps. Are we not displaced at birth, from the warm confines of the womb to the world. Our first country is our mother, thereafter it’s just geography. Restlessness is the default setting of all human beings. We cling to a sense of place as a suckling baby clings to its mother’s breast.
My blood, the tissues and muscles of my body were manufactured from the water of the Suidkaap River, iron from the Makhonjwa mountains with probably some trace of gold that lay scattered across the valley and congealed in rich veins under the mountains. My father mined the gold, but that is a different story. The fruits that provided nutrients to me via my mother would have come from the orchards of Nelspruit and several trees in my grandparents home in Barberton. There was a Paupau tree, an avocado tree and a litchi tree. My body was manufactured in a beautiful valley in the hills of Mpumalanga. I am an amalgam of all of those atoms. Does my mind have an atomic structure? Is it composed of stuff? Does it matter?

Reared in the shadow of a police state my public body was weaned on the hard unloving tit of a fascist hag. I left that country and reside now in another, still displaced, with all of the papers to prove it.

I do not know this land. What does it mean to know a land anyway?

The new world order

The state of democracy.
The state of democracy.

Seven score and 12 years ago Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people for the people”. His social context was civil war and his political context was re-election. Nevertheless, we have adopted the cultural habit of associating individual freedom with the political structures of democracy. Furthermore, we tend to assume that the latter guarentees the former. But democracy has always been experienced within a firmly regulated space where the initial vision of egalitarian power has evolved into a mercenary political drive to ‘hold’ power.

Now, on the threshold of a new century, it is perhaps time to re-evaluate what democracy means to the average person. By average person I imply one of the ‘people’ for , of and by whom the above mentioned governance is meant to be administered. Those in power have always offered limited freedoms to appease the masses. The illusion of participation is a powerful opiate. In the age of social media this is especially true. Technology makes us feel that we are active participants in the world. Maybe we are? What is the alternative? What does personal liberty look like?

By the late Eighteenth century”Liberty”was represented as a lady in a toga. The bold, proud voice of seduction dressed in the cloth of imperial Rome. A woman in men’s clothing with enough cleavage to dispell any seriousness we might have in her ability to lead. A novelty perhaps? After about two and a half centuries it seems a lot of people are asking whether individual freedom has ever been taken very seriously at the level of governance. The daily bread of facebook, twitter and linkedin nourish the illusion of action. We tweet, ‘like’ activist pages and ‘sign’ petitions while chained to the cogs of the various systems that keep the engines of society churning. Maybe that’s enough and to expect any more is to be naive and hopelessly romantic? It begs the question, is democracy as an ideal flawed? Declining voter turnout (where voting is not compulsory), the emergence of the Occupy Movement since 2011 and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America appear to indicate an increasing disenchantment with many aspects of the democratic process.

Democracy has everything to do with a political process and little to do with the condition of being human in the 21st century. Globally there is a tangible disenchantment with politics. The primary goal of politicians appears to be re-election and pandering to an electorate. People feel powerless because they feel that the influence of their vote is diminished by the very political process that promises to safeguard their voice. We just don’t feel that we are being heard. Political speeches sound like lip service, politicians appear contrived. Shirt sleeves rolled up, blue and red ties, dark suits for men, executive haircuts for ladies, … everything feels manipulated. Politics has always been a form of theatre, lately it resembles a farcical puppet show. That’s ok if that’s your thing. I suspect this is why people are more inclined to tweet than vote. Their tweets are read, their votes may be counted but do not appear to affect any meaningful policy. Democracy has become the realm of bureaucracy. To borrow from Winston Churchill, an interminable paper tray has descended between the people and their government. The box has replaced the voice. “Tick the box that ye may be heard” is the new world order. And don’t draw outside of the box, under any circumstances.

Perhaps the best that we can do is to bring all of the conviction we have about life and humanity to the square metre of space around our feet and then treat the people that come into this space the way we treat the world online. If we want to actively participate in the world we may practice our ideologies online, but if we do not act them out with the people around us we lack integrity. Then we are no better than the politicians who pretend to care while they fight for re-election.

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The ideology of bread

To pacify the people of Rome the Caesars promised them bread and circuses. The French Revolution was ignited by bread. Lenin promised “Peace, Bread and Land” to the Russian people and orchestrated a worker’s revolution. For the past 30 years I have been working on my own domestic revolution, and it involves bread.

I was raised properly  (there are certain things-all evidence to the contrary-which one is honour bound to insist upon) to understand what constitutes a sandwich. It is formed by placing the food of your choice between two slices or pieces of bread. If I were, as is customary, to slice a sandwich in two I would have a sandwich, halved. Simple? I thought so too. At this point the domestic ritual becomes rather complicated. One of the first debates with my wife was about whether two slices of bread (sandwiched) remained a sandwhich when cut in half. If I offered you a sandwich I would use two slices of bread, sandwiched, cut in half and I would then present to you both slices as a sandwhich. I maintain that no matter how many times one slices the sandwich, it remains a sandwich.

Three decades of often heated kitchen debates have ensued, evolving into a philosophical debate of ontological proportions. When is a sandwhich not a sandwhich? When we apply deconstructionist thinking to this noble victual, regarding it rather as a cultural item shared, signifying a yielding of hostility.  An edgy stalemate currently exists in our household. Thirty years later I still ask “one slice or two” when I construct the bread thing. It has become a matter of principle. I forget which principle, but that is besides the point. I ask the question to remind my much loved wife that my opinion, indeed, my character, on this issue stands. I have conceded much in my time for the sake of peaceful coexistence but on this point I intend to stand. Bread has become an ideological touchstone.

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Some give thanks for their daily bread, I offer heartfelt gratitude to the bread roll. Not for its nutritional blessings but for its honesty, its lack of ambiguity. A bread roll halved or quartered remains a bread roll. They are culinary diplomats: easily bending to the demands of others whilst simultaneously original.

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The sliced loaf is unpredictable. Seemingly innocent and ordinary, it belies the domestic anarchy lurking beneath its seedy crust.

First this:                                                                          

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Upon one slice of bread spread soft butter so as not to shred the texture of the bread. Onto one slice carefully place one’s desired filling (mature cheddar cheese is my default preference).

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Place one slice neatly above the first and press down slightly. Cut in two, usually from corner to corner, creating two triangles or straight down the centre thus creating two rectangles.

The final product: sandwich plated for one, halved and yet reataining it’s original identity of sandwich. We can learn from the sandwich.

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The language game with bread extends to our perception of being. Bread is bread whether you are talking about a slice, a loaf or all of the loaves of bread in the world. Whether you are here or there, it remains you who is somewhere. Geography does not alter the state of the soul.  The paradox of language manifests in the sandwhich. If there is no common agreement on what constitutes a half or a whole sandwich what chance is there for peace between warring nations? Our suburban ideological stalemate over bread tranlates to politics and religion. We assume our differences are immense when in fact we have always been talking about the same thing. There are no ideological conflicts, only conflicts over language.

Since life is so short, I’m leaving now to make my wife a sandwich. A single sliced one at that.

After all, it’s only bread.

The elementary heaviness of being

I watched a plastic bag dance in a breeze. The way its creased grey skin responded to the air felt remarkably familiar. Gravity is the heaviness that living on earth imposes on the body. If the soul expands and comes close to the surface of the skin, the weight of air upon it is enormous, and often escapes as a sigh. Let us call this force by its real name, life. There are two forces working simultaneously on our existence. There is the downward thrust of gravity, the earth force that keeps us on the ground, ‘grounded’ as some call it. Pushing out against this from deep within us is the force of our own being, some call this force ‘soul’. A silk balloon in the centre of a stone. We measure living, not coincidentally, by the gravitational ellipses of our planet around the sun and all the while the soul expands proportionately outward. We begin our lives battling the physical force of gravity. We are easily toppled, must struggle to crawl, learn to walk and in our youth must endure scrapes and knocks as we collide with the earth in our endeavour to move with speed and grace on top of it. During these early stages of being human we are mostly muscle and identify strongly with the body we inhabit. Then we begin to hear the whisperings of our soul, realising we are more than the flesh and sinews we have thus far fed and adored. The soul begins to inflate from within. Physical routines lose their novelty and we notice the slow decay of the body in wounds that take longer to heal, aches that linger and teeth that crumble. Falling scares us, our mortality takes hold, caution makes sense. In the following decades the people we love begin to die. The once eternal vigour of youth is gone in a flash. Exercise is not what we do for fun but for staying alive and sometimes we wonder why  we persist. Easier to yield to the downward thrust. We push back. Gravity crushes us in the end, grinds our particles to dust. It always wins. Thankfully, as the body grows weaker, the soul grows stronger, if you pay attention to it. You realise it has always been there and has been fighting the battle since day one. It defies gravity, it brings nobility to living when the muscles do not. Living is not an act of ascension. Fairytales invite us to reach for the stars, to fly, to soar, to reach great heights but in truth we are just dropping by slow degrees of entropy from the womb to a hole in the ground. We begin by descending and the soul provides the downward journey with narrative, with a history of presence.

Some of us love airports because they remind us that the soul is made of lighter stuff. We find ourselves looking up from whence we came and the homesickness feels like a dream we can’t yet pronounce. Some of us have embraced our fate and will mine the earth to teach the soul that like coal or gold or iron it is trapped. Some of us walk on the ground and watch birds with a longing beyond our present comprehension. None escape the velocity of life. Whether we dig, walk or fly we move in the direction of ourselves. The laws of physics depend on location and direction. We are always going somewhere, toward something, from some place, but in truth these are irrelevant signposts for the space within. Scientists cannot locate consciousness because it is like looking for the act of looking. Some people dispute the existence of the soul. It doesn’t matter. I’m not trying to prove it exists, or anything really. I’m just working on my narrative, like a plastic bag caught in the wind.

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 Lessons in pain

Sharp pain slices through the nerves running from the base of my neck into my right shoulder blade. I inhale quickly and hold my breath, there is probably a physioligical reason for this reaction, I make a mental note of where the pain is. My immediate reaction is to turn my torso in varying degrees until I find a position where the pain eases. It hurts to stand, to walk, to sit. I must try to remember what I’m thinking so that I can record the cognitive response to pain. What is shifting within me, how is my sense of being changing whilst in pain? Virginia Woolf wrote about pain, must find the piece. I swallow two ibuprofin, throw caution to the wind and take two more, I’m feeling desperate. The desire for relief supersedes rational thinking. Pain draws me into myself. The depth of field of my consciousness narrows. My immediate surroundings become annoying clutter. The presenter speaking on breakfast TV is becoming distorted. Her usually annoying laugh is amplified and some of my pain is redirected as anger towards her. The degree of hostility I feel towards her and her equally vacuous co-presenter is disproportiante to their ineptitude. Pain enlarges whatever emotional pain is already present.

This is what it may feel like to die, a weariness of the body, a soft unspoken desire to let it go. I know very well I am not dying but I am alerted to my mortality. This is a forced re-acquaintance with destiny, a little preparation for the final assault. I carefully navigate the passage and suddenly the thought that I am not alone in the house is hugely significant. My wife is making coffee in the kitchen and all of my children are asleep in their beds, that comforts me. I experience a rising wave of emotion when my wife asks how I am feeling and am deeply grateful that I am cared for. I have no real regrets as I realign my identity as husband and father, time well spent on earth. The other worries which yesterday overshadowed me, the unfinished manuscripts, ideas not acted upon – they are insignificant now; fallout from a burning ego. Actually, the garden I worked on last week suddenly seems more important than the dozens of cerebral projects.

Then there is relief from the pain, like being dipped into a warm marshmallow. The metaphor is bizarre but enters consciousness at about this time. I walk outside, unsteady (so this is what it must feel like to be old) and slowly take up residence on a patio chair. Descend into it with ridiculous deliberation. Now I feel the warm sun on my skin, feel like a fatigued lizard. But I am strangely grateful that I can move my toes with ease, feel the grains of sand from an antheap beneath my foot, see a snail navigate the teeth of an aloe leaf, hear a magpie lark and feel its melody in my heart. Is this me or the effects of the pain killers? I make a silent promise to myself that henceforth I shall first be grateful I am alive before I worry or entertain regrets. Pain can teach, there are lessons even though we desire less of it.

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 The resistance movement

 

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I plant flowers in September  that will be dead by March . They die, I remove them, clear the beds and plant new ones. I water the plants daily that I have placed into the ground. The late afternoons of summer are cool when the Fremantle Doctor blows. Then he catches the spray from the hose and blows it back into my face. I will often water the higher leaves of the trees and sit and listen to the drops tap the flat leaves of the Agapanthas. The white Petunias grow rapidly, wild almost after I feed them epsom salts diluted with water and SeasoL. The smaller violets have spread in all directions. I’m finding them between the pavers. They are creating their own story here, going their own way. Their colour and beauty are pleasant but they never last. Those I thought were strong have died and the dogs regularly pee on one plant in particular. It has at last surrendered and died. There is a constantly flattened patch of Violets that the cat has claimed as her own. I feel frustrated at their lack of consideration for my efforts to create beauty in this reclaimed seaside desert. They shit and sleep on the fruits of my labour. As I attempt to bend nature to my will, they express their nature effortlessly. Toilet and rest, the common denominators. Effort is perhaps contrary to my nature? But I persist, season after season because that is what one does. I recall somewhere a garden of remembrance where the ashes of the dead are cast out, where the living go to remember them among flowers. We are like flowers and this is a garden of persistence. A resistance movement.  Really it is a war. I plant, I water, weeds reappear, the sun sucks the plants dry, they die. Those that survive die when winter arrives. By June few have survived. I forget the garden in winter, I bend to nature.  In late August the war continues.

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The philosophy of stairs

Stairs simplify ascent. The added advantage is that for the same cost they are equally efficient in two directions. They may induce awe, vertigo or at least comfortable indifference. Conversely steps to the hangman’s noose must surely magnify the physicality of the body for the soon-to-be released soul.

Stairs symbolize mankind’s urge for perfection and simultaneously our capacity for ruinous arrogance. If they are well crafted they can raise our spirits as they do our feet. Large flights of stairs demand rigorous geometry and if they are required to be beautiful then craftsmanship is, rightly so, expensive. Aesthetics are never a certainty, but the human desire for beauty is. Inevitably the most functional of items become adorned. Art has its origins in making practical things pretty.

In the Judeo-Christian tradition stairs are periodically mentioned. Jacob climbed stairs in a dream to get closer to God (laboring the uneven steps of the Great Wall of China I felt uncomfortably close to God) and an ancient king built a tower in Babel to reach heaven. Up is the direction of eternal bliss, down is where we go to find disgrace, hell or, if you are lucky, the wine cellar. Popular culture has its fair share of stairs, from M.C. Escher’s disorientated constructions to Led Zeppelin. Rapunzel let down her hair to be climbed; Cinderella lost her glass slipper running down stairs, both Julius Caesar and Archduke Franz Ferdinand were assassinated on steps. Stairs have no emotional attachment to either up or down but ease our path in both directions. They are good that way, utterly indifferent to the whims of man. Many of the finest are still there centuries after the best and worst of us have stepped aside.

Here are some stairs I have known:

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Moss covered limestone stairs. Limestone is abundant in Western Australia and it is used everywhere. There is something in their earthy tones and roughness that comforts me. They are solid and will probably outlive me. Stairs speak to us through the people who cut and laid them. Here, the stonemason, with his great blocks transcends a potential abyss.

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The stairway leading up to the Paper Mountain Studio in Northbridge, Perth. Built c.1930’s it retains the period’s devotion to geometry. As I ascend to the block of light above me I register a metaphysical ideal and the physical act of climbing reminds me that I am consciousness inside a body.

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Stairs down to the beach, common along the coast of WA. One begins the descent with one’s eyes fixed on the horizon, drawn away from oneself. The steep plane of descent makes one believe afresh in the old dream of human flight. It feels possible here if one only has the faith to leap forward. The wood creaks and in a few seasons it may need some treatment or repair. These stairs are like us. They weather quickly but are stronger than they appear to be.

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The humble brick reminds me of the far-reaching influence of Roman culture. It was not the army that built the Roman Empire but their architects. Even where the Romans did not go, they are there. There is an earthy warmth to brick, it is baked clay. Brick is the texture of my youth, it is working class and honest.

These stairs are like a mathematical formula; they are a universal truth trudged daily around the world in schools, hospitals, municipal structures and other high density areas. The design language of basic infrastructure is austere. They are ugly. The kind that dictators like – devoid of emotion, dehumanising. They are made to work for a long time and are indifferent to the human need for beauty. Their designers had to meet budget. When design preferences utility over people, this is the result. They are the existentialists of architecture since they induce a sense of isolation and meaninglessness. All we can do is climb them to discover our own truth.

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The last few steps I maneuvered my mother up in the picturesque town of Wakkerstroom. Some steps we would love to climb again. Certain structures have such immense gravitas that they become points of return. We do not simply inhabit buildings and walk stairs, when there is significant emotional weight in the living and walking, we establish pilgrimage routes. That is how we finally feel we belong to a place. When after we are dead, we know the people we love will continue to walk there.

The best thing about stairs is that they help us without expecting anything in return. They do not try to sell me anything or convert me, they don’t want my vote, they just want to be used. People should be more like stairs. Maybe they already are; they pick me up and they show me the way out. I’m going to be like a pilgrim and move on …

Main photograph of stairs in Paris by Hannah Scallan

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.

Continental drift

The ‘Seismic Shuffle’ is a continental dance, it’s an old one and slow – at 2 cm a year one hardly feels one is moving. It’s not a dance we can choose to sit out,  it’s part of a package deal and  comes with no guarantees and limited warranties (eventually we all fall through the cracks anyway). But it packs a punch, cleaving a rock in two on Pangea around 200 million years ago it placed one half in the Alps and the other half in Africa. Continental drift, sounds like it should be a long, lazy Mediterranean cocktail. It belies the gargantuan forces at work beneath the surface. As surface dwellers we generally assume that surface is everything.

I understand continental drift. I have drifted. It’s a slow business, drifting to the invisible force -a “something there is” sort of push. The type that broke down the wall that Robert Frost spoke of mending. To drift is to surrender to the momentum of life. If one is fortunate enough to have control of one’s limbs it is easy to imagine that all movement is conscious, self directed. It is pleasing to oneself to think ‘I did this” or “I did that”. We are  however, carried along by our lives and imagine that the small choices we make direct it, maybe they do? However, I suspect more significant than direction is being ‘there’ when you’re there, whether you’re moving or not.

Ultimately everything moves: the continents, the planet, the solar system, galaxies and the perhaps the cosmos moves too. Movement is no big deal, everyone moves in one way or another, even when we’re not. Can we extract from this the axiom that movement has value?  I stir this cup of tea, ergo I control the direction of my life. Movement is arbitrary and movement is change. One step forward, two back – It’s like waltzing with entropy. I am, therefore I move. Once removed, I was. Therefore, I like to move it, move it …

 

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Dry and cracked mud close to where the bus parks, c.2016 or artist’s impression of Pangea (not to scale).

A meditation on Death

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Every town dweller maintains an oasis. A patch of grass, green plants; a garden. This is an unconscious ritual of hope. There is a desert a few hundred kilometres away to the East. The sea is 5 kilometres away to the west. Brutal summer heat sucks everything dry and twice a week, we fight back with water. It is an endless cycle. It is an apt metaphor for the short lives we live on a fast moving rock that turns on itself whilst circling a star that is dying a slow and glorious death.

We love and, if we are lucky, are loved back. A welcome parenthesis in the absurd text of our lives, If we are fortunate, is the gift of children. If they remain happy and healthy then we are doubly blessed. At some point the people we love begin to die and the grief caused by their leaving either draws us closer to the faith of our choice or illuminates the absurdity of the condition of being alive. Perhaps both? I live in a constant state of mourning. Acutely aware of the imminent demise of everyone, I feel in all moments the loss of those with whom I am walking on the beach, for whom I make a cup of tea, with whom I look up at the sky and draw from the stacks of cumulus some shape or face or meaning. I live with the pain of loss even when nothing is lost. I anticipate pain the way swallows anticipate rain. There is a joy and a heavy grief in seeing the quick dives and low sweeps of these delicate birds. Some are drawn to the sea whose constant rows of falling froth laugh at the littleness of our human fear of endings. I am all endings says the sea. I end all of the time and look at me, see how large I am and with what force I end. Then our own ending seems alright and even normal, usual.

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Against the violent current of nihilism I water the grass, the plants or dig a hole and place into it something alive in the hope that it will grow after I am dead. Hope is difficult. Putting a foot onto the floor and then the other is sometimes the most positivity I can bring to a day. Yet, I do not consider myself a negative person. Beyond the front door I am all smiles and mischief. The ones I love bare the brunt of my contradictory nature. My home is the birthplace of my being and I am not yet fully formed. It is here that I may express my disgust at the absurdity of human existence. Here that I hate people and love my dogs; despise the world and love my wife and children. I will love and hate with passion. I empty the glass of my being so that I am able to go out into my classroom and teach empathy and compassion. I can do this because I need it most and because I hate my self at times and people and the condition of life does not mean that I hate my self or life or the condition of being alive.

I am establishing limits. I will no longer entertain the simple minded. Those who elevate dogma of any brand above simple humanity. I cannot entertain such nihilistic stupidity. My brand of nihilism is entirely different. I marvel at the infinite dance of atoms whose rhythm gave rise to me. I am in awe of night skies and ants and feel the cosmos reshuffle itself in the dying twitches of a bee on a windowsill. I am grateful, to the deepest recess of consciousness, for my life and the ones in it that I love. I am also mindful of the incessant grief that marks the boundary of my existence. I will not accept this without some act of rage. Doesn’t my rage against the absurdity of life confirm my deep attachment to it? I find living to be a precious and beautiful event. I am just pissed off at a very deep level that it must end. If one’s finger bleeds at finding a thorn on the stem of a rose, one does not assume the rose hates you. The pain is an anomaly I am still attempting to understand.

I was entranced by a bullfight I watched in Madrid one Sunday afternoon at Easter. It was a manifestation of my conflicted being; the personality of soul on display. Ten minutes is all it takes to represent life. Our wilful pride swells as we swagger boldly and well dressed into the world silently crying out “look at me, look at me! Am I not the finest thing that ever lived? Am I not splendid? There in the prime of our lovely and beautiful naiveté we say to ourselves ‘but this is easy. Why did our parents and their old friends warn us about life? It is not hard at all. It is marvellously simple and I am so grand.’ Then from nowhere a bull is unleashed and it is not just there it is heaving and powerful and wants to dig its horns into you. My God, something wants me dead! How can that be? I am too pretty and young and wonderful to die? Then there is the battle and this beast that is as beautiful as you must die, or you will die. Life becomes in a moment not the style of your walk or the angle of your smile at admirers; it is simply that if you do not choose an action you will die. Something always dies at the end of it. At least once it will be you. Until then we must learn to not be so arrogant, to understand that everyone is beautiful and that everyone has their bull.

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By Mike Scallan

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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By Mike Scallan

Ode to a moth

Ode to a moth

Quiet as brick and effortless as breath you slipped your soft form and went, leaving just this delicate presence that rocks a little from my own exhilation.

Did you suffer? Do moths suffer as people do? Was your leaving as tranquil as your slack wings suggest? We’re not all that different you know, our species. Yours and mine both seek out light and finally settle unnoticed in the shadows. Here, looking at you on this ledge, in this public toilet, your mausoleum, I offer a few minutes of silence. Dead quiet. Did you try to enter this light bulb? Did moths live longer before electricity? Chasing the sun is easier than gate-crashing closer light. It takes longest to see what is closest to you.

I’m not in the habit of talking to dead insects, that would be absurd. Perhaps whenever we talk into an absence, we are really just talking to ourselves and maybe real people we knew who are now also on the edge of our memories, our world. Death reminds us that life existed where it no longer does. A brutal irony.

It is the brevity of life that gives it some worth but also bridles the heart with such unbearable pain. Maybe that is why I’m having this conversation with you? If I cannot pause for you, what will I stop for? If the stuff that once bound us, life, goes out of something little, surely it’s as sad as when it leaves the larger among us? My life is as little as yours in the context of the world. We may even be brothers? There is vast chasm between your world and mine. There is language for one thing, I do not know yours. But, whatever the differences my friend, we depended on air together. The only real difference is that I still breathe and you are simply still.

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