education, existentialism, philosophy, politics, suburbia

The philosophy and politics 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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nationalism, philosophy

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?

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philosophy, politics

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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bread, philosophy, Self help

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.

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being, philosophy

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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philosophy

 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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