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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philosophy, suburbia

 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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art, philosophy, suburbia

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

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