I have walked these streets before, but not here. I have seen these iron stairs, where fifty years of feet have cut the skins of paint from around a welded joint revealing contour lines of colour that expose bureaucratic flirtations with frivolity. Brave municipal souls signed off on yellow, cautious souls returned to gun metal blue, the current trend is industrial grey. These will be our Ozymandies, rusted steel and sky scraping nests where tomorrow’s scholars will speculate on the ritual function for those who travelled here with donations to their gods housed high above the ground in concrete slabs. What stories are layered here? Which hands have crafted this iron, placed it, cursed it, clung to it and from higher up how many displaced souls have jumped from it? How many commuters passed here in the morning with lovers at home and returned in the evening to unpacked cupboards? The metal stairs cut the sunlight into ribbons leaving only strips of shadow on the steaming tarmac below. I have seen that street dog. Wanted to be its friend but afraid it would bite, walked away before it could turn and leave me looking the fool. I have seen that dog everywhere. I have seen that beggar, heard the cock crow three times in every city. He gets around, that cockerel. I have felt eyes peel back my skin, make me translucent till i remembered no one cares and then become invisible again. Able once more to lose myself in the oil dispersing rainbows on wet streets where blues and purples run over greens with yellow nebula catching a trace of my current face. Here there is a long running symposium for lost souls. Everyone’s invited. There are always cigarette stumps stepped on and black from rubber and dirt, i have noticed them too, but not here. The smells are familiar. There is the occasional waft of rotting food carried in warm, nauseating currents fused with car exhaust fumes, excrement and fast food. When you smell these you hold your breath but cannot do that for long when you walk so you settle for short, quick inhalations and move to a busier road where gasoline and warm tarmac smells are welcome relief. I have seen the homeless man asleep on his cardboard, using a plastic bag stuffed with precious possessions as a pillow, but not here. The streets, the smells, the dogs, the people and the sounds follow me to Mumbai, Marakesh, Johannesburg, London, Beijing, Madrid, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Fremantle, Newcastle, Benoni and Jaipur. Perhaps i carry them with me. I used to yearn to travel. Strangers enjoy the greatest freedom. When you are unknown you can become anything. After two years you are invisible and people expect only the essentials from you, like breathing and presence.
Fellow vassel of need, honest companion,
residue collectors exiled together,
in this garden of earthly delights we incense air,
vessels of extinguished hope, heirs to the throne of desolation,
Vessel for the ash of my leisure
Little reminder of the end of pleasure
You hold my future,
Asher to ashes
It was fun while it lasted.
Physical distance seems to amplify feelings of love and loss. In this world of instant everything we learn the hard way that live video chat does not substitute a relationship. It’s why books beat e-books, vinyl beats i-tunes and why a warm hug beats electromagnetic, pixelated internet talk. But, video chat is better than none. Sound waves beat no waves. Physical proximity may foster contempt. We take for granted who is closest to us, we expect them to be there always, like the stars and the moon. Then life happens and strips us clean of certainty. When you experience loss at close quarters it’s awful. Loss with the separation of oceans is numbing and with little to hold onto we clench our fists and breathe the hurt deep down into ourselves. There is nowhere else for it to go. This is the migrants lot. Three of us in our small circle of friends have each lost a parent. We have had to co-ordinate visits with relapses in health and where travel used to be about seeing new places it has become about saying goodbyes, seeing up close the people we love whom we know we shall never see again. When a mother or father we love dies, we are physically and emotionally stranded and loss is amplified by guilt and regret. We new it would be hard, and it is.
Death is only one of the difficulties of migration, forging new identities is the other. We embrace the new country that has opened itself to us while mourning the one on whose soil we were born. We should be accustomed to death when it comes. We have practiced loss. But losing people is not a rehearsal and proximity does not ease the pain. Near or far the distance death cleaves between us is interminable. Maybe the pain of it for us trans-continental mourners is that we mix into our grief the echo of the migrants chorus ” you ran away”, ” you took the easy way out”. However, I remember it was a slow walk. The slowest of walks, almost a shuffle. We all run, it’s only the direction that differs. Some run forward despite the cost, some run backwards, despite the cost.
Words. Life distilled. The endless returns, returned to one last time. The furry creature in a dark room trapped. It is a hunt. It is the aah yes in the surest, quietest place of self, located somewhere between the toe and the brain, that the condition of life is now forever changed and then the compulsion to set out the truth of that in words. To say for oneself something true for the first time. To locate an original idea and attach to it words. Words. To write for oneself. To write oneself into the event of life. Because in the beginning were words and I am not yet ended. It is learning to look. To trace in the creased linen of the bed sheet the valleys and hills of one’s being. It is a reason to find reason to continue, if only to watch dead leaves and breathe softer in the trudge.
It is archival for the soul. The soul’s bridge home from the toothless, friendless age. It is a note to self (a parenthesis in everydayness in which i say what i did not know i knew). It is the breathe of the soul spoken. The unutterable uttered. It is the deep yes, the womb where words first find form. It is the why of our woes and bliss. It is the eternal isness of a thing stepping into the light. A closing of the eyes to see.
I sit outside on a wrought iron chair. It is deliberately aged in accordance with current trends. I too am somewhat aged, not deliberately but in accordance with the law of entropy which governs all atomic structures. It is neither trendy nor aesthetic. But it is. Being is like this chair in that both are wrought. The adjective wrought means beaten out or shaped by hammering. We are hammered into form, we people and our chairs. Iron is only malleable when heated. Metal hardens when it is cooled directly after being heated. This process is called tempering. We too are tempered. We are quickly passionate when young and the accompanying energy fires us to act. If we are fortunate, like Samuel Beckett, we have fire in our bellies in our late years. But often the heat is lost in the hammering. As cool air nips at my bare feet I feel the fire of ideas inside me and smile. Sitting outside is good still. A flock of cockatoos scratch the blue sky and are gone. This chair, those birds have demanded a response. This is how words are wrought, then written. I will hammer out the form from the fire within.
The tendril forces itself out from the stem. Its unyielding fisted coil will conquer this wall. It will push against anything that comes between itself and the next moment. I am in awe of its unbending vigour. This is certainty of being. Some people seem to have it too.
A trellis has been sunk into the soil to guide it. Thin bamboo sticks held together with bits of wire. But the plant, done with guidance and the polite shootings of its youth, grows prolifically. Nothing will stop it. If this plant has consciousnessness, I wish I could hear its thoughts and learn from it. How does something proceed with such certainty from itself? Is there a voice in nature I have not yet heard? Am I not a part of nature. I am a being in nature? Is this nature, this suburban garden. I wish my nature were more certain of itself, like this sap gorged tendril rigidly, gently finding the crevices it will fill and claim. What precedes being?
If you repeat the word “certainty” over and over again, holding it in your mind with the hope that the repetition locks onto a deeper sense of its meaning, the word begins to feel and sound strange on the tongue. It then sounds more like a self contained sneeze than a sign pointing to self-assurance. It is like this with most words, these utterances we load with meaning and where variously positioned and stressed, mean different things.
We are flesh that has found words. Like the plant creeping across the trellis, we wind our thoughts around moments and push on. We are not certain of where we’re going , only that we go.
Considering the violence of the cosmos and the catostrophic soup from which we have crawled, we ought not to be alive. Yet here we are, skimming the edge of disaster at 110 000 kph. We are close to nothing, dodging asteroids while trapped in the orbit of a nuclear fusion factory (over 6 billion nuclear explosions every second) we affectionately refer to as the Sun. In physics chaos refers to the unpredictability of a complex system. In everyday life it describes disorder, confusion or turmoil. It is the air we breathe and we are better at dealing with it than we think. It’s just a pity we only trust politicians to guide us through it. We need to take back that responsibility.
Humans have survived against all odds and instead of embracing life, the singular substantial commonality, we seem intent on obliterating one another and the planet that has nurtured us. If we don’t survive the next 100 years we don’t deserve to be here. The experiment of life on this planet will have failed. Disaster and promise, like cosmic exhalation and inhalation are present every moment. There is enough of either for everyone, more than enough. The universe is big. Earth on the other hand is relatively small. A lovely little sphere run through with faultlines that give texture to its surface. The most destuctive flaws on the planet are not the natural ones but the man made ones evident primarily in the way we conduct politics. If we do not learn to stop giving power to fools then we must suffer the consequences. You have a greater chance of encountering death by falling out of bed or off a chair than being shot by a terrorist. Fear appears to have become the politicians best friend.
If we are fortunate and we have the luxury of peace and relative normality away from the condition of being bombed, then we are obliged to nurture hope. One way of doing this is through self education. Ignorance is not an option any more, it is no excuse. We owe it to ourselves to discover our own hope, not the brand any one else offers us.
Something remarkable happens when people are backed into a corner. I reckon humanity will surprise us yet.