Category: writing

Shortlist for Overland Fair Australia writing competition

I am proud to have made it to the shortlist.

The Banquet’s end

It is a universal truth that there exists between man and inanimate objects a mysterious. Astute observers of humanity, such as Woody Allen speaks of the “innate hostility of inanimate objects to man.” I concur. My contribution to this dialectic is a response to one of humankind’s worst inventions-the public toilet roll dispenser. Where they fail in utility, they succeed as effective metaphors of modern existence. They hold within them the promise of ease-of-use but despite their failure to deliver, they continue to keep us hoping that next time it will be easier and better. It seldom is.

Ode to a banquet’s end

When in haste to this enamel throne I come,
the world behind me, I am, as made, alone here, undone;
my kingdom’s laid bare – its mystery revealed:
all human endeavour’s are a folly unrivalled, 
while the high and the lowly are at table divided,
men’s stations at banquet, are at toilet suspended.

But after thine bowels for thee here have toiled,
Alas, now be warned, the encore is spoiled,
this paper dispenser would have you stay soiled.

Were Dante alive now his inferno would tell,
this plastic contraption’s the first ring of hell.

MJ Scallan

The dogs of midnight

This short fiction piece was published in the bezine’s September issue on Social Justice.

Follow this link to read it: https://thebezine.com/portfolio/the-dogs-of-midnight/

Thank you for your continued support of my work.

Mike

Notes from a window

I do not know her, the old lady at the window. But, she is familiar to me. I see her almost every day when I approach the cross section. I look for oncoming traffic, then look for her. It has become a habit. She is consistent (a necessary requirement for a habit to form). I do not know if her looking out of the window is the result of habit or the lack of alternatives. She sits to the right of her window. (would it alter the narrative if I called it the window?) So, now I have designated the window as hers. Naturally, she does not own the window. Ownership in old-age homes are a complicated business. Usually it is strictly limited to private possessions: blankets, clothing, books, toiletries, jewellery, false-teeth. Unlike their owners, these items retain value. They are handled with tenderness, treasure-like, as if the care shown them might somehow reach the dead. Perhaps we treat their things as sacred in the hope that these gentle gestures might have retrospective powers. Maybe kindness in the present has currency in the after-life. Nevertheless, domestic rituals emerge around the debris of life. Clothing and blankets are held up to the face, breathed in to detect traces of the dead. Unopened cakes of soap sit in drawers scenting underwear, rosaries gather friction, grief adheres to old toothbrushes, broken spectacles, roughly scribbled champagne corks and postcards from Egypt written in illegibly elegant script. The physical disappearance of someone is shocking. These objects absorb the after shocks of their leaving. As for the places where they lived; in old age homes a bucket of disinfectant, wide open windows to release the miasma of death and a lick of paint re-sanitise the venue for the next itinerant. Ownership may be complex in old age homes, but the simple certainties of death and departure compensate for it. I do not know the contractual details of her facility. I know there are places like these where inmates are expected to purchase a space that is recycled every time the current owner/s die. A safe investment that just keeps giving.

In First World countries we tend to pack the aged and infirm away when their maintenance outweighs their value. One must contribute positively to the GDP to warrant state concern. Otherwise, one finds oneself gradually removed from society. Folded up like well worn tablecloths and placed in the back of the linen cupboard, until the next Salvo’s run. In Third World economies, the aged are generally valued and, if not valued, at least respected. Those who struggle for material security understand the emotional and spiritual value of people. They know that dignity is priceless and owed to their parents who have struggled to hold onto it all of their lives. The aged are respected for being there, for having carried on, teaching their children that value lies in endurance, not assets. They build their lives on people, not money. They have community where individual well-being is everyone’s concern. We, on the other hand, are a loose collection of cocoons. Each of us spinning silk and blind to the world around us.

I knew a man once who did a brave thing. I did not understand it as such at the time. I was young and had not yet been called upon to endure anything more than my adolescent neuroses. He lived on a large piece of land. We flew over it once in a small plane. We had travelled in a straight line for ten minutes and all the time it was his land beneath us. It was beautiful, rugged, arid African Bush. The memory of it fills me with nostalgia. In the evenings Impala herds settled around a thorn tree near the home. He had resettled vultures that were endangered. One day he walked out into the bush, undressed and then shot himself in a place where he knew the vultures would be. I believe he was a brave man. In the end he understood a thing or two about real value.

She, the lady at the window, has draped over her knees a crocheted patchwork blanket. Coloured squares of lilac, blue, purple and pink are bordered by yellow. The palette of severe bruising. I’ve not seen her do anything but sit and look out of the window. I have willed her to lean forward, possibly smile but it feels like a prayer, more for my sake than hers.

Her curtains were drawn today. If tomorrow the windows are open wide, I will be sad.

Why I don’t publish regular posts

I admire writers who are able to publish weekly or even daily. I’m just not one of them. To the readers I have gained, thank you for your time, I know how valuable it is. I believe that I should explain the way that I work in case my lack of visibility is taken as a lack of interest.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about pieces I am busy with. The thinking happens in the form of editing, revising and sometimes walking away from a piece in order to return with greater perspective. I don’t like rushing an idea. I usually work on several pieces at a time. I currently have over a hundred draft pieces and at least two longer term projects, a novel and a collection of various types of writing, including drawing.

Perhaps if I had the luxury of writing full time I might publish more? However, my day job as a teacher does take up a lot of my time, and I don’t mind because I love teaching. The tension between working at teaching and working at writing has over the years become a creative tension. It works for me, I guess it has to. During intense periods of marking and preparing, ideas will flicker and a brief pursuit follows. The ideas gestate and mature and are moulded into shape.

I have come to view writing as a craft and have developed a deep respect for anyone who becomes a master. Blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters, wordsmiths and all the other smiths are cut from the same cloth. Passion for perfection drives us, discipline steers us and a completed work disappoints us. We persevere.

Love’s labour is never lost.

So, my friends, when my posts aren’t appearing please know that I have not forgotten you, I’m hammering away in my workshop.

Many thanks for your support.

Mike

Last lesson of the day: welcome to the real world.

Image: The Burghers of Calais, August Rodin

It’s the last lesson of the day. My students file slowly in, like Rodin’s Burghers. I decide to shelve the lesson I’d planned (a Southern Gothic sojourn through To kill a Mocking Bird via Childish Gambino’s brilliant This is America and Rammstein’s Amerika. I was going to start with a question. Where is America outside of text? It’s not happening today. I was really looking forward to it. But, this could be more important. Something tells me things are about to get real!

They’re unusually quiet, too quiet. They’re not even trying to look interested. I don’t blame them. They’ve just written a test, the third in as many days. They write another one tomorrow and exams begin next week. Days like this I feel more like a production line manager than a teacher. It’s a lesson in time management, at least that’s what I try to tell myself. But, I can’t say that to them and that makes me wonder whether it’s the truth. What exactly are we doing here? Them, me, all of us? My career as a teacher has brought me to this class on this day and it doesn’t feel right. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’. 

I know the standard response to this scenario. I’ve heard it all my life: “They’ll survive, they’ll have to in the real world. We’re preparing them for the real world.” 

The “real world.” I’ve always wondered where that is exactly? I know what is implied by the term. It’s a reference to the working life, you know the one. The five day week of 7–12 hour workdays to pay off the mortgage that has us strapped to banks until we retire, or die, or retire to die. The world of interminable responsibility, diminishing energy, flagging passion and expensive annual holidays where we travel far to bicker and fight with the people we bicker and fight with at home, that world.

I thought we only had one world?

Why do we lie to our kids? Why do we tell them we’re educating them to think for themselves, and when they do we punish them. We tell them to follow their dreams but by the time they reach their final school year they’ve forgotten what that was because we’ve only taught them how to write examinations, not how to turn their passions into a livelihood. We tell them they can be whoever they want to be but at school we train them to be just like us, focused on what needs to be done to get the money to get through the next week, month, year. We’ve trained them to chase the carrot. First it’s year 6, then it’s year 12 and the school leaving certificate after which it’s either University or an apprenticeship of some kind to get the car, then the house, then, … then it’s holding on for dear life until they have kids, while holding on tighter, getting them educated while dealing with career crises, mid-life crises, deaths, relationship collapses and while we’re losing grip they’re bursting into full bloom and they’re wide eyed and eager to live and you, after just barely getting through the same bad day you’ve been having everyday for the last 10 years, you catch them by the scruff and say “wait until you get into the real world!”

You don’t see the light fade from their eyes straight away, that takes time. But, if you’re lucky, and you’re a teacher, one day you look at them, and you see the light flickering in their eyes and you put aside the curriculum and tell them you’re taking them outside to sit or lie in the sun while you read Walt Whitman or Shakespeare sonnets to them. If you’re lucky enough to do that you grab the chance because you can feel the light flicker inside yourself too, and, sometimes you just have to sit in the sun and read poetry to get it back. At least for a while longer. It’ll fade in time. After all, the world out there is real, it sucks up light like a black hole. I guess that’s how Shakespeare imagined Denmark was for Hamlet.

*One of my favourite authors on the subject is Sir Ken Robinson. Check out his TED talk here . His book Creative Schools is a must read for anyone who cares about learning and education. 

“Why we are never lost.”

Renaissance map makers wrote the words terra incognita to indicate land (terra in Latin) that was unknown or unexplored (incognita in Latin). By the 21st century there is little left of the world to map. But what do we mean when we say the world?

In some abstract way we imagine planet earth. However, the world is never more than the square metre around one’s feet.

We can never inhabit all of the world (unless you are a super-power) and yet we often speak as if we are intimate with all of it. We speak of how the world is when we can only possibly know how it is for us. How do we form our view of the world? Knowledge of current world events does not constitute knowledge of the world. We hold bits of data in our heads and imagine we know so much.

Other brave people have explored and mapped the globe, but to me it remains largely terra incognita.

I can only hope to know my self, the terrain within. It is difficult terrain and I am not always as brave as I ought to be. I am also not immortal. Time moves on, areas are left unexplored. I grow older, become less curious and more tired. That was yesterday though, today I could take on the, uh, world? Oh dear, it seems we do use the word a lot. It’s figurative you see, the world is an idea, not a place.

I do not know the world, and what I do know is very little. Therefore I cannot assume that what I know of the world is in any way a true reflection of the world. An apple is only knowable to me. It is never the same apple for anyone else.

Some nights I tame the beasts that confront me on the dark plains. some days they shred me.
I am of the ground, terrestrial, but I am unknown terrain. I am, in the words of Whitman – large, containing multitudes, and now I must map myself. Terra incognita was my name before my parents chose the one I have carried all my life. And everything gets worn down with time. Skin loses elasticity and wrinkles form like valleys. There are tectonic plates right under my skin. Joints ache, bones become brittle. Blood coagulates when it should not, arteries block, lungs must heave for air, the imagination weaves webs over the present, and reconstruct the past. The brain becomes atrophied.

My name is so thin in places you can see right through it if you hold it up to the light. It’s the same light I have been walking towards all my life, sometimes running to, sometimes away from but, mostly to. Once my name was new, freshly knitted it kept me warm for a while. Now the chill gets in quicker. People have been using it all my life too. My name, not the chill. When I hear it now it is like a bell clanging a labourer back to task. I used to associate my name with possibility. Now it like someone calling my name in a doctor’s waiting room, I expect bad news. So I’m changing it back to my original form name: terra incognito. Because I still feel unknown, unnamed and unformed.

One would expect that with five decades of breathing there would at least be an incremental increase of basic knowledge beyond the skill set one has accumulated through years of trudge. But no. There is no greater insight. One becomes not so much content with one’s life as resigned to it. If accepting your lot is the beginning of enlightenment, I may levitate soon. Currents still spark from the neurons in my brain. I still have fire in my belly.

There is pleasure in travelling through unknown terrain. Mapped and well signed land makes travel easy but the journey tedious.
Happy is he who can embrace the labyrinth of absurdity that is being. Being is not a set of coordinates.
One is never really lost.

https://medium.com/p/why-we-are-never-lost-b11a8eab2f6f?source=email-c99624de6846–writer.postDistributed&sk=4c7151c10c4faf7511bf6e30b6693e41

How to watch a sunrise: morning

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

Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A chance for what they will say”.

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

“Why you should thank your mother.”

“Why you should thank your mother.” by Michael Scallan https://link.medium.com/8XbijeBJAW

Malevich at midnight

There are low hanging clouds tonight. They look like steam. The city cooks us all, devours us and you wouldn’t know it but for the likes of me so I will do my bit for the illusion of progress and mimic the ritual of success. I will move without purpose. I will begin now, here, by standing. No one likes a reclining dude in the city, except if it’s lunchtime in a park and you have expensive shoes and unholy socks which display to everyone that this is a deliberate rest and not a stupour, not a cry for help or the decline of a once respected soul. Steam clouds, ice cream clouds, I scream at clouds. I feel like a hot turd meting out my miasma. People look for clouds during lunch break or smoke break but who notices clouds at night? Vagrants and poets thanking God for the cover of darkness, cursing him for the cold but grateful the noisy city workers with their high heels clakking, their cappucinos, their $500 suits and dresses have gone home to give the city dwellers some peace. Hope Malevich comes by tonight. I want to show him my black square of night, just behind you between the bank and the hotel, the road and the billboard.  If you look up from where I am now there’s a perfect square of sky. I only see it unblack for a short time before sunrise, before the arrival of the masses, the walking dead as my mate Jude and I call them, the one’s who think they are safeguarded by their suits and distance from the bitch of bad timing and one more for the road. We catch you sneaking glances like the buildings catch the sky between loathing and compassion depending on how your day has gone so far. See the disgust in your eyes, the same looks i avoid in shop windows. The streets are a hall of mirrors at night. We’re all passing through, but we pass variously.

Learning not to fly

image

It is the swift overhead passing of a seagull which suggests to me that my fascination with flight is not that I yearn to fly but that I wish to escape completely my inner demons. My fallen angels of idealism. My automated days of work, of incessant calculations of the infinite responses to the interminable thread of responsibilities that seem to govern my existence.
I realise that the moments of peace I chase after are forever just moments. I will never stretch them out to anything more than a moment. The most I can hope for is a more expansive heart so that these moments fill up more of the empty space inside me.

The desire to fly is the breath of weariness. It is the tired exhalation that leaves my body as I understand that I am living the life I have, not the one I imagined I would live. In that life I am wiser,  writing text widely read, creating art with words and paint and clay. And people buy my work which allows me to do it again and again.
However with this understanding there is also,for the first time perhaps, the knowing that the life I have could not be better for it contains the people I love. And love is more important than words or paint or clay. The real art of my life has been surviving my mistakes.

image

Besides, relieved of the ghastly responsibility of having to create art,  I can write without hindrance,  with honesty. I can experience days of trudge knowing that most people feel the same way. I can drag myself to work and once there realise I actually enjoy it. I can, like everyone else, hanker after freedom from  responsibility. And yet, it is that same responsibility that allows me to look up at a seagull and see its beauty.

I imagine there must be at least one seagull out there who looks down and imagines how fine it would be to walk every day on the earth.

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Walking on sand

image

I love the yielding, generous nature of sand
Holding my presence for a moment.
Long enough for the earth to remember how,
This walk lasted forever
In my mind.

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On art

image

Visiting my brother in Ingagane,  South Africa recently I found this piece I had made sometime in the early 90’s. It returned me to the emotions I felt then. It also made me realise why I have always been drawn to image, sometimes more so than words.

An image is a more immediate conduit of the soul. Writing is more difficult for me because the material,  words, are not as pure as colour. Colour is essentially honest and to find honesty with words involves intense excavation of the self.

It reminded me as well that the primary task of artists is to find and express that honesty.

That’s a tough gig. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Maybe I’ll get there,  maybe not. The effort though has made all the difference.

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