Tag: existentialism

“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.

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Mud

Everything carries simultaneously the potential for life and death. Soil fosters life and is the primary cause of war. Water sustains life, people drown in it. Water and soil make mud. Mud kills. On Earth, Vol. I

He is driving a car on a freeway into a city. Rather, the car engine drives, he chooses the direction. Not choice exactly, he must go there. He must present documents in order to finalise his citizenship. So, he chooses to comply in order to be recognised by the state in which he currently resides. Then there is the matter of the oath. He must swear fealty. Feudalism never died. There is, once again choice. He is spoiled for choice. He may swear allegiance to the Queen. This he will not do. That is out of the question. Or, he must swear allegiance to the state. Oath taking sticks in his throat. It angers him that he, serf like, must bow before some self important bureaucrat, probably bored of serving the endless queues of stateless, nameless people with their obsequious grins, who have come to pay homage at this shrine of national identity. He must shake off the rage that is building. He turns on the volume of the sound system and listens to Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats sing ‘Need Never grow old. He sways his upper torso in time to the music, lights a cigarette, opens the window, rolls the dial to full volume and feels free. This is what he thinks:

in something, in some thing there is located perhaps the thing that will liberate me from (from … what is it exactly that i seek liberation from?). It is this difficult to define thing but not a thing exactly … a frame of reference, a frame for the mind, a mindframe or a substance in which the mind sits, if it sits at all for we do not even know where it sits. Perhaps it reclines somewhere like a huge Matisse or Picasso or Modigliani or maybe it stands awkwardly, probably too skittish to stand still, probably pacing. But it feels like a substance. Like treacle … like mud. He has been in mud, crawled through it, yes, mud. It clings and makes heavy the lightest object. He once saw a buffalo dying in mud. He remembers it well. They crossed the bridge and looked down and there it was, lying to one side in the mud. Its eyes were rolling back into its head and its head was twisted at an unnatural angle, maybe locked from muscle spasms from trying to pull itself out. It tried to lurch forward but was sucked right back. There were some vultures idly watching, as patient as politicians and looking as benign. The kids were in the car asking what was going to happen. He’ll die. He said. The girls began to cry and his son became angry. Help him! He demanded. There’s nothing we can do. He said. Tie him to the back of the car. He responded that they had no tow rope, no tow bar, besides it was too dangerous. Why did you show us this? Why did you stop here? I hate you! They drove off in silence.

A song from his own childhood comes to him now, Lee Marvin’s sandpaper voice rubs itself against his inner ear to complete the memory,
I was born under a wandrin’ star
Mud can make you prisoner, and the plains can bake you dry
Snow can burn your eyes, but only people make you cry
Home is made for comin’ from, for dreams of goin’ to

Statehood. Mustness. Mud. Fuck! he says out loud. The treadmill of freedom. Mud. Eventual stopper of blood.

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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“What a piece of work is a man!”

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An effective tool to counteract the onset of tedium induced by the interminable routine of work is to think of oneself as being an actor on stage. Ultimately it is all entertainment that is short-lived; this relieves one of the burden of taking oneself too seriously. Like life, the nature of work is full of contradictions. It is while doing what we loathe that we understand what we enjoy and even as we pursue what we love we encounter moments of dreariness where we hate the activity. Wittgenstein suggests that when we think we are exploring ideas we are really only exploring the language that represents the ideas. Since language, as the construction material of understanding, hovers between the negative and positive poles of binary opposites, we should not be surprised that life mirrors this perpetual tension.
Perhaps we have become addicted to pleasure and chase the ‘happy’ fix as a by-product of particular action or thought. Pleasure is not happiness and expecting life or work to offer a consistent flow of happiness is a fantasy, like trying to attain the never-ending orgasm. We need to experience the tension between loving and hating to settle into contentment where acceptance of both generates balance. The workplace offers us this tension in abundance and becomes the testing ground of our personal philosophies and belief systems. As emotional beings it is no wonder that we seek pleasure over pain. However, we are also rational beings and this is the space where we process the needs of our work and deliver the goods.
The industrial revolution introduced the era of technology, of systems and production that threatens to transform humankind into units of labour and consumption. It mechanized war and initiated medical breakthroughs which have contributed to increased longevity. Despite increased health and leisure time we appear to be more depressed than ever before. We hate work and in a manner befitting the twenty first century, are consuming our way to happiness with fanatical frenzy. Edwin Brock’s poem “Five ways to kill a man” remains an apt reflection of the human condition. In the poem he concludes that the simplest way to kill a man is “to see that he is living somewhere in the middle of the twentieth century, and leave him there.” The dehumanizing effect of the modern world is a central feature of our art and literature. It is why we still need to come to terms with the notion of work and its impact in our theatre of being.
The prospect of a lifetime of a daily routine to and from work terrified me as a young man and it induced a crisis of being in my early 20’s. The anticipation of being bound to a lifetime of tedium seemed like suicide by slow ordeal. Overcome with hopelessness and growing despair I began searching for meaning within the perpetual slog of repetitive daily routine. I discovered Camus, Leonard Cohen and resilience. My work, engaging young minds in a classroom was fulfilling, but beyond the classroom the rigid regulation bound world of school systems was an internal corrosive. I felt little more than a bureaucratic cog in an immense sausage machine tasked with churning out productive, law abiding citizens who would in turn feed the system ad nauseam.
An event in my first year of teaching illustrates my growing sense of isolation in the school system. Walking along a corridor I came across a year 12 student standing and facing the red brick wall outside a classroom. His nose nearly touched the wall. I suspected he was the subject of Calvinist rehabilitation (corporal punishment was regarded an essential aspect of education then). I paused and shuffled up next to him to stare at the wall,
“OK, I’m looking but I don’t get it?” I said.
“I left my homework at home.” He replied.
“And you hope to find it here?”
He chuckled, “ma’am (female teachers were addressed as ma’am) told me to stand here like this.”
“I suppose it’s better than being inside” I said. We both laughed, too loud. The classroom door opened and the diminutive but steely tyrant stared me down, sneered, sniffed dismissively and shut the door. In that instant I was no longer a colleague but a bumbling school boy. Embarrassed and confused by the situation and my own response, or lack thereof, I slunk away like a child.
It was a seminal moment that began to shape my attitude to work. I felt like a failed court jester and knew I could never expect the system to nurture or support me beyond the meagre salary it provided. Fulfilment at work would depend less on the work being done and more on my frame of mind while doing it. “I work for myself” became my mantra rules became a rough guide secondary to creativity and fun. I wanted to generate enthusiasm and curiosity and have students look forward to getting to class, as much for myself as for them. I admitted ignorance to my students, I could be honest and debates were commonplace; students were learning and I was having fun at work. Later that year we first year teachers were being lectured by a teaching veteran, “work at discipline, work hard and work will be easy…”his voice droned on but all I could hear was Hamlet sigh “words, words, words …”.
By Mike Scallan

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

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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Sisyphus writes back

Sisyphus writes back

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Four centuries pass too slowly for rock heaving rogues,
for God’s sentries failed to tell Him a man caste out has will,
so deaf to me He held in flux what deftly moves us still,
the motion of the seas, the sun, the cycle of moths

Tormented toil has taught me this-
grants these words a force;
a gravitas, a mind that sees and now shall call it thus-
I move boulders, God moves stars;
my pebbles roll, his planets swing; mine in hell and his up there …
Amen.

My grave waits; His lies cold.

I blister heaven with my prayers; grow callouses on my heart,
Pushing a rock on a rock, the eternal sickly cycle,
sickle minded we tread our rut,
we carry on, we’re carrion
Samsara has us beaten,

I, Sisyphus am done.

By Michael Scallan

The evolution of a grumpy old fart

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I once had a solar powered plastic yellow daisy with a smiley face that would sway left and right when it was in full sun. Much like a suburban alcaholic walking home from the bottle shop in summer. The object sat on the dashboard of my car. Not for long. One afternoon after a particularly difficult day at school I caught the bobbing gaze of the contrived, smug flower and it did not induce warm ripples of love. I promptly threw the palm sized manifestation of joy out of the window. There were no cars behind me, I checked, so no one was hurt. It landed near the week old carcass of a kangaroo. Poetic justice. I, on the other hand was perplexed. What had possessed me to do this? More importantly, what had possessed me to buy it? Had I experienced what sloppy murderers call ‘temporary insanity’?

I recall a morning when a television salesman and his stupid smile tried to sell me a purple and blue vacuum cleaner that promised to last a lifetime. I was furious at the blatant lie. A pattern was emerging. Irrational anger would rise to the surface of my consciousness at lightning speed. Advertisements for cleaning products, toothpaste, banks that cared and once in a lifetime sales sent me over the edge of relative normality. A year later I was driving with my good friend Lilian who had on her dashboard, a smiley solar powered daisy. I had an epiphany. I smiled back this time and understood what had happened that day the daisy died . I had not reacted badly to the notion of happiness as a consumer commodity. I was not experiencing a moment of existential rage. It was far simpler and more benign than that. I was evolving into that dark spectre of suburban homes everywhere: the grumpy old fart.

I am coming to terms with my new condition. I suspect I am still in denial. I insist to my daughters and son that I am only being realistic and just weary of commercial crap. They respond the way I reacted to my father, they roll their eyes. Wait, their turn is coming. There will always be a market for stupid plastic smiling flowers. Nonsense, like humanity’s ills is cyclical.
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Photographs of objects created by Sean Scallan

How buckshot turns grouse into swans

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Sometimes I feel like a lumbering grouse panicked by hunters popping buckshot. Friends are falling all around me and I despair. When friends die we talk of them as having passed because we cannot bear the finality of their loss. It reminds us that we too shall pass, that everything passes. Heaped on top of the anxieties of making mortgage payments, managing credit card debt and earning enough money for present needs as well as for retirement-the loss of people we love seems grossly unjust. It feels tragic even though tragedy, strictly speaking, is reserved for significant lives and if we are honest, life has a way of making the best of us feel utterly insignificant. The news of death generates (sometimes briefly, sometimes for longer) an existential survey. We review our lives, measure our accomplishments; we try to quantify success and qualify our presence. We do this because in the rush of daily duties, lists, must do’s and have to’s we forget that we will die. We all seem to understand that the nature of life is the ever looming and implicit clause of brevity. What we struggle with is that a life lived in servitude to employers does not guarantee the fulfilment of dreams which have sustained the countless days, months, years on the treadmill of economic survival. It does not feel right that a lifetime of service is cut short with such indifference to the soul that has endured bending to the callous god of material sustenance.
Maybe we busy ourselves more from a desire to avoid such painful inventories of the soul or maybe because exhaustion makes us feel that we are accomplishing something? I don’t get more sentimental with age, I get angrier at what I am coming to regard as a fundamental flaw in the design of the human mechanism, the body that is at once capable of such grandeur and beauty is also susceptible to the degrading onset of decay, that we call old age. It’s not old age; it’s a catastrophe. Against the backdrop of this rage there is, ironically, the emergence of a gentler voice that looks at the absurdity of the human condition and smiles because there seems little else to do in the face of annihilation. This is what makes us so remarkable, so grand and so incredibly lovable and worthy of respect and admiration. With our backs against the wall, we humans do not give up. We go hell-for-leather into the abyss and I think for that alone, we are a bloody marvellous species. I am proud to be human. I am above all proud of my friends, grateful to my family; exceptionally humbled by the love I receive on a daily basis. Because of that, loser or hero, something or nothing, I don’t regret a second of my dappled existence. With every ounce of sincerity I can muster, I say these words and hope they are heard as true and honest, despite the obvious negativities of life, I am happy to be alive and to have lived. I try to reserve the anger and channel its energy into activities that are life affirming. Henry Kissinger once said: “nothing clarifies the mind like the lack of alternatives.” There is no alternative to death but life and therefore those of us who have it should make every effort to use it with conscious appreciation and if we can do that, the living of it may someday resemble elegance. We may be awkward buckshot-dodging grouse, but with a bit of luck, some days we may feel like swans.