The Lion and the Buck

It’s the eyes you notice – yellow intense slits that look right through you and pin you to the spot as surely as a butterfly laid out before a lepidopterist. Even though we are technically safe in our land rover, it’s an open plan version with no glass windows and only air separates us from the wild animals. A belief that the lion sees us as one with the land rover – an elephant sized, not very tasty rock-like-thing – contributes to this sense of security. But still, we are wary. If it had a mind to, the lion could kill us all without breaking a sweat.  Fortunately, he is more interested in lovemaking this fine spring day. The female of his affections lies not far away, and we infer a close intimacy between them, a sense of partnership and care.

We see a lot of the lion this trip. Two males, two females, and they are majestic. Lithesome and fluid in a way that only felines are.  Early one morning we come across one of the lionesses, lying alone under a tree. She is surrounded by several hyena. The hyena are considering an attack. Gathering in groups, calling to each other, casting sly glances in her direction, they skitter about the dry plains unsure as to the best course of action. The lioness feigns indifference, an epitome of stillness, but she is alert, keeping an eye on them and her escape route. For reasons known only to themselves, the hyenas give up the idea and move on, a rambling pack of rangy chattering carnivores, not as pretty or as powerful as a lion, but an essential part of the ecosystem. 

Into the scene wander some kudu, slowly munching on the available leaves in the parched landscape as they make their way to the water hole. The lioness is instantly alert, moving like water she pads across to a copse of trees, lowers herself below their eye line. Will they come this way? She lies in wait… and we too wait in breathless anticipation with her. The air is still. A vulture circles way up high.  In the end, something alerts the buck and they scramble away, snorting warnings to others in ear shot. The lioness shrugs, takes a long drink and ambles away, passing not a meter from us, with barely a backward glance.

Nature at work. It’s a privilege to witness it first hand, and we can imagine the dulcet tones of David Attenborough narrating our experience.

I think a lot about the order of things on this trip to the African bush. What luck to be born a lion, what poor luck to be born an Impala, to live in constant wariness of hungry passing carnivores. But, of course, neither the impala nor the lion has the capacity for self-reflection in this way. This is a uniquely human trait, a result of the evolution of awareness of self (which we share with some animals – the other primates, dolphins, elephants, some birds) combined with expressive language and episodic memory that gives flight to imagined alternative realities.  It is this that has led human animals to create gods, cities, Nikon cameras, pop-tarts and machine guns. And, more positively, being able to imagine someone else’s lot has led to the development of universal health care, the abolishment of slavery and a charter of human rights.

Is awareness a gift or a curse? The impala may be skittish but is probably content with its lot – not knowing any different. Not subject to ruminations or worry, which seems to be the downside of it all. Of course everything fights for its survival. Even as we watch on a night drive, a leopard fights off a hyena to protect its hard-fought-for prey. But conscious awareness, this seemingly rare capability, feels precious. More precious than humans grant it, most often blunt to its suggestive power and harnessing only what is required to blindly justify cognitive biases and the intuitions implanted by ignorant ancestors. The Buddha extols an Impala-esk mentality as a way towards inner peace. To practice acceptance in the face of life’s inevitable unfairness is the only way, apparently, to mitigate suffering. But I think there must be something in balancing the gift of awareness to shape a world where the luck is more evenly distributed, with accepting that we live in a world of self-interest, and that we can only do our bit.

There are other lessons to be found in this largely unspoilt landscape of eat or be eaten. Balance is another concept I reflect on during our travels. Balance is everywhere – central to life, its primary operating system. But despite our human desire to assign agency to everything there is no mind sitting behind the desk keeping tabs and tallying columns in this nature-driven accounting system. Life is just balance in action.  When things are out of balance, life flails. Too many elephants leads to overgrazing and too little food, which leads to starvation and death, which allows the food to regrow and elephants to recover.

I reflect to on compassion and cruelty. These also seem to be quite specific human traits, although perhaps not entirely. We fear the lion, but the lion won’t kill for pleasure, and the impala are safe from a frenzied attack by a narcissistic lion with a fragile ego. We ourselves are safe from that lion because there is abundant buck for the lion to chase, and he is not hungry nor sees us as food. It is humans who are the wild card, who can’t be trusted in matters of cruelty. Why is this so? It is depressing to think on it. Perhaps this is where it is best to take heed of the Buddha’s advice not to dwell in the mental landscape of things you cannot change. But it would seem to me that there is much we can learn from watching the animals, our distant brethren, out on the African savannah, if only we would apply our conscious awareness to do so.

On trains…

Photo by runzi zhu on Unsplash

Out of the settling dusk
It glides into the station
A metal snake with screeching breath
Disgorging a tumble of people from its warm belly
 
I step inside the beast
Into air thick with a day’s activity,
Rigid ribs of seats hold weary bodies
All wrapped up in virtual worlds
 
A fetid tinge of alcohol, the rustle of a paper bag
Waft through the carriage
 
Beyond the reflections of heads bent on phones
Flickering images of night rush by
Darkness punctuated by red full stops
that leak from their edges
And bright rectangles of light,
Lined up like platoons,
In the clatter of a faster train
On its own straight and narrow gauge
 
The rhythmic clicking of machinery in action
The beating heart of progress
Slows to a reassuring hum
And with a screech and the slight
bump of inertia
we arrive at a brightly lit station
 
And I am myself disgorged
into the waiting arms of home.

On death done well.

I reflect on my dad, as always, as we approach the anniversary of his death.  How is it seven years have passed already?  I had to look it up. It seems impossible, but time is relentless. It moves us away from things and blurs them in our memory. I have the sense of him often in my life, but I have made it a ritual to actively remember my dad at this time. Each year I deliberately and determinedly relight this metaphorical candle in my mind, to keep his memory alive in the expanding experience of my life.

As another family friend finds himself in the same place, I reflect on how well my dad died and the value his dying time gave to his life, and to all of ours as well.

My dad had a good death, in the end, when the struggle and fear had run its course and acceptance had sunk in.  Sometimes I think he lived more presently in those last few months than ever before. In this sense, cancer gave my dad a gift. Given time to die, he had time to come to terms with the battles of self-doubt that had left ravaged scars across his mind since he was a young, abandoned child.

I have many wonderful memories of my dad from his dying time. Making light of things at a family dinner, crooning into a corona bottle-turned-microphone, and turning our teary dread into laughter and smiles. He threw himself an “I’m dying” party and looked on with utter surprise at how the lounge room overflowed with people. Free from the ego focus of achievement and concerns with what others thought of him, he was able to see how connected he was into his community. With an end date clearly on the horizon, he had time to know with utter clarity that he was loved – wholly and completely, exactly as he was.  

We – his children and his wife – never left him alone in those weeks and months.  Not even in hospitals or the hospice, not even overnight.  Not while he slept, and most certainly not while he was awake.  We juggled schedules and long-haul flights and stood vigil with him as his body slowly decayed. He was surrounded, always, by his family – the thing he valued most in life. In private we wept – oh, how I cried in the dark on that kitchen floor – while he had long overdue conversations with his brother, his friends, his family. How he would have loved the funeral – with every seat filled, his sons and those he considered the same, weeping while they carried his casket. With so much to reflect on, so much people wanted to say, he almost missed his own cremation. The irony of that would have made him rumble with laughter. He was late for everything.

I don’t believe in fairy tales. I know that the bits of matter that made up the pattern of consciousness that was my dad have been re-absorbed into the universe, perhaps already recycled into other lifeforms. But I move my arms through the air, through the universe itself and know that everything that made him is still here, somewhere, scattered through the fabric of existence. And it is a comforting feeling, a connecting feeling to know that we are all part of this same fabric, regardless of our origins, our rituals or our stories. We are connected through time and space to everything that is, or was, or will be.

All of us, everything from newts to mountains, from dolphins to dinosaurs, from the leaves on the trees and the sand on the beach will one day find ourselves, again, in the belly of a star.  But before then we have this gift of consciousness with which to love, to think, to question, to laugh, to hug, to cry, to explore, to be kind, to learn, to grow, to appreciate, to create.  Just this moment, a minuscule millisecond of the universe’s heartbeat, in which to live with awareness.  May we all live more, and fear less.

Blue Suede Shoes, Baby

The streets of Parkes are wide, and largely empty when we arrive the day before the Elvis festival is due to kick off. At 6pm, as we wander down the main street, tinny-sounds of Elvis waft across the town. There is a haunting note to the music. If it was a story, it would have Stephen King all over it.

There are three pubs offering to quench our thirst after the long drive out from Sydney, and we err with our first choice which provided karaoke and wine in a champagne glass. However, we soon stumble into the action at The Cambridge Hotel. Our very first Elvis impersonator is up on the stage, and the crowd is pumped, rocking and rolling like they were there the first time round. Friends are gathered in matching Elvis paraphernalia and someone has even gone to the trouble of shaving ELVIS into his hair. It is hysterical, and enchanting, and we are soon joining in the antics on the dance floor. The Memphis Cowboys steal the show by not being impersonators at all, but rather excellently engaging musicians rocking out their own version of the songs. I suspect they must be on their way to the Tamworth Country Music festival next. We dance extravagantly, without any expertise nor embarrassment. It’s that sort of place.

By the time we’ve been in town for two days, we’ve seen all manner of Elvis impersonators. Young and old, fat and thin. We’ve experienced the buskers, the pub-players and the in-it-to-win-it professionals. What a strange life, I muse, living forever in the shadow of greatness. On the road, never quite yourself, never an original. Then again, perhaps it is no more strange an existence than doing market research for a living, and perhaps in that sense, it is more authentic because it comes from passion.

The vibe in the town is friendly, welcoming. Old cars line the street and all the shops are bedecked in Elvis mania. Whilst it is putting on a show, it feels very real. As though the townsfolk would do this for fun anyway, even if no-one came. But come they do, in their droves. Bussed in, trained in, driven in. The streets are soon buzzing with Elvis chops, Rockerbilly skirts and bejewelled polyester jump suits. The town-piped Elvis of the night before has been supplanted by buskers who crowd the pavement and croon out their own versions of Elvis’ most famous hits.

It’s a fun way to spend a couple of days, but I am soon sick of hearing Blue Suede Shoes over and over again. Following my own passion, we make a break for The Dish. It looms large on the horizon, visible for miles around. A resident astrophysicist is giving a talk that we are lucky to catch. She explains radio waves (which is a form of electro-magnetic energy, like visible light) – as a radio telescope is what the Dish is. She lights up when she talks about pulsars. They’ve located more than half of all known pulsars, gazillions of light years away, from this unassuming outpost of science in the middle of country NSW.

It is quiet here, away from our noisy society, and that’s important if you are a radio telescope. All around us, the landscape stretches flat to the edge of the horizon. Peaceful and serene. Green paddocks, blue skies, red earth and an ear to the Universe and the possibilities of tomorrow.

On doing, rather than being…

6AC368C3-A67B-4729-A13B-98D5C4EDAEAC.jpegThe thing I am not very good at is sitting.  Being still.  Waiting, contemplating. I tend to jump right onto things, without thinking too much about why. I am restless, I suppose.  I rearrange the furniture a lot.

I believe I am a person who likes an action plan. I like to know where I am going, when I will get there and how many steps are involved. Which is ironic really,  since I feel like much of my life has proceeded without alsuch rigour.  As such I seem to spend a lot of time meandering around in  circles, looking for the door to the next level.

I have spent all my life wondering what to be when I grow up, and now, in the firm grip of middle age, when one should surely feel accomplished and grown up and settled, I am more confused than ever. How can I feel so old on one hand (gravity is not my friend), and so lacking in authority and gravitas on the other?  I do not feel grown up at all, but the face in the mirror says different.  

This feeling of inadequacy, of limited expertise, is a narrow view restricted to new things of course,  not the vast expertise gathered  in a career I never really intended and never have felt particularly zingy about.  In continually seeking something fresh to be, I feel like I have spent all my life hovering around the starter blocks, endlessly dabbling.

As I gear up for my first exam in over two decades tomorrow, two things occur to me 

  1.  I should really be running through my notes rather than pontificating on the meaning of life, and
  2. Maybe I don’t know where I am going, or why I’ve take up a degree in brain science at this point (except that it is fascinating stuff), but what I have come to realize is that it’s not about being something. It is not about some potential endgame.  It’s just the thrill of doing.

I really should know this about myself by now and be more accepting of the way I engage with the world. I enjoy doing new things, experiencing things, expanding my mind and engaging as fully as I can in the possibilities of this one precious conscious life I am lucky enough to have.  And the very nature of seeking new, means one very seldom gets to be an expert in them.   Maybe if I took time out to think about it, one day it might sink in! 

Ningaloo Reef Road Trip

Stuck in suburbia, it is easy to forget how vast and incredibly beautiful this marvellous land of ours is.  Caught up in nonsense of our own making, we lose sight of what really matters. While the news is full of sorrow and hate, of ideologically motivated distrust and ego driven politics, nature proceeds onwards, as it has done for millions of years, and, through utter happenstance, leaving spaces of spectacular beauty that we are able to enjoy and appreciate – should we so choose.

That’s why it’s good to get out and experience the true nature of life itself.  To feel the sand, ground down and pooped out by parrot fish, between your feet.  To watch the beady eyes of a stonefish, and remind yourself that the malevolence in his gaze is a story of your own making.  To dive into the cold embrace of a turquoise sea, brilliantly blue and teaming with life, and see a turtle emerge from a cleaning station.  Another reminder of how life is a synchronised evolution, a beautiful ballet of adaptation and balance played out over millennia.

This is what our trip up the coast of Western Australia was about.  An immersion in nature.

Travelling to the Ningaloo Reef from Perth is an exercise in patience.  In our camouflaged campervan, we motor through a round trip of 3000 kilometres, down endless stretches of road through an often monotonous landscape to find the gems strung out along this small portion of the Western Coast of Australia.

The highlights are endless.  It’s a trip that needed a month, rather than 12 days.   But there are several standouts that live in my memory and bring a smile to my face when I think back to them.

Coral Bay

This small beach town had no space for our campervan, so it was a day trip affair.  We overnighted at 14-mile beach beforehand, and returned to Canarvon the following day.  It’s a tip worth noting if you are heading there to camp.  You need to book months and months in advance in the school holiday season.  Despite the campsite busting at the seams, the reef is largely empty, and we feel like we have the place to ourselves.  The staggering colour of the sea is a thing of exquisite beauty.   Below the waters, coral bommies team with life.  We spend the day on the water with a passionate crew from Ningaloo Reef Dive.  The display of nature is spectacular, but what warmed my heart more than anything was watching the kids discover a joy for being beneath the sea.  Snorkelling like professionals rather than first timers in a coral garden teaming with fish and turtles and sharks.  And no, they didn’t freak out.  They swam closer for a better look.  (Clearly they don’t have my freak-out genes).  Our once in a lifetime experience was snorkelling with a Manta Ray.  A thing of magnificence and glory, gliding effortlessly below us along the white sandy floor of the ocean.

Shark Bay and Monkey Mia.

We stopped on this peninsular for three days and enjoyed every moment of it.  Learning about dolphins at the early morning Dolphin Feeding, and watching the smile on my son’s face as he was chosen to feed one of them was a standout experience.  But it was the peace of the place that really settled my soul.  From the beach, the water is clear enough to see through, and its almost impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins.  It was so still and flat and shallow, that the paddle board was put to good use by the kids, who headed far into the distance on concocted tales of adventure and discovery.  Along the way they found a turtle and saw dolphins, and it was only later that I realised they were lucky not to encounter a Lemon Shark.  It is called Shark Bay after all, and while they wouldn’t have been in danger from it, it would be a scary thing to have swim underneath you.  Visiting the very quaint Ocean Park Aquarium and learning about sharks and stonefish and the sobering reality that our inability to clean up after ourselves will render turtles extinct within 20 years was yet another highlight of the trip.

Kalbarri

The Kalbarri is closer to Perth, and bordering on the open ocean.  The wind whips off the dancing sea and although the sand is white and the sun is shining, we found it a bit too wintery for a dip in the sea.  However, the scenery in this part of the world is gorgeous in a completely different way.  In the Kalbarri National Park, red rock formations and deep gorges have been carved out of the landscape by the Murchison River.   Natures Window was crowded, but we headed further in and clambered down to the river itself through rocky crevices both wide and narrow.  A sunset walk along the cliffs from Grandstand Rock Gorge to Island Rock, not only gave us spectacular views of the rock formations out to sea, but also the chance to spot a parade of whales, water from their blowholes dotting the horizon.   At this time of the evening, as the sun dips towards the horizon, the whole world turns a warm and dusty orange.  With a glass of wine in hand, we watch as it sinks into the sea, the sky turn purple and day turn into night.

At this point we are approaching the end of our holiday.  We are relaxed and the sense of peace that comes from being away from it all is palpable.  We are in the company of people we love, soaking up the beauty and wonder of nature, formed and reformed tirelessly over billions and billions of years.  This moment will pass, like life itself, but resting in the moment, being in the moment, is peaceful.  I find great capacity for calmness in accepting that despite being a momentary blip in life’s inextricable story, we have the, perhaps unique, capacity to appreciate the world around us.  To enjoy it.  If only we make the time and the choice to do so.

Sharlene Zeederberg

Winter in Sydney – Biennale 2018

Notwithstanding the fact that right now it is absolutely bucketing down, Sydney generally puts on a pretty spectacular winter.  Still, even when it is grey and glum, there are some soul satisfying things to do in Sydney in winter.

Like, the Sydney Biennale.

For Mothers’ day, I managed to wrangle the family out into the blustery weather to visit Cockatoo Island.  The wind and earlyish hour kept the crowds away, which is the way I prefer things.  It’s quick ferry trip across the harbour to this small but historically important island.  Wind swept, industrial, replete with rusted artefacts and empty warehouses, the history of the place is positively palpable, as though the ghosts of our wretched past walk beside us – a gentle reminder of how much progress we have made at easing human suffering over the past 150 years.

Of course, the highlight of the event is Ai WeiWei’s Law of the Journey.  A massive, dark, PVC rendition of a boat carrying refuges.  Faceless adults and children huddle together in the 60m long rubber boat.  It is, as would be expected, brilliant and confronting, and worth the trip alone. (The irony of having to travel to the exhibit on a boat is not lost on me, nor the fact that it is exhibited on what was once a convict labour camp and prison).

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There are hundreds of other exhibits, of all shapes and sizes.  All testament to the power of the creative mind to question the status quo and hold a mirror up to ourselves.   Sometimes art stops you in its tracks.  Makes you sit up and take notice.  Other times, you have to stop and take the time to notice, to see the detail and open your mind to what the artist might be saying.

We saw creative endeavours from juxtaposed singing rituals across religious cultures (The Circle and the Square, Suzanne Lacy) to vast explosions of colour where paint had been left to interact with nature (Hover, Erupt, Erode – Mit Jai Inn).   Amongst others, there was Wong Hoy Cheong’s series of photos from inside multiple different manholes, and a quite excellent marketing campaign for fuel made from the urine of diabetics (Togar – Julian Abraham) – somebody get that man a job!

However, my favourite exhibitor turned out to be Yukinori Yanagi. I am not sure if it just because of my current interest in the skies, but his exhibit Icarus Container captured my attention.  Using containers, geometry and mirrors, together with poetry and an eerie sound scape, it’s a poetic feat of engineering that had even my son enthralled.  The roaring imagery of the sun, alive and hot and compelling is the start point.  And its presence is visible around every corner, as you walk back towards earth.  Looking into mirrors, you can see your past, and everyone else who has followed you in.  In my mind, anyway, the words tell the story of those who seek to fly, and those who pull them back to earth.  The power of dreams, and the power of fear and failure, and what that says about humanity.

Tucked away at the back end of Cockatoo Island, he has two other exhibitions – Landscape with an Eye and Absolute Dud.  It is the latter one, a mimic of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, that really reaches down into my gut and gives it a squeeze.   It hangs so quietly in a shed, a rusted leftover from a bygone industrial era.  So seemingly innocuous.  So forgettable. So deadly.

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I think the thing that most compels me about artistry is the bravery of the creative spirit to invest precious time and energy into ideas, and then to present those ideas for human consumption.  But perhaps, compelled by some sort of inner fire, the alternative is mental anguish.  Regardless, artists remind us of what it is to be human, with all the possibilities and problems that presents.

Unfortunately, the Biennale is closing next week.  I’ve got to get me to the MCA and the Art Gallery of NSW before then!