Six months in

Today it’s been six months since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. I can’t quite believe it’s been that long. But at the same time it seems like I’ve been here much longer. Time is still doing strange things for me.

A number of people said to both my housemate and I before we left Sydney that it takes six months to a year to really start feeling at home in a place after you’ve moved, and that’s certainly what I remember from when I moved in the other direction five and a half years ago.

Actually, when I’d been in Sydney six months, I had a bit of a breakdown. The enormity of what I’d done hit me for the first time. I’m not sure it will be like that this time around (well, I certainly hope it isn’t), if only because there was a lot more lead time before this move than there was for the earlier one.

Do I feel at home in Melbourne? The simple answer is yes. Yes, I do feel at home here. The more complicated answer is that I feel more at home in myself here than I think I ever did in Sydney — but I don’t really know how much of that is to do with the places themselves and how much is just growing up a little more.

The first few months in Melbourne were very strange for me. I guess because I’d lived here before, and because my housemate and I have ended up living in a neighbourhood in which I’d lived before, I had the strange sensation of not being entirely sure where I was in time. I mean, I knew intellectually, of course. The best way I can think to describe how I felt was that my body wasn’t quite sure. The scents, the sounds, the particular colourscape of Melbourne; those things belonged to a different time in my life, and here I was all of a sudden living among them again.

I was describing this sensation to a friend from Sydney who came to visit, and he asked me if it was because Melbourne had changed, either subtly or otherwise. I realised that it wasn’t that at all. Melbourne was much the same. But I had changed. I’d changed in the five years I’d lived in Sydney (of course), and being in Melbourne again was like being face to face with the version of me who lived here all those years ago.

Thankfully, that strangeness has mostly passed now. And what’s settled is a increasing calmness. I’ve found myself being paid to do things I love, which is obviously great. I’m living in a great house in a great area. I feel like I can take a breath and, for the first time in a long time, think about what I might like to do in the next few years. Of course there are plenty of little improvements that could be made (there always are), but for the most part, life is pretty good, six months in. Thanks Melbourne.

~

TreesWhile I’ve been settling in, I’ve been taking pictures of the garden as I play around in it, improving the soil and planting things. The bottom picture is of a couple of lilly pillies that were already in the garden when we moved in. I think I took this the day we picked up the keys. The top picture I took a couple of weeks ago. That they’ve grown so much (and gone a bit wild, really) I think perfectly illustrates the first six months of life in Melbourne for me.

The balance between self and other

A few weeks ago I went to a workshop run by US teacher, Sarah Powers. Aside from being an incredible physical practice, what I really took away from the workshop was a sense that perspective is really important in a yoga practice (and, let’s face it, in life). At the very beginning of the practice, Powers talked about how many people think of the idea of self-improvement as a selfish act. She suggested that it needn’t be, if the improvements in self are also then used for the betterment of society as a whole in some way. That is, if we improve ourselves in ways which are beneficial to our relationships with other people, and indeed with other creatures and life forms. Ultimately, that kind of practice is more beneficial for us as individuals too.

Perhaps it sounds a bit namby-pamby to talk about realising and improving our connection with everything else. But I mean that in the most realistic and maybe even boring way possible. Every organism on this planet depends in one way or another on something else. We depend on other human beings, we depend on other species even, both in ways that we’re able to identify and perhaps quantify, and in ways that we’ve no idea about. We eat other species (even vegans and vegetarians eat other species — sentience is a whole other discussion and not one I’m going to have here just now), they eat each other. We rely on other human beings for friendship, but also to build the roads we drive on and the buildings we live in. For the most part, we rely on other human beings to manage our eating relationship with other species by growing our food for us.

My lovely friend and fellow yoga teacher (based in Seattle) Kat Selvocki, brought my attention to this article by Matthew Remski on how the ‘social good’ aspects of yoga are missing in the way most of us practice it. The idea of connectivity, both within and beyond ourselves, is certainly present in the philosophy of yoga, but it’s yet to take off in any concrete way in the way we practice yoga in developed countries. He writes about going to a church service and finding out about all the social services that church has on offer, and about then wondering why those sorts of services are not part of the way yoga generally manifests itself in our society.

I don’t think it’s a problem with yoga, per se. I think it’s symptomatic of broader issues of isolation and fading of community that can come with an increased emphasis on individual empowerment. I write about and do a lot of research into food systems, and I see the same problems there. In food systems there’s a huge disconnection between most people and the actual growing of their food — that is, most people don’t grow their own food, and have no idea who does grow it.

What buoys me as I do this research is the fact that there seem to be plenty of other people who are already aware of how problematic this is, and who are trying to do something about it. In the same way, pieces like Remski’s give me hope that some of these issues in the way yoga is practiced are being or will be addressed. The concept of ecological systems, which, essentially, are a way of examining the relationships between things in the non-human world and between the human and non-human worlds, is one that could easily be applied to the relationships between humans themselves. After all, we are actually our own walking ecosystems, made up of a community of our own genes and microbacterial life. (For a really interesting, if a little icky, examination of the bacterial make-up of human beings and how important it is to our health, have a listen to this short podcast about the medical practice of ‘poo transplants’. Gross, but really fascinating.)

But how does all this relate to a yoga practice? How might we keep a sense of perspective when we’re up close and personal with our bodies and all the physical, emotional and mental issues the practice might bring with it? Sarah Powers offered in her workshop a simple exercise that might help here.

As we held an uncomfortable but relatively supported and passive pose (you might do the same just lying on your back on the floor, or sitting upright on a cushion), Powers asked us to allow our awareness to travel around the body until we found the most uncomfortable sensation, and then to watch that sensation. To notice everything we could about it — where it was, how strong it was, whether it was tightness, whether it affected our breath etc etc. After a minute or so, she asked us to keep that point of discomfort as the centre of our awareness, but allow the edges of that awareness to expand out to the edges of our mat. Then after another minute, again keeping the original discomfort as the centre of our awareness, to expand the edges out to the sides of the room. After another minute, to the streets that enclosed the block the building sat on, then out to the suburb, the city, the region, the state, the country, and on and on, perhaps even out to the knowable universe. Once we’d expanded our awareness out as far as we could — still with the centre point being that discomfort in our own body — she asked us to notice how small our discomfort looked when compared to the rest of what we were holding in our awareness. Very small indeed.

This exercise was not used to try and eliminate that discomfort, or to suggest it wasn’t valid; it was merely an exercise in perspective that hopefully helped us to suffer less from the discomfort. And it worked. The discomfort was still there, but it didn’t feel quite as bad. I think it’s really important to remember that yoga isn’t supposed to just be exercise for the physical body. The physical poses are about realising that there’s more to life than what’s going on your head, and to see the connections between your body and your mind.

Additionally, the exercise certainly helped me to remember that there is more going on in the world (solar system, universe, whatever) than just what’s going on for me, even beyond my physical body. And this is hopefully what yoga is about, at least eventually. A big part of the way that Sarah Powers teaches yoga involves the Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving kindness, and an exercise like this one at the very least shows that we have an emotional capacity beyond our own experiences. The trick then, perhaps, is what we do with that capacity, how we put it into practice beyond an exercise on our yoga mats.

Thoughts about the year that’s been

As is so often the case at the end of the year, I find myself today mulling over things, thinking about the year that’s just about to close and the new one that will begin when the clock hits twelve tonight. For me, 2012 has been a really tough but ultimately rewarding year.

I’ve moved house twice (once interstate), taught yoga full time, finished a Masters degree, begun new friendships and built on existing ones, spent time with my family, spent time alone, had some essays published, worked more on my larger writing project, tried my hand again at short fiction. I’ve said goodbye (for now) to some friends and hello to others. I’ve spent plenty of time outdoors, upside down, prone and supine. I’ve watched the plants in my various gardens grow and change and sometimes die. I’ve walked many, many kilometres. I’ve read a lot, cried a lot, laughed a lot. Friendships have been tested and, happily, survived. Ideas and hopes and dreams about life’s direction have shifted, sometimes subtly, other times massively. I’ve spent an awful lot of time practicing yoga. And cooking. And being surprised at myself and at life.

Honestly, if I think back to this time last year, I can hardly believe it was only a year ago. The year that will end tonight feels like two or three years squished into one.

I have a few bits and pieces lined up for 2013, but mostly I have no idea what’s in store for me, which is both exciting and absolutely terrifying. Life is pretty unsettled and confusing right now, but that’s not hugely surprising, given that it was only just over two months ago that I landed in Melbourne. I know I can expect a whole lot more uncertainty and probably some more shifts in perspective—but then that’s half the reason I wanted to make the move to Melbourne. As difficult as change can be, it’s also a really good way of noticing patterns in my thinking and behaviour (in yogic philosophy these are called samskaras, or ‘traces of deeds done in the past’) and giving myself a chance to figure out which of those patterns are useful and which are not. Letting go of the less useful patterns is an additional challenge, of course. Probably a life-long one.

It will be interesting (that word we use when we’re not sure whether something is good or bad or somewhere in between) to see how things unfold in the next few months. To see which patterns stay and which ones go.

Tonight I’ll be celebrating the year that’s been with a couple of dear friends. I’m looking forward to 2013, to getting on with whatever it is that the new year will bring. Happy new year.

Animals

Last night I went to an event at the Wheeler Centre called A Night at the Zoo. The event was the result of a series of fellowships, in partnership with Melbourne Zoo, that allowed four writers to spend time at the zoo with a view to inspiring some written work. The event last night was an opportunity for the writers to present some of that work and to discuss some of their thoughts and feelings about the zoo, and about zoos in general.

Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion was about animals and our relationship to them. Cate Kennedy admitted that she is ambivalent about zoos, for a whole host of reasons. I feel similarly. Or, at least, I feel confused about them. There’s something deeply disturbing about our desire to put members of other species in cages (or enclosures, as is more likely the case these days) so we can watch them. But at the same time, much of the work zoos do is about education and conservation, which is certainly not a bad thing. And I understand as well as anybody the kind of curiosity that leads people to zoos, to watching.

Some of the stories Estelle Tang relayed about a visual artist forming a kind of friendship or understanding with the gorillas, whom she frequently draws, and about the same artist witnessing the awful behaviour of some human visitors towards the primates, reconfirmed for me that sense of the deep uncertainty we seem to have in our relationship with animals.

Throughout the day yesterday I’d seen posted on Twitter a number of times a link to a letter from Fiona Apple to her fans saying that she was delaying her South American tour to stay home with her dying dog. For various reasons (you know, trying to actually do work), I’d not read it during the day, but when it came up again in my feed last night after I got home from the Wheeler Centre event, reading it seemed appropriate. The relationship she describes with her dog is companionship — actually, no, it’s friendship. And it’s beautiful. (But also sad, so if you’re going to read it, be prepared.)

My family have always kept pets and I’ve developed an enormous affection and/or love for most of them. As an adult, I’ve lived in a number houses (including the current one) with housemates who have cats. And again, I’ve developed a friendship and an affection for with those animals. I guess and hope that those animals understand that relationship as something more than just ‘she gives me food sometimes’, but the potential for anthropomorphisation bothers me.

Earlier in the year, I wrote an essay on how growing my own food has made me seriously question my own vegetarianism (although I’m yet to give up on it)*. It’s made me question my relationship to other creatures and the rest of the non-human world. In fact — and excuse the melodrama here — it’s made me question my whole concept of death and decay, and of life. As part of my research for that essay, I came across Charlotte Wood’s excellent essay on animals (available here as a PDF), and I thoroughly agree with her point about the dangers of anthropomorphising animals. She says:

But I find most of it troubling because it seems so disrespectful. Denying the creature’s essential nature – its very animality – is surely an act not of admiration, but subjugation. To downplay the differences between species is to promote the assumption that “humans will only accept what is like themselves”, as American scholar Shelly R. Scott puts it.

But that’s not all. The flip side of our culture’s grossly sentimental failure to embrace the “otherness” of animals – the failure to imagine them as anything but approximations of ourselves – is a deep ugliness in our treatment of them. We force a dichotomy in which animals are either so like us that we cannot separate their needs from our own, or so unlike us as to be aliens, undeserving of any rights at all. The more we sentimentalise, the more we also brutalise.

Equally — and I think this is partly what Wood is getting at when she speaks about the ‘flip side’ of that sentimentality — I think that denying animals any kind of emotional life is problematic (and there is a growing body of scientific research that suggests that animals do, in fact, experience emotions, often seemingly in similar ways to us). And I wonder whether we sometimes cling to the idea that we are different to animals in our ability to experience emotion (or in any other way) because we can’t quite face our own ‘animalness’.

Which brings me back to a point made in last night’s Wheeler Centre event. Cate Kennedy suggested that our response to animals (and she gave the example of her own ‘give me hugs’ response to the orangutangs at the zoo) says far more about us than it does about them. What is it that we’re looking for — or hiding from — in our relationships with animals? It’s a scary question.

~

As you might be able to tell, this topic fascinates me. Some other reading I’ve come across, if you’re interested:
Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
Us and Them: on the importance of animals, Anna Krien
Vegans and Ethical Omnivores, Unite!, Tammi Jonas

(There are a whole lot of other things I could add to this list, if I could find them. I’ll endeavour to do so as I draw them out from their various hidey holes in my too-complicated filing system.)

*I don’t think this essay is available online at the moment. You can, however, buy a print copy of the Death of a Scenester Food issue it appears in.

Ghosts and New Beginnings

Life is very strange at the moment. Well, it has been for quite some time now, but it’s been extra strange since my housemate and I landed in Melbourne. It’s taken me a little while to tease out the strangeness, to get a good sense of where it’s really coming from.

The answer isn’t simple, of course, but part of why I’ve felt pretty weird these last couple of weeks is that I’ve found myself trying to marry together different parts of myself. The parts of me that existed when I lived in Melbourne, the parts of me that were there when I visited and missed this city, and who I feel like I am now. I’ve mentioned here before that Melbourne often feels to me like it’s haunted. For me, it’s a place full of ghosts — ghosts of the past me, ghosts of long-over relationships, ghosts of friendships changed. And perhaps the missing of the place has made each of those ghosts just a little more powerful now I’m living here again. Nostalgia is a strange thing, cruel at times.

A while ago, for a piece I was writing, I was reading a lot about narration and the self, and how vital it is for our mental wellbeing to build a coherent sense of self. So much of that building process is about making connections between events, objects and places that are, really, not closely related to one another. In other words, we tell ourselves a story about what happens to us in order to make sense of it, and in order to create the character we call our ‘self’. What’s happening to me now, I think, is that those stories aren’t quite matching up. There’s a bit of rearranging to be done in my thinking about them.

Along with that confusion though has been an immense sense of relief. I feel relaxed here, at home. I guess the weirdness will settle eventually, and that I’ll figure out how to fit all those parts of myself back together again. And, I hope, I’ll learn to live more easily with the ghosts here. They are, after all, mostly benevolent ones.

Packing

I’ve moved house quite a few times now. About ten, I think, in my adult life. And every single time packing completely undoes me. I always reach a point where I am so exhausted that I can’t possibly stand up, can’t possibly put another thing in another box.

I’ve taken more care of myself this time round than I normally do — I’ve allowed more time, I’ve allowed myself plenty of strategic breaks. But I’ve still reached that point. My bed is covered in stuff so I’ve been lying on the floor, curled up in a little ball. At this point it feels like I’ll never finish packing, and I wonder how on earth I can have so much stuff. Where does it all come from? Why does a person accumulate all this crap? Why haven’t I got rid of it before now? Why don’t I just get rid of it now? But it needs sorting through, and some of it I really should keep (important documents, anyone?). Don’t get me wrong — I’m throwing out a lot of stuff. I’ve been pretty ruthless, even with books.

I’m longing now for the time when I’ll walk into my room and it’ll be empty, and there’ll be a pile of neatly labelled boxes in the front room, and my housemate and I will begin cleaning. And, as much as it feels nearly impossible now, I know that time will come. I will, eventually, be packed.

Moving. It’s a process. And it never gets any easier.

Saying Goodbye

This is my last week teaching in Sydney. In fact, this is my last full week in this city full stop. Next week, I’ll be leaving Sydney to have a little holiday, and then moving down to Melbourne. Leaving a place is always strange and sad and exciting and scary. I’ve written here, here and here about some of the emotions I’ve come across in knowing that I’m about to leave a place. Transition creates such an odd frame of mind.

These last two weeks I’ve really started saying goodbye. I’ve started teaching last classes in places I’ve taught for some years, and saying goodbye to students I’ve known for as long. And, to be perfectly honest, it’s been exhausting. Every class I teach lately is tinged with sadness — my own, mostly. And it’s take a great deal more effort to stay focussed on the class.

The goodbyes themselves are always odd. Strange and sad and really very surreal. It just doesn’t feel quite real that I will not see these people next week. I will miss each and every one of them.

The student/teacher relationship is a surprisingly intimate one. The intimacy, I suppose, is surprising because it’s not always very obvious. As a yoga teacher, you spend a lot of time watching your students. Watching how their bodies respond to your instructions, to your sequences. You look out for minor (usually) alignment issues, you look out for signs of distress (physical or otherwise), and you come to care a great deal about how what comes out of your mouth affects the people in the room. When I plan classes, I keep in mind the make-up of regulars in my various classes, and think — sometimes in great detail — about how a particular shape or sequence might affect certain students with injuries or off-centre bodies. (Well, all of us have off-centre bodies, but some of us notice it more than others.) If there’s one thing that being a yoga teacher develops in you, it’s a really profound sense of tenderness and compassion for other people’s struggles.

Saying goodbye to my students is upsetting in a way I’m not quite sure yet how to deal with. It’s a sadness I’ll carry with me for some time, I’m sure. I’ve been trying to practice sitting with those emotions, just letting them be, letting them work themselves out. There have been tears. It hasn’t been easy.

But that sadness also makes me feel incredibly lucky. I’m lucky to work with people in the way that I do, to introduce them to tools that will help them through tough times. But, as is the case with any kind of teaching, I’m lucky because teaching others also shows me things about myself. I’ve learnt an incredible amount about my own strengths and limitations these last few years, and I hope I’ve become a better teacher — and indeed a more resilient person — as a result.

So, to any of my Sydney students reading this, thank you. And keep in touch.

Saying goodbye to Sydney, of course, means saying hello to another place. I’ll be teaching yoga in Melbourne, but I’m not sure yet of the details. When I’ve got a better idea, I’ll be sure to update things here.

~

This is cross-posted on my yoga blog.

Thinking About Waste

One of the topic areas I’m researching and writing about at the moment is waste: what it is, what it means, what affect it has on us and the world around us, and what it says about how we relate to the world around us.

I’ve been reading the Milkwood Permaculture blog for several years now, on and off. Recently I worked my way through a big backlog of posts (I’m not exactly consistent in my reading habits) and came across this fantastic video, where Milkwood‘s Nick Ritar discusses the problems with how we deal with our own biological waste.

His point that much of the obstacle is in our own minds is so true. The house I grew up in was in the middle of an acre of land, and we weren’t connected to the town sewerage. We had a sewerage tank instead, and at some point Mum and Dad connected a hose and sprinkler to it, so when the tank was full, it would pump the treated effluent onto the grass or gardens. Perhaps naturally, we called it the Poo Sprinkler, and usually ganged up on Dad when it needed to be moved around the yard (sorry Dad). So it’s probable that my own level of disgust at these things is a little lower than it might be for most, but I still found myself having to get beyond some revulsion while watching Ritar’s talk.

Obviously, the revulsion or disgust is not an entirely unhelpful reaction — our waste mostly needs to be treated in some way before it’s safe to use. But, as this talk very rightly points out, if that revulsion leads to us just wanting to get the stuff as far away from us as possible, it’s not really very helpful at all in the long run. Not recognising ourselves and our waste as part of some larger system is part of why we’re facing the localised environmental and broader climate issues that we are.

Ritar, of course, makes a much more compelling argument than I do. The video is definitely worth watching.

Transition and Tomato Sauce

On the weekend, I went to a barbeque picnic in Pyrmont, down by the water. I used to work in Pyrmont, so being back there, like so many other things at the moment, was a weird little nostalgia trip. That I’d had very little sleep the night before (and perhaps over-imbibed) probably did very little to keep me feeling in any way down to earth. I was in a very vague mood. Not-quite-managing-to-finish-sentences vague.

We put sausages on the barbeque, and sat in the sun to eat them. I drenched mine in tomato sauce, as is my wont. And ever since then I’ve been craving tomato sauce. In fact, as I write this, there’s a tomato sauce bottle sitting next to me because I had it on my lunch. I’m trying to work out how to also have it with dinner.

While I love tomato sauce — it’s one of those tastes of childhood for me — I don’t have it or want to have it very often. That I should be craving it now is strange. I mean, on one level it makes sense. I have two weeks left of work in Sydney and then a great big, exciting, terrifying unknown to look forward to in Melbourne. It does stand to reason that I would be craving something that is familiar (and sugary). But really? Tomato sauce? Usually chocolate is my comfort food. Anyone who knows me well knows I’m an absolute chocolate fiend. That chocolate should be replaced by tomato sauce is definitely unusual.

The closer the Big Move gets, the stranger I feel. The New Lightness is becoming more like The New Oddness. Every morning I wake and spend a few minutes trying to remember what day it is, and where I am, exactly. It surprises me each time I turn up to teach a class and students arrive, as if I think maybe I’ve got the day wrong. Everything familiar seems slightly off-kilter, or weirdly out of context.

This will be my third interstate move in the nine years since I left home (the fifth, if you include the to-and-from Canberra in between Melbourne and Sydney last time). But each of those times I’ve made the decision to go, and then left within a month or so. This time I’ve had quite a long time leading up to the move. I hope that all this pre-move oddness is going to mean less of the post-move oddness I’ve come across previously.

For now, I’m trying just to go with it. It’s not entirely unpleasant, and it’s certainly interesting to watch. But it’s very weird.

Spring, Change, and The New Lightness

There are two phrases that are getting a work out in my house right now.

“Should we?… Ah, fuck it. Let’s just do it.” My housemate and I say this to each other every other day. Something about knowing we’re about to leave the shiny city has made us each more likely to make decisions we might otherwise be hesitant to.

Which brings me to the second phrase.

“It’s The New Lightness,” we say when wondering at our sudden tendency to spontaneously head over to Newtown late on a Sunday night when we both have to work the following day, or to buy that thing we’ve been putting off getting for so long because we’ve been saving up to move interstate.

Everything right now feels like it’s in an odd state of flux. Routine? What is that? Everything feels both heavier with meaning and like it doesn’t really matter at all.

Knowing that we’re leaving soon tinges each yoga class I teach here with a little sadness. Many of my classes are made up of regular students, many of whom I’ve been teaching for a couple of years. I’ve got to know these people, and, on occasion, supported them in small ways through some challenging things, on and off the yoga mat. They in turn have supported me as I’ve built up my yoga teaching work, and learned more and more about how to teach. I’m immensely sad to leave them. Yesterday, a student who will be away from now until after I leave gave me a little farewell present. When I got home I opened it and read the thank you note she’d included and cried.

And, of course, I’ve started having last brunches, breakfasts, coffees, lunches, dinners with friends here in Sydney. I can’t even… Well, I can’t even write anymore about that yet. Let’s call it avoidance. I think that’s acceptable at this point.

On top of that, I will miss this place. Oh yes, pretty Sydney, I will miss you.

But simultaneously, I’m hugely excited to be moving to Melbourne, and about all the adventures that might await me there. There are so many possibilities.

And so the heavy sadness about leaving is balanced out by what our household has dubbed The New Lightness. Suddenly, even while we’re still here, the world seems more open, full of possibility. With limited time left here, I’m spending as much time soaking up the spring air (oh, the jasmine, the jasmine!) as I possibly can. Taking my research reading to the park instead of sitting in an office chair, giving myself time on the weekends to just sit and stare wistfully at the sky, or out across the water.

The other day I came across a photo of some Tibetan monks making a sand mandala, and thought, ‘Yes, of course’. The monks spend hours and hours making these very detailed artworks, all the while knowing they will just blow them away once they’re done. It’s an exercise in mindfulness and impermanence. The New Lightness.