Walking and talking: on bicycles, training wheels, motorbikes and change

20140320-204423.jpgA little girl on her bike rides slowly around the park several times with her father walking by her side. Her bike is pink, it has training wheels that take turns in taking her weight as the bike wobbles from side to side, and pink shimmery streamers flowing from its handlebars. Her helmet, pink with blue flowers, is fastened firmly on her head.

“I think I’ve seen you riding on your motorbike to work,” she is telling her father. “With your helmet.”

I do not hear his reply from my spot lying on the grass with a book; they are too far away. But I hear more on their next round of the park, five or ten minutes later. 

“A motorbike isn’t exercise, is it?” she says. 

“No,” says her father. “The motor does all the work.”

And then they are gone again.

I wonder if they have been talking about motorbikes this whole time. Perhaps she has been asking him all sorts of detailed questions about his motorbike. Perhaps she will continue this fascination as she grows up. I imagine her as an adult, riding a motorbike. 

Watching them move slowly around the park, I remember the period when I first started school, when my Dad would walk me there from home each morning. I don’t remember our conversations, but I do remember how much I valued that time. I remember how I’d have to walk a few steps, then run a few to keep up with his pace. Just me and Dad, possibly talking about motorbikes. Or tractors. Or school. Or my favourite doll, Jessica.

I still walk and talk with my Dad sometimes. I do so with other members of my family too, and with good friends. There’s something in the walking. So many of those conversations I’ve had while walking, at least past the age of about ten, I still remember parts of; their significance somehow etched into my memory through their link to the physical act of walking. Perhaps too I’ve walked and talked when I’ve needed to talk things out—or when my walking companion has. The conversations so often have led to shifts in my thinking that have in some way shaped how I’ve moved forward with my life.

Things are changing in my life just now. Lots of things. In ways that are significant, though perhaps not big. I don’t know yet, really, because they’re still happening and I haven’t had a chance to reflect on how they fit into the greater pattern of my life. I need to take more walks. 

The little girl and her father do a few more slow rounds of the park, and then they leave. I can hear her still chattering, though I cannot hear her words. I imagine them returning to the park when she rides without the training wheels for the first time, wonder what their conversation will be. And I wonder how and if that walk will alter her life. Will it be one of many?

Hearing other people’s stories

Clear blue skyI am sitting at a tram stop on a sunny Sunday morning, reading a book, when he approaches me.

Excuse me, he says, which tram do I take to get to Bridge Road?

From here, I tell him, you can catch the number 75 tram. I’m catching that tram too.

He sits near to me on the cold metal seat and tells me he’s going to a church on Bridge Road, because his usual church is closed today. He is a thin man, probably in his forties. His face has softened around various piercings—two in his eyebrows, one in his lip. His lips are large and soft and seem occasionally to get in the way of his speech. His eyes are blue and clear.

He hasn’t been home since last night, he says. I smile. But what he says next surprises me. He hasn’t been home because last night he found his housemate dead and now he can’t face the house.

His face falters as he tells me this.

They tried to make me go home, he says, but I couldn’t. Could you?

No, I say. And I’m really sorry to hear that’s happened. I don’t know who he means by ‘they’ but I don’t ask.

He is on his way to the church on Bridge Road because a friend of his is the minister there, and he’s hoping she’ll be able to offer him some support.

The tram comes and we both get on. He tells me about his night, about how various Melbourne hospitals refused to help him, about how his Dad refused to let him stay, even knowing what happened. He tells me about his troubles with depression and suicidal thoughts. That the only person he knows who offered him a place to sleep is someone he doesn’t trust.

The book I was reading when he interrupted me at the tram stop was Hugh Mackay’s ‘The Good Life’, about how to lead a life that is morally good. My life, of course, like everyone’s, is full of moments where I fail at this, where I could be better. This man, I am absolutely sure, comes across many people in his day-to-day life who fail at being good in the moments they are interacting with him. I can see it in his face. He probably fails at this too. Years ago a friend told me that she thought I attracted more than my fair share of crazies, and certainly my interaction with this man is not a particularly unusual occurrence in my life. But I wonder whether it’s less that people with issues are attracted to me and more that, for better or worse, I find it difficult to turn away in that first moment of eye contact.

Suddenly it is my stop. I wish him good luck, say that I hope his friend can help him. He tells me he hopes I have a good day. I wonder to myself how his life will play out from here, whether he will get the help he needs. I wonder what series of events in his life lead him to here, telling a complete stranger on a tram the story of an awful night in his life. I step out into the sunshine, but the image of the clear blue eyes in his troubled face stays with me.

Food reading: food & feeling rushed

“Feeling rushed is… an important component of our economy; it causes people to buy more, pay, try more things and more means to compensate for the stress, or at least to alleviate the anxiety. It also makes us work harder and longer — and therefore leave ourselves less time… We eat out or buy ready-prepared food to eat at home in order to save time, but also — and more insidiously — because we feel we have no time to do otherwise. Many of us never really learn to cook, and therefore cooking remains not only time-consuming but unrewarding.” (Margaret Visser in Huntley, page 175)

I came across this quote from Margaret Visser in Rebecca Huntley’s book Eating Between the Lines: food & equality in Australia.

I’ve also recently been reading Charlotte Wood’s Love & Hunger, and the contrast between this general observation of society and Wood’s own experiences with cooking is stark.

“At the same time as I am freed from the past & the future [when cooking]… in some subtle but definite way I am also connected, at least once in every mealtime, to a cycle of life greater and more permanent than my own.” (Love & Hunger, page 6)

For Wood, not only is cooking a way of slowing down that rushed feeling, but it’s a way of being aware of the life of the rest of the world. My own experience of cooking—and especially of cooking food that I’ve grown myself—is similar. Feeling disconnected, I think, is a few steps down the path towards feeling isolated. It saddens me to think that some people don’t have that sense of connection with other living things, at least some of the time, when they cook.

I’m aware of how namby-pamby that might sound in writing. But while a sense of separate self is important for human wellbeing, so is a sense of belonging somewhere. Food, surely, is one of the simplest ways of seeing that we belong somewhere—that we exist within a web of complicated relationships (in nature or otherwise).

The contrast between these two books, especially read in succession, the way that I have read them, really highlights the experiences people have of feeling so disconnected on such a basic level. I’m also making my way slowly through the government’s green paper for the development of a National Food Plan, and comparing it to similar approaches in the UK and Canada. Unfortunately, it’s mainly making me nervous.

On a positive note though, in response to the green paper, there are moves to make a People’s Food Plan, which hopefully will bring social and environmental concerns to the fore—or at least put them on equal terms with economic concerns. It’ll be interesting to see what shape the plan takes.

Food reading: Stupidity in Concentration

I’ve begun reading Wendell Berry, as part of some research that I’m doing, and finding, as Michael Pollan says of him, that his writing makes so clear things that should already be self-evident, and it does so in a way that is “always patient and logical, as plumb and square and scrupulous, as well-planed woodwork”. I could share about a million quotes that demonstrate this, but this one is my favourite so far. He’s writing about the stupidity of factory-farming animals, but the ideas here could apply to all sorts of areas:

“If the people in our state and national governments undertook to evaluate economic enterprises by the standards of long-term economics, they would have to employ their minds in actual thinking. For many of them, this would be a shattering experience, something altogether new, but it would also cause them to learn things and do things that would improve the lives of their constituents.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

What I love about Berry’s writing is that he doesn’t forget farmers in his talk of the stupidity of the overall system. While its not universally the case, so much of the criticism of our food system neglects to mention farmers — which, unconsciously I’m sure, serves to lump them in as part of the problem. In fact that problem is the overall business model — which, for the most part is something that’s as much imposed on farmers as it is on the people who eventually eat the food it produces.

“It ought to be obvious that in order to have sustainable agriculture, you have got to make sustainable the lives and livelihoods of the people who do the work. The land cannot thrive if the people who are its users and caretakers do not thrive.” (from Stupidity in Concentration, 2002)

Definitely something worth remembering.

~

This essay is from a collection of Berry’s work, entitled Bringing it to the Table: On Farming and Food, which is available on Amazon here. (Full disclosure: I’ve got an affiliate account with them, which means I’ll make a small commission if you purchase the book through that link.)

Too many things

Last week I finished a masters degree that I’ve been doing on and off now for four years. It’s a degree that I’ve enjoyed immensely at times, and loathed at others, but that, overall, I’m so glad to have done.

I wasn’t sure what to expect of myself when I finished. I guess I expected some relief, and maybe some sadness. But actually what I’ve ended up with is a kind of confusion about what to do now, and about a million suggestions from within my own mind about how to manage that confusion. Since Thursday (the day of my last class), I’ve had this odd excitable (bordering on manic, actually) energy.

“Energy”, when your day job is teaching people yoga, is a troublesome word to use. When I say it, people sometimes look at me strangely, thinking, I suppose, that I might start talking to them about hippy-dippy energy healing or something. I do know (and respect) people who work in that kind of therapeutic field, but when I use that word, I’m aware of those links, but that’s not really what I mean. I’m just talking about the feeling that tells you whether you’re tired or sluggish, or likely to burn through a long To Do list in five minutes flat. And for the last few days, my energy has been the latter. Well, it would be if I could only pin it down long enough to focus on something.

Yesterday morning I half-made myself three separate breakfasts because I couldn’t focus long enough to decide what I wanted. I made plans for some exciting stuff happening later in the hear, I did some reading for some writing work I’m about to start, and i planted some new green-leafy stuff in my garden. Today I made pies for some friends for afternoon-tea-lunch, but I also made a loaf of bread and a bunch of other small things. And walked around in circles in the kitchen because I kept forgetting what I was doing. Tonight I’ve started no less than four writing projects, some small, others not so. I’ve started reading about three different books since Thursday.

As I wonder which of these various projects I’ve started will actually get off the ground, I’m reminded of this talk on the paradox of choice. Because right now I feel a little like that’s what finishing uni has left me with—too much choice (yes, I know: first world problem).

I worry too that at some point I’ll crash, because that’s usually what happens for me. In fact, I’m a little surprised it hasn’t already. What I would love to learn is how to sit still with this energy and just watch it, but I so often feel like I need to use it while it’s there. I wonder how much that feeling is dependent on the pattern of energy-burn-crash-energy-burn-crash, and if I could learn to even it out a little.

This is why I do yoga. Focus. Learning to sit still. Learning to do nothing. (Which, incidentally, is what my essay in this lovely book is about.) Or, at the very least, to be aware of what’s going on and try to work with that. I wonder if it’s something I’ll ever be good at.

Writing and Life and Doris Lessing

There’s a beautiful piece by Melanie Joosten up on the Meanjin blog today about writing and how it fits (or doesn’t) into life. Joosten leans on the writing of Doris Lessing, looking for answers. Lessing, she says, “tackles that familiar feeling of inadequacy — that the artist writes out of an ‘incapacity to live’. She reminds me that writing is a way to make sense of the world and to order my thoughts.”

To my discredit, I’ve not yet read any of Lessing’s novels, but I do re-read her 1965 collection of short stories, A Man and Two Women from time to time. I’ve always been struck by the clarity of Lessing’s observations. I agree with Joosten when she writes: “I cannot think of a more electric writer, one whose words speak of things always precisely of the moment.”

But, before now, Lessing is not an author I’d have thought to look to for advice about how to fit writing into my life. Perhaps I should look to her now. Joosten’s thoughts are very familiar: “When I ask myself what kind of person I am going to be, I realise that ‘a writer’ is only part of it. If one of the ways we live our lives is to seek happiness, we have to understand what happiness means. To me, the happy life is an amalgamation of the creative life and the moral life.”

Retraining as a social worker, Joosten seems to be asking herself many of the same questions I am at the moment. Questions about how I want my life to fit together, how I want to fill my days. I realised some time ago that none of the things I currently do, I’d want to do full time. Both writing and teaching are fulfilling, but somehow more so when I’m trying to do them both, turning my life into a fairly complex puzzle. I feel like I’m just starting to get somewhere with it though, like I’ve perhaps got together all of the edge bits and a small section in the bottom right hand corner. And I’m beginning to understand now why my mum, and her mum too, love to do puzzles. Working so slowly to fill this puzzle out requires patience, and rewards that patience with a steady stream of small satisfactions.

~

If you’re interested in reading the full post by Melanie Joosten, you can find it here.

A city’s intricacy

It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its intricacy; its endless life.

    ~ The Hours, Michael Cunningham
    I’ve been trying for months now to articulate exactly this sentiment. I miss the open space of my country upbringing, I miss the clean air, I miss seeing the stars in the sky at night. But this, this layer upon later of human intricacy, is what I’d miss about the city were I to move to the country.

    An example: in a house around the corner from mine lives a man who practises his operatic singing in the middle of the day. Sometimes I happen to be walking past, and it never fails to make me smile—there he is, just the thickness of a wall away from me, singing beautifully.