Thursday, November 18, 2010

"What a beautiful place," Dobby murmured, "What a beautiful place to be with friends."

There’s a street light flashing on Aro Street. The intermittent illumination of the pavement gives an eerie feeling, as though some wizard might be lurking behind a lamp-post ready to snuff out the street’s mysterious yellow glow for covert magical affairs. Or, at least, such a scenario is pleasantly easy to imagine walking home alone at 03:49 on an either impressively late Wednesday night or unsanctimoniously early Thursday morning. Certainly not a time for any respectable human activity. Which explains why I'm out.

I often walk home from town alone. And yes, I hear the current reprimanding uproar of the more safety-conscious and general common-sense possessing individual than myself. In fact, of all my blog posts, this is the only activity that I explicitly stress you NEVER try at home. Furthermore, if you ever mention to me that you have something so pointlessly perilous, I will chastise you severely, while for my own welfare remaining daringly blasé. I am, at least, willing to admit my own hypocrisy in such a matter, if not to pay for my own taxi fare.

Disclaimer aside, I quite enjoy being alone in those underappreciated and unfamiliar hours when the sky’s palette is just beginning to show the first inklings of dawn. While the majority of normal folk lie between sheets and explore erratically the fleeting disorder of our subconscious, the world seems to quiver with anticipation of the coming light.  This mysterious predawn world and I are relatively unacquainted, but our occasional meetings bring for me a paradoxical mixture of serenity and invigoration. This morning the dusty bushfire hue of the city emerges above the jagged tree line- ponga, pine and pohutukawa through which the Wellington wind whistles its morning fanfare.  

Most haunting and pertinent of all are the melodies of the Tui which are punctuated into episodic three note melodies by the noble little birds’ timber clicks. In these very small hours Aro Valley’s resident, cravat wearing choir are already in full song. At what time do the birds start singing, I wonder? They are gossiping about the likely scandal of the day, before mother daybreak has even stretched her slender fingers over the Rimutakas.

Occasionally I like to sit on my window sill and watch the sunrise. From that window sill I have panoramic views of the habour, dotted with the shimmering lights of cars that zoom along the motorway. Once, on a windy day, I left my favourite dress on the window sill to dry. That mischievous wind that torments girls’ dresses, and upturns our umbrellas whisked it away in one great gust, right over the pohutukawa tree. I searched the street and the nearby houses, but my favourite dress had flown away, right over the Cook Strait for all I knew.

This morning the sun rises quickly. There is no treat of skies bathed in splendid peaches or golden glows, but rather an incremental and anticlimactic shift from black to blue. As the occasional whizz of cars along the motorway slows to a steady crawl of commuters, the Tui song is lost amongst the loud collision of detail, noise and hurry of the day. The world awakes and we all return routinely to the riotous chaotic pace that is everyday life.  But, I know that only a few hours before that this place was unruffled and magical- as though part of another world. So, if you ever feel overwhelmed by the flurry that is city life, take a walk with a friend, or sit on a hill to watch the sunrise. “What a beautiful place,” Dobby murmured, “What a beautiful place to be with friends.”

The view from the roof, 14 Essex Street

Sunset over my family farm, Taumarunui

Aro Park at twilight

Aro Park

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Dummy's Guide to Life and Stephen Fry on [Almost] Everything

So often have I heard my now-fellow graduates bemoaning their BA and who, after three long and fairly arduous years, still do not enjoy what they do. People who have entrenched themselves in the debt-ridden world of mountainous weekly readings, dungy damp flats, unfailingly clustered assignments, and caffeine-fuelled all-nighters of studenthood- only to ask, for what? It is of absolute importance, I believe, to love what you do. Above qualifications, money, or any other material quantifiers of ‘success,’ the ultimate achievement in life is to find and snuggle right into that niche which is entirely your own and in which you can immerse yourself wholeheartedly in your passions. That, to me, is sacrosanct.  My current genius of choice, and point of reference for all matters concerning art, life and everything in between, Stephen Fry, insists that “...everyone has it in them to express in themselves that fundamental thing that they know they are inside.” That inner person may contradict all our notions of respectability, and may be silenced by the economic imperatives, but exists within all of us- even if we haven’t discovered it yet.

I am tired of these generic classifications of success. Why, Fry asks, are we so obsessed with money, title, prestige and longevity of life? We seek these things as if there is some methodology to living and being, as though there is some unfailing formula in the pages of a best-seller. And what is most atrocious, is that these proscribed ways to ‘get thin,’ ‘get rich,’ and ‘get popular’ do become best-sellers. Are we really so misdirected as to believe that the answers to the complex and constantly evolving mysteries of life can be condensed into three hundred pages of one decisive and overpriced handbook?

Thus, it holds that we must fight against the malaise of commonality and  common expectations to find that which Henry Miller terms “...that Paradise of his own creation, that middle realm which is not a bread-and-butter Utopia of which the masses dream but an interstellar realm in which one rolls along his orbit with sublime indifference.” But such is the world that this is easier said than done. It seems glorious to idealistically rebel against the consumerist materialism of means to ends, and to break free of the dead weight of realism on our passions, but while dreams are free, following them is not necessarily so. Sometimes the artist within us must be temporarily subordinated to the unfortunate human requirements of food, clothing and weekly rent. 

Enduring the undesirable in order to achieve a particular goal is, in many instances, acknowledged as admirable determination. Persistence is often more exalted than wallowing aimlessly in a constant state of creative indecision and undefined dreams. But at what point do the ends no longer justify the means? Is it okay to work long and virtually intolerable hours in an equally intolerable job, if we insist that it is only a temporary step in the process to achieving our ultimate equilibrium? What is dangerous, to me, is how easy it is to become absorbed in the money driven routines of necessity and, in doing so, lose touch with that fundamental state of creative honesty and freedom in which we are our own and true self.

So where does my paradoxical argument lead me to? How are you to balance having to exist within a society driven by material needs and yet maintain your own creative individualism? Stephen Fry insists that goal orientation is absolutely disastrous in life. And here I have to diverge- but only slightly. I think he is wholly correct in saying that meeting your goals does not necessarily bring happiness. A life structured entirely around the pursuit of goals is, I concur, inherently dangerous. But a life without aspirations is equally wasted.  

Once again I am guilty of presenting seemingly contradictory arguments. How do you maintain hopes, dreams and aspirations without them becoming rigid and consuming? All my relatively young and admittedly naive intuition suggests is to be malleable. Let your goals be evolving, ongoing and adaptable. Allow yourself to step back from the rigidity of life formulae, of explicit intentions and of exalting material achievement, and subject your desires to constant revaluation and contextualisation. Step off the ridiculously linear work pace of the world just occasionally and clarify whether all that you profess to love and desire, is actually that. One should always have room in their minds to be astounded, and one of the greatest qualities in a person is to be willing to have their preconceptions exposed as misconceptions. So often, in the relentless and uncritical pursuit of our goals we forget to reconsider our aims in relation to the changing circumstances of our lives. There are times when we all have achieved that which we so fervently professed to desire, only to be left feeling hollow and melancholically unfulfilled. I am personally guilty of frequently loving an idea, or my perception of someone or something, rather than the actual reality.

Life, after all, is not linear but a twisting and pothole ridden road, we cannot simply coast along eternally perpendicular motorway lanes, but must diverge from the straight path to avoid obstacles and to intersect safely with others on their journey.

Often it is the journey that is the most important part. Henry Miller claims that his intention was never to become a writer, but somewhere in his attempts to express himself, became one of the greatest literary figures to grace this earth-  “Very much as if a warrior, challenged to mortal combat and having no weapons, must first forge them himself. And in the process, one that takes all his life, the purpose of his labours gets forgotten or sidetracked.” On the journey we may be forced to make sacrifices and at time accept the mundane realities and rude interjections of money in our lives. But even so, never lose sight of that which inspires you most. Constantly reassess how you are spending those precious and invaluable moments and ask whether you are truly happy, or are simply seeking an end that derives not from your true self, but projected into our minds by materialistic society. If you must subordinate your creative self in the short term, create an inner sanctum and reserve time to pursue your passions, whether they be music, art, football... anything.

To me, that passion, among other things, is writing. My love for writing has caught me quite by surprise. I have always enjoyed it, but recently I have found myself waking in the middle of the night and frantically fumbling for a notebook to jot down the rampant musings of my mind. And while I am unnerved by Thomas Aquinas’ words; “all that I have written seems in the end to be so much straw,” I write because I feel I simply must. I may not have any talent, but because at times I feel almost overwhelmed by an incredible desire to put into words what I have seen and experienced in this extraordinary world. Having worked fulltime over the past week or so, I have been denied of virtually any opportunity to write, and for some indescribable reason I am finding it quite intolerable.  I am beginning to wonder if the money is really worth it, and if I am destined for a life of a struggling, and forever unpublished writer. Here I am reassessing how I envisaged my life in a terrifying and entirely unprecedented manner.

As I am discovering, it is frightening to confront the nature and basis of our desires. I believe that we should always seek that which makes us happy, and beware of how we determine exactly what happiness is. I suppose, as a very insightful friend, just pointed out, the question is- what is orientating your goals? But that is only my humble opinion, hence I leave you in the inspiring hands of the wonderful Stephen Fry who has something wise to say on virtually everything.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Impossible is nothing.

Wow, epiphany.

=“The sudden realisation or comprehension of the (larger) essence or meaning of something.”

There are some things in life that we can be told time and time again and yet simply cannot or chose not to believe them. There are those truths barraged at us in a deluge of constant fire from all sides, which fail to permeate our armour. They can pound at the gates of our consciousness, or can gradually attempt to caress and ease us into believing and embracing them. But so frequently we chose to remain an impenetrable fortress of pre-conceptions and sometimes sheer fallacy. We know, on a subliminal level, that what people are telling us is honest, heart-felt, well-meaning and often infinitely valuable, but we, for seemingly inexplicable reasons, are unwilling to acknowledge what we know to be true in our heart of hearts.  Sometimes it takes a cataclysmic moment for us to truly and unreservedly accept what suddenly seems a blatant and self-evident truth. These moments are often unremarkable in themselves; a particular quote we stumble across in a book, a passing comment from a stranger, or a sight we encounter during the most routine of activities, but they can illuminate a deeper frame of reference in which the truth is simply undeniable. In a single second we can experience something that can crumble the facade we have tenaciously maintained, and we can finally gain a holistic and applicable understanding of what has been impressed upon and explained to us throughout our entire lives. It is often in the places we least expect to, that we find the most profound truths.

Self-belief is one of those truths. To believe that you are beautiful, fabulous, and valuable is one of the hardest things in human existence. Our modern world has seen a proliferation of inspirational media, of blogs, books, music- all attempts to impress upon us our own magnificence. A multitude of can-do literature insists that we can achieve anything, that we can surmount the proverbial Everest in our lives, that impossible is nothing. Yet, no matter how many tales of astonishing audacity we may hear, how often it is asserted that everyone is special in their own unique way, we, as humans, remain fundamentally insecure. A compliment can sit pertinently with us, but one irking negative comment too can consume and fixate us.

“Tall poppy syndrome” needs no introduction.  It is, everyone from our politicians to our primary school teachers reiterates, a plague upon our nation, a debilitating and progress-hindering characteristic of our people. Indeed, I think New Zealand is an inherently, and sometimes overly modest nation. We find it hard to accept compliments and insist that we are undeserved of praise even to the point of ridiculousness. There is almost a social obligation to appear modest and to keep our accomplishments quiet so as not to show disdain. But why? It seems that we could benefit from lifting our chins up with the certain pride and imperviousness that Sophie Ward claims serves New Yorkers well it seems.

In my opinion, this syndrome of cutting down our most blossoming is in decline, but it remains a damaging and deeply etched imprint on our psyche. I think that my greatest exposure to tall poppy syndrome occurred during my early life in small, rural and isolated Ongarue. I remember a time when it was phenomenally “uncool” to do well in school, and the phrase “try-hard” became generically derogatory. I spent the latter of my primary school years desperately trying to adjudicate a balance between what I knew I could achieve and adopting a rebellious, apathetic persona. I would put on a front of deliberate laboriousness in doing my maths work and walk with my friends during cross country training when I knew I loved to run.

But, at least increasingly, in the real world it’s not cool to play dumb anymore. We have developed an almost congenital paranoia that people will judge us for being ourselves, and for expressing confidence in our own abilities when, at least on the majority of occasions, I like to hope this is no longer the case. Maybe this is my inherently optimistic side liberal Wellingtonian self in full voice, but, increasingly, it’s not homosexuality that’s frowned upon, but homophobia. Intelligence is highly regarded, success to be aspired to, hard work admired, and self-confidence can be sexy without being arrogant.

That isn’t to say that modesty isn’t virtuous. Our down-to-earth nature is something that New Zealanders can, and should take pride in, but we should not become a nation of self-apologists. Humility is becoming, yes, but being a shrinking violet is not.


So, what was my epiphany?
Until recently when people told me, “he’s not out of your league,” “there’s no such thing as leagues” their well-intentioned words fell deaf on my ears as I ascertained that they were simply “being nice.” Undoubtedly they were trying nobly to bolster my confidence while painfully aware that I was destined to fall victim to the inevitably unrequited pangs of the heart. Ironically, words of wisdom from one of the very people I designated as “way out of my league” were the beam of truth that finally and fundamentally challenged my obstinate intransigence - my moment of realisation.

While I may live to be humbly disproved I am finally convinced that “leagues” are a crazy and obsolescent, if not obsolete, relic. The notion of 'leagues' is no more than a convenient lens through which to view life and relationships, without having to address the realities of each individual situation. By dismissing someone as 'out our league,' routinely labelling a task as ‘too hard,’ or a goal beyond our reach it makes it easier to ignore the real, individual and sometimes incomprehensible, or even hurtful reasons why things may not transpire as we envision. And indeed, reality is such that our feelings may be unrequited, or we may not achieve what we had initially aspired to. But by attributing an outcome in relationships (or lack thereof) to an overarching and unchallengeable principle such as "leagues" or "hierarchies" I think people are trying to find simple and blanket explanations for complex and unique situations that we often find hard to understand.

In a way, I certainly at least, have tended to use the notion of leagues like a security blanket. By convincing ourselves that something is unattainable we are anesthetising ourselves to the pain of shattered expectations. Yet, at the same time, if we approach life/situations with a defeatist attitude or preordained sense of inadequacy, it can too easily and become a tragically self-fulfilling prophesy. Dismissing ourselves, our worth and our prospects is not only to undermine the fundamental principles of equality, liberty, and socially mobility that have shaped some of the most valiant battles history and become the celebrated hallmarks of modern society, but it is the death knoll of proactivity, self-improvement and progress. Where would Cinderella be if she had never gone to the ball?To accept the notion of leagues is to solidify oneself rigidly on an artificial social stratification, in which we convince ourselves that we have only certain and limited entitlements. This is false. By are, by virtue of our comparative privilege, endowed with an ability to make of ourselves what we wish.

For a multitude of reasons we may find ourselves hurt or rejected, yet if we never take a chance our hollow negative convictions are given empirical resonance. It is circular logic that is particularly dangerous in matters of the heart. We may shroud ourselves in security blankets of preconceptions and pre-determined failure, but ultimately these blankets are damp and unflattering, serving only to wrap us in self-perpetuating misery and lingering ‘what-ifs?’
Clichés are written for a reason. It is only through exposing ourselves at our most vulnerable that we are ultimately able to reach the highest pinnacle of strength. It takes braving the cold, the elements, but most of all one’s own self-belief to conquer Everest. Freezing your heart will only confound those irking insecurities which gnaw constantly at you, themselves gaining strength for the next opportunity to rear their ugly head. Mark Twain left us with the impeccable wisdom that “In twenty years time you will more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than what you did do.” Carpe Diem. My four favourite wise men sang that “the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  Seize the day. Emmy award winning director Bertram Van Munster observed that “the world is smaller than you think, and the people on it are more beautiful than you think.” Succour all the marrow out of life. Humanity is endowed with an unbounded ability for pleasant surprise.  Take a leap.  Allow your preconceptions be blown out of the water by something extraordinary. Dream. It’s incredibly refreshing to approach the world with just a little bit of faith. Love.  And even if that faith proves unfounded there is remarkable freedom in knowing that you have been unapologetic to your own potential. Live.

I said that we often find the most profound truths in the most unassuming of places. It was Winnie the Pooh who said “ are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think...”

For once-
Believe it.