There’s a place in Tuscany, high in the verdant hills over Florence that truly understands the art of dining.
You see, there is a striking difference between the art of eating and the art of dining.
It is as the violinist is to the orchestra.
One sings a delicate tune on its own while the other is cloaked in a true sense of occasion and requires a skilled conductor to bring it to a crescendo.
This place, nestled in a plump explosion of spring flora, has a room with a view.
Its dining hall is at once grand and yet understated.
Gargantuan wrought iron light fittings dangle from the high-beamed ceiling.
Three tall windows wink their silk drapes at the sparkling vista of Florence below.
Tables are aligned in knee-grazing proximity under tapestry veiled lamps in long elegant rows. Places are set with gleaming silver cutlery and gold rimmed porcelain.
But as anyone in the last century who has eaten in this room knows; the art of dining doesn’t begin at the table.
At this place I know, one dresses for dinner. If ladies have jewellery, they adorn themselves. If gentlemen own suits, then don them.
Perfume and cologne is daubed.
Then, once frocked, the shimmering attendees assemble in a peppering of prosecco-sipping elegance on the upper terrace as fireflies at dusk.
The great Italian tradition of an aperitif before dinner is a breathlessly inspired way to prepare one for the dining room.
The informal occasion provides an opportunity for people to introduce themselves, to gaze at the layered horizon and to infuse a little fizz into their blood.
At this place I know, high on the hills of Florence, the diners mingle on the terrace or dot themselves in the many lamp-lit reception rooms on the evenings when it’s a little cooler.
There’s conversation, there’s laughter, there’s the quite social dance of placing the people you meet.
Perhaps a widow is grieving, or honeymooners are quarrelling; the grand array of social minutia are all assessed silently with prosecco in hand.
And then, ladies and gentlemen, one is called to dinner.
I swear there is nothing that demarks a sense of occasion more than a suited Italian thronging a great brass bell for dinner.
The grand room is seated precisely at seven thirty. This is not the sort of place where you ask to change your table because every placement has been decided upon with the utmost attention to detail.
The morose widowed gentlemen who neatly tucks a stiff linen napkin into his collar and sadly sprinkles his pasta with lashings of parmesan lights up when the younger German couple who have been seated next to him immediately engage a conversation.
The more privately ensconced romantics are placed in a long line of loving gazes and seem internally lit by the tall candles emanating from silver candlesticks between them.
The larger groups of families are seated in the middle of the room and their boisterous familiarity radiates outwards and sets a flame to the room as a match to a firecracker.
Then dinner is served.
It comes in three courses. There is always a choice between a pasta or soup for first and something dolce or fruit for dessert but the main is always set.
It is served on broad silver trays with enough helpings for the table. Each portion is delicately proffered between two clasped spoons and lands as a delicious assertion on your plate.
Salad leaves are served to the entire room from one bowl. Dressed in nothing but ground salt and olive oil so young it tastes like the colour green, it’s placed leaf by leaf on side plates.
When the entire room is served, the dance begins.
Each table, placed so closely together, bleeds conversation onto the next until the room is brought to a crescendo that most symphonies would envy.
When all somehow simultaneously arrive at third course, such is the comradery that when another table notices that someone has only bread to accompany their gooey slab of gorgonzola, they slide across a gnarled apple from their fruit basket so that they may enjoy a better match.
Afterwards, gentlemen order whiskies and ladies limoncello. They wander back to the terrace and gaze at the twinkling nebula that is Florence and the olive grove before it; now lit silver with the moon.
There will be always be expensive restaurants with silver service and gilded cutlery. But there are few, even with their sense of refinery and etiquette, who have a true sense of the art of dining.
Luckily then, that somewhere on the slopes of a Tuscan hillside, on a bougainvillea draped terrace, there is a place that does.
And for a price of a three course meal, I might just let you in on it.
In the 17th century a steady stream of swarthy English gentry would don heavy linens, straw hats and voluminous silk neck ties, fill their wallets with Daddy’s money and make an educational rite of passage through Europe.
The Hotel Palazzo Murat, nestled in the green culdera of Positano’s bosom is the sort of place they would end up, and so it seems, have I.
I’m here for ten days.
Ten days is a long time you may think, but it’s the length of time you need to understand a place; to sense its tides and inhale it in and out as each sun sets and rises.
The Palazzo Murat is a place in which people linger.
As a writer, places where people linger are the best sorts of places. John Steinbeck lingered here, as did Semenov, Zagoruiko and Escher.
I wonder if they enjoyed their espresso with doughy sweet almond biscuits as I do right now.
I wonder if they glanced up to the same cascading bougainvillea and peeped through the yellow-doored upper floor to see what Italian intrigue was going on within.
I wonder if they were served tea in silver pots at breakfast, if they watched the deep turquoise ocean thrash below them, if they lounged on the terrace at dusk and put ink to paper as I put finger to keyboard.
I am always quietly obsessed with the workings of the hotels in which I stay.
Being on my own allows me time to indulge and observe like a quietly amused Mona Lisa on the wall.
I always choose places like this; places once owned by kings and aristocrats, places haunted with the embers of ancient fireplaces and whisper-stained wall paper.
It’s in hotels like these that the past entwines with the present and history pulses as a ghost from within.
However, on this warm April eve in the twenty first century, the Murat is filled with the living.
It’s filled with people like Chico, who greets me every morning with a thundering “Bellisimo” and who offers me a freshly sliced red rose with my steaming coffee.
It’s filled with people like Noami, who giggles with me as if we are both in on a universal and unspoken joke and who feels more like a sister than someone whom I have just met.
And it’s filled with people like Nick who although unspeakably handsome, seems shy and unaware as we chat on the terrace and he tells me of riding his Vespa through the winding roads to his home in the hills.
I’m alone now on the terrace, sipping a Pinot Grigio and listening to the evening song of the little birds that hop in the lemon trellis netting the gardens below.
But although I’m the only one here, in a place like the Hotel Palazzo Murat when the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the present coexist, one is never really on their own.
I have one thing left; a fridge.
It is the last remaining testament to a life of ‘owning’ things. Little does the fridge know however, as it unassumingly chills my wine and cheese, that it too will go.
You see I’m 38 and I’ve just sold everything I own.
I have kept trinkets, letters and small works of art that I’ve collected from the breezy street galleries and musty market bazaars of my travels. But everything else, everything, is gone.
It all began on one of those inky moon-beam nights in Brisbane when the possums scratch, the bats screech and the air is so still and hot that it throbs. I was taking some time out to decide exactly how best to use my long service leave and to tell you the truth I was stumped.
I knew that I wanted to travel, to write, to rest and I knew that I needed time and space to breathe life back into my little beating heart.
It came as a flash to me in that moment… perhaps I’ll try to sell some of my clutter.
I thought that if I got started by getting rid of the little things that seemed to take up space in my apartment that my mind would clear too.
The next morning I decided to sell a little white table that I’d earnestly collected on a rainy day at the Paddington Antiques Centre. The response was immediate.
Within one hour of advertising my little white table it was no longer my little white table. It now belonged to a lovely lady who was redecorating her house in retirement and who was chuffed to have secured quite the bargain.
And let me tell you how I felt when my gorgeous, intricately carved, pressed-metal-handled antique table walked out the door… elated.
It was as if, in that instant, I became untethered.
And so began the selling. I’m not one to do things by halves, indeed I can get a little carried away, but as each item walked out the door, the lighter, more euphoric I felt and the more I wanted to sell.
At the half way point I decided to sell it all.
I realised that this rebirth was indeed on a biblical scale and it wouldn’t be complete until I submerged myself.
A colourful procession of the newly divorced, relocating, broke and broken visited me in my little apartment, connected for a moment over the object that we were exchanging and left my home with a skip and a smile. I was letting go of the ‘things’ but I was connecting with others.
At some point in the weeks that followed I ended my lease and bought a ticket to Italy. My moonlight prophesy was coming true. I was sleeping better, feeling better and the fog that had hovered before me was lifting.
It was in this process of ‘letting go’ that I gained something; a sense of myself and a sense of a future untethered from possessions and almost phosphorescent with possibility.
This ‘selling everything you own’ is not for everyone and indeed I know that at some time in the future I will no doubt spend rainy afternoons collecting trinkets in antique stores and surrounding myself with beautiful things again. But these things will no longer anchor me to a time and place that I don’t wish to be anchored to.
I won’t let them.
What has become clear as I sit in my unfurnished apartment with a ticket to Italy in my pocket is this…
There is no need to yearn for possessions that I no longer possess because I never owned them anyway. They are, just as everything else before them and everything after, due to go back to the place from which they came.
From dust to dust.
I’ve had it. I’m done. Over it. Kaput.
Yes, you heard it. I am done with modern living.
Usually I write of inspiring and uplifting topics. I look to see the best in things, people and places but not today. No not today.
Today I am officially over it.
I wish to rant and rage and burn into the night. I wish to bend down on bloodied knee, light a flame and howl at the moon in anguish about the world that we have created for ourselves.
So what exactly I’m sick of tired of? I am exasperated beyond originality. I am sick and tired of everything! Every. Single. Little. Thing!
For one (and yes my finger is wagging) I’m so sick and tired of the weight of expectation placed on what and how the modern-human eats.
We’re not allowed to eat carbs, sugar or fat. We have to activate our almonds before placing them in a bowl of paleo grains garnished with heirloom berries that have soaked in organic yoghurt that’s gestated in the gut of foraging goats who only ever graze on a grassy sea-breeze blown hilltop.
A trip to the shopping centre is not enjoyable. It’s filled instead with the pressure of doing the right thing.
I’m not just looking for milk and bread. No. No I’m looking for non-GMO, low fat, high protein, gluten avoidant, RSPCA back-slapped, hormone free, organic, ethical, happy, sugar-free, fake-sugar-free, Palaeolithic, biodegradable, donation-to-charity, low calorie, slow releasing food.
I’m not saying that all of these things aren’t good. Of course I want the goat that’s gestated my yoghurt to have a nice life. I would never deny a goat a slow-sea-stare. But I’m riddled with guilt and confusion down the shopping aisles and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
It’s at this point that I must admit to loving the seventies program ‘The Good Life.’ Not to be mistaken for Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie’s vacuous and soul-destroying reality show ‘The Simple Life’, ‘The Good Life’ was actually about living simply, not simpleton living.
The lead characters Tom and Barbara (remember when names were simple too?) set up an entirely self-sufficient house in Surbiton with their own chickens, food and electricity. But far from trying to impress their local Hipster collective, their only motivation was to live a straightforward life. A good life.
In 2014 one isn’t expected to know what a good life is. We are harassed, harangued, bullied and coerced in every direction we manage to flick our world-weary eyes.
Advertising is so ubiquitous that one can no longer even enter a restroom or pour petrol from a bowser without being talked at.
After a long day of consuming you-are-worthless-unless-you-buy messages on busses, billboards, TVs, magazines, coffee cups, novelty cars, place mats, park benches, clothing, water bottles, movie screens, pop-ups, elevators and even as the first thing you see before you try to escape the world on a flight away from it all, you would be excused for wanting to grab a cold one and switch off.
But now… now the ads find you. Oh yes, now you’re targeted. Now you are hunted down. Your details are collected and filed and distributed and every single thing you’ve consumed or bought or glanced at is push-notified and location-allowed.
Somewhere an Austin-Powers-nemesis-type-dude is stroking a white cat on a slow swinging chair and planning your demise with a good dose of 21st century ‘consumption’.
There comes a point when the anxiety of modern life becomes too much. It’s too loud. It’s too demanding. It’s too shallow and laborious. It’s too conforming and judgemental.
Something has to give.
I heard Michael Katakis speak this year at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. An enigmatic and charming man who strode into the hall with a soft leather briefcase, caramel trench coat and wood-handled umbrella; Katakis is a chap who likes simple things.
Not only is he a world renowned writer but he also has the glorious title of being official guardian of Hemingway’s literary estate. Now there was a man who liked simple things.
In his latest collection of essays ‘A Thousand Shards of Glass’ Katakis traces his self-imposed exile from America. In it he states:
“The nation of menial tasks and lists was unacceptable to us and we were not going to allow it to rob us of our lives or drown us in a trivial sea. We wanted a simple life filled with daily work done well and time together that was not interrupted other than by people we loved. We wanted to get far away from what we came to refer to as the American Noise.”
He’s got a point. Oh to live a life with time only interrupted by those we love.
Every time the ‘noise’ gets too loud for me I state clearly to anyone who will listen that I am going to give it all up and live in a tree. I sound daft when I say this. Deranged even. But I don’t mean to give up on life. Just modern life.
It will be a fine tree that I’ll live in, by the way.
There will be good food and bookshelves heaped to the ceiling. I’ll pop down at times and go for lovely long walks. Occasionally I’ll swim in the ocean under silvery moonlight. There will be comforts but not consumption. Things will ‘open’ not ‘turn on’. There will be a sense of calm that will cloak my little tree as night falls and I will sleep soundly.
Ah the good life.
Who’s with me?
My sister is a Clinical Neuropsychologist. I have yet to see a person meet her and not worriedly suggest that she has been psychoanalysing them.
Little do they know that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s not my sister who’s watching them. It’s me.
You see, I’m a writer.
It is instinctual for me and those of my kind to watch. We watch the way you walk, stand, sit, even the way your smile spreads from the left side of your mouth to the right.
We watch how one leg kicks out a little faster than the other, how you nervously rub your lips together before saying something important and even how far you lean forward to sit.
Every little thing about you is interesting.
Recently I arrived two hours early for an evening class. I’m the kind of person who arrives early to everything.
I sit for hours in airports, bars and parks before the designated time to do so. It’s not because I’m particularly anxious about being on time or that I enjoy solitude, although I do, it is purely because I like to watch.
So there I was, two hours early, toting my notebook and a glass of Shiraz at the café downstairs. I made all of the small little movements and flutters to make it appear as though I was about to do some ‘serious’ work type behaviour but what I really did was lift my eyes and ears to the room around me.
On the first week I was immersed listening to a conversation between an elderly couple who were reminiscing about their travels through South America.
Although both in the latter half of a century on Earth the woman seemed a little younger. She attentively brought her husband hot tea from the counter and placed an adoring hand on his upper knee.
There weren’t many words shared between them. They didn’t need words. They communicated with glances and small smiles and seemed symbiotic even to the extent that by the end of their drinks they were sipping simultaneously.
On the second week I sat with my red wine and had the great pleasure of observing a first date. Ooooh I love watching first dates. They have to be one of my favourite ‘watching’ experiences. There is so much nervous energy and uncertainty.
From my spot in the corner I watched this rather odd couple; a beautiful young woman in sexy spray-painted leggings and a much older portly gentlemen with a monk’s crescent of hair and a business shirt pulled tightly over his tummy as plastic over a basketball.
He so painfully wanted to impress her that he assumed a ‘Downton Abbey’ formality asking loudly at the counter “Could you please tell us which hot drinks you serve at this establishment?” She cringed and he hovered hopefully as her ‘hot drink’ benefactor.
On the third week I was onto my second glass of red when a linen adorned older woman and young Adonis sat down to a sandwich. My mind immediately imagined a torrid affair.
It was the ‘watching’ jackpot. But it didn’t take long to realise that instead of pre-copulation carbohydrate it was instead a language lesson.
The young Italian man sat patiently as the glamorous older lady fumbled through an I-pad assisted conversation with him in his native tongue.
He seemed distracted but occasionally stroked her upper arm in encouragement which I can assure you she indeed found very encouraging.
There are over 300 000 people in Australia who would fill their occupation as ‘writer’ on the type of paperwork that asks this question.
That’s a lot of people ‘people’ watching.
But watching is far removed from its ugly cousin stalking, or even its mutated sister slander. No, watching is altogether different. It’s a writer’s lifeblood. It’s the joy of observing every little beautiful thing about what it is to be human and every person’s unique experience of that condition.
I once had a writing teacher say that she loved to watch people fight. It wasn’t because she enjoyed conflict or that she was into a bit of biffo. No, it was because it is in an argument that a person responds instinctually.
When a writer observes true instinct they can colour their characters with the sort of complexity that breathes life into them.
We aren’t to be feared. We are good people, we truly are.
And we aren’t watching you so that we can write about you. We are watching you so that we can understand people and write compelling and human characters from the swill of ‘conversations-listened-to’ that swirl within us.
So to the elderly couple, the first date and the language lesson I say thank you. I don’t know your names and I don’t want to. But I do know how you react to touch, hot drinks and new languages and for that my characters and I will be forever indebted.
Somewhere in the depths of a Parisian cemetery there is a tombstone with my lipstick on it.
In fact my lips weren’t the only ones to touch it. It is smothered in red from people all over the world who wanted to kiss a dead man.
When I found Oscar Wilde’s resting place on that crisp autumnal day I was overcome. I harbour a deep intimacy with the writers I read and it was this feeling that drew me to kiss the tombstone.
As a matter of fact, I am always drawn to touch and I don’t think I’m the only one.
Have you noticed that in any place of cultural and creative significance in the world there is a little roped barricade? Sometimes there’s even a guard.
Yup. I’ve noticed them too. They are for people like me.
They’re for the touchers.
I remember being quite sternly reprimanded once when in Stratford Upon Avon in the house where Shakespeare was born. Repeat… Shakespeare. I found myself looking at the very bed where he entered this mortal coil.
The. Very. Bed.
There I was. And there was the guard in the corner of the room. What was he going to do? Arrest me?
With lightning speed I lunged forward to grope the bed. It was ungainly and rather desperate but I like to think Shakespeare would have appreciated the comedic nature of the scene. I also like to think that we had a little moment, the Bard and I.
Touching has always been a way that humans connect but when one of the two humans has been dead for over four hundred years, touching something that has touched them is as close as you can get.
Something magical happens when people touch. Some even think that much more is shared through touching than you think.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, spoke about the nature of creativity in Brisbane this year.
She said that when she and a good friend, fellow novelist Ann Patchett, both came up with an identical novel concept at the same time they were stunned. They traced back to the moment when they first met and had shared a kiss on the cheek. In that moment, Gilbert said, the idea transferred through touch.
This idea isn’t new.
In one of the most universally recognisable images on Earth painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, ‘The Creation of Adam’ depicts God breathing life into the first man, Adam.
And how does he do this? Through touch.
You can see the same phenomena at rock concerts. Fans surge forward with arms outstretched in the slim hope that they can touch their idol and in some way take some godliness for themselves.
Put me in a place of historical significance and I’m not much better than a screaming fan. It’s as though, somehow, by touching a queen’s bed or book or statue that I can in some way be there with them in the same moment of time when they touched it in the first place.
Touch can not only breath life back into people of the past but into the living too.
It is widely held that people in comas respond to touch even when they are in an altered consciousness.
Touch it seems, is a powerful thing.
Not far from Wilde’s tombstone in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris lies the resting place of another historical figure. Jim Morrison’s grave is so popular that it is even depicted on tourist brochures.
There are those who stand sentinel at the spot through rain, hail and shine rocking in rhythmic adulation as they try to connect with a dead man.
Perhaps when he penned the wildly sensual lyrics: “Come on now touch me, baby. Can’t you see that I am not afraid,” he wasn’t just referring to the sexual nature of touching that he was known for.
I like to think that he simply knew that there was a hell of a lot more to it than that.
Every single year on the fourteenth of February I receive a love note. Yes, even the years when I have been more single than a McCain’s-meal-for-one I have received a Valentine on Valentine’s Day.
They began as cards, then letters, then they morphed into emails, texts and Facebook messages. But every single year they come, without fail, to remind me that I am loved.
They aren’t from an amorous beau, a persistent pursuer or a serious stalker. No, they are all, every single one of them, from my best friend.
It’s a little ritual we have. No matter our location, time difference or marital state, we never fail to send a Valentine to reaffirm our friendship.
You see, I come from a strong friend family. Yup, a friend family.
In this era of instant gratification and short attention spans when people are dismissed, unfriended and abandoned just as quickly as they are ‘added’ there is a group of women whom I have been closely bound to since I was twelve.
We’re an eclectic bunch of spirited, intelligent and stylish senoritas but we all have one thing in common; our friendship. And we’re not about to give that up.
When Thelma and Louise clasped hands and floored their car over a cliff to avoid jail it was the ultimate symbol of sisterly solidarity. Thankfully, none of my friends and I have been driven to this finale, but we’ve been there for each other in every ‘drive off the cliff’ moment of life.
We ‘turn up’ for our friendship. We live on three different continents and yet we have been there emotionally for each other through every break up, break down, job loss, illness, injury, success, death, birth and marriage.
As the chorus line in Friends goes: “I’ll be there for you…” and we are.
As one of the most popular shows exploring friendship in the modern era, Friends is a great example of how people who are polar opposites can maintain truly meaningful relationships with each other just by committing to their friendship.
Four other characters who celebrated friendship as we do and who belonged to the most ‘of its time’ program about female friendship is… well it barely needs an introduction does it?
Sex and the City and the friendship between Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte was breakthrough TV when it launched. And sure, although at times vacuous, simplistic and frivolous, there was something about the way those women connected, the way they prioritised their friendship family that my little girly gang has always identified with.
We weren’t the only ones. When the final episode of SATC aired, women gathered all over the world to throw parties celebrating not only the show, but their friendships.
Kim Akas, a lecturer in film studies at the London Metropolitan University says the program has given women… “permission to have female friendships that are more important than anything else.”
Now I’m not saying that biological families aren’t important, nor husbands, children and partners. What I am saying is that friendship provides a richness to life that may not be found elsewhere.
There’s something incredibly intimate, nourishing and safe when you are held in the cradle of a friendship group that spans decades and sprawls back to before a time you even truly knew yourself.
When the poet John Donne suggested that ‘No man is an island’ he may very well have been talking about us, minus the man bit. Because the most enduring loveliness of having such a strong group of friends is the thought that we are never quite alone.
So girls, I say thanks. And in the words of Thelma to her rather psychotic friend Louise, I want you all to know that: “No matter what happens I’m glad I came with you.”
Teachers spend a lot of time telling other people what to do. They organise, instruct, facilitate, demand, cajole and convince.
There is a lot of… Students stand up. Sit down. Open your books. Look this way. Listen. Follow me. Do your homework. I said sit down.
Yes, there is a lot of that. And most of it is necessary. But somewhere along the way, after all of that time telling other people what to do, teachers forget what it’s like to be on the other side of the weight of expectation and the wagging finger.
Perhaps what’s called for is a little table turning. Perhaps all teachers should become students for a day.
And here, ladies and gentleman, are three reasons why teachers should try the switcheroo.
How long has it been since you’ve had to sit for 6 hours every day for an entire working week? Then imagine being twisted in an undoubtedly un-ergonomic plastic chair to face a person expecting you to listen.
How long has it been since you had to request any movement from that chair, or request a tissue, a drink, a lavatory break? How would all of that make you feel?
I know that most teachers want to be good teachers, and they are, but there’s nothing like empathy to make you an even better one.
Teachers are in the knowledge business. So how, indeed, can one possibly see an end point to that? How can a teacher possibly ‘know it all’? They can’t, and we all ‘know’ that.
By enrolling in a night class, online course or another academic pursuit they are not only becoming more valuable teachers but dare I say it more interesting people.
Three: Self Reflection
When teachers become students there’s a new teacher in the room, and it’s not them. This is key people. It is not them. Instead it’s a huge mirror reflecting them.
The teacher who has the joy of teaching a teacher (insert sarcasm) is using all of their teacher techniques on said teacher.
What a beautiful opportunity to see just how effective positive reinforcement, encouragement and support are and how debilitating mockery and ridicule is.
This week’s Memoir Monday is a little different. It’s not a diary entry or snippet of reflection.
It is, instead, a poem.
Occasionally, for some reason unbeknownst to me, a poem finds me.
I very, very seldom write them but I found this rather miserable treasure deep in my electronic files this morning and thought I’d bring it to the surface.
I can’t for the life of me recall where I was or when I wrote it. What I do know is that it was a least a decade in the past.
It wasn’t even titled, which leads me to think I was in a particularly sombre state. I wrote though. I wrote.
It’s nice to meet myself again in these moments.
He is a glutinous boneless heap of molten blood
Slack jaw, throbbing
Pain sears at him
Pulsating as a jabbing tribal warrior
Spears into his skin
The waves come with impending, ominous, doom
Although his skin seems numb
A primitive pain clenches at his jaw
Convulses, steams straight to the crushed ball of pain in his throat
A momentary nothingness
He stares at the nothingness, stare, stare, stare, stare, stare, stare
He is the smallest speck of grit on the stained carpet
And yet he is larger than everything
Consumed by his own black hole
Swallowed up inside himself, twisting with the god-like scientific fury of matter
All but nothing
The haunted shadow of others swallowed whole skitter in front of him
A glimpse of complete annihilation
The bridge, the window sill, the moment
He sinks into it
Rolls around in its hedonistic self indulgence, a thick chocolate lacquer of self-loathing
The sexy draw of pity and hot tears
He licks from the window his own raindrops
His own silky sadness
He picks himself out of it elbow by elbow as a marionette
He knows that the sun seeks him out like a yellow clap
Nature calls him back to ease the throbbing in his sockets
Distracts him from his own cat-like introspection
The whirlpool slows to a tepid, smooth undulant heaving mass
It pulsates with his breath Read More
Last night I woke at 3 a.m.
When you live on your own, 3 a.m. is about alone as alone gets.
So I lay there, in my ‘aloneness’.
At this point, staring into the darkness, the ‘lonely’ dog sat at the end of my bed. Would I feed it until it lay full and satisfied and snuggled with me under the sheets?
I knew that the weight of it lying there with me would be suffocating. I knew it would be dark.
As I contemplated this emotional defeat, a thought slipped into my head…
‘I am so lucky to be alone’.
The thought made the bed seem warmer. My eyes began to adjust to the dark.
A memory surfaced, just as memories tend to when it’s 3 a.m. and the subconscious is in that slippery state between the past and the present.
I remembered a conversation with a Balinese woman whom I had once befriended.
The Balinese live in beautiful family compounds, or Karangs, where several generations live together. At the entrance to every compound is a painted number stating how many live within and it’s not uncommon to see sixty and higher.
I had remembered thinking how wonderful it would be to live with so many people and to have their support and love and I had asked her what it was like.
‘To tell you the truth, I just want some time to myself.’
I thought about her and I thought about what a privilege it was to have this sacred early hour to myself. I thought about how lucky I was to have a beautiful space to myself in which to dream and turn and marinate in inky darkness.
‘I am so lucky to be alone,’ I repeated.
Perhaps I was beginning to spin a thread between loneliness and solitude.
Solitude. Now there’s a word.
Solitude brings silence. Buddha says that when a person knows the solitude of silence and feels the joy of quietness, they are free from fear.
However, Western culture seems to suggest that we should be afraid of being alone. Very afraid.
When Tom Hank’s character Chuck, was ‘Cast Away’ on a deserted island, rather than being ‘free from fear’ he was consumed with it.
So much so that he painted a washed up volleyball with a face, called it Wilson and conversed with it in a desperate attempt to deny his solitude. To shut it out.
I understand the need for connection, yes, and I’m not suggesting that a life without connection is richer than one with it (preferably not with a volleyball).
What I am saying however, is that when we are confronted with ‘aloneness’ perhaps we could befriend it? Perhaps that dark space isn’t so menacing after all? Perhaps it’s delicious? Decadent? Devine?
Perhaps we could convert it to solitude?
Many thought that Jessica Watson, in 2010 the youngest person to sail solo around the world, would have felt lonely.
But far from painting sporting equipment with eyes and a nose, Jessica actually felt happy.
About a month into her journey she told the Sydney Morning Herald: “I might be about as physically alone as you can get, but I’m not depressed about it at all. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world.”
There’s a reason that people go to the mountains and hike and sail solo, it’s because they’re not only conquering the task, they’re conquering themselves.
Not only does solitude give us the power to defeat our inner demons, but it brings us the opportunity to look outward.
Solitude gives us space to be quiet; both from the noise of conversations with others and from the noise of our own ‘monkey minds’.
I remember Dr Ramesh Manocha, head of the Meditation Research Programme at the University of Sydney and the man who introduced me to meditation, giggling uproariously at the difference between the Western and Eastern definition of this ancient art.
The Oxford Dictionary, for example, says that to meditate is to ‘think deeply about something’.
Dr Manocha however, suggests that in actual fact meditation is the complete ‘absence’ of thought.
You may or may not call it meditation, but I bet you have experienced that moment of solitude when you are quiet, calm and relaxed and then you suddenly ‘switched back’, realising that if only for a moment, you had complete ‘absence of thought.’
It’s during these moments that I feel most connected to nature. I think it’s because with the quieting of my mind, the sounds of the natural world rush in to fill it.
I wonder if that’s how Robinson Crusoe felt when he awoke at 3 a.m. alone on his island with nothing but the sound of the monkeys and falling coconuts.
Was he indulging in the decadent dark, defeating his inner demons or did he conclude, as Defoe wrote in his novel of the same name ‘that it was possible… to be more happy in this forsaken, solitary condition that it was possible (to) ever have been in any other particular state in the world.”
I hope so.