Thursday, March 26, 2015

Warning: Adult content

Nobody told me there would be a photocopier. Or that there would be chatter amongst it, adults swarming around it like a waterhole. I was not warned that the game of charades would go on for so long. Sometimes I don't want to play at all. It's not fun but it's something else. And there is merit in things that are not fun.

Being an adult is not at all like how you imagine it as a child. You imagine a fullness, a completeness that is satisfying, a tick in a box, the way you feel when you connect the dots in one of those numbered drawing books or on Mr. Squiggle. I would be lying if I said it was empty but it is a strange world to navigate, at least at first.

At first you feel like a fraud. Do people know that I don't know what I'm doing? Nobody knows what they're doing. It's just that nobody tells. Everybody gets so good at pretending to know what they're doing they begin to believe it, that they know what they're doing even when and especially when they don't.

They don't tell you what small talk really means. Small talk is when adults take words that have so much potential and completely drain them of life and meaning. They reduce the possibility of words to communicate something honest, interesting and strange and make it as tiny and insignificant as possible. Adults have a funny way of turning things on their head. Not all adults of course but a big bunch of them.

Lots of them believe that the work they do is everything and their world shrinks to the size of their small talk. Their minds become as small as their words and pretty soon their entire adult world could be closed up in the tiny fist of an infant.

But not all of them, of course. A lot of them, like the Dad in Peter Pan, takes out his dreams at night and watches them dance and fly fast from the drawers. And each night it gets harder and harder to put those dreams back in the drawers. And some adults don't at all and stop playing charades and starting playing for real.

The hardest thing about being an adult is trying not to laugh when you really want to and when it's really inappropriate. Another difficulty I have is knowing how long to keep eye contact in a meeting. Sometimes I'm too busy making sure I am looking at each adult for an appropriate amount of time that I don't listen to what they are saying. Adults take themselves too seriously. Which is why I'm only going to be a part time adult and a full time unicorn.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The light, the light, the light

I like to wear white. My skin is dark - my first spanish friends in Spain who happened to be two little old men who ran a second hand store out of a garage said I was darker than the ass of a saucepan - and white only brings that out. Apart from that I gravitate towards things that flow, are loose, light. I am happy most of the time, which is lucky.

But of course, there are many things that bring me down. Down is a real place I do not like to be, where I brood and do not speak because I am not fluent in the heavy sounds that fall flat, the sharp flicks of the tongue that punctuate them. I am accustomed to the world of Up, where every word flies out of the mouth and ricochets off the walls.

Needless to say this makes dealing with any downward motion difficult. I struggle against it and the more I wriggle the deeper I sink, it's quicksand. When I believe myself sunk I begin to berate myself for not fighting harder and of course I sink deeper and quicker still. Realising I have sunk more I try my best to conjure up all the lightest feelings and brightest thoughts to lift me out of the Down but to no avail. I am not used to carrying this load, I have been conditioned to cast off weight not take it on.

How do you reconcile a creature of flight with a beast of burden?

I think back to one of the first secondhand words that really stuck with me which were...

Those things that hurt instruct. 

To use the words of all university tutors and lecturers ever - let's unpack this, shall we?
What I take this to mean is that there is meaning in suffering. Not just that you can find meaning in pain but that it fundamentally teaches you (about what exactly is another question). 

This perhaps was my first A-HA! moment. There is something I can learn here. There is a point to this, a method to the madness. The point is sharp but exists, the method obscure but certain. What you learn (or don't) is basically up to you, which is both helpful and unhelpful. What do you do with this information? You could seek the lesson yourself and pick the pieces from whatever catches. This was my method for many years, until fairly recently.

If we look at the words again, Those things meaning there is a multitude of unnamed possibilities that hurt but also instruct. It's not immediately clear what is being hurt; you? your pride? your future? your sense of self? Is this a general hurt that permeates your day to day life like body odour or the smell of burnt toast? Or is it the quick clean hurt of a paper cut?

How do you go from being hurt to being instructed to getting back to the light? is what I wanted to know. I knew from the first reading of the above quote until now that I had to pay attention to suffering, that it was necessary and important but did not realise that there was another step beyond that. I thought if I could just pay enough attention to this darker place I could more quickly get back to the light. Half-right.

I needed to change the way I thought about Those Things themselves. I had changed the way I thought about Hurt itself but not about the things that caused it. It was this root, along with the idea that pain was fundamentally didactic, that I needed to tie back to something that meant anything to me. I needed to tie the darkness to the light and only wait until the shadows disappeared.

Every time you feel the gravity of anxiety, self-doubt, wounded pride or any of Those Things That Hurt you find a reason why or how this is bigger than you, what you're going to do about it or think about it and that, for me at least, is usually enough to lead you back up.

It may not make sense to anyone but me because I am writing in my own kind of double-speak but the beauty of writing is that you are in control of what is and isn't on the page. And that is all. And I'm ending it here and I hope you find the light.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

To Be Honest, or as the youths say TBH

My new boss is all about honest conversations. He wants me to come to him about anything I do not understand the reasoning behind. It took me a while to take this seriously. I was temporarily floored for many reasons, not the least of which is the constant background feeling that I am a child actor in an adult play called Life who the professionals humour by pretending that my input matters. Another misgiving I have is that Real Honesty has never been profitable or even invited in my understanding of How The World Works.

Example: I used to work in telemarketing for which a special place is reserved for me in Hell. I sold insurance to people over the phone. If I was being honest with myself I knew these people did not need it, did not understand fully what they were being sold and that there was a reasonable chance that many months would pass before they realised there was a sizeable automatic deduction from their account for which they would no doubt have any recollection authorising. But the pay was good and the hours were flexible and I wanted to go to Spain. So I did it for a year and shelved the Truth somewhere in the back of my mind when I could afford to think about it.

Back to the question at hand. Honest Conversations are to be avoided the same way young foreigners in bright T-shirts and clipboards for Save The -Whales-Children-Youth-People-Environment-Thing are treated like beggars, with your eyes cast down and a very purposeful stride in the shape of a wide arc to circumvent them. It's not that human beings as such are naturally uncharitable but just that you know once you are there and he/she is building rapport with you, smiling from ear to ear and being generally earnest, that when they slip in some uncomfortable Truth about related Whales-Children-Youth-People-Environment-Thing and hand you a form with an opportunity to contribute in some way to its Attempted Resolution, the chances of Not Giving are pretty slim.

It's not that honesty isn't powerful, it's that we know its power to make us uncomfortable and to fundamentally unsettle the way we currently live our lives or do our business that it's best to avoid it altogether. Except in cases where the stars align. Example: I HONESTLY love this cronut. Vegan baked goods are ACTUALLY the best things invented. etc. etc. (also true of non related food matters such as TV shows, animal-related viral content and travel destinations).

What Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace and Louis C.K all have in common is that cutting ability to sit down at the dinner table and speak honestly of the metaphysical. They don't turn away from it but rather use their craft - their humour, their writing - to have with us the very honest conversations we do not often have with ourselves. Listening or reading them there is no way around the metaphorical Clipboard Advocate for Truth, they look them right in the eyes and start asking questions. Why are we here? For jobs, really? For money, surely not? For Progress and Economic Growth - huh? Are we still humans if we divorce ourselves from nature? Is cooking a lobster alive cruel? How can we be less lonely? They ask these questions, trust me.

The real value of this is, like all worthwhile things, almost impossible to quantify. In the context of my work the Honest Conversations my boss was willing to have went back to rudimentary criticisms of all Community Development, Charity and Aid industries. If we are, in our attempt to "help", in actual fact not helping those we said we would "help" - what are we doing? Why are we getting paid? Why does our service/profession/organisation even exist?

It takes my breath away. What better questions can you ask of anything? Any self-interested professional would quickly understand that these Honest Conversations endanger ones own status and yet on a human to human level, a Human To World Scale it is powerfully simple, simply powerful. These conversations start small and they grow. If we can start to be honest on this micro level the huge, very honest questions readily emerge. If we can step away from the immediate feelings of uncertainty about how these questions may unsettle our lives it more quickly becomes evident that Real Honest Conversations are the ones we should be having, always and ceaselessly.

What are we doing?
Why are we here?
Does it even matter?
What are we doing if not answering these questions?

Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014: Some things I've "learned" (in theory)

Disclaimer: This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the things I've learned in a year, which one would hope to number more than six. I've left off many things that are glaringly obvious and for which I need no reminder (one can make life-long friends from other countries who one will probably never see again, I would marry the spanish language if it were legal, I am hardwired to be peripatetic, Life is fun, quinoa is good for you, etc.)

Disclaimer 2: I put the learned in quotation marks because getting an education is distinct from, yet often confused for, putting it into practice. Because knowing something to be true is not a guaranteed precursor to living life as if it were. But it helps, somewhat. Essentially what I'm saying is that I've learned these things previously, many times over but often behave in direct contradiction to these lessons. I think they call that "living".

ANYYYYYWAY here's a list of things you probably already knew or didn't need to:

1. Trying to be the cool girl in a relationship is not beneficial to anyone. The cool girl, who is too proud to care, too secure to be bothered, too busy looking like whatever, such is life, either way, that's cool. The girl that is unruffled and aloof - that girl is not me. I am not the cool girl, I was never the cool girl. Small things can hurt my oversensitive self immensely and I have never had a poker face. It has injured my pride no small amount to discover I am in fact the girl that can be irrational, insecure and quite frankly embarrassing. That's okay though because being the cool girl is overrated. What's cool about not caring enough to be hurt?

2. God I love to read books. How did I forget this essential part of my life? Somehow I got caught up with articles, so abundant, so accessible. Fiction, non-fiction, contemporary, 18th-century, historical analysis, memoir, collections of essays, diaries. Give me nothing but books and a comfy couch and quietly close the door behind you.

3. Be my friend if you want to talk about books and their ideas. I want to discuss everything. This is not so much a lesson as a demand.

4. You can be discontent in so many beautiful places. It does not matter what waterfall you are under or what famed city the bus is taking you, your mental state will follow you there. It's true that perhaps a place can momentarily remind you of the wonder and beauty of life, or that living there can show you some alternate way of living and/or looking at life but places do not fix much. You were unhappy somewhere else, and now you can be unhappy here too. The common denominator is you.

5. I have become more discriminatory about what I get enthusiastic about. Everything used to excite me, now only some things do. It's probably not healthy to maintain that level of energy about every party, every person, every conversation. I am unable to muster the adequate smiles and wide eyes necessary for long recounts of stories that sound the same with people I no longer know very well. My ever shrinking batteries can only give out so much.

6. Despite my natural disposition towards extreme emotion I am learning (very often failing) the art of polite disagreement. The importance of this ability has never been so plain as when I landed myself in a relationship. It's okay, even encouraged, to scream at your friends over dinner and wine. Less so with the person who you supposedly love and respect. This has allowed me to refrain from yelling abuse at my laptop as I furiously type rebuttals to bigoted facebook updates (yes, I am one of those people). It's also, like, allowed me to admit when I am, on the odd occasion, wrong*.

That's about it.

Of course there are things I've learned that haven't made it to that list, mostly to do with learning what style of life I can lead and what standards of hygiene can be adjusted when one lives in a country that is poor in money and rich in culture. Things that have confirmed the direction I've taken in my 'career' and what values I want that to reflect. Other things I've learned have to do with being in a long-term relationship (like, that they have to  love put up with you). Mainly if you paid attention to this list you would learn I am a non-cool book nerd who is consistently dissatisfied, increasingly unenthusiastic but learning to smile while saying you are wrong. It sounds bad but it's really not. Happy new year!

*my boyfriend may disagree

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A few days in

There is a silence in the suburbs that engulfs you. Not a proverbial silence, a literal one. The absence of sound is a presence I wake up to at two in the morning. I have no excuse not to go back to sleep. There are no packs of dogs that roam the street, tearing each other to pieces just before dawn. There are no protestors or processions that pass through my tree-lined street corner. I hear no sirens. Even the birds do not wake me.

There are other details I have noticed. Parsley grows out of the cracks in our pavers like weeds. It wasn't there before. My dad planted a coffee tree, a robusta that is short and thick already with leaves and small budding fruit. My mum tells me her lola used to make coffee from the plant, roasting it, boiling it and reusing the coffee beans afterwards to give to the kids to eat with rice. This was a story I had not heard before. I was surprised. I thought I knew most of those stories.

Just the day before my lolo was showing me the history of our family on three type-writer written pages. He has always been into tracing his roots. I read over the carefully, laboriously typed ghosts of the many great relatives he has outlined. Names I have not heard of, people I do not know. I am intrigued, of course. The question of roots has flitted about throughout my life.

My sister, the one that stayed behind, made me a bouquet. They are all Australian flowers, wattle and kangaroo paw and waratah. She bought them early and worried that they would die. Of course they wouldn't! I told her, They're Australian flowers, they don't die! and I think of all the foreigners that ask me about all the dangerous animals in Australia, all the ways you can get killed on accident as if snakes and spiders were natural human predators and grew in abundance on the sidewalk. I think of how they never marvelled at how much life survived in spite of it.

The room I have now twice abandoned for a total of two and a half years is a time warp. I was greeted with new sheets my sister had bought and newly vacuumed floors but still it was, is, a relic to my past self. Who was this person with such a feminine, such an uplifting room? Boards of postcards from rivers and oceans in Europe, crashing waves and roman column buildings, of Picasso pieces and burnt orange coloured rooftops? The person with heavy necklaces hanging from her closet door, rows of heeled shoes and a fake white flowered head piece hanging on a board?

I remember this time. The time when I was this person who stayed up late reading articles and saving inspiring quotes to my desktop. Was it that I needed this inspiration for myself or was it simply a reflection of how inspired I was, an affirmation of the lightness I lived?

My desktop now is a painting of a boy sitting on a row boat out at sea. He looks alone until you notice there are two heads peeping out from the other end of the boat. He sits out of the boat on the edge with his back facing you. He is wearing a bucket hat, a fisherman's hat, his bare feet dangling in the air and not yet touching the water. Is this, too, a reflection of me? An affirmation of my dangling feet and back turned against your gaze and out onto my own world?

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Home Coming

Two years ago, mad with the rush of finishing my undergraduate degree and thirsty for travel, I bought my tickets to South America. It was an early christmas present to myself, a kind of spur of the moment decision to buy them so soon. I should have waited until it was closer to the departure but I couldn't, I needed a destination, a set date, a goal. Seven months later I flew direct from Sydney to Buenos Aires.

I didn't cry at the airport saying goodbye to my family just as I had not years before, saying goodbye on my way to Spain. I knew the tears would come when I was not expecting them at some unknown, later date. And they did. They came saying goodbye to too many friends. People with whom I lived, came home from work to share my day with, sat across from the breakfast table bleary-eyed, went out with for beers and danced in one of Cochabamba's dirty discotecas until the fifth hour replay of the same hottest 100 from 2009 was done.

When I think about the sheer quantity and quality of people I've known this past year and a half it takes every bit of my concentration to try and remember them all and how much each one has meant to me. Sincerely the best class of people one could ever hope to meet. There was no real pattern in their personalities, their backgrounds, their interests. The only criteria that they be of the sort that would come to Bolivia to live for a while.

My heart feels physically crushed by the mass of affection I hold for all of them. The nostalgia of it all. Bolivia's borders will always contain for me this tribe of strange souls with whom I have drank chica, danced at k'oas, climbed mountains and had picnics. I have said most of my goodbyes already, almost always being the one who stayed behind. There are few people I know now who keep on in Cochabamba, most off in their 'real world' lives again all over the world.

Thinking about home now is a startling dream. Sometimes I am soothed by the thought of pristine toilets you can flush toilet paper down and don't have to pay for. Other times I am horrified at the thought of how sterile it will all seem, too clean, too nice as if I was in an amusement park. Writing this in Argentina I am already half way there - they have shopping centres here, standardised taxis and girls resembling exactly those in Sydney wearing shoes that my sister assures me are in fashion. From the supposed third world to the first. I feel somehow that I am going from the turbulent, unforgiving ocean to the clean waters of a fishbowl. I am trading the gritty and raw for the polished and deliberate. I cannot tell which is the dream and which the nightmare.

Dramatic is the word that comes to mind when I read those sentences over again, yet it doesn't stop the force of what I feel. There is a marked difference in the daily standards of living where the average person earns just over a hundred dollars a month to a country where that is earned in a matter of hours. I am caught in a confusion of what that means to me and why. I like the in your face grittiness of Bolivia, it is unrelenting in its quest to make you humble. Look how lucky you are, it whispers. You cannot forget, in a country whose people fight for literally everything, that you come from a country very much on the other side of many of those struggles.

In Australia, like most 'developed' countries, the message is different. Look at all the things you can have or watch or eat or drink or be. And the humility is obscured, sectioned off to dark corners and the occasional documentary or charity fundraiser. It is easy to forget that these worlds are one in the same, that they are in fact connected in a myriad of very real ways. The lithium mined in Bolivia goes into our smart phones and laptops. The silver that adorns many of Europe's churches has a long and sordid history of extraction in what is now one of Bolivia's poorest departments.

Though it's not all bad news designed to make you feel guilty. One is not Cinderella and the other the less attractive but better off stepsister. Bolivia has its own set of problems, just as we have Tony Abbott. Having spent the last year and a half trying to discern whether I was or could be happy and fulfilled on this stunningly enormous continent the conclusion is that it all comes down to two things. I came to realise that if I had a solid reason to get up in the morning, a purpose as well as being part of a community of people whose company I enjoyed and who supported me - I could live anywhere, be anywhere, be happy.

My problem in Bolivia was that my community kept leaving and I missed the one I had back home. My purpose, working in community development in Cochabamba, kept me challenged. There were certainly days where I questioned the difference I was making, my capabilities and qualifications but I am a strong believer that actually, work is a huge, rewarding and necessary part of life. Despite fanciful throw away conversations about being a traveling hippy who sells feather-earrings for a living to finance my pot habit and circus pants, the hard yards are necessary ones.

And so. Here we are. Close to the end, the home coming. Apart from all the intense mind-racking that has fallen sideways into the words above, the most primal part of me is simply craving my own bed and thai food. Yes, of course I have also imagined my arrival at Sydney airport at the embrace by my oddly bolivian looking tribe/family but it pales in comparison to how much I have so exquisitely imagined my homecoming meal that when it actually comes to it, it will probably be the unseen moment where the flood gates will open. The Pad see ew will be the thing that breaks the camel's back. So maybe I'll amend that list of things I need to live anywhere and add food that isn't potatoes and rice to the list.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

El Tourist

One of these is not like the other. There are many bodies that are self-effacing, you are not one of these. You are the sore thumb on a nimble hand. A foreign object. An amateur artist has painted you jarringly placed and off-colour. There is no business for you in the south side of Quito nor the unheard-of towns bereft of cocktail offering discotecas and cloud forests. Yet there are whole places designed specifically to pique your interest and gain the foreign currency visible in your north face jacket and sun glasses. Locals don't wear sunglasses.

Therein lies the distinction. You are an imported good to be extracted of money and sent home with photographic evidence that the ticket was worth it, that you found yourself in a world stripped of its context. Here you are posing with a tiger, there you are in front of a statue of somebody important whose name you have now given up remembering. Who are you and where did you come from? Why are you there and what is it, that you want?

You see these questions as self-evident, accustomed to being asked by those like you and answering them in reciprocal agreement of getting to know the other. These questions are rarely asked by those who demand more of an explanation, those whose lives bear no correlation to your own, whose world you inhabit temporarily for directions or an artistic shot of the locals. The more you demand to be entertained the more the other question of why and how fades into the background. If you go somewhere and do something but all you have is your own patchy memory, did it happen at all?

The tourist privilege is an awkward one. Tourist - used often now in phrases to denote a lack of understanding, a short or terminable stay. A tourist in the experience of cancer. Limited by the visible barrier of one being entirely misplaced. Redefined as one who does not belong, not to be confused with those who are excluded, marginalised. No, tourists do not belong but their place is marked in US dollar notes, patrons to those who do. Another problem.

A brochure advertises an 'indigenous guide,' others provide a visit to a 'native village'. You readily take up the role of the anthropologist, the western adventurer seeking the unmapped, the unknown - or at least the exotic. How were you to know you would be disappointed? The terrible cycle of seeking something that seeks you out first, a cheap imitation - so you accuse - of what you originally envisioned. A shaman in tourist-ready clothing drinking coke from his corrugated iron roof house, a caricature. Where is the native and why is he not showing you the secrets of the ways of his people? Where, in fact, are his people?

The tourist is in the unique situation of being a spectacle and at once of observing what he or she deems to be the spectacle at hand. Their mistake is of believing themselves inconspicuous, unobserved. The exchange, at least in this non-monetary judgment, is mutual.

This is not what they term a fair assumption, as if assumptions were frequently just. Perhaps you are of the curious kind who has taken the time to learn the language and engage in conversations. Your heart is open, your mind is blank. You are not a tourist. And yet we are all tourists. We are tourists in that which we do not know, in which we do not belong - the world at large, the world outside of our tiny born-into suburbs, adolescent coming-of-age stories and first time accounts, outside of the people we have given nicknames to and the ones we call crying if we are the type that cry, or better said when we are at the edge of the cliff a step away from falling or jumping, perhaps even at the bottom of that cliff because at some point we all end up on the edges or bottoms of cliffs with vertigo. Outside of this, is where it begins.

The struggle of the tourist is one of categorisation. The yearning for a different label, to know more deeply, to make a connection, to go beyond, to seek truth. The test of the tourist is in the acceptance of the truths they are presented with and those which they find independently. To accept the fact that there is more inauthenticity in somebody presenting a culture they no longer practice in private to strangers in public because they know that holds more currency with us than the reality that their lives have been influenced by what we term modernity - packaged junk food and ugly electrical lines. To accept that a culture on display for the tourist need not be so exotic, need not fulfil the narratives we have pre-scripted and that coca cola invades even the farthest corners of the amazon, at least as far as the gringo trail goes.

To accept that perhaps carrying a backpack a significant portion of your weight and spending sleepless, cramped, aching days on end on buses and all the obstacles that come with that can fall short of any truth you hoped to find about yourself, your place in it, its image in your mind, is part of the final exam. You make the leap from tourist when you bring your own authenticity and stop expecting other peoples lives, cultures, histories, stories to entertain you as if they were a new TV show. This is not Heart of Darkness, not Game of Thrones, this is not On The Road, not Into The Wild perhaps more akin to An Idiot Abroad. When you realise the world does not exist so you can play out your own hedonism but rather that whatever theory you prescribe to adds to the broken pieces that make up this endlessly growing mosaic, you are making the leap. You find yourself on the other side with a chest full of the truth, you are not outside of the world but part of it.