On doing, rather than being…

6AC368C3-A67B-4729-A13B-98D5C4EDAEAC.jpegThe thing I am not very good at is sitting.  Being still.  Waiting, contemplating. I tend to jump right onto things, without thinking too much about why. I am restless, I suppose.  I rearrange the furniture a lot.

I believe I am a person who likes an action plan. I like to know where I am going, when I will get there and how many steps are involved. Which is ironic really,  since I feel like much of my life has proceeded without alsuch rigour.  As such I seem to spend a lot of time meandering around in  circles, looking for the door to the next level.

I have spent all my life wondering what to be when I grow up, and now, in the firm grip of middle age, when one should surely feel accomplished and grown up and settled, I am more confused than ever. How can I feel so old on one hand (gravity is not my friend), and so lacking in authority and gravitas on the other?  I do not feel grown up at all, but the face in the mirror says different.  

This feeling of inadequacy, of limited expertise, is a narrow view restricted to new things of course,  not the vast expertise gathered  in a career I never really intended and never have felt particularly zingy about.  In continually seeking something fresh to be, I feel like I have spent all my life hovering around the starter blocks, endlessly dabbling.

As I gear up for my first exam in over two decades tomorrow, two things occur to me 

  1.  I should really be running through my notes rather than pontificating on the meaning of life, and
  2. Maybe I don’t know where I am going, or why I’ve take up a degree in brain science at this point (except that it is fascinating stuff), but what I have come to realize is that it’s not about being something. It is not about some potential endgame.  It’s just the thrill of doing.

I really should know this about myself by now and be more accepting of the way I engage with the world. I enjoy doing new things, experiencing things, expanding my mind and engaging as fully as I can in the possibilities of this one precious conscious life I am lucky enough to have.  And the very nature of seeking new, means one very seldom gets to be an expert in them.   Maybe if I took time out to think about it, one day it might sink in! 

Ningaloo Reef Road Trip

Stuck in suburbia, it is easy to forget how vast and incredibly beautiful this marvellous land of ours is.  Caught up in nonsense of our own making, we lose sight of what really matters. While the news is full of sorrow and hate, of ideologically motivated distrust and ego driven politics, nature proceeds onwards, as it has done for millions of years, and, through utter happenstance, leaving spaces of spectacular beauty that we are able to enjoy and appreciate – should we so choose.

That’s why it’s good to get out and experience the true nature of life itself.  To feel the sand, ground down and pooped out by parrot fish, between your feet.  To watch the beady eyes of a stonefish, and remind yourself that the malevolence in his gaze is a story of your own making.  To dive into the cold embrace of a turquoise sea, brilliantly blue and teaming with life, and see a turtle emerge from a cleaning station.  Another reminder of how life is a synchronised evolution, a beautiful ballet of adaptation and balance played out over millennia.

This is what our trip up the coast of Western Australia was about.  An immersion in nature.

Travelling to the Ningaloo Reef from Perth is an exercise in patience.  In our camouflaged campervan, we motor through a round trip of 3000 kilometres, down endless stretches of road through an often monotonous landscape to find the gems strung out along this small portion of the Western Coast of Australia.

The highlights are endless.  It’s a trip that needed a month, rather than 12 days.   But there are several standouts that live in my memory and bring a smile to my face when I think back to them.

Coral Bay

This small beach town had no space for our campervan, so it was a day trip affair.  We overnighted at 14-mile beach beforehand, and returned to Canarvon the following day.  It’s a tip worth noting if you are heading there to camp.  You need to book months and months in advance in the school holiday season.  Despite the campsite busting at the seams, the reef is largely empty, and we feel like we have the place to ourselves.  The staggering colour of the sea is a thing of exquisite beauty.   Below the waters, coral bommies team with life.  We spend the day on the water with a passionate crew from Ningaloo Reef Dive.  The display of nature is spectacular, but what warmed my heart more than anything was watching the kids discover a joy for being beneath the sea.  Snorkelling like professionals rather than first timers in a coral garden teaming with fish and turtles and sharks.  And no, they didn’t freak out.  They swam closer for a better look.  (Clearly they don’t have my freak-out genes).  Our once in a lifetime experience was snorkelling with a Manta Ray.  A thing of magnificence and glory, gliding effortlessly below us along the white sandy floor of the ocean.

Shark Bay and Monkey Mia.

We stopped on this peninsular for three days and enjoyed every moment of it.  Learning about dolphins at the early morning Dolphin Feeding, and watching the smile on my son’s face as he was chosen to feed one of them was a standout experience.  But it was the peace of the place that really settled my soul.  From the beach, the water is clear enough to see through, and its almost impossible to tell where the water ends and the sky begins.  It was so still and flat and shallow, that the paddle board was put to good use by the kids, who headed far into the distance on concocted tales of adventure and discovery.  Along the way they found a turtle and saw dolphins, and it was only later that I realised they were lucky not to encounter a Lemon Shark.  It is called Shark Bay after all, and while they wouldn’t have been in danger from it, it would be a scary thing to have swim underneath you.  Visiting the very quaint Ocean Park Aquarium and learning about sharks and stonefish and the sobering reality that our inability to clean up after ourselves will render turtles extinct within 20 years was yet another highlight of the trip.

Kalbarri

The Kalbarri is closer to Perth, and bordering on the open ocean.  The wind whips off the dancing sea and although the sand is white and the sun is shining, we found it a bit too wintery for a dip in the sea.  However, the scenery in this part of the world is gorgeous in a completely different way.  In the Kalbarri National Park, red rock formations and deep gorges have been carved out of the landscape by the Murchison River.   Natures Window was crowded, but we headed further in and clambered down to the river itself through rocky crevices both wide and narrow.  A sunset walk along the cliffs from Grandstand Rock Gorge to Island Rock, not only gave us spectacular views of the rock formations out to sea, but also the chance to spot a parade of whales, water from their blowholes dotting the horizon.   At this time of the evening, as the sun dips towards the horizon, the whole world turns a warm and dusty orange.  With a glass of wine in hand, we watch as it sinks into the sea, the sky turn purple and day turn into night.

At this point we are approaching the end of our holiday.  We are relaxed and the sense of peace that comes from being away from it all is palpable.  We are in the company of people we love, soaking up the beauty and wonder of nature, formed and reformed tirelessly over billions and billions of years.  This moment will pass, like life itself, but resting in the moment, being in the moment, is peaceful.  I find great capacity for calmness in accepting that despite being a momentary blip in life’s inextricable story, we have the, perhaps unique, capacity to appreciate the world around us.  To enjoy it.  If only we make the time and the choice to do so.

Sharlene Zeederberg

Winter in Sydney – Biennale 2018

Notwithstanding the fact that right now it is absolutely bucketing down, Sydney generally puts on a pretty spectacular winter.  Still, even when it is grey and glum, there are some soul satisfying things to do in Sydney in winter.

Like, the Sydney Biennale.

For Mothers’ day, I managed to wrangle the family out into the blustery weather to visit Cockatoo Island.  The wind and earlyish hour kept the crowds away, which is the way I prefer things.  It’s quick ferry trip across the harbour to this small but historically important island.  Wind swept, industrial, replete with rusted artefacts and empty warehouses, the history of the place is positively palpable, as though the ghosts of our wretched past walk beside us – a gentle reminder of how much progress we have made at easing human suffering over the past 150 years.

Of course, the highlight of the event is Ai WeiWei’s Law of the Journey.  A massive, dark, PVC rendition of a boat carrying refuges.  Faceless adults and children huddle together in the 60m long rubber boat.  It is, as would be expected, brilliant and confronting, and worth the trip alone. (The irony of having to travel to the exhibit on a boat is not lost on me, nor the fact that it is exhibited on what was once a convict labour camp and prison).

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There are hundreds of other exhibits, of all shapes and sizes.  All testament to the power of the creative mind to question the status quo and hold a mirror up to ourselves.   Sometimes art stops you in its tracks.  Makes you sit up and take notice.  Other times, you have to stop and take the time to notice, to see the detail and open your mind to what the artist might be saying.

We saw creative endeavours from juxtaposed singing rituals across religious cultures (The Circle and the Square, Suzanne Lacy) to vast explosions of colour where paint had been left to interact with nature (Hover, Erupt, Erode – Mit Jai Inn).   Amongst others, there was Wong Hoy Cheong’s series of photos from inside multiple different manholes, and a quite excellent marketing campaign for fuel made from the urine of diabetics (Togar – Julian Abraham) – somebody get that man a job!

However, my favourite exhibitor turned out to be Yukinori Yanagi. I am not sure if it just because of my current interest in the skies, but his exhibit Icarus Container captured my attention.  Using containers, geometry and mirrors, together with poetry and an eerie sound scape, it’s a poetic feat of engineering that had even my son enthralled.  The roaring imagery of the sun, alive and hot and compelling is the start point.  And its presence is visible around every corner, as you walk back towards earth.  Looking into mirrors, you can see your past, and everyone else who has followed you in.  In my mind, anyway, the words tell the story of those who seek to fly, and those who pull them back to earth.  The power of dreams, and the power of fear and failure, and what that says about humanity.

Tucked away at the back end of Cockatoo Island, he has two other exhibitions – Landscape with an Eye and Absolute Dud.  It is the latter one, a mimic of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, that really reaches down into my gut and gives it a squeeze.   It hangs so quietly in a shed, a rusted leftover from a bygone industrial era.  So seemingly innocuous.  So forgettable. So deadly.

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I think the thing that most compels me about artistry is the bravery of the creative spirit to invest precious time and energy into ideas, and then to present those ideas for human consumption.  But perhaps, compelled by some sort of inner fire, the alternative is mental anguish.  Regardless, artists remind us of what it is to be human, with all the possibilities and problems that presents.

Unfortunately, the Biennale is closing next week.  I’ve got to get me to the MCA and the Art Gallery of NSW before then!

 

 

 

Life lessons from the Mud

 

There was mud, a lot of it.  Stinky, sticky, slurpy mud that sucked off people’s shoes and clung with a desperation of an addict to legs and feet and knees if you happened to sink that far into it.  There were heights – tyres and ropes and walls to be scaled.  There were small spaces to crawl under, things to jump over, bars to swing upon and slides that offered a free sinus rinse if you landed with your nose close enough to the water.  Yes, after three years of wine-inspired, slurred statements promising “next time, count me in”, I finally got up the courage to do one of these Army Reservist style challenges.    And you know what, it was okay enough for me to say, sober and still wrangling with mud in my undies, “I’ll do it again next year.”

Worry is a funny thing isn’t it?  I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of my one precious life worrying about things.  I’d been anxiously gnawing at fingernails about this for weeks, creating narratives in my head about how hard it would be and how much of a disaster I was going to be doing it.  On the morning of the great event, I was in that hyped-up space I fall into when I fly – all nervous energy ricocheting around in high pitched tones, stupid jokes and shallow breathing.

But, once we were underway, and reality took the place of the stories I had created, when the what ifs that run rampant around my head were replaced with the actual doing, everything changed.  Yes, we were still running but I was keeping up.  Well, I most certainly wasn’t last and those echoes from childhood memories of cross-country races and being charmingly referred to as running like a LEMAC (that’s a camel going backwards – thanks Dad) weren’t a reality.   And yes, we were still going over heights that made me think WTF am I doing here, but over I went, slowly, surely and successfully. And boy, did it feel good to toss up the idea of circumventing the obstacle, slip on some brave pants and do it regardless, and land safely on the other side.  Dopamine rush.  Or something.

Self-help coaches by the dozen tell you to face your fears, as a pathway to overcoming them.  And it sounds trite, but it really isn’t.  When you walk into your fears and succeed in spite of them, your sense of capability grows and your fear of failure (death, pain, looking like an idiot and so on… you know, failure) shrink.  At least, that is what I discovered about myself on this energy intensive expedition out in the mud-splattered paddock.   And I suspect then, that the fears we have at an intellectual or emotional level – about taking creative risks, for example – would suffer the same fate if we were just prepared to put on some brave pants and give it a go.

The thing that made it all possible and worthwhile and fun, though, was being part of a super duper cool team of wonderful people.  Together works better than alone, when you are a human (also true for most animals).  Being helped, encouraged, physically lifted, checked in on – all the actions of meaningful teamwork and friendship – gave me such a buzz.   Together not only works better, it feels better.  It feels good to be part of a group of people who care about each other, who watch out for each other and who seek to achieve something together.

And that’s the thing I would go back for.  Not the mud or the heights or showing off upper body strength (#wishfulthinking).  The thing that would draw me to it again is the shared experience.  The feeling of togetherness and friendship.  The laughter in the recounting of the tale over red wine and chocolate, and the memories the mud created.

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I saw you and I loved you

I saw you and I loved you

From the moment that we met

Even if I didn’t know what love meant then

And sometimes still forget.

 

We connected in an exploding star

Your heart and mine,

And travelled separately and together through space

To this time and this place.

 

I know this because I feel the universe

Inside my love for you

A vast expanse that knows no bounds

And expands ever into them.

 

I resonate, I do

At an intimately infinite level

In time with your own unique vibration

Because we are two halves of one whole

Formed in the same fiery furnace

In time’s violent beginnings

 

And sometimes I catch my breath

With the sudden realisation

Of the perpetuity of our connection

A silver thread that transcends reality.

 

Here and now we’ve grown together

Like two trees

Wound our trunks around each other

Over coffee and chores and

Before the cry of offspring and school reports,

Over tequila shots and greasy breakfasts

And broken hearts and the struggle for self-identity.

And yet, here we still stand

 

Yes, here we stand

On the edge of now

With tomorrow ahead and yesterday behind

On the edge of this moment here

A million possible moments in this very moment

And I know

I know in the very make up of my matter

That my love for you extends across infinitude

And bad moods

To all those universes where you and I might dance a different dance

And make different choices or live different lives

Or perhaps we’ve not even met, yet.

And still we were born in the same star

And we create infinite music together.

c Sharlene Zeederberg, March 2018

Winter Wonderland, Kiruna, Sweden.

In the far north of Sweden lies a little town called Kiruna.  A small town it might be, but it is home to the biggest iron mine in the world, and, more importantly for us, the staging point for three days’ worth of arctic adventures.

As the plane descends, the heavy cloud cover gives way to a magical landscape beneath us.  An endless white canvas, criss-crossed with black forests of trees huddled together in the cold.

IMG_9012We land on a snowbound runway and taxi up to the small red wood building that serves as airport.  A cab takes us along snow bound roads to the town centre for lunch. The driver is not local, apparently.  He’s only been here for 40 years.  First stop, some lunch at a café, where the menu board is hard to decipher and even google translate struggles.  But, the young staff behind the counter happily switch to English, and go out of their way to provide allergy friendly food to my son.   He gets tacos, which seems a bit ironic.

In the settling dusk (around 2pm), as the world glows pink, we walk back to our lodgings, a delightful B&B not far from the town centre.   This town has a unique feel to us, different to anywhere we have visited before.  The roads are wide, the buildings a mix of soviet-flavoured symmetrical blocks and more traditional two story wooden houses.  Everything is expansively spaced apart, and there is snow everywhere, piled on everything, mounds of it swept up into mini-mountains at intersections.  Remnants of Christmas twinkle in star-shaped candles in uncurtained windows.  It’s a cultural thing, these exposed interiors of people’s homes, a throwback to a puritanism that demanded people be able to see inside your house as they liked.  Apparently this helped inhibit sinful desires, like having sex on the kitchen counter.  Doors are kept unlocked for the same reason.

You might wonder what there is to do in such a place, out on the edge of the arctic, where the temperature dips to -26 degrees?

IMG_9027Firstly, you go dog-sledding.  This was by far our most delightful experience, and I suspect choosing your provider wisely makes quite the difference. We opted for a drive-a-sled tour with Husky Voice.  Stephanie takes out a maximum of four people – which meant it was just our family on this trip – the sort of tour we much prefer.  The kids ride up front with Stephanie, taking turns to stand with her and drive the sled.  Mike and I drive behind on the second sled, attempting to obey the two-second rule, which applies as much to huskies on the run as trucks on highways.

Before we begin, Stephanie suits us up in her utterly delightful wooden cabin, bedecked with fairy lights, heater roaring.  Thick overalls, even thicker boots, balaclavas, fur lined hats and gloves get added to the top of our existing ski gear.   This is despite her assurance that at -8 degrees, it is a warm day.  We look like blue marshmallows, warm and fat.

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The dogs and sleighs wait for us in the forest, a winter wonderland of snow drifts and Spruces, branches drooping heavily beneath the weight of the snow that continues to fall.   It takes a while to harness all the dogs correctly, there are a fair number of them, and they bark and yip incessantly with excitement.   The womb like silence comes as somewhat of a surprise once we set off.  The dogs cease their cacophony of howls as one, intent on their task and all we can hear as we glide through the forest is the slushing of the sleds and a rhythmic panting from the dogs.

There is something magical about this monochromatic, ethereal landscape of muted sound and diffused light, like we’ve stepped through the back of the cupboard and into the land of Narnia.   We travel through the forest on recently cleared trails, the snow thick on either side.  Near a lake, frozen, we pause to watch a distant reindeer, eyeing us cautiously.  We plough through deeper drifts that require us to help out our furry friends with a scooting push.  Towards the end of our run, we fly across the ice-bound river and come to a rest at Stephanie’s river hut – a clever invention pulled out onto the snow each winter, and returned home for the few months of summer when the river runs.  While she lights the fire and cooks some delicious sausages we commune with nature, play with the dogs, throw snowballs and wallow in the snow up to our knees.

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The dogs are magnificent beasts, gorgeously attired in their fur coats, intelligent, affectionate and patient.  They are the masters of this domain, and happily share it with us in return for pats and cuddles.  When we finish lunch, the sky is softly bruised with the mauve tinge of returning twilight.  This stark landscape feels the epitome of majestic beauty.

 

Next up, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi.  Despite being an utterly touristy (and breathtakingly expensive) thing to do, it too is a magically different experience.  The hotel itself is fascinating, with its “snice” (snow and ice) walls, towering ice-blocks and ice-chandelier, but the real magic lies in the artist-rooms.  It is a little like exploring a very cold art gallery.  In several of the rooms, artists have spent two weeks carving fantastical creations out of ice – from astronauts to an ice-queen, a bar of drunken block men to a bed in the arms of King Kong.   You can pay to sleep in the ice-hotel, but I can’t imagine how one would get any sleep at -5 degrees on a bed of ice.  The visit was enough for us, rounded off with a drink in the ice-bar.  Champagne ice-glass, with bubbles?  Don’t mind if I do.

Just down the road from the Ice Hotel, we visit the Sami Museum Sami are the indigenous peoples of this region, and this outdoor museum provides detailed information on the traditional Sami way of life.  In the dark, we tromp through the snow peering into various tents which have different functions depending on the time of the year.  I start to appreciate the value of reindeer skins, which are waterproof and warm as toast.  We learn about the reindeer rhythm to which Sami life adheres.  All the reindeer in the arctic belong to the Sami people, and life revolves around the reindeer and their breeding cycle.  They keep some reindeer in an enclosure, so we get a close up view of these comic looking animals who can sniff out food at a hundred paces and aren’t afraid to come and take it from you.

Next door, free to enter, is the Jukkasjärvi Church.  I love churches (although only when empty of preachers), and this one is storybook gorgeous.   The red, almost barnlike structure is simple yet striking against the whiteness of the snow.   Apparently it is the oldest church in Swedish Lapland.  The Sami religion, through the usual application of threat and coercion, is now mostly Christian.  Gone are the drums and ancestral rituals that were once used to commune with the dead, but a sense of that wild spirit communing with nature still resonates in the pictures on the walls.  No realistic European depictions of devotion, these are vibrant explosions of colour, cartoon-like.  They remind me of similar paintings in Cusco, Peru.

We also visited Kiruna Church, which is a spectacular building, beautiful, red and angular, apparently designed with a traditional Sami tent in mind.  It is a series of triangular shapes that converge into a central soaring apex, creating space and light inside.  There is an impressive organ, an abundance of dark wood and the smell of pine forests in the early morning.  We have it to ourselves, this calm and peaceful space, and end up in a deep and meaningful conversation with our children, about life and why people buy into beliefs that make no moral or logical sense.  A peaceful way to pass half an hour before heading out to dinner.

On the advice of Lynn, who runs the B&B we are lucky enough to stay in, we hire a car and spend a day driving along the frozen river towards Nikkaluokta in search of wildlife.  What a luck to encounter three clippity-cloppity reindeers trotting down the road on their multi-jointed legs.  They look just like Disney has sold them to us, and all that is missing is the red nose.

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We find a bridge across the only part of the river that doesn’t freeze over, and step outside the car to take a photo.  A quick photo.  Very quick.  Somehow, here were the water still runs, it is colder than further down the river.  I take my gloves off to take a photo of the distant mountains, and in moments cannot feel my fingers.   Back to the car post-haste, heater blasting.  It is easy to imagine dying from hypothermia.

Of course, the main reason we came up with the mad-cap idea of visiting this part of the world was the allure of the Aroura Borealis.  Although it is a low point in the solar cycle, and it was cloudy for two of the three nights, as luck would have it, on the night I booked us in for a snow-mobile adventure, the sky cleared.  We were lucky enough to get a glimmer of the aurora.  Just a shadow of its marvellous self, but enough to say we have seen it and we want more.  It is the only redeeming feature of the snow-mobile trip, which was our least favourite thing we did.  We did it as part of a tour with about 16 other people, the drive was slow and stop-start and it was utterly freezing.  To drive along with your nose peeking out of your balaclava at -26 degrees isn’t fun, and we all ended up with bright-red frost-nipped noses at the end of it.  Still, we saw the green glow in the sky, and for that it was worth it.

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Snowy lessons in Christmas.

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Christmas Day dawns quite unceremoniously in Cervinia, nestled in the outstretched arms of the Italian Alps.  While this quaint ski-town is bedecked with sparking white lights, and the odd decorative reindeer, the shops will be open today and people shall go about their business with, apparently, scant regard to the occasion.

This was the first year the kids have openly acknowledged us as Santa 1 and Santa 2.  But, they still wanted stockings (which we told them they weren’t getting for reasons of logistics) and a sense of seasonal specialness. The kids went to bed last night with a little less wide-eyed wonder, remarking that it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Happier this morning, waking up to the surprise of secretly packed stockings at the end of their beds.

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It is a lesson about the value of rituals, and the feelings of well-being they give us.  Rituals matter far more than beliefs in creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.  In my pursuit of intellectual honesty, it is perhaps worth remembering that.

Still, here we are in this beautiful place, doing beautiful things.  The scenery is spectacular.  The village is covered in snow, which made arriving in our heavy cars without snow chains a somewhat farcical event.  The kids are caught in wonder, and immediately launch into snowball fights and snow cave making.  The food is, as one would expect, simply gorgeous.  We eat “typical products” (like cheese and smoked meats) by the bucketful.  For dinner one night we try a fondue specialist.  Yes, even with the dairy allergic son.  He gets to cook his own steak on a sizzler, declares this his favourite restaurant.  Excellent it was too.

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To get to the ski-fields, we have to take a gondola up out of the village, over the first range of peaks and onto the mountain itself, where sunlight dances off the freshly ploughed, brilliantly white snow.  Above us, the backside of the Matterhorn, Toblerone triangular all the same, rises into the bluest of skies, and just across the saddle of sharp peaks criss-crossed with ski lifts lies Switzerland.  All across the horizon, a sea of mountain peaks shimmer in the haze.  It is unbelievably picturesque.

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I am most definitely a beginner skier, and it is only on day three when I finally get the hang of it enough that a glimmer of pleasure overtakes the abject terror.  This is, of course, the moment I take a spectacularly inelegant tumble off a ski lift and twist my knee in a direction it definitely wasn’t designed for.  And that’s me, done for the moment, three days into a ten-day holiday in the snow.  So much for improving my rather shaky skills.  On the upside, I got attended to by the Italian Red Cross, and got a ride on a skidoo down the mountain – siren going all the way.

Today, Christmas Day, we are having lunch at a restaurant that is only accessible if I ski in.  It is going to be interesting.  Let’s hope the over-priced knee brace works, and I haven’t forgotten how to turn.  Snow ploughing down the mountain is going to be a painful endeavour to say the least.

Even without skiing, we are here with friends who are almost family, catching up on years of distance, sharing old memories and making new ones.  The kids form vibrant friendships, with giggles that overtake restaurants and dare my kids down slopes bigger and faster than they could have imagined possible.  And to me, this is what the spirit of Christmas is really all about – making time in our busy lives for family, friends and the small rituals that anchor us in our worlds.

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Merry Christmas, everyone.