Friday, January 25, 2013

Footprints and songlines

'I have a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages; that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song; and that these trails must reach back, in time and space, to an isolated pocket in the African savannah, where the First Man shouted the opening stanza to the World Song, "I am!"'  - Bruce Chatwin

The songlines, as Bruce Chatwin describes them in his book, are the pathways trodden by the ancestors in ancient Australia. They represent the perimeters of land navigated by different tribes as well as being a means of passing dreamtime stories to the younger generations to explain the existence of certain mountains and rivers and to give colour to the history of those lands and journeys. It is possible to recognise exactly where a person is from in Australia by the song they sing. Inflections within the song represent mountains or rivers.

Bruce Chatwin is an English man who travels through the Australian outback seeing connections between Aboriginal dreamtime songs and stories and his own thesis about song as the origin of language. He explores the paths trodden by humanity's ancestors as they migrated from south eastern Africa to Australia. He intersperses anecdotes from his encounters with memorable outback characters with quotes from his hundreds of notebooks on related topics including enjoyment of walking, nomadic travel, the origin of our species, and human migratory practices and songs.

I've been thinking about the songlines of my own ancestors. My family are newcomers to Australia. Four generations ago we began treading on this land. Before that our footprints mark pathways in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Our songs and stories are of challenging journeys by boat, establishing themselves in a new land, and time spent in country Australia as farmers or church ministers. My grandfather used to tell of getting up at dawn to milk cows, and walking barefoot to school, insisting the journey was uphill both ways. Dad has tales of spiders in the outdoor dunny, playing tricks on teachers, and other Tom Sawyer-like adventures in country New South Wales. He  remembers the Aboriginal People living in settlements outside of town in the 1950's, pushed out from what was once their place. It is a reminder that we are literally and metaphorically treading all over other people's songlines.

As I walk the streets of Newtown, my current home, there are more family footprints that were trodden before. My parents owned a house in the next street, and it seemed like we visited almost every  second weekend to do repairs when I was a kid. And my older cousin Ben lived in Newtown up until his death in 2000. While I was too young at the time to understand his illness or have a meaningful relationship with him, I feel strangely connected to him now. I picture him walking the same pathways, perhaps sipping coffee in some of my favourite cafes, and finding inspiration for his art in the interesting characters and colours of the neighbourhood. It's comforting to think that wherever I might go, other people have trodden before, and now it's time for me to mark out my own path, treading lightly so as not to trample upon the ancient songlines, and probably singing my own verses about walking, nomadic travel and migratory practices, as well as continuing the chorus of "I am".

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Demystifying the mystics

It's 6am and I can hear two older Quakers speaking earnestly about toothpaste. Yep, it's another day of "Yearly Meeting", the name for the annual Australia Quaker Gathering. If you've ever read Roald Dahl's book "The Witches", the first day of Yearly Meeting for me is a bit like the witches' AGM. Quakers from all around Australia begin to arrive and with great delight greet friends from the other side of the country that they haven't seen since last year. While there aren't the wigs, square toes, or an abhorrence towards children, there are some physical features that set Quakers apart from the rest - lots of sensible hair cuts and sensible shoes.

Mealtimes are a good opportunity for inter-generational exchange. The first morning at breakfast I overheard a rather articulate nine year old boy explaining to his grandfather why he should be permitted to walk across campus and across a busy road to reach the children's room rather than taking a lift in his grandfather's car: "Well, grandpa I have been around for 9 years and have never been hit by a car. Yet, it was only yesterday that you got lost driving across campus". Grandpa conceded defeat.

The first day of Yearly Meeting is when we hold "Summer School", a full day workshop where we can explore deep spiritual issues or creative processes. I selected to do a workshop on "Eldering", which is about the spiritual nurture of the local meeting we are part of. Elders in Quakerism are not necessarily older, and in fact the most profound experience for me in that workshop was when the facilitator's daughter, aged 18 months, waddled around the room quietly greeting all of us, pausing for longer with those who she sensed needed more loving attention. There was a wisdom in her that we often overlook in children.

The other days are taken up with meetings for worship and for business, where the Quaker process of discernment and working towards consensus are applied to a range of issues from earthcare concerns in Australia, international aid and development projects, and appropriate resourcing of our children's program. When there isn't unity on an issue, sometimes the Clerk will ask for silence so we can all centre ourselves before considering the issue again. Each person can only speak once, and there is silence between each contribution. As Friends rise to stand and voice their concerns or support, it's possible to see the energy in the room shift as the group comes to a shared understanding of the best way forward. Sometimes the final decision is different to, and in some ways better than, the original proposal.

Taking a break to cycle around Lake Ginnunderra
But it's not all serious stuff. There is always time for hugs, smiles, and more earnest conversations about toothpaste or the time and energy saved drinking tea with cold water. One Young Friend fondly remembers a year when he was invited to spend an entire afternoon learning Tibetan throat singing.

During the week the children have their own sessions, with older Quakers joining them to share stories from their life experience or to hear what the children have been up to. Older Quakers take seriously the care and nurture of their younger counterparts, taking the opportunity when given, to teach experientially about Quaker process. I can remember one year when I was a teenager, it had come to pass that one of the phones in the dormitories had been broken, possibly as a result of enthusiastic over-use. Rather than attribute blame, or swift discipline, our adult carers asked us to sit in a circle and "discuss" the issue of the broken phone and what to do about it. As the sun became stronger and stronger, and our stomachs hungrier, we discussed and discussed without "unity", until finally one of our number stood, and declared that he thought perhaps it was in fact he who had broken the phone after all. We all breathed a sigh of relief, agreed to share the costs of the repair, and finally went to lunch.

Invariably the staff at the university where we are staying are not used to a group with so many vegetarians and people with other dietary requirements, and so soon enough a brash Quaker who needs her energy for the next session will be heard explaining in no uncertain terms to the kitchen staff that salad doesn't cut it - they need to provide protein to the vegetarians! Slowly, under the guidance of more brash Quakers, the quality of the vegetarian meals improves over the course of the week, until we are inundated with beans, eggs and tofu.

The final night of Yearly Meeting is when we hold the concert. Suddenly all semblance of quietness dissipates, and there is poetry, singing, laughter and dance. My favourite act this year was Young Friends' Australian rendition of Jon Watt's slightly irreverent flash mob rap song "Friend speaks my mind", closely followed by the Children's mock news segment and weather report for 2050, highlighting the risks of not acting immediately on climate change.

All too soon, it's time to go home, and I hope yet again that the hugs, smiles and enriching conversations will lovingly sustain and hold me throughout the coming year, enabling me to go about my life with integrity. The challenge for me is to find ways to recreate this same sense of community, love, passion and depth in my everyday life.

Friday, January 04, 2013

New Year's Intentions

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.(Serenity Prayer)

New Years is a good time for being intentional about self-improvement, and to reflect on what we can change and what we can't. A quick google search revealed that the top ten most common New Year's resolutions people tend to make are: get organised, help others, quit smoking, quit drinking, learn a new skill, get fit, lose weight, get out of debt, have more fun and spend more time with family and friends. Many of them remind me of past resolutions well kept and not so well kept. One year I wrote down everything I planned to do before I turned 30 and methodically went about achieving them. Last year I lost ten kilos, went on a yoga retreat by myself, started riding my bike again and completed more postgraduate studies. This year, I thought I would be courageous and share the "adventures" I plan to embark on, and it seems there is something for the mind, body and soul!

Firstly, I plan to be more deliberate about how I nurture my mind. With studies out of the way, I can choose my own sources of mental inspiration. One friend likes to send me links to songs or movies that he thinks I might like. It's nice - gives us something to discuss later, and reminds me that I'd like to do more sharing of inspirational and thought-provoking music, books and movies. So my plan is to join a book-club or movie club so I can get ideas for interesting reads or films and talk about them with others afterwards. Also, I've booked two tickets to see the wise and beautiful Archie Roach in concert!

For my body I've already set myself the physical challenge of walking the Overland Track, a 6 day hike in Tasmania. As with planning for any big adventure, it seems as if the universe is checking how determined I really am to achieve this goal. For example, when planning a one day hike with my mother as part of my training, we were faced with gloomy-looking rain clouds, the fear of mum falling down midway through and me having to somehow carry her out to safety, and the threat of "noticeably steep hills" written into the track notes. We seriously considered giving up and doing a shorter day walk. But we did the hike in the end, and the sound of mum's voice from the kitchen when we had returned saying "what a glorious achievement!" over again reminded me that sometimes it's important to feel the fear and do it anyway.

Nurturing the soul is just as important for me. Many inspirational figures such as Gandhi, Jesus, and the Dalai Lama have talked about times of retreat and stillness that nourish them so that they can go out into the world to be and act. We all need time to reflect, meditate or pray in between times of intense being and doing. So I plan, yet again, to develop some kind of regular spiritual practice, whether it ends up being meditation, yoga, or reading. I might enrol in a Quaker Learning course. Whichever way I go, I have chosen serenity as my aspirational quality for the next few weeks. I plan to get better at accepting the things I can't change in life, and taking more time to smell the flowers.

So, how will I ensure that I keep these resolutions? Perhaps the fulfilment of these goals will be a bit like the sunflower that I photographed in our garden late last year. The first step is to plant the seedling and tell people it's there. Then encourage everyone around to water and nourish the goal, letting the sun shine on it. And hopefully one day it will open into full bloom and sing out to me that with a little courage, serenity and wisdom great things are possible.