borders

I’m back from Spain. We went there for a three-day holiday and got back last night. It was great to say the least (another post to come) and during it I found myself contemplating the idea of borders. I suppose it’s a simple idea really: ‘Here is a line. This is my land, that is yours. You don’t come onto my land and I won’t go onto yours,’ yet look at the problems it causes: famine, disease, war, huge political debates with who knows what future consequences on who knows how many lives – some of humanity’s most prominent and serious issues can be directly linked to that crazy, presumptuous, arrogant idea of drawing lines on the ground and living within them. A tree doesn’t worry what country it sets root in, a bird doesn’t care what borders it crosses. Fish don’t think about whose oceans they swim in: they don’t try to draw lines on the water. I have always respected the fact that humans are animals: physically, we function in basically he same way as many other members of the animal kingdom. Mentally, I understand, we are different. Blessed we are with amazing mental abilities: long memory, foresight, problem solving, logic: indeed, as a race we are so intelligent we separate ourselves, set some above others and put entire peoples down because of some mean understanding that ‘This is the world works, this is how it is. This is life.’ Of course, we have no other life, no other world to base it on, nothing on which to model our existence. With no signpost to point the way to personal and societal success we are (to our knowledge, at least) pioneers, exploring our universe in whatever way we can. And because of the human mind’s desire for logic and sense, we label things of which we have no understanding, put names to things which cannot be named, we grasp them in whatever way we can and try to own them: we draw borders. ‘This is what I know, and this is what I don’t know. It is a mystery. It is unknown. I don’t know what it will do to me or how it will affect me, so it may be a threat.’ And so, despite all our progress, we arrive back at one of the core pillars of our towering modern society: fear of the unknown. And we try to explain even this, pretending that we understand it and know its secrets. The human mind, being what it is, searches frantically for answers to the mystery it tries to persuade itself it understands. And it finds them in a thousand and one different places: religion and spirituality, science and technology, just to name the most controversial. But the foundations are wrong – no, not wrong. Misplaced? Misguided? Whichever you like, the meaning is the same. We search for answers to a question we don’t understand. No, not even a question – it doesn’t exist. How can we find an answer to a question that doesn’t exist? And there is my point: we draw our borders and create our laws on land which doesn’t exist. Our existence itself is not solid, not sure – we cannot see the future, we can’t even truly see the present. Like fish in the sea we ride the currents, consuming those weaker than us and being consumed by those stronger, but we have not the slightest idea how deep our ocean really is, or how wide its shores! Or the planet, the land beyond those shores – and from there, the sky – from there, space, the universe – and from there, well: I don’t know. And I consider myself beyond lucky to to have no fear of those words: I don’t know. If there is one thing I’ve learnt in eight months away it’s that I am utterly ignorant of how big: just how unbelievably, terrifically BIG my world really is. And still – still! – I try to understand it, try to come to terms with the fact that I will never come to terms with it. And I have no fear of admitting that that frightens me. The knowledge that no matter how hard I try I will not – can not – ever stop trying to understand. Is that what life is? Is that what humanity is? To try to understand as much as we can in whatever way we can in the time we have on this world? Is that what sets us apart from other animals? The way the human mind needs logic, clarity, sureness. The way we need explanations, limits; need borders? If that is so, how far has humanity really advanced? We still clamber over each other in a desperate struggle to survive in much the same way as we must have done in prehistoric times. We hunt and gather, stockpile, fight, hurt, kill, negotiate, compromise, form relationships, betray, etcetera – and all for borders, all for some sense of surety that we will live to see one more day. ‘Humanity’ is still just as prepared to sacrifice another for itself as it was 5000 years ago. We’ve crossed oceans, fought wars, spilled blood, poisoned every ground we’ve stood upon and destroyed more things than I have the heart to name, and we call this progress. We live longer and healthier lives, we are better educated, we are more scientifically and technologically advanced, and for what? So we can make more money, catch more diseases, take more resources and – advance further. Push forward to a bright new future, without knowing exactly when it will suddenly become bright. We’ve come so far, but how far have we really come? Or better yet, how much further can we go? If that is humanity, how long has it been since we truly changed? Perhaps to truly advance – advance for the good of everyone, every individual, rather than as a race – we need to stop explaining, or pretending to. Stop pushing to go further, faster, and stop and think. Stop swimming in the current society thinks you should be in, stop making rules with which to bind yourself, stop drawing borders.
Just be, and in being, become.

spanishseas

hands

I wrote a short piece; it’s quite rough. I’m not sure whether or not to go any further with it. I blame the sudden inspiration on too much Edger Allan Poe (who may or may not be be turning in his grave at my feeble attempt).

Hands

Old woman, I see a world in your hands.
A perfect globe of emotion past and wisdom most forgotten – except in those fingers. What gnarled roots of experience and life! digging deep into things unknown but by those who listen. The cracks along your weathered surface cannot penetrate the base mysteries of such gloriously closed an existence – these deep crevasses, so bursting with memory as to seem frail: sweet trickery! Your bones are brittle as the cold morning frost, your skin taut and sagging; these twigs abandoned as cruelly as a tree sheds the limbs who bore fresh buds only seasons ago. What burdens have been borne by these palms, sunken and depressed beneath what colossal woes and pleasures. Your knuckles, as smooth and weathered as pebbles lying dormant on a depthless shore; how they creak with the mildest of motions, as the timbers of an old ship must cry wistfully for the shore before taking their final place beneath the waves. Oh, these fingers; clutching pitifully at air dried with time and thick with dreams of a life before, straining to find the last threads of peace between youth and beyond. But these movements, which so betray long years of control, have no effect on the cold-hearted breathing of the world, on those whose skin shows none of time’s ravages and whose limbs obey with spirited pleasure. And all the wisdom of these hands, these books – these libraries of life, is gone: locked away in a chest buried beneath all the stones of a thousand other lives. The library sinks below the surging tide of the world, and creaks no more.
Old woman, I saw the world in your hands.

courage and kindness

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because I’ve been occupied with other things. Lately I’ve been writing more than I did in Australia – I should do it more often. I’m good at it, and I love it. I’ve written several poems, a couple of songs – none of them very special. I’m not sure if I’d  be brave enough to put them on the internet; stories are more my thing. Recently I started putting particular thoughts and images I’ve had in my head for years down on paper, and it feels strange. There’s a part of me which wants to discover the hidden path in my head and see where it takes me, but in a way I don’t want to find it. It’s like an exotic bird. Part of the attraction is not understanding it, not knowing what it’ll do or where it’ll go next. It is hidden from you, but you can still hear it singing. If you catch it and write it down, you seal it off forever. It won’t change any more. It won’t be free. I guess I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it justice. I know what I want it to be, and I won’t be able to forgive myself if I can’t tell it to other people. Maybe I’ll let that bird sing a little longer.

A couple of weeks ago I walked to school. As I walked through the centre of town I decided to take some money out of the ATM for no reason other than to have some in my purse, just in case. When I got close I saw a woman, no more than forty, sitting against the wall a couple of metres away. She was dressed in a worn but clean coat and had a plastic cup and a cardboard sign asking for money. There was a part of myself which wanted to walk away without taking money out just to avoid going near her. That revolted me because I always feel compassion for homeless people regardless of past or present situations. Standing there, I debated whether or not to give her the 20€ note I was holding, but decided not to. I said ‘bonne chance’ to her as I walked past, but the clean new notes in my purse made me feel sick. I looked back as I walked away, feeling awful. Passing a bakery just around the corner reminded me of something that happened when I was younger.
<I was with my father in the city where I grew up and we were approached by an Aboriginal man as we were paying for a parking ticket. It was always my job to push the buttons on the machine. The man was obviously drunk; he was dirty and took up both sides of the footpath in a foot-dragging lurch. He asked for money with his hands cupped in front of him, and my first instinct was to back away. My father stood straight, looked him in the eye, and told him he wouldn’t give him money, but that he would buy him a hot meal if he wanted one. Maybe the man was too out of himself to understand but he swore at us and swaggered away. My father told me that it’s better not to give money to people like that because you don’t know what they’ll spend it on, and it could make things worse for them. Instead, he told me, the most valuable things you can do are to buy them a meal, if you can, and to show kindness. He taught me to always be courteous and compassionate for people in difficult situations like that – you never know what kind of life they’ve led.>
On a whim, I walked into the bakery and bought two croissants. It cost me less than 2€. I walked back around the corner and gave them to the woman, who smiled and gave me nothing but a quiet thank you. I smiled as I walked away. I didn’t look back again.

As I walked to school I thought about that woman. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know her name. I don’t know where she’s from, I don’t know where she’s going. I don’t know where she sleeps at night or who she dreams about. I don’t know why she was wrapped up in a clean, well-worn coat holding a plastic cup and a cardboard sign on a cold Thursday morning, but I know she has more courage than many. How many people do you know would be able to watch every person who walked silently past, just in case they flipped a coin at your feet? Who knows what life she left to sit near that ATM on a cold Thursday morning? If I had half that woman’s courage I would’ve bought ten croissants. A hundred. Heck, I’d’ve bought half the shop.

The thank you she gave me, that small gratitude, left me smiling for the rest of the day. They say you can’t buy happiness, but I’ve never believed it. It’s true, money in itself doesn’t bring real happiness; one little coin bought me a happiness more profound than a sackful of notes could’ve done. The cost of two croissants is nothing to many people, and yet most would walk past a beggar without a glance. It may be nothing to you, but for them it can be the difference between another cold day on the streets and one which might feel a little warmer. So I ask, anyone who is reading this: next time, do them a favour – and don’t expect anything from them in return. Their not being able to repay you is part of what makes it feel so good. You’re doing something kind not because it’s a necessity, but because you can. Because you have the courage, the compassion, the kindness to break through something inside of you and reach out to a total stranger. You might not remember it in a month or a year; you might not miss a small gold and silver coin in your purse. But those tiny things: a croissant from a stranger, a hot drink from someone who walked passed and saw, can stick with a person forever. It’s the littlest things that show who we truly are.

I hope she’s there next week. Maybe I’ll buy her a coffee.

weekend bliss

Well.

Seeing as it’s been nearly a month since my last post, there’s a lot to write about. I still have to upload the pictures I took in Paris, and school probably deserves a post to itself, so I’ll do them later. But first I want to write about the past couple of weekends, because they have been perfect. Every one. Totally amazing. Let me just get a piece of the perfect fresh-baked French bread we had with lunch and I can begin.

I’ll start with the weekend before before the last (that’s two weeks ago), because it’s the first. I spent Saturday being a bum, lazing around the house and generally enjoying my freedom from the craziness of French high school. Sunday, however, was fun. Really fun. It started out pretty normally; sleep in, tasty breakfast and reading for most of the morning (Wuthering Heights: I felt it was time I started on the classics). We had a really long lunch; my host mothers’ parents came over and we had a birthday thing for them, which ended up being over two hours long after we had finished dessert. No complaints here – French food on special occasions? Yep. It’s pretty good. After lunch my host brother and sister (Charles and Victoria) and I went to Charles’s friend’s house. Since my arrival in France I’ve seen some pretty nice houses. This one made them look … lacking. In what, I don’t know, but their house was the most amazing I have ever set foot in. It looks like an old farmhouse from the outside – rough, aged, grey stone exterior. High, dense hedges. Ivy covering the walls. The front gate is huge; old wood with simple iron fittings, set into the high stone wall. Inside the gate there’s a sort of covered courtyard, then an open bit of grass with a really nice pool in the middle. On the other side of the pool there’s an open bit of lawn with a veggie patch and a huge chicken yard, and opposite, a seasonal creek with an awesomely creepy patch of gloomy pine trees on the edge of the property. On the other side of their property they have a huge raspberry vine, a big hazelnut tree and various other fruit trees.The family also owns four cats, some donkeys and a goat. You get the picture. They have a nice house.
So we went to their house after lunch for a few hours to have a swim, but the weather was cool so I got out after a while. After I got dressed I went raspberry picking with Charles’s friend’s mum, Martine, and we picked a huge bowlful of the freshest, sweetest, juiciest, tastiest raspberries I have ever eaten – though the bowl wasn’t as full by the time it got back into the house. After that I picked my first hazelnuts with Martine’s daughter, Salome, and Victoria. There were tons on the ground, many of them chewed through, and they explained that there was a squirrel who regularly came and decimated their crop. They didn’t seem to find it as cute as I did. Next we collected fresh eggs from the chicken hutch and by that time it was starting to get cold, so we went back inside, where we used hammers to crack open the nuts on the kitchen table. Afterwards Martine and I made clafoutis (with the fresh raspberries and eggs, of course) from a French recipe book: my first foreign cooking class! I learnt a lot – some interesting verbs (tamiser – to sift, beurrer – to butter), some nouns (âne/anesse – donkey, écureuil – squirrel), and made three new friends – all of whom happen to be cats. One of them jumped on my lap while we waited for the tart to cook and purred so loudly I wondered that he didn’t choke. We were also joined every few minutes or so by a very inquisitive rooster who wanted to know what was so interesting inside the house, and why he wasn’t allowed in. We eventually had to shut the door in his beak, but he was mollified when Martine gave him some cheese. Who would’ve thought a chicken could be so fond of dairy products?
We took half the tart with us when we went home and had it for dessert. It was pretty good… if I do say so myself. But I suppose that’s French cooking for you.

Last weekend was also about a nine out of ten on the amazingness scale. Saturday was a good day – I talked on the phone to my dad, who was at my brother’s house for his and my sister-in-law’s fifth wedding anniversary, which was nice, then Skyped with my mum later that afternoon. The rest of the day was spent reading my latest novel (To Kill a Mockingbird – I finished it yesterday) and being lazy, two of my favourite pastimes. Sunday lunch was again spent with my host mother’s parents (eating good food) and afterwards Charles and I rode bikes into Bruz and met up with one of his friends. They told me we were going to see the pony club (I’m a self-proclaimed horse fanatic), and maybe ride around Bruz a bit afterwards, but we ended up spending quite a while riding around the club grounds: there were heaps of bike trails with these cool little clearings and odd paddocks hidden away. I thought we were only going for an hour or so, but we ended up spending about two and a half riding around the area. I got my first real look at the countryside, and it was amazing. We spent a while exploring the pony club, then we rode out and followed the river to this huge open field with a gravel track running through it, and from there we got back onto the road and followed it home. Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures, but riding bikes through the open yellow fields, passing white stuccoed farmhouses and the odd cow or two – it felt very French.

It’s funny: at the end of every week I think to myself, ‘life cannot possibly get better than this,’ and every week I prove myself wrong. I wonder what the next nine months will bring!

elly xx

the adventure begins…

Have you ever been to another country?

I have.

Ever tried to learn another language?

I’ve done that too.

Ever done something so crazy, so extreme, so fantastically different, that the whole time your head is telling you, “This is insane. I’m insane. What was I thinking?” your heart is saying, “This is the most brilliant thing I’ve ever done. Bring on the adventure!”

Well, I’m proud to say that as of six days ago, I can tick that box as well. Last Thursday I left my country, comfort zone and my head back in Adelaide, Australia and flew two days and an ocean away to France for a many-month long cultural exchange program that will leave me worldly, bilingual and even more clinically insanerer than I have been for the past fifteen-and-a-half years.

I’m guessing the majority of people won’t have committed to spend almost a year of their lives in a different family, school and culture 16,454.3kms from everything familiar (not that I’m complaining, because I’d never have signed up if I wasn’t totally sure I could handle it), so those people please note: it is not for the fainthearted. It can mean hard work, embarrassment, people talking to you like you’re four years old (literally), teachers who don’t speak your language putting you on the spot in class, constant headaches, feeling tired all the time, and feeling like you’re totally useless in the world; but the positives outweigh the negatives a million times over. I know that after only four days here, and it’s only gonna get better.

I’ve been lucky enough to be placed with a good family: they’re kind, generous and willing to help me learn. They’re fixing up a French farmhouse amongst plenty of horse pastures. There’s a cornfield, a river and a tiny bit of forest just down the road. And they have those fantastic taps which come on when you wave your hands underneath them (I had a lot of fun with those). I go to a good school with my host brother and sister, my teachers are, for the most part, very helpful and don’t expect too much, and my classmates are friendly (and very, very funny when they try to speak English).

The food here is amazing: I had my first croissant a couple of days ago with homemade redcurrant & raspberry jam and coffee for breakfast and I think I died a little bit. Cheese is a separate course here, eaten after dinner, and that in itself has been an adventure – a thoroughly enjoyable one. French cheese… yum.

All in all, I’m pretty sure I’m the luckiest damn person on the planet.

These next months will be difficult, exhausting, and quite possibly the best of my life.

So I say to all you people in the world doing the same things you’ve done for however long you’ve done them…

Bring on the adventure!

elly xx