Sunday, January 28, 2007

Only The Lonely

How does it feel
To be on your own,
With no direction home?
Like a complete unknown,
Like a rolling stone?

-Bob Dylan

She walks her dog most days along the main roads, disheveled hair and bright red lipstick smeared across her face in a genuine but ill-fated attempt to brighten her lips. Her clothes are third or fourth hand, and the look on her face is a mixture of concentration and bewilderment.

She can be found almost anywhere on the island, going nowhere, coming from nowhere, but still moving forward. The polka dot dresses and sneakers can be spotted from a distance, but the solitary figure and her dog give are part of the community, rather than a discarded homeless statistic. Who knows her story? Does it matter?

Yesterday, she was alone, without the dog, and without any movement or purpose. She sat on the bus stop with her large red sun hat, staring the ground. No bus can take her where she is going, no friendly chats are forthcoming with The Lady in Red.

I am told by long time residents that 20 or 30 years ago, the marginal, the disenfranchised, the eccentric, and the artists (who sometimes were a combination of all of the above), flocked to Waiheke Island. Some perhaps had no choice, and were guests of the State, others saw an opportunity for the natural beauty, isolation, and mystique to inspire and invigorate. It set the tone, which still exists, slightly hidden amidst the recent invasion of Large Black SUVs, trophy homes, and vineyards as the trendy Playgrounds of the Wealthy.

Diversity is nothing if not enlightening. We often see others not as we see ourself, but as different. For some that is a challenge and opportunity, for others a threat. But we are in this together, no matter how high a wall we may try to put around us. No man is an island, as the saying goes.

With a number of countries surpassing a billion in population, and The Good Old US of A now at 300million, one would think that making and keeping connections with others would have become easier, not more difficult, especially with the growing number of devices and tech advances that make it easier for busy people to keep in touch. Apparently not so. Whether you call it social isolation or disconnectedness, for many people plain loneliness is a haunting presence lurking over their shoulder day and night. One in four Americans now live alone, compared to just 10% in 1950, according to this AP article. Everyone has their own way of coping, and some do not.

Contrast that with the many who have the good fortune to live long and fulfilling lives; taking their opportunities to appreciate every day, and to share their knowledge, wisdom, experience and creativity gained in the process. These are the real leaders for the new world.

A good example is this brilliantly witty essay from Joseph Epstein, reflecting on the changes in life upon reaching that most profound of decades, the 70s. Very well worth the read. And the Guardian's David Thompson recently had an overview of successful artists in their 70s, not the least of whom is Clint Eastwood, making the best films of his life.

Families are scattered all over the island on this holiday weekend, on their yachts, in the campgrounds, or crammed into the many baches sprinkled over the hills and coastline. Some are happy, some are not. Some are wealthy, some are not. They are together, with their friends and families and colleagues and sometimes complete strangers. We are tied together in this knot of complex, interwoven and changing relationships throughout our lives.

Whether we have a large circle of friends to call on, or a small one, it can be the lifeblood of our interaction in this world of increasing complexity and uncertainty. Our inner strength is a reservoir that can fluctuate with the seasons or the reasons. Certainly it needs replenishing with the support of close association with others, either in this world or in another...

While on families, one of the weddings I am attending this summer had a pre-Big Day picnic down by waters edge this weekend, many of the family and friends having traveled all the way Down Under from Europe for the occasion. They seem to be certainly enjoying the relaxed summer season and vibe here after leaving Northern Hemisphere temperatures not worth mentioning. We talked about the whanau, the fairies, and the New Zealand way of life, amongst good food, good company and frisbee.

Because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "AWWW!"

Jack Kerouac
On the Road

Many people come and go in my life. I am grateful for the practice and the experience each and every one has given me, even if it is buried all Freudian-like deep in my subconscious somewhere. Some stay that I want to go, others go that I want to stay, but the point is this(and there is a point): Our story is unique to us, and it can be refreshingly healthy to share the common threads with others close, knowing we are not alone in this most mysterious and marvelous of journeys. We may at times feel lonely, and that can actually be a very precious gift of solitude. The only constant we can be sure of in this world is change however, and it can come in an instant without any warning. So be prepared.

The Lady in Red will keep on walking in different directions until she stops. I will see her again tomorrow and be reminded once again of the temporal nature of this life. She may be lonely, but she is not alone.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Spiritual Maturity?

"The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.
They're in each other all along."


My sister gets married next month in California. A friend that lives nearby here on Waiheke gets married the week before up in the Bay of Islands, a beautiful part of New Zealand. I will attend both and support their commitments to shared lives together. There will no doubt be celebrations worthy of the institution and the wonderful people taking part. A social fabric that at once is both revered and heavily criticised, still holds court all over the world in ways that no other pact does between two humans.

We are inherently social creatures. Our ability to work together in sustainable ways to leave a better planet for our children is not helped by the rising level of single person households, a trend happening in all "developed" countries with populations that can afford such luxuries. Still, there are a number of creative accomodation arrangements emerging through either necessity or desire. To have both community and harmony (often difficult), intimacy and solitude (often necessary), is an area of life that challenges cultural immunity. Any experiment outside cultural norms, and protection comes swiftly and often severely. One of the backlashes from the 60's and 70's communal movement is the current hijacking of American society by the religious right.

Extended families, or "whanau" is a concept embraced heavily amongst the Polynesian cultures, and whilst not necessarily a link through blood alone, the strong connection and sense of responsibility is there, and the support for the youngsters is shared and diverse. That was definitely one of the most positive aspects of my communal experiment, and my daughter agrees now 20 odd years later. The care was both genuine and unconditional.
Whatever works.

John Schumaker writes extensively in In Search of Happiness about personal satisfaction and the quest for some "thing" that becomes more and more unattainable in current times. In this article, he explains how the ancient Greek philosophers used to equate happiness with virtues such as loyalty, friendship, moderation, honesty, compassion and trust. Today, it is more about what we think we need to own, or who we need to be with in order to be happy. The conspiracy, as he calls it, is not driven by our genetic disposition, but rather our cultural attitudes, and is not sustainable. The Greek virtues, the Navajo hozho ("may you walk in beauty") are conditions that do not rely on any type of self gratification, which never lasts. They either exist or they do not. The question begs asking then, if something is not lasting, how real is it?

"Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: some things are within our control and some things are not".


Indeed. And as the Talmud says wisely, "we do not see the world as it is, we see the world as we are". In another clever NY Times piece called "Help, I am Surrounded by Jerks" (sound familiar?), we are made aware of the growing plethora of material available to help us deal with "difficult people". Whether you take a seminar, read any number of books, or listen to tapes, it all comes down to realising (either through pain of experience, or good fortune), that we cannot control anyone (or anything for that matter), only our reactions or responses.

Real spiritual maturity begins then with the ability to allow events beyond our control to weave their inevitable way through our lives without letting them rock our foundations.

Not at all difficult are the tuis, or parson birds, that have been especially prolific around Rocky Bay this summer, with the consistent flowering of trees and shrubs providing ample meals and good nests...

This one stays perched outside my bedroom window early each morning, and making sure I am up at the right time.

Widespread in New Zealand, they have an iridescent sheen, with the most conspicuous feature being the white tuft of feathers on the neck.

With a noisy flight and fluid, melodic song, it is certainly one of the true delights amongst the many companions in the forest. Another reminder perhaps of wider perspectives on the nature of divinity and spiritual understanding.

The Holy Men covering themselves in ash and bathing in a dirty (sorry, holy) river every year in Allahabad in India have other concerns. They won't have problems dealing with "difficult people"; they are no doubt beyond that. They will miss the song of the tui as well. When you live in a country with a billion others, difficult can be a relative term. The rituals and the ceremonies that "talk story", as the Hawai'ians like to say, may indeed have something to say, but how real are they in the overall context of this short life?

As a wise man said to me once:

Watch your thoughts
They become actions
Watch your actions
They become character
Watch your character
It becomes your destiny

And the next time someone tells you about how toxic some chemical or another is, be sure to remember that everything is at some point, including water. The key is the dosage. Whoever thinks up these stupid (and now deadly) contests on AM radio really needs to get a life, and they could start by knowing what they are doing.

I suppose we all could.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

A Suspension of Disbelief

"Life is what happens to you while
you are busy making other plans"

-John Lennon

I often wonder if I am the only one that sees a totally unsustainable movie playing before my eyes when I walk into the supermarket and see Italian kiwifruit and California apples for sale here in New Zealand. NEW ZEALAND, for heavens sake, where we have spearheaded the innovation and development of these two wonderful and healthy fruits for years! Even though I have the privilege of being a consumer in the same country and proximity where they are grown, They are not available to me.

I must travel down the back roads and head out to farming country to buy direct from the grower in order to get fruit that is not flown in from half way around the world.

We are subject to the inexorable march of globalisation, with its artificially cheap products and services making us feel we are so fortunate with all our choice. We are in fact, supporting an unsustainable process of food distribution around the world. This industrialisation of our most essential of commodities is a process that requires increasingly more energy to bring goods to market than it provides the consumer. A net loss I believe it can be termed. Michael Pollan has written widely and articulately on the subject.

And the fruit can be weeks, if not months old, thanks to even more energy-hungry Controlled Atmosphere storage. Another marvellous and innovative
advance in technology that allows fruit that would otherwise be eaten within days of harvest, complete with natural sugars and sweetness, to be now harvested early and stored indefinitely in order to meet specific market demands. Remember what a vine ripened tomatoe tasted like? Jeff Nield of Aternet writes here that it is possible in most places to have a healthy and nutritious diet by eating food grown within a 100 mile radius of where you live. It should not be so difficult unless one lives in an extreme climate.

Vegan chic could only come out of New York, and the demand seems to be growing for fashion without animal cruelty, and that could only be a good thing. You might be surprised at the styles and marketing some entrepreneurs are coming up with in an effort to please their discerning clients in a green yet trendy way. Whatever works for you.

Thinking big...Whether you like their "product" or not, global superstar celebrity is a saavy and successful marketing industry. The Idol series piggybacks on that understanding, but the ones that are there, have tremendous understanding of how to work media attention. Think Cruise, Bono, Jobs, Madonna, and of course known worldwide to all but still fresh to Americans, David Beckham; who has just negotiated a $50M a year contract to market football (soccer) in the states. Oh yes, he will also play for team called the LA Galaxy. Of course you have heard of it!

Condition branding sells, and to have youth, fame, fortune, and (except for the case of Paris Hilton) talent, is a potent mix attracting the highest commercial bidder who sees a big return over 4 or 5 years in merchandise and endorsements. It will be an uphill battle to try to convince Americans to embrace the beautiful game, with their own sports so well established. With a growing immigrant population, however, the challenge is there. Good luck to him. If he teams up with Cruise in a movie though, I think I might have seen enough.

Speaking of American Idol, and perhaps its franchises in many parts of the world, this Guardian article shows how off the mark they really are. I don't think I have been able to sit through a whole episode, and now that the main player has dissed my main man Bob, it is definitely OFF the list. Get a life, buddy!

A bit of nostalgia for the aging hippie crowd. 40 years since the Famous Be-In that started the summer of Love. A bit corny perhaps? But compared with the public lynchings of Middle East dictators, I would have to say not a bad effort, folks.

"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things"

-Henry Miller

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Shape Shifting

"He lives well who is well hidden"

-Rene Descartes

I often wonder what meaning re-create takes on in the context of todays fast paced society. Many holidaymakers are over on the island for the next few weeks, making the most of their time away from office, home, and regular routines. With an increasing amount of activities on offer for them here, is there actually any "re-creating" taking place?

I would suggest the guy that was in such a hurry he had to pass me in a carpark for heavens sake, is not taking full use of the opportunity he has here. The sign upon landing at the car ferry says "Slow Down -You're Here". That is just one of the reminders we have for visitors. Is it possible for people to change gears when they are on holiday, or is it now just another duty to be checked off the list of things to do, a latte-fueled charge down to the beach with Blackberry in hand, checking emails and keeping the motor on the SUV running, just in case?

If "work" and "play" were not words that had such emotive images attached to them, it might be a different story. "Work hard - Play Hard", and "Just Do It", are but two of the marketing slogans that have been imbibed in our culture of Continuous Partial Attention.

I remember the best (and perhaps the only) nugget of useful information I received out of all those years of management training and personal growth programmes. There is no such thing as Time Management. We all have the same time. 24hrs in a day. No one has any less or any more. How can something like time be managed? It is our priorities that are managed. What we do with the same time we have each day. The next time I hear someone say "there are just not enough hours in the day to get everything done", I may have to kindly point out that there isn't much chance of a change in that department. The great New Yorker cartoon recently had two men standing at Stonehenge and quipping, "Now that we have invented time, perhaps we should create deadlines".

Perhaps indeed... We wouldn't want to miss anything IMPORTANT, would we?

I think often about what is really important in my life, and what simply is part of an interruption-driven desire to meet somebody else's expectations. Sure, we all have clients, bosses, friends, relatives, spouses, etc. that ask for our time, that most valuable of resources. This needs looking at from a wider perspective. For in each present moment, there is an opportunity to improve our lives, as well as the lives of others by our example. To re-create is an important part of that process.

It is not a difficult process, believe me, as demonstrated New Years Day, with some "quality time" amongst friends in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand:

Notice the distinct lack of activity. An important part of the "re-creation" programme!

The iconic kiwi shed, long recognised for the healing qualities it brings out in male energy, works just as well in the formation of long term relationship building(I have been visiting this couple on their two acre plot for over a decade).

Fresh veges from the garden, avocados from the tree, and ice tea on the veranda. Thanks Paula and Robin!


On another plane (or planet) altogether... quote of the week, has to go to the US Secretary of State, Ms Rice, who has implored Iran and Syria to "end their de-stabilising behaviour" in the region of Iraq.

Eh? Who took these people off their meds?

And what is sending in 150,000 soldiers occupy a country for 3 years, creating untold amount of suffering and chaos, after bombing the infrastructure to the dark ages considered? Stabilising?

Gimme a break.

Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing.

-Albert Schwietzer

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Days Like This

When it's not always raining
there'll be days like this
When there's no one complaining
there'll be days like this
When everything falls into place
like the flick of a switch
Well my mama told me, there'll be days like this

-Van Morrison

The calendar shows new numbers. The old one lies in the bin. The sky shows great promise of warming the ground and the air for us to continue to harvest its bounties. Christmas and New Years have come and gone once again, like they will. An inconspicuous ex-president, a Middle East Frankenstein and the Godfather of Soul all pass away to deal with whatever they need to deal with...
So begins 2007.

Kiwis love to flock to the outdoors, and boats are showing up in all the bays, tents in the parks and a general push outside to embrace a reluctant summer. I know it must be the holiday season when I see joggers on Waiheke. Still, as the water slowly warms , I can slip effortlessly amongst the elements. I Step into Liquid, as the film says, along with my family of Paradise Ducks, soon to be off on their own, but still braving the increased human and dog presence on the foreshore. Won't be long now.

I trust many will be enjoying what nature has to offer at this time of year, even if it is in the Northern Hemisphere, where the days are shorter. Down here, if you are still spending too much time at the keyboard and monitor when the beach and bush beckon, you might want to check out this New Scientist article on modern cyber-maladies that threaten your well-being. There, amongst the confessions of a wikipediholic, a MySpacer, and cyberchondriac, are yet a few more social cues to give us a pause for concern. Or not.

Whilst still on the cyber theme, it is said in this article, there are two types of people: those who backup their PCs, and those who will. If you have ever lost any valuable info, you know what I mean. Fortunately, the geeks have come up with lots of great new easy ways to keep stuff from disappearing forever. If you have been too lazy to work them out or actually take the time to do it(like I was), this NYTimes article spells out the myriad of choices (which is half the problem), and makes recommendations. Well worth a read.

Feeling good this New Year? Excellent. Apparently many are not, and when a doctor comes out and writes an essay declaring the epidemic of diagnoses is part of the problem, well, I might have to agree. How about a wellness index? I'd love to hear how many of us are managing to stay away from the health care system. Anything is possible, and some things happen.

If you like hero stories, this one is a burner for you: seconds to spare in the subway, and a young man suffers a collapse, when Mr Joe Average New Yorker jumps in and rolls him to safety as the trains roll over them with inches to spare. They are already calling him the Subway Superman. Well done, Clark!

"One's destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things" wrote Henry Miller, who was an avid fan of the Big Sur area south of San Francisco. Also one of my favourite areas, the author of this travel piece samples some of the local scenery and accomodation, including that New Age mecca, The Esalen institute. Apparently it opens its famed hot sulphur pools overhanging the Pacific Coast to the public only from 1am to 3am every morning.
Gotta love it!