Silence is Golden

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Silence is not the absence of something

but

the presence of everything.

   John Grossmannn

 

 My best friend Sally and I could ride our ponies for hours through the English countryside where I grew up.

On the way back home, all of us – humans and horse – tired from our outing, would mosey our way along the grass verge, feet out of the stirrups, dangling our boots through the cow-parsley, while the ponies took the odd snack-on-the-go.

In those moments, life often seemed sweet and almost perfect, and it wouldn’t take much for one of us to burst into the chorus of one of our favourite songs…

‘Silence is golden, but my eyes still see

Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see…’

Anybody who remembers the song will know it doesn’t say much for our taste at the time, but it was 1967 and we were 12-years-old, and we were collectively in love with the Tremeloes, who, as it turned out were going to be a one-hit wonder, with not even, as I found out many years later, their own song.

What I remember thinking in those far-off days, and it’s a thought that has stayed with me all my life, is that there are two kinds of silence – an outside silence, which in a sense does not really exist, and an inner one, which arrives on a rare occasion – well, rare to me at least – unbidden, as a sudden sense of quiet inner peace.

I grew up in the country, and I now live in the country, and I still horse-ride – these days through the green macadamia-covered hills of northern New South Wales.

Until recently when we sadly lost my daughter’s Shetland pony, Sally-the-Boy to a brain tumour,  I would take my daughter for a trail ride on him, and  I would walk beside her.  Whenever we did our lane outing, she liked to close her eyes, so, as she said, she could hear the ‘quiet’ sounds. And the quiet sounds were the sounds her pony’s hooves make clip-clopping steadily along, the sound of the breeze, the carolling of the magpies and the far-off hum of the motorway.

If you want to further the argument that silence in a sense is a concept, and not something that really exists – think of the phrase, ‘Silence please’, and where it is used.

Take a school classroom for instance, at the beginning of an exam and the room falls quiet as students begin the unenviable task of working through an exam paper – is it silent in there? Of course not. There are a million little noises: the scraping of shoes on the floor, the occasional cough, the sound of a chair being adjusted, paper being turned – there is almost, in fact, a ‘noise’ of concentration.

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And yet, conversely despite this outside noise that makes the notion of silence not – in any world I know at least – a reality, there is that time when you are in the exam, when your inner world is in silence. Then, if you are lucky and you have studied your subject, a kind of meditative trance falls on you where you become unaware of anything around you, blocking out everything other than that which you are doing.

When we were children we used to play many games in the fields and the woods around my home. One of them, a perennial favourite, involved an attempt to be silent. One of us would hide our eyes into a tree, while another would pretend to be a Red Indian – as we still called native American Indians then – and would creep silently up behind to scare the person hiding their eyes. Sometimes if one of us was feeling cruel, we would all run off and leave the innocent waiting to be startled alone at the tree, and as I know, that produced its own torturous silence – the silence of no response.

For a large part of the past 35 years I have been a journalist working in busy newspaper and magazine offices, and in those offices the ability to call on inner silence becomes absolutely vital. They’re noisy places, newspaper offices. Not quite as noisy as they were pre-computers, but noisy enough. A large open plan-office with telephones ringing and people talking, meeting, arguing, creating is not necessarily the kind of place that you would think would be conducive to writing, but write you must – and so you do – learning to block out every sound, so that you can meet your deadline. Much, dear reader, as I am doing now.

In a relatively quiet, relatively small space in my house, with white desks and two windows overlooking the paddocks below, I am typing an essay on silence. Outside I can hear the sound of the neighbour on his ride-on mower, every now and then my son’s mobile phone pings. I can hear the magpies, crows, rosellas, butcher birds, minah birds and doves that are just part of the noise landscape. One of the dogs is drinking water, each lap magnified by my attempt to hear silence. If I pause for a moment, I can absorb these sounds deep inside, and by absorbing them they become part of the silent interior, the place from which I am attempting to write.

William Penn once wrote: “True silence is the rest of the mind; it is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” For me that rings true, because the curious thing about turning into the inner world is how energising it is.

Sometimes, although not often enough, I manage to get up in the very early hours of the morning to meditate. Even then, deep in the country at four in the morning, the world is not silent. The creaks and groans of an old house keep me company; the cat appears at my side and grooms herself, if there is rain every tiny drop is magnified by the absence of day noise, and the silence of the night reveals itself as anything but, as I try to empty my mind and find that still place within.

If nature is so noisy, is it ever silent? “See how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grow in silence,” said Mother Teresa. “See the stars, the moon and the sun how they move in silence….we need silence to be able to touch souls.” I like that idea that the tree whose branch creaks over my roof, is growing in silence, that silence can be something tangible, if not in fact what we assume it to be. I’ve never thought of the sun, stars and moon as silent, but it’s true, at least from a human perspective. I see its trajectory over my house, I don’t hear it and that somehow reinforces the idea of silence being a sensation, having a presence, rather than an absence.

I have often wondered if wilderness places are silent – if you climb Mount Everest, for instance, do you sit in silence? In the Antarctic are you surrounded by silence? People tell me this is not so, that even in the quietest places there is noise, even if the noise is the beating of your own heart – even the absence of noise can be noisy.

There is a wonderful book by photographer Jeffrey Gusky entitled ‘Silent Places’. This poignant photographic journey through Eastern Europe documents in black and quite the crumbling landscape of the Holocaust. Houses, synagogues, railway lines, a simple corridor, a door, the entry to a Jewish home now used as a public toilet – every image silently tells a screaming story. His work is of outstanding quality, and somehow what he brings to the photographs is even more poignant than those of the time – the absence of people tells us these were their homes, their places of worship, of education and play – and in the case of the railway line to Auschwitz, their journey to death.   You feel that if you stare at them long enough you will bring them to life somehow, that the families will return, peeking out of the shadows, bringing light and love and warmth and noise with them, but until then this landscape bears silent witness to the bloody past.

 

 

'Corridor in Kazimierz', former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

‘Corridor in Kazimierz’, former Jewish district, Cracow, Polan, Jeffrey Gusky, 1996.

Battlefields, memorials, cenotaphs, burial mounds, roman ruins – everywhere where man has once existed but is no longer, it is not the silence, or lack of it, in the direct environment of these places it is the silence of the structures themselves that strikes one as being so overwhelming, hinting at one’s own mortality. I am here, I am noise, I am flesh, I am anything but silent, my blood flows, my heart beats, my stomach growls, my joints creak, my eyes see, my ears hear, tongue tastes, in each movement I make, each kiss or cuddle I give or receive, in each angry word, or happy laugh or bossy command I am an active presence.

Perhaps it is this more than anything that creates anxiety for a lot of people around the idea of silence. In a world full of iPods, iPads, tablets, phones, facebook and computers, whether we live in the (supposed) peace and quiet of the country, or the white noise of a city, the idea of silence, without or within, can be laden with fear. I can’t hear, does that mean people can’t hear me? Do I, if I am not constantly in contact with humanity, matter? My lack of silence, my constant interaction reassures me – I am here, I do matter, I am in contact.

The very fact of modern human’s difficulty with silence means that it is increasingly more important for us to acknowledge it, to hold it within and embrace the silence – to give our soul a chance to speak.

Perhaps one of the best-known prose poems in the world is the Desiderata, which far from being written in the 1600s as was commonly thought, was in fact penned by Max Ehrmann in 1927. Ehrmann, a philosopher and writer who wrote six books in ten years and then became a lawyer because he felt he would never write a book that made him enough money to support his family, would be astonished and gratified to know that 84 years later the Desiderata is one of the most widely read poems in the world.

‘Go placidly amid the noise and haste,’ he wrote, ‘and remember what peace there may be in silence.’

What he was speaking of, I am sure, is inner silence – that deep, profound state of being when all is right with the world, so right that one could still be compelled, in the right circumstances – a horse ride along a quiet avenue of trees, a dog or three at my heels – in my case – to sing out loud, ‘Silence is golden, golden, but my eyes still see’. And always to remember, of course the wise words below:

Keep-calm-and-enjoy-the-silence

From Paris to Paradise

Sarah Turnbull’s journey along the rocky road of hope…

This review first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on July 6, 2013

Sarah Turnbull

Author Sarah Turnbull.  Photo Andrew Goldie

It’s a hard thing in life to know when to let go of a dream and when to fight for it. In Sarah Turnbull’s first memoir, Almost French, we followed her journey as she bravely let go of her Australian life to move to Paris to be with Frederic, the man with whom she’d fallen in love.

After many trials and tribulations, all seemed to be well that ended well, and this is where we once more plunge into Turnbull’s story at the start of All Good Things.

Turnbull proves once again what an accomplished, versatile and humane writer she has become.

The couple are renovating their apartment; Frederic is working as a lawyer and Turnbull is researching a novel; they have their terrier, Maddie; and their life is full, to the outside eye at least. The only thing missing is a baby and, although for the reader there is no reason to suppose that a little one won’t make its presence felt there is a slightly wistful air almost immediately, as Turnbull describes her visits to her local church where she lights candles for her cause.

When Frederic is suddenly offered a job with his firm in Tahiti, their first thought is to refuse it. After all, they reason, why would they leave their perfect city life? And why, too, would they leave the place with the technology to help them make babies?

Because, as it transpires, after discovering that Turnbull is in the throes of early menopause, Frederic and Sarah have taken the IVF route several times with no success and a lot of heartbreak. Quite soon it becomes evident that the Holy Grail of this book is their quest to have a baby, and Turnbull writes with searing honesty about the hormonal swings, the debilitating effect of IVF on her body, the moments of optimism, and the crash when yet again it doesn’t work.

Gradually, the idea of Tahiti takes hold. After all, Turnbull reasons, what could be so bad about a place that inspired Gauguin and Matisse?

They settle on Mo’orea – a ferry ride to Pape’ete where Frederic will be working, and not as busy or as populated. So that is where Sarah, Frederic and Maddie find themselves in a cottage by a lagoon, in a landscape full of vivid colours, with friends and an entire new culture and way of life to absorb. They both decide that it’s time to close the book on the baby quest.

Except that Turnbull, despite her glorious surroundings, finds herself sinking into a depression, unable to write, and becoming more and more withdrawn. When she finds a sympathetic psychiatrist, she dwells on the subject of her infertility so much that in the end he points out to her that she is not moving on; she is, he says, not even going backwards. ”It’s not a crime to hope, you know,” he tells her.

The story of their last, successful try and the subsequent birth of their son, Oliver, is interspersed with wonderful descriptions of learning to dive (not very well); travelling to atolls and the tiny islands that surround the mainland; their introduction to the darker side of island life – thieves that have no fear of invading a house at any time of the day or night – and the ongoing, often amusing account of a marriage between two people from very different cultures. A small example from early in the book: guests arrive both five minutes early and 90 minutes late for a dinner party in Paris. Turnbull can’t believe people would turn up so late, while Frederic thinks it’s the height of rudeness to arrive early. Vive la difference.

”All good things come to those who wait” goes the expression, and in Turnbull’s case there is a happy ending – a lively, healthy son and a new start again in Sydney for the family. In All Good Things, Turnbull proves once again what an accomplished, versatile and humane writer she has become.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull.

ALL GOOD THINGS

Sarah Turnbull

HarperCollins, 325pp, $29.99

Download the ebook here.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/from-paris-to-paradise-along-the-rocky-road-of-hope-20130704-2pct3.html#ixzz2YPVnlZkY

The Worry Monster, Mother’s Day and muddling through…

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

Cranes from the Art of Japan exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art

I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the sound of the rain on the roof – as I so often do living in the green hills of the Northern Rivers.  (Note to self:  In Australia, a country renowned for its droughts, there’s a reason why this area is always green.  Second note to self:  Always research an area before moving there.)

As I lay there wondering if it was too early to get up at 4.30 am and work, the Worry Monster came to visit, and soon we were running through our favourite conversations – too many horses with too many fungal diseases (also due to the weather); too little time, too much to do, not enough money, no clear direction at the moment as to the way forward – and why not?  And what is wrong with me??? Everything was absolutely focussed with crystal-like clarity on what is wrong with my life.

And this day, the Saturday before Mother’s Day is always a little hard because three years ago we were told a very beautiful and valuable thoroughbred horse, Fox, whom we’d owned only for a few months, was dying of pneumonia.  It was a catastrophic series of tiny mistakes which had led us to this sad place, but there we were with just the slightest chance he would make it through the night, but at 5.00am on Mother’s Day morning, he died, and I’ve felt the sadness most acutely at this same time of year ever since.

I took a deep breath.  After several years of trying my best to acquire the positive habit of the Law of Attraction I knew I wasn’t doing myself any favours.

I decided, as I also often do, to tune into one of my favourite shows – Jennifer McLean’s Healing with the Masters, and her replay of her interviewer with author and teacher, Patricia Cota-Robles.

And there it was – the exact phrase I needed for that moment:

“The company of heaven say that worry is a way of praying for what you don’t want.”

 OMG!  So true.

I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself, ignore the rain and take the dogs for a walk before I fed the horses.

As I drove up the lane where I live there was a single White-headed pigeon sitting bang-slap in the middle of the road.  I had to get out of the car and shoo it away before it decided to fly up into the nearest tree – and that was just the start of my morning adventures.

The pigeon was followed by more bird-life than I usually see in weeks, all in the space of half-an-hour.  Ground-nesting plovers stalked imperiously away from me scolding me crossly for daring to drive through their territory; flocks of Australian White Ibis and the Black-headed Ibis took to the sky in their droves as the dogs and I walked up and down the avenues of macadamia trees trying to avoid the pouring rain, a pair of delicate Grey Herons, (actually the Australian White-faced Heron by the way), rose gracefully into the air looking exactly like birds on a Japanese scroll.  Even the sky – a deep shade of Payne’s Grey – looked like a painting, ominous, brooding and beautiful all at once. On the way home a pair of Willy Wagtails and a pair of Butcher Birds were right next to the White-headed pigeon – which led me to wonder why the pigeon was by itself?  Had it lost its mate?  After all, pigeons are monogamous and mate for life – like many bird species who seem to have achieved something with which we humans have difficulties. Were the other birds keeping it company in its loneliness?

Stranger things have happened – certainly in my animal-filled life!

Talking of which, what do you when you get home and you need to move a guinea pig and rabbit from a horse stable so you can put two horses in the two stables in order to dry them out a bit?  You put them in an Ikea laundry basket – you know, the silver ones, with a wire frame and fine mesh all around.  Plenty of air, light to carry, fine enough mesh that the sawdust doesn’t fall out – problem solved – and it only took 20 minutes of chasing them around the stable to get them in there.

(Of course all of that might beg the question as to why the guinea pig and rabbit are in a horse stable to begin with, and that goes back to the weather.  They’re living in massive five-star hotel luxury because they were constantly being rained out in their previous home and I got sick of rescuing them.  Now they live in a stable big enough for a 17hh warmblood, and are ejected only when I need the stable.)

Then, because ‘needs must’, as my mother used to say, I heat up a bowl of olive oil – not as a nature’s own remedy for me, but in order that I can rub it in to one of the horse’s legs.  Our old show-jumper, Cardigan, gets regular outbreaks of Greasy Heel, which spreads up his legs, and olive oil is just one of the numerous treatments we have to apply.  I let the leg soak up the oil for a while before I spend half-an-hour happily engrossed in scratching scabs off.

By now my human needs are more than calling me – it’s time for a shower, breakfast and a cup of tea.

I discover, to my surprise, that I’ve enjoyed this morning much more than I might have thought I would when I first woke up, and the Worry Monster has been well and truly banished – at least for a while, and when she makes her presence felt I will remember, when I worry, I am praying for what I don’t want.

The illustration with this post is actually of cranes, of course, but it captures the heron spirit!

Check out my author page on Amazon Central,http://www.amazon.com/Candida-Baker/e/B00AFCTF1I/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_12?qid=1368241472&sr=8-12 or my author page on Facebook, and my website:  www.candidabaker.com and twitter@CandidaBaker

 

Power + Colour

 

Power + Colour – new painting from the Corrigan collection of 21st Century Aboriginal Art

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To me the main difference between Western art and Australia’s Indigenous art, is both simple and profound.

Western art, no matter how abstract, portrays something seen, digested and reproduced.  Indigenous art on the other hand, is a visual language; it tells of ancestors, landscape, sacred stories, forbidden relationships, and of the creation of the universe.  Even the most contemporary paintings seem often to correlate directly to Aboriginal rock art, or tribal body painting – they have simply become an extension of the way to tell stories, perhaps in the same way that creative writing has taken off in the past few hundred years for verbal-based languages.

Take, for example, the edge of an Indigenous painting – almost always there is none, the eye is led to understand that there is simply more painting, more story, outside the frame of reference – a continuing story – to infinity and beyond as Buzz Lightyear would say.

Power + Colour more than lives up to its name, having chosen as its main theme two elements vital to Indigenous art, namely tribal law and the continually stunning and inventive use of colour used to depict both country and culture.  The book showcases 129 works by 77 artists from more than 20 communities, and includes a biography of each artist. The images are supported by an interview with Patrick Corrigan, the arts philanthropist and collector of these works, and an introduction to the paintings, including catalogue-style notes for each work. The text is written by curator, art valuer, and principal of ArtiFacts, Jane Raffan.  Raffan’s writing is concise, knowledgeable and most importantly, accessible.  She opens a generous window into this massive array of artists and art works, and into Corrigan’s love of contemporary Indigenous art.

The collection of the works in this book began in 2004 after Corrigan visited the NGV’s landmark exhibition Colour Power: Aboriginal Art Post 1984, curated by Judith Ryan.  Impressed by the vibrancy of the exhibition, Corrigan, who was given the Order of Australia in 2000 for his philanthropy and art patronage, began his new collection with works by Tommy Watson and Wingu Tingima.

One notable aspect of this vibrant collection is the ration of women to men, which Corrigan believes is probably in the ratio of 70/30.  Corrigan is one of the, if not the, most important collector of contemporary Indigenous art – nothing in this collection is pre-2000, making Power + Colour a vital and up-to-date picture of the wide variety of dynamic styles, and unbridled colour that dominates Indigenous contemporary art today.

The words of this book are carefully designed not to overshadow the works, which speak most vitally for themselves in this glossy hardback.  To open this book at any page is to be met with an image of such colour, beauty and movement that it is like a visual feast for the senses.  Immersing myself in the book reminded me a visit to a perfume shop, where a thousand scents all intermingle into a tantalizing whole.

There are many familiar names here – Judy Napangardi Watson, Yannima Tommy Watson and Lucy Napanangka Yukenbarri to name just three, but it is enthralling to also discover some newer, younger artists such as the Pintupi artist Eileen Napaltjarri, or Lance Peck and Keith Stevens, or Sylvia Ken and Tjungkara Ken.

What is interesting about these younger contemporary artists, and it’s a point that Raffan makes well, is that even though they may not seem on the surface to be depicting journeys across country, if the paintings are read correctly then the ongoing connection to land becomes apparent, as does the continuing connection to tribal law, which is often present even in the most seemingly decorative of paintings.

To me one of the most appealing facets of Indigenous art is its ability to talk on several levels.  You don’t need to understand any of these complex, colourful, vibrant paintings in order to enjoy them, but what a wonderful joy it is to dip understand a particular artist’s imperative, tribal culture and personal story, so that the sub-text can reveal itself.

One of the most exciting artists in the book, and one whose work reflects the melding of the old and the new, is Sally Gabori – she uses expressive abstract techniques on her large linen canvasses – often as much as three metres wide by two metres high.  Great juicy dollops of paint reflect miniature stories:  ‘This painting is about a story place out to sea.  You can only get there by boat,’ she writes of a green, purple, black red and ochre painting, and as soon as one has read the words, a deeper layer of understanding goes into the viewing of the apparently random blocks of colour.

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Sally Gabori’s Outside Story Place reflects a melding of the old and the new in Indigenous art

As part of a preparatory course towards an MA in Australian Art History through Adelaide University and the Art Gallery of South Australia I studied Indigenous art last semester.  I wish I’d had this book to hand then.  It’s a powerful tool for education, reflection and pure enjoyment.

 

 

 

A Meditation on Magpies

The stranger in our midst

 And Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle

The magpies said.

                                                 Dennis Glover.

Photograph: Candida Baker

For the six years we’ve lived at our property, we’ve shared it with a colony of magpies, or perhaps, more correctly, they’ve shared it with us.

At least I thought it was a colony, until I thought I should find out the correct collective noun – and there seem to be a few on offer: congregation, tiding, tittering, gulp, charm or murder; although I’ve always thought it was a murder of crows.  I’ve decided congregation is by far the most descriptive noun, since their singing sounds remarkably like a bird version of a church choir.

Their carolling is the first lovely noise we hear in the morning, and in the evening they gather interestedly to watch the preparation of the horse feed, and to ‘help’ the horses eat. There’s about 20 in our particular congregation, and they sing, squabble, eat and play very much like humans.  It’s always been a harmonious relationship between the birds and people around here – that is until last year, when for the first time ever, an aggressive magpie somehow found his way into the pack.

Suddenly, I found myself being viciously swooped, and generally forgetting to arm myself with an ice-cream carton or hat, or even sunglasses on my head, I would find myself wearing a grubby feed bucket, or even ducking under a horse to get out of the way.  I shouted at him, scolded him, explained to him that it was not how our magpies behaved, but he was having none of it, and kept up the aggression for what seemed like months.  It’s usually the males that are the aggressors, and you can tell the males from the females by the fact that they have vivid white plumage on their necks, as opposed to the softer grey neck plumage of the females.

Magpies are well known as collectors of anything that catches their beady eyes. 

A friend of mine once rescued a baby female Magpie who grew up to be a fully-fledged family member.  She could mimic the sheepdogs perfectly, and wasn’t above trying to round up the sheep herself.  She also, if anyone was repairing anything, would helpfully arrive bearing twigs, or string or bark for you – her head cocked on one side, as if to say here you are, just for you!

Celtic folklore suggests that when two or more magpies fly into your life good fortune is on its way – although it doesn’t mention anything about one grumpy male unfortunately.  They’re certainly clever, that’s for sure, surprising ornithologists with their adaptability to even a poisonous intruder, such as the introduced cane toad.  It took the magpies of Australia only a few generations to learn to flip the toads over and attack their soft and non-venomous stomachs – showing a highly-social learned behaviour skill.

Magpies are highly valued for their symbolism as well – their vocal songs a joyous creative expression of themselves that we could well emulate.  On the plus side they’re seen as communicative, social, extroverted and cheerful, their negative symbolic attributes include gossiping, deception, vanity, wilfulness and opportunism.

All that for one little bird!  Curiously, and quite frequently, the East and West have different symbolic takes on animals, and that’s also true with the Magpie, which for the Chinese is considered a ‘Bird of Joy’ signifying good fortune, but in the West, in stricter Christian times, it was seen as a manifestation of the Devil himself.

Mark Twain once acquainted himself with a magpie on a visit to Australia and wrote:

…He had lived in a lady’s house several years, and believed he owned it. He was always on deck when not wanted, always having his own way, always tyrannizing over the dog, and always making the cat’s life a slow sorrow and a martyrdom. He knew a number of tunes and could sing them in perfect time and tune; and would do it, too, at any time that silence was wanted; but if he was asked to sing he would go out and take a walk.

With that kind of contrary personality no wonder my aggressor was deaf to my pleas of a truce!  But curiously, this second year, he’s not so bad – still swooping and taking me by surprise, but not so viciously, and not so often.

Maybe by next year we’ll be friends, the Stranger in our Midst fully integrated, and our Magpie congregation and our family can live together in peace again.

Magpies

Along the road the magpies walk

with hands in pockets, left and right.

They tilt their heads, and stroll and talk

in their well-fitted black and white.

They look like certain gentlemen

who seem most nonchalant and wise

until their meal is served – and then

what clashing beaks, what greedy eyes!

But not one man that I have heard

throws back his head in such a song

of grace and praise –  no man nor bird.

Their greed is brief; their joy is long.

For each is born with such a throat

as thanks his God with every note.

Judith Wright