The surprising seductiveness of slow

I nearly wrote a letter last weekend. What? Yes … an honest to God, old fashioned paper-based communication intended for distribution by snail. In the event, I didn’t. The digital habits of a fair chunk of my lifetime got in the way and I sent an email instead.

The impulse was triggered by reading that a lot of teenagers, missing their mates during the lockdown, re-discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written notes. In the isolation of their homes, apparently many found letters to be more intimate and emotionally connecting than texting, ‘social’ media posting and similar. Thinking about it unlocked the ghost of letters past that’s clearly still lurking inside me, and the memory of how much I used to enjoy getting mail. This chain reaction concluded in my close encounter with a blank page. 

The article transported me back to the heart-lifting discovery of a hand-written letter nestling seductively in one’s letterbox. Then the ritual of finding the right place to read it; a, secluded place under a tree. curled up in a big squishy chair in front of a roaring fire, or even a sweet scented, candlelit bath. The setting depended on the relationship with the sender — family, friend, lover, admirer — and the season. There was always that gorgeous moment of holding back, of prolonging the anticipation before finally ripping into the letter. Often there would be a quick scan of the contents for anything scary or sensational, before settling into a leisurely read through.

Good letters take time to craft. The best are intimate and personal. From soul to soul. As the words gather momentum they open avenues to the unburdening of our hopes and fears, loves and hates, joys and sorrows and the feeling of connection as we share the minutiae of our days. There’s something about the flow of a pen over paper that is missing altogether from keyboard bashing. Lacking a delete button, there was a need for precision and coherence of thought. Although the growing pile of screwed up paper as errors or uncertain confidences were cast aside spoke volumes on that score. There was an almost hedonistic pleasure in the first the first stroke of a fountain pen on a blank sheet of high quality paper. Or the challenge of writing in tiny letters to pack as much as possible onto those impossibly small pre-paid airmail letters that you folded up and licked the stuck tabes which stuck it all together. You were lucky if you managed to do this without acquiring a paper cut on your tongue. ‘Nanny state’ would probably have something to say about that these days.

Sorry planet — I know how wasteful and unnecessary this feels now in this device-laden era where resources are diminishing as fast as pack ice in the Arctic and the tyranny of air miles is never far from our minds. But email just doesn’t hack it as a substitute for a neatly tied bundle of letters from a loved one or a box full of the most memorable greetings cards. I still have swags of each. Even if you print emails, they just don’t have the same bang for buck. 

I’m a bit worn out by life in the ‘fast lane’. Living through the lockdown has seemingly awakened a sleeping dragon in many of us — the surprising seductiveness of slow. A nostalgia for bygone pleasures: the allure of a trip to a library; being literally lost in a good book; sitting down with friends and family over a leisurely and carefully crafted meal rather than shovelling in some hastily acquired takeaway or dashboard dining option. Most of all, there’s all too little of the ultimate luxury; reflective time, something that is considered to be essential to our health and wellbeing.

This morning, I woke up with the poem Leisure by W H Davies rattling around in my head. Although I learned this ‘by heart’ at primary school, it’s meaning pretty much passed me by as a ten-year-old, but it resonates strongly now. I’m sure my teacher would have been highly gratified! The poem was published in 1911. In the opening lines, the poet asks, “What is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?” What indeed! The thrust of the poem is that the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit because there’s no time to appreciate the glory of the natural world around us. (Read Poem).

Willian Henry Davies was a Welsh poet and writer who grew up in a highly dysfunctional (though not poor), family. He dropped out and spent a significant part of his early life as a homeless drifter on both sides of the Atlantic”. The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp, published in 1908, is about Davies’ life in the US between 1893 and 1899. Apparently, he crossed the Atlantic at least seven times during this period, working his passage on cattle ships, then travelling through many of the states, sometimes begging, sometimes taking seasonal work, often spending any savings on drinking binges with fellow travellers. They didn’t teach us this in school by the way — we might have paid more attention if we’d know a bit more about his colourful life. It would likely have seemed pretty romantic to the impressionable kids we were. Davies became one of the most popular poets of his time by drawing on his observations about life’s hardships, the ways in which the human condition is reflected in nature, his tramping adventures and the characters he met. 

It has to be said, I lust after ‘slow’ until I remember what life was like without the convenience of Google as an information source. without which Mr. Davies would have remained an enigma to me. In all seriousness, I wouldn’t go back to the pre-internet/digital era. There’s just too much that is genuinely better about now. But I do hope that we can hold on to some of the specialness of slow as we move on through this pandemic. To have time to see and enjoy the moment, to revel in our lives and in nature and the endless possibilities on offer. To take the time to share our dreams and disappointments with loved ones by whatever means are to hand, snail or otherwise. To have the luxury to simply stand and stare and understand how infinitely precious it all is … and how easily lost.

Laugh kookaburra, laugh

I love Australia. OK, so I don’t love everything about the place. Notably, I don’t love its political landscape and some of its harsher worldviews and policies. But then again, that could be said for a lot of places these days. In my book, they also have one of the worst national anthems. It’s hard to imagine the heart beating faster singing Advance Australia Fair, but each to their own — and it seems to work for the locals if the expressions on the faces of their sports teams while it’s performed are anything to go by. As anthem’s go, it’s hard to beat the line, “Our home is girt by sea”. But then I guess that was the sort of drivel churned out back in the day when such things were written. At least it only runs to one verse unlike many others including my own homeland’s “God Save” with its six verses of out-dated empirical triumphalism.

Anyway, back to ‘Stralia. It has an energy and feel all of its own. If you haven’t been there yet, add it to your bucket list. What? Australia’s borders are closed? When they re-open you’ll need to mortgage your house to fly anywhere? You might get flight-shamed anyway, so what’s the point? OK, so you may not be able to go there any time soon but you can always binge watch David Attenborough’s back catalogue which is full of advanced Australia flora and fauna. No reason why bucket list activities can’t go online like everything else these days.

I reckon I must have been a ‘twitcher’ in a previous life because I get so much joy from watching birds. One highlight of my various Outback Oddysey’s was staying in a remote camp about 500kms east of Darwin that boasted a resident pair of kookaburra’s. I’d never seen one before. This ‘laughing’ kingfisher has become a household name, not only through Girl Guide campfire round — Kukarburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree — but also as the stock sound effect used to represent the Australian bush, especially in older movies. Unlike many kingfishers, they’re not closely associated with water and rarely eat fish, although they have been known to snack on stolen goldfish from garden ponds. Treats like mice, snakes, insects, small reptiles, even the chicks of other birds are more to their carnivorous liking.

The last time I was in Oz was at the beginning of this year in late January when I went sailing with some friends in Pittwater, a tidal estuary just north of Sydney. When I arrived in Sydney at the start of the trip, the impact of the bushfires that had been blazing through the summer was everywhere. In the ash coating many cars, the smell in the air and the haze hanging over the city. Even out on the water the acrid tang of smoke was palpable in places, and we sailed past a new fire ignited by a dramatic overnight electric storm. It felt voyeuristic to be so close to the beginning of another fire outbreak… and yet, we couldn’t tear our eyes away.

One day, our intrepid crew of seven moored at a spectacular and remote waterside restaurant for lunch. Among our fellow diners were three pairs of kookaburras — the restaurant staff had been feeding them. It was a heart-warming sight at a time when the full implications of the ecological and wildlife disaster that had been unfolding were becoming apparent. We were charmed and privileged by their company. At about the same time a haunting photo of a kukaburra overlooking a fire-devasted wasteland featured prominently in the media and burnt itself on our retinas. It was a stark reminder of how fast the sands of time are running out.

The bush fires were declared contained in mid-February and over in early March. More than one-fifth of the country’s eucalypt forests were burned at un-calculable cost to the ecosystems they support. I was heartened to read recently that the burnt trees are beginning to show signs of recovery with small leafy branches sprouting from the blackened trunks. Apparently eucalypts sprout tufts of “emergency foliage” after wildfire while their leaves re-grow. This provides a boost of photosynthesis until their canopy leaves grow back. They need this break in order to fully recover. But, as fires become more frequent, it’s thought even fire-adapted tree species won’t get the break they need.  The merry merry king of the bush must be struggling to find something to laugh about in these times.

The irony of that holiday was that it happened as the threat of coronavirus was casting its shadow around the world. At that point, the global nature of the virus was still only conjecture — we’d seen the impact on Wuhan and it was beginning to hit Europe — it wasn’t certain we would be affected. Looking back, that time BC seems like some strange parallel universe. We all knew there were ‘issues’, but many of us started the year with the optimism born of all the increased activism in 2019.

It felt like 2020 was going to be THE year when things finally changed. Australia burning, awful though it was, highlighted a lot of inconvenient and unavoidable truths. Who could have been un-moved by the harrowing, post-apocalyptic scenes of people being evacuated from fire encircled beaches and the dreadful toll on the animal population and the ecosystem.

On the last day of the trip, we had a leisurely lunch before we all went our separate ways. More out a sense of curiosity than anything else, we started googling what the powers of the Directors General of Health in NZ and Aus were in the event coronavirus  decided to pay the Southern Hemisphere a visit. Draconian was the answer, as we were about to find out when both countries went into lockdown a few weeks later.

In five short months, so much has changed. But through it all, a common thread has been our human capacity to be resilient, create, innovate and adapt to even the most challenging of circumstances. The sheer scale and quality of creativity we saw during lockdown was a testament to this. Tying the two threads of this story together, I was delighted recently by the coverage of a 15-foot-tall sculpture of a kookaburra created by Farvardin Daliri (see header image).

I’m sure you saw the video of it being towed round ‘hood’ in Brisbane, cackling away thanks to an embedded sounds system. The video went viral, and was picked up by newsrooms around the world. It seems, Daliri had started the project during the Christmas break, but was stymied by the scale. Lockdown gave him time and the motivation to complete it as a way of cheering people up.

28oz-kookaburra-1-superJumbo-v2

The kookaburra installation was intended for an arts festival, the Townsville Cultural Fest. It’s one of a series of grand scale art. Other works include a 15-foot-tall koala, a 200-foot-long carpet snake and a 33-foot-long crocodile. “When something is big, it imposes itself on you. It becomes undeniable,” Daliri has said about his creations.

I guess, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Australian bush fires last summer or the coronavirus. They have truly imposed themselves on us and it must be becoming undeniable to even the most recidivist deniers that a lot of things in our world are broken. If we could use the creativity and innovative thinking we pulled out of our collective hats and apply this to the problems, how hard could it be?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do the Covid Shuffle?

“Did you have a good lockdown?” the wags are all asking since we moved back to Level 1. As if it really was a war. Maybe it was? Thinking about it, if it was a war, it’s still very much alive on many fronts. The phantom menace we’re ‘fighting’ — the pesky Coronavirus — still stalks the earth.

It’s still hard to take in. It’s as if a fictitious dystopian future has jumped off the page.Life BC seems to have happened in some parallel universe … far, far away. “Unprecedented” they say. Unprecedented, ‘they’ say a lot. It’s le mot du pandemic. The top cliché of our coronavirus times. In these times, our vocabulary has extended — flatten the curve, epidemiology, self-isolation, social distancing and bubble love. ‘Quarantinis’ replaced martinis for the fashionable set, and the WFM brigade came out of lockdown Zoomed-out, near Zombies reeling from Zoomchosis. You know the drill? All that pacing up and down the living room, head shaking purposelessly from side to side, unfocused eyes looking inward to some analogue paradise of yore.

Coronavirus pushed us to a locked-down standstill. A global pause. Emergency workers diced with death, the rest of us dug in at home and were forced to deal with whatever daily reality home represented. We got creative and entertained each other in profound and emotionally charged ways. We laughed We cried. We grieved. We rejoiced. We lost our jobs. We worried about our jobs. Our businesses. We valued things we didn’t before. We applauded new heroes. We teared-up as plucky, indomitable Major Tom shuffled his Zimmer-framed way back and forward across his garden earning staggering amounts for the British National Health Service. Those of us who could, counted our blessings.

We did the COVID Shuffle. That excruciating manoeuvre as you step off the pavement to maintain the requisite distance from an approaching person or bubble, whilst simultaneously smiling like the Cheshire Cat and offering hearty greetings to avoid causing offence. Also, to have a precious moment of human connection.

It’s a bleak time for the party animals in our midst — “introverts, your extrovert friends need your help” was one of the more entertaining and ironic truths coming through from the meme land. Life in the time of Lockdown was also something of a bonfire of the vanities. What’s the point blinging-up a storm to sit at home? Actually, I did smear a bit of make-up around most days — Zoom has a certain motivating quality on that score. Occasionally ditched the leggings for a skirt, or even a dress.

But hey, we succeeded. We flattened the pesky curve. For an intoxicating number of consecutive days, no cases at all — existing, new or prospective. “FOR NOW!” said our Prime Minister, another hero of the moment. Jacindamania isn’t only a New Zealand phenomenon. I know Aussies who’ve asked her to invade and spare them from the bigoted, climate denying MAN they’re lumbered with. How right she was as we now three new cases delivered to our doorstep by returning residents. This was always likely and wouldn’t be too troublesome if the border quarantine procedures hadn’t turned out to be a monster cockup. Jacinda and her plucky little team of five mission are now royally pissed at whatever ‘them’ was responsible. We’ve all eaten our greens and done what we’ve been told at … er … unprecedented cost. Why should other people be allowed to break curfew, even on compassionate grounds? Hey, ho, it is what is.

So, on reflection, it has been a sort of is a war. For more than two months, we sequestered ourselves in our home shelters while the Coronavirus sent its silent but deadly aerosols into our communities and ravaged our economy. Many of us wondered what will be left when the dust settles. For now, we Kiwis have won a battle, but the war itself rages on around the world and the breakout this week shows how easily we could get sucked back in. But it’s not just the pandemic. As we navel-gazed our way through the Lockdown fog, pondering the meaning of life the universe and everything, for even the most fervent deniers, it was hard to ignore the inconvenient truth that our planet and our lives are globally and intimately linked. And that our certainties can be upended in a heartbeat. We now understand in a visceral and undeniable way that there are bigger and deadlier risks on the horizon if we don’t dramatically shift our values, and how we live, spend and consume.

Countries are struggling to meet their sustainability commitments. People are worried — time is not our friend. It’s as if the Coronavirus has swept the lid off a contemporary Pandora’s Box and out has poured the sickness, death and other evils which have blighted the world while we watch the horror unfold with horror and incredulity in real-time on our devices. The gap between the super-rich and everyone else yawns like a gaping chasm that can’t be bridged. Extreme weather events get more extreme. It seems as if we’re fiddling while the Outback burns.

We make pacts with our higher powers that the future will be better. That sustainability won’t be thrown out with the bathwater. We talk about “the new normal” as if it’s a point in time we are waiting to arrive at. But there’s no pre-ordination involved. The new normal is a blank canvas waiting for our artist’s brush. The only question is what do we paint? Will it be a beautiful harmonious landscape? A primal scream? A world where no-one is left behind? I’m putting my money on the latter.

Crises serve up latitude to break moulds. To change the status quo. Shock allows for more shock. We’ve been through so much, what’s a little more if it turns this moment to benefit? As New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel put it, Right now, in the midst of a series of cascading, intersecting crises (racial and economic inequality, climate change, mass unemployment, a pandemic) what’s possible feels more of an open-question than any other moment in recent times.”

My sudden addiction to The Chase during Lockdown, did kick up a useful piece of trivia. Pandora’s Box didn’t only contain all the bad stuff. It also held Hope and we need Hope to soar around the world and work its magic. With hope loose in the world, I’m backing us humans to open our minds to the possible and make all the sacrifice mean something.