Into the Desert: Space
Before we commenced this journey, there were odds being laid amongst friends about how long it would take Ev to call it quits and return home. The idea of a family of five compressed into a sedan when travelling and a van when not seemed anathema to her personality. And with barely four square metres of available floor space inside the van, one had good reason to be concerned. How would we all (not just Ev!) cope with such confinement? Would it be like “six months in a leaky boat, trying hard to stay afloat”?
Without wanting to understate the adjustment and occasional frustration with living in such close proximity to one another, the real answer came within days of returning home, with the comments about how hard it was to live in such confined spaces. Yes, that's right – AFTER we were home, and inside a larger house (well, at least larger than the van!)
Mornings were often greeted in the van with a view to the horizon from one's bed, and the day farewelled in the same way. Life was lived outside for the most part, where the views were much more extensive than those available from our front door or out a bedroom window (and that's saying something – we have pretty good views of the city from our front door). In parts of the journey, particularly in the desert regions, the views were panoramic, stretching out before us in all its colour and grandeur, its arid expanse and variegated rock formations able to be drunk in at leisure.
Space is not only a function of distance, but of time also. There have been times sitting on the beach at home when I have felt an invisible hand in my back pushing me on to other things, the world closing in around me, strangling the sense of freedom. But in the desert, time and pressure dissipate in the vast expanses. Indeed, in some places, even travelling at 100 km/h, the desert passes slowly, encouraging you, daring you, provoking you into connection with it. In the cities, one is faced with a constantly changing backdrop, such that one learns to switch off to the signs, the cars, and many of the sounds which swirl about us. The space closes in and moves by with speed. But in the desert, space steps back from you, its diffidence and constancy part of its allure, a quiet invitation to be free, to be enveloped in its vast expanses, and to be part of its grandeur. Over time, one finds oneself more in tune with its rhythms, liberated by its lack of limitation and its enduring presence.
Occasionally the desert called you very close, whether it be to give examination to its rare flowers or insect life, to give attention to a strange sound, or light. But it always stepped back, giving you room to move and explore, waiting for the right time to draw you close once more. Its enduring patience and presence part of its charm, almost a breathing, as-it-were.
Those who have never been to the Territory cannot appreciate what is meant by one who says “its colours get into your soul.” They certainly get into your socks, your clothes, and your car! But these echo the stains it makes upon your psyche, and the relaxant it injects into your heart. The desert landscape remains largely as it was centuries ago, even longer, reminding us that beauty sometimes comes from stillness, from slow shifts in concert with the elements, which are embraced. City life often involves closing out the elements: their sense of chaos, their unpredictability and volatility much better managed when kept at a distance. But these elements shape the desert charm, and those who dwell within it. Activities are often deferred or adjusted when the elements turn as their continuance invokes greater risks. High winds are not deflected by buildings, held back by walls, or excluded by windows. Their strength felt in the rocking of the van, or directly against clothing. Engaging with the desert means facing wind, rain, and heat and learning what is healthy and possible in concert with them, unconditioned by heaters, coolers and tiled roofs.
In time you learn to read the landscape, welcome its shifts through the day, heed the warnings it invariably gives. This sensitivity highlighted as we left Yuendumu, when Cobra warned us of a “bad wind... hot, cold, hot, cold... coming from the wrong direction.” We sat beside a warm campfire in the balmy evening, watching the patchy cloud dancing across the sky, playing hide-and-seek with the full moon, the warm winds from the North-West blowing gently. Within a matter of hours the sky was blackened, the thunder and lightning looming in the distance, finally opening with heavy rain some 14 hours after Cobra's prescient observation. Here was a man who knew the land and its ways, who had embraced the desert space and his place within it, identifying its foibles and patterns, seeing something which we had not.
In the vast desert expanses there is an intimacy with the landscape available to those who learn its character, and embrace its pace.
(This post comes from reflections on our journey around Australia)
I have enjoyed reading Emmanuel Larty's, In Living Colour: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, in which he seeks to explain the difference between mono-cultural, cross-cultural, multicultural and intercultural approaches:
Monoculturalism as a social perspective is not neutral - the monoculturist universalises a particular set of norms, values cultural beliefs and practices. Everyone, regardless of preference or background, is assumed or expected to function in accord with these universals. Monoculturists at best deny and at worst suppress cultural expressions which do not appear to conform to this mould.
The cultural violence and coercion of multiculturalism is often not recognised by practitioners.
Cross-culturalism's difficulty is that it encourages a 'them' and 'us' mentality that creates problems in any pluralistic society.
A very real danger in the cross-cultural approach is the encouragement of division through the essentializing of cultural difference. Essentialising occurs when we make particular characteristics the only true or real expressions of a people. Cross-culturalism represents a serious and valuable critique of mono-culturalism's presumption of universal values. However, it operates on the basis of an overemphasis on the identity, difference and homogeneity of cultural or ethnic groups.
Multiculturalism adopts a commendable information-based, scientific, data-oriented approach to the multicultural. However, like cross-culturalism, it fails to avoid stereotyping, reductionism, individualising, placing groups in hierarchical order and perpetuating myths that, when imbibed can induce self-hatred within the subdominant groups.
An intercultural approach is premised upon the maxim Every human person is in some respects (a) like all others (b) like some others (c) like no other. Intercultural experience helps us realise that no matter how different culturally or personally people are, there are features of their lives that resemble those of other persons. Here, knowledge and information about specific socio-cultural, historical, economic and political matters of relevance to the cultures represented in the caring relationships may be valuable. But perhaps more germane to the process will be the exploration of the ways, as perceived especially by the clients, in which culture has in the past exerted and continues to exert an influence on the experience or issue in question. No matter how embedded one might be in one's social or cultural grouping, there will be characteristic ways in which one experiences or faces issues that will need addressing.
The strength of his approach seems to be in the affirmation of both individuality and communality in each person's identity, such that we are all seeking to create and mould an identity against the backdrop of our own (often multiple) backgrounds in culture and family, and continue to act as members of a community.
Emmanuel Y Larty, In Living Colour: An Intercultural Approach to Pastoral Care and Counseling, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London, 2003
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defences..."
Living as we do on the fringe of Melbourne's CBD, darkness is a foreign experience to us. Street lights ensure that it is possible to play sport in the park next door with minimal risk (save perhaps the experience of facing Brett Lee with a new ball at 3 am!) regardless of the time of day or night. The absence of darkness fosters a continual activity, whether it be in animal life or the multitude of vehicles which travel King Street. The night sky always bears the dull glow characteristic of city light pollution, keeping the number of stars visible to a minimum, invariably high in the sky. As a consequence it is not often that one's gaze is averted to the night sky.
As with the experience of silence, the wonder of darkness was first experienced in the Flinders Ranges. It was fascinating to watch our children seeing a panoply of stars in the night sky - it was filled from horizon to horizon! The breadth and depth of the night sky in the absence of ambient light reveals a glory hidden from city eyes. We enjoyed watching and identifying the different constellations, and even some planets.
Grasp it, sense it,
Tremulous and tender..
Yet this initial experience was but an introduction. As we moved up the Stuart Highway towards Coober Pedy, we were rewarded with a glorious sunset over the desert. To the east, however, we enjoyed an entirely different experience - watching the night sky rise! While the last rays of sunlight dissipated as the sun dipped further below the Western horizon, the deep blue-black of the night sky gently rose in the East, the shadow of the earth evident in the sky. We would grow in wonder as this experience was repeated on many occasions, with the darkness slowly enveloping the land. We were able to capture this on camera at Uluru, the night-lines visibly moving further up the rock. The further the darkness rose, the more stars became visible, the night sky slowly unfurling its splendour.
abandon their defenses
Yet this wonder was not all the darkness would reveal to us. As we became more comfortable with the darkness, enjoying its stillness and our own, we would become aware of the satellites circling the earth, their dull light moving at speed across the sky. To see satellites requires a commitment to stillness, and to allowing one's eyes to adjust to the darkness. It was only when we embraced the darkness that its full glory would be revealed to us - our eyes discerning the stars and objects in the sky with a candescence less penetrating. The presence of any light prevented us from seeing these lesser objects, as they would easily succumb to the opposition.
At Mataranka I sat outside for some time, allowing my eyes to adjust to the night sky in an effort to appreciate its full beauty and glory. And as my eyes adjusted, my ears became increasingly sensitive to the sounds around me: the small noises of insects, the distant calls of birds, the soft shuffle of the leaves in the nearby trees in response to the wind, the movement and sounds of animals nearby. Starting as an observer, I slowly embraced myself as part of this creation and its soft symphony, increasingly aware of my own contribution to it, realising I was actually a participant. Every movement created a sound! The scraping of my arm against the chair gradually revealed a volume which became increasingly disturbing. What bird or animal was listening to my own echoes?
And yet I was still not seeing fully.
On our last night at Mataranka I took the binoculars with me. O, what a wonderful array of stars was revealed through even this small magnification! What hidden beauty exposed when my sight was both more focussed and assisted! The number of stars - already in what seemed a full sky - multiplied! My exclamation at the sight brought the rest of the family outside, wondering what had captured my attention. To see more deeply into the world, the universe, only came as I was prepared to embrace its darkness, its stillness, and my own limitations.
I recall being afraid of the dark as a child - its eerie sounds and ability to hide bred an imagination of horrors, and an aversion to darkness. I would turn on lights, play music, watch TV - anything to hide the horrors of darkness from me. As an adult, I no longer regard them as horrible, but still have not learned to recognise the darkness as a repository of riches. The habits of avoidance evolved into comforts in their own right, the darkness still alien; viewed as emptiness at best. The desert has introduced me to its riches in a new way...
And invited me to reconsider the darkness of my own being. Is it possible that these places are a rich source of life which I have ignored?
If you ever wondered about the rate at which events take place, head on over to view some real-time world statistics. The site uses your computer's internal clock to demonstrate the rate at which events unfold. Watching the number of births and deaths rise so quickly is one of many confronting ways to view our world.
The world is not always ready to receive talent with open arms. Very often it does not know what to do with genius. - Oliver Wendell Holmes
Cows in Europe receive a $2 per day subsidy from their governments to keep Europe's trade prices competitive. Half the world's people live on just $2 a day. Read more.
If you'd like to try living on $2 a day for a week, and help make a difference, visit The Mutunga Partnership.
I haven't seen the Al Gore movie "An Inconvenient Truth" yet, but the preview makes me put it on my "to see" list. This can be viewed here.
If you've seen the movie and would like to offer some reflection, I'd be happy to hear.
If ever we need reminding of the impact of our actions on the planet as a whole, it comes in the report of the breaking apart of an iceberg in the Antarctic as the result of a storm over 13000 km away.
Scientists had placed a seismometer on an iceberg which had broken away from the Antarctic ice sheet. This was no small iceberg - reported as being bigger than the US state of Massachussetts. The seismometer recorded the impact of the Asian tsunami before it broke into smaller pieces on 27 October 2005. It appears that this event was caused by a storm in the Gulf of Alaska which generated 45 foot waves at the source. By the time it reached the Antarctic, the swells were enough to make the huge iceberg bounce on the floor of the ocean and break apart. There is an eerie echo of what is known as 'the butterfly effect'. Read the full story here.
It seems that we can ill afford to pretend that our actions on the earth in any one place escape global significance. To recognise ourselves as part of the creation is one important step in a long journey. We clearly need to respect our relationship with the created order, for it is one on which our dependence is great.
"If I were 21, I would walk the Earth. I would go barefoot longer; I'd learn how to throw a Frizbee, I'd go braless if I were a woman and I would wear no underwear if I were a man. I'd play cards and wear the same pair of jeans until they were so stiff they could get up and strut around the room by themselves... So don't take the short road. Fool around. Have fun... You're not going to get this time back. Don't panic and go to graduate school and law school. This nation has enough frightened, dissatisfied yuppies living in gated communities, driving SUVs and wondering where their youth went."
James McBride, addressing the 2005 Pratt University Commencement
For centuries men and women have made the journey into the desert as part of an intentional spiritual quest - a quest for God. Australians have long held the dream of the quest into the outback, almost as part of one's Australian obligation. It has long held mythical status in the Australian psyche. Having returned from 14 weeks of travelling through some of the most remote parts of this vast continent, there have been perspectives and impressions which have been carried and shaped through that time.
The first experience of the outback is one that has lasted and is perhaps its deepest - the silence. From the time we first stopped for lunch at Burra in the Flinders Ranges, and settled down to bed at night at Rawnsley Park, the sounds of silence have reverberated through my mind. It assails one's senses. I can readily recall the first sounds echoing through my ears as we spent those first moments in bed before sleeping. I listened to a dull, rhythmic thudding... which turned out to be my own pulse - the blood rushing through my veins. It took some time for this pulsating to dissipate to the point where the silence itself took on a new shape, where I could feel comfortable with its emptiness and hear its unique sounds above those of my own heartbeat.
This inner noise was not evident in the city, and was demonstrated in the initial volume of our voices, which suddenly seemed to boom through the vacant spaces. In a caravan park this meant that conversations which would normally be contained within the family confines would easily be heard from much further distances. The city noise not only deafened me to my own sounds, but encouraged a more vociferous expression, one which sounded strangely aggressive in the vast expanses.
What does this do for my own spirituality? How can I connect with another when I am having trouble connecting with my own self? How can I hear the promptings of the Spirit when the normal sounds of the creation are drowned out by my own activity? Elijah spoke of God's voice as "the sound of a thin silence"... I have been awakened to a new form of deafness, where certain sounds are overshadowed by others. Where the voice of God in the midst of all this?
I also wonder at the other sounds that are extinguished: words of encouragement which would keep me striving... cries of pain and anguish from others... calls for help... words of guidance and direction. This deafness is not selective... or is it?
As we have returned to the city, I have been conscious of my own noise - and of the things which drown out other sounds. A commitment to intentional stillness - one which minimises my own contribution in order to connect with others - has been incorporated into my daily practice. It is not so much an emptying as a commitment to stillness, a place in which I am aware of my own imprint and alert to those which may have been in the shadow of my own.
Blog has been quiet for the last three months while my family and I have been travelling around Australia, enjoying something uniquely Australian - Long Service Leave. We have enjoyed visiting some of the most beautiful country in the world, and learning from some of its most primitive and creative and resilient people - Indigenous Australians. We have returned to the place where it all began and are seeing it for the first time.
If you'd like to read something of our journey, take a look at our travel blog. Some aspects of the journey which have shaped our thinking are still being discussed and processed. These thoughts will appear in the days to come.