On Doubts

Recently I’ve been finding myself doubting some things that I’ve always done.

I put it down to COVID of course. With the once in a century shut down of planet earth its easy to start to scrabble at the edges of everything you’ve held sacrosanct and pick holes in things you believed were too strong to fail. I’ve seen it with lots of friend too. A wave of teetolarianism and vegetarianism is sweeping through my friendship group, accompanied by the dual waves of exercising and going to therapy. Everyone I know is going to therapy. It’s great. Inspiring. Beautiful. We’ve learnt to think and talk about our feelings. Is this related to the ongoing stress of this global pandemic? Or is it just merely a reflection that we’re getting older (and maybe now able to pony up the therapy fees that we couldn’t have done in our 20s).

So what am I doubting?

I had this funny realisation about breathing the other day: two of the things I’m struggling with both involve knuckling down on this thing that I’ve literally done every ten seconds since day dot. I want to sing long notes with vibrato. Breathing issues. I want to swim freestyle in the pool. Breathing issues. And somewhere here in between is me, knowing how to breathe but battling against the sinking feeling that its hard to do, or I’ve forgotten what the best method is. Strange. I need to step back to the unconscious mind, where the body finds the most effective way to fuel itself with oxygen. But to get there I kind of need to intellectualise the process, work through it in slow motion, find the points where it falls apart and work through them.

The basic gist is simple. I stand bent over in the pool with my head half in the water. I blow all my air out, turn to one side and snatch a breath, turn back and blow it out again. While this all occurs I mumble ‘bubble bubble bubble’ to myself. I just need to do this long enough that I find the correct pace where I can do it forever. Ergo I now live in the shallow end of the pool, snatching breaths in little snippets from the sides of my mouth. Brilliant.

In the lane next to me a handful of five year olds spurt past, kicking water in big splashes up in to the air. None of them struggle with breathing. None of them even think about breathing. They just splash around until they run out of breath and then suck air in to their lungs and then keep splashing. It’s natural. Easy. Effortless. Almost as effortless as just taking in breaths. I breathe in and out as I write. I breathe in and out as I sleep. I’ve never thought about my breath until I started doing these things that interrupt my natural flow and now its harder than ever to take breath because I have to think about when it happens and how it happens and how it feels when it happens correctly and why I’ve forgotten how to do it and all these thoughts are flooding past while water is flooding up my nose and in to my lungs and I’m sinking like a stone in the shallow end of the pool next to these five year old kids.

The next week I sign up for swimming lessons, with a bemused looking instructor. She’s a middle aged Italian woman, charged with teaching beginner adult swimming on Monday nights. Her two pupils are me, who can swim, but can’t internalise the breathing part and flounders his two legs like the most awkward of octopi, and a teenage girl who has never swum a stroke and refuses to put her head under the water. My lessons involve paddling up and down the pool on my back, kicking with a kickboard hugged to my chest. Her lessons involve standing in the shallow end and dipping her nose into the water, blowing bubbles. She doesn’t struggle to breathe. But of course her feet are planted solidly on the ground and she’s not thinking about kicking or shoulder rotation or keeping the back arched. She has the easy job. I wonder if I should step back twenty years and do her exercises. She can try mine. Maybe we’ll meet in the middle.

On a Return to Live Music

I took my worn down feelings away with me for a weekend, and carried them with me through a couple of days of tour life. I’d forgotten what the six am starts and four hour drives and three set gigs were like, somewhere in the midst of this last year of COVID. I’d forgotten what it felt like to be living on the edge of tiredness, eking out the mental energy to accomplish the task directly in front of you, while staving off the expansive future and its twists and turns.

I spent the last year with a blessed amount of sleep, with mornings spent in bed till nine am, with evenings empty of follow-on tasks, so it’s a slightly rude awakening to realise suddenly life is back to normal and I didn’t get much say in it. This is the reality of life though isn’t it? As much as we cling to the things we can control, the iceberg of inevitability has this vast underwater mass that drags on the edges of what we can see and saps energy just when we feel we’ve started to gain some headway.

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On Balance

It’s another casual day of school holidays. I can feel the holidays starting to slip slip slip out in to the background. Like an inkblot bleeding into a bucket of water, this intense vibrant experience of freedom I felt ten days ago slowly dissipates with time into nothingness.

I spent the first week of holidays floating, aimless and free towards the weekend. I’ve been training for a triathlon for the last three months (much more to come on this in the near future), and the triathlon date landed neatly in the middle of the school holidays. As part of my intense training regime (mainly riding my bike to the pub and running up and down the road out the front of my house), I’d incorporated a ‘taper’, essentially a couple of days off before the triathlon to let the muscles recuperate. I came down with a sickness at the end of last term, so my taper wound up being a whole week of lying in bed eating pumpkin soup and re-watching the one TV show I like (I’ve watched all nine seasons twice a year for the last six years running, something my partner assures me is a coping mechanism for something). So for the first week I had this upcoming triathlon to ground me, and that was enough to make time feel formless.

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On the Music in My Memories

A heart that’s… full up like a landfill.”

What a beautiful line.

I come back to Radiohead as one of those bands that I’ve neglected for a little while. It seems over the last ten year stretch I’ve drifted in and out of fandom with a hundred different bands. Not that I’ve ever stopped loving them, more that something else has taken pole position in my musical interests, and as I’m slowly discovering over time: the first thing to get my attention is the thing that gets all my attention. Everything else is put on tomorrow’s to-do list and shuffled away in to the interminable future.

So I’ve got this extended list of acts I’ve loved: Radiohead, Bjork, Chick Corea, The Tallest Man on Earth, Gregory Alan Isakov, Keith Jarrett, Missy Higgins, The Staves, E.S.T., Kanye (to compile this list I scroll through my iTunes library from 2010 – 2012). Each of these artists has a massive, diverse back catalogue: a mix of albums I’ve spent afternoons devouring and long car trips absorbing via osmosis, as well as albums I’ve probably never listened to, or at best given a cursory one-off shot and then moved on from. Some albums I’ve given lots of time to and they’ve never stuck, case in point Radiohead’s King of Limbs album which I re-listened to in full this week (for probably the fifth time) and I still don’t like.

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On Spontaneity

I find my way to a local craft brewery for a gig, pedalling through Thursday’s somnolent summer sunshine down Victoria Rd, then along the Yarra River bike path. I overtake handfuls of people: the elderly couples walking their dogs, the active-wear clad mothers with prams with who walk side by side and pull off the path as I ding ding behind them, the group of teenagers who ride BMX bikes along the side of river, hopping between stones underneath the bridge at Dights Falls. Each group is left behind as I speed past, top gear enhanced by the gentle downwards slope from Northcote towards the city.

I pull up to Bodriggy, find a way to attach my bike to the fencing that lines Johnston St. My D-lock struggles to make the connection, mainly because my bike is held away from the fence by the milk crate I’ve attached to the back of it to hold my groceries, my jacket, my banjo, depending on the outing. This milk crate is a source of conversation at most social engagements oh man, I’ve been planning on doing that for years, I’ve got some milk crates somewhere, but wildly impractical. Due to the nature of the way I’ve attached it to my bike, the bike’s centre of gravity sits somewhere just behind my butt. This is totally fine if I lean forwards to ride, or if I’m rolling downhill, or if there’s nothing contained in the milk crate, but under less than ideal circumstances, ie pedalling up hill with a full contingent of canned chickpeas and silverbeet, this bike has a tendency to wheelie, front wheel floating up off the ground, Pegasus taking flight in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. The first couple of times it happened I imagined I’d mistaken the issue. Surely my front wheel was coming loose, or the handlebars had developed some fault, but then I realised this distinct lack of control was my bike subtly taking off below me, shifting from a useful mode of transport to a point of interest amongst the local kids. whoah look at that guy wheelie-ing with a banjo on his back, it looks… effortless.  No effort here, just this bike and me slowly drifting away from the Earth’s gravity.

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On The Passing of Time

*Photo by Molly Mckew

This year starts to lose steam. As with every year before, the time between Christmas and New Years is a blank vacuous space. A day-less, date-less expanse where I attempt to make plans but fight diminishing energy levels and low motivation and a lethargic food-induced stupor that pins me to the couch, the bed, the grassy knoll.

Someone recently described this time period as the perineum of the year, a succinct but all too graphic description that fails to take in to account the fear and self-doubt and sheer terror that the passage of time brings on. Humans invented time, codified it, tied it neatly into little boxes that fit in to the rows and columns of a million calendars. We adorned these calendars with images of cute animals and sexy firefighters and Leunig cartoons, little realising that in the codification of time we had crafted our own fate. Now we mark the aging of our bodies by ticking off the years, posting snapshot photos of our decline to social media and signposting the major world events in retrospect: there the year man walked the moon, here the year we struggled through a global pandemic.

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On Christmas

I remember Christmases, scattered across the globe: childhood Christmas in Yemen with the tiniest sprig of a tree, wrapped gently in a single layer of tinsel and hand-carved ornaments. Presents built from backyard scraps, nailed together into the shape of boat or a bow and arrow or a bedside table. Presents burnt from friend’s CD collections and repackaged with hand-written labels. Presents bought in Australia and carried thousands of kilometres, hidden in luggage, stored away for nine months in cupboards waiting for the holiday season.

I compare my childhood Christmases with the consumerist bunkum of the Western world in the 21st century. Yemen hadn’t embraced consumerism at the time, although there was an abundance of cheap plastic trinkets shipped in via shipping container from China. Similar to your Kmarts and Targets of Australia, although without the advertising budget and weekly specials. This is not to say that the Arab world wasn’t fully in the grip of rampant aspirationalism. The land of high-end luxury cars and watches and fashion (think Dubai) lives neatly entwined with the land of crippling poverty and subsistence wages. Even from a young age I was somehow aware of which cars were in high demand. Yemeni men had a habit of nicknaming car models after famously beautiful women, and the Laila Elwi was considered a prize across the Arab world. Imagine the uproar if Elon Musk named the new model Tesla after the body shape of a Hollywood celebrity….

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On Self-Reflection

I’m relatively bad at self-reflection. Which seems like a strange statement to make for a man who posts a weekly blog on his website about his thoughts, but here’s how I’ll justify it: I often write my feelings down, but I seldom return to these written thoughts to think about them. I’m starting to acknowledge that this is a weakness of mine and that it’s relatively easy to fix. Like everything in life, you just need to ‘do the work’ (hello objectivism, see Ayn Rand for more details), but as always, talking about the work is easier than doing the work, hence this blog post.

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On The Future

I write my way to the end of term, finishing off the year with a blaze of thoughts that burn themselves through the night, lodged deep in the tinder of my brain. They spark and spit through this week, crackling their way to an ultimatum: the same ultimatum I come to every time this year… what next?

Most years I’ve planned out my summer six months in advance. I’ve scheduled in a summer tour, booked a couple of days at the beach, found some time in December to catch up with most of the people I’ve neglected all year. I roll through the summer and back in to work life balance in February without taking too much stock. I might pause briefly for New Years Eve, spend a day or two examining the year in retrospect, but for the most part I just keep rolling. Days stack on days and the weeks disappear and suddenly its 2019 when the last real thing I remember doing was back in 2010.

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On Writing (part 3)

Write for the cool clear days of winter.

Every day a crisp clear reminder of this year that has been. Brilliant blue skies and bold colours, washed down from the heavens with the brisk pull of rain. Illuminating morning beams thrown light across the back yard, every blade of grass a reservoir for a floating water droplet that kaleidoscopes across a microcosm of hidden worlds beyond the human gaze.

We stamp our feet for warmth, tuck frozen fingers in to armpits, blow clouds of warmth out in to the cool. I turn my car heater to its highest setting, spend the first few moments in aching agony as it starts blasting colder air across the car and then slowly streams into warmth. I pump the space heater at my feet while I write in the shed, cocooned in scarf and beanie, slowly leaking warmth and words on to the page. Every activity is accompanied by a cup of boiling water, carried around the house, carried across the backyard, carried in to the shed, clasped in one cold hand while I write with the other, then hands clasped together to pass the warmth between them. Every conversation punctuated by the same refrain it’s a bit cold, the same knowing response just another couple months, the same shared experience of a cold that isn’t much on the mercury scale but seems to hit much harder than many other places on this planet. I’ve wintered in Canada, Scotland, Iceland, and each of these places holds a much stronger grasp to the miserable title of winter, but somehow Melbourne’s winter still hits me the worst.

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