Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Train in the Night Time

This isn’t something I write about with ease; in fact as I start this, I feel the anxiety rise in my chest; my heart rate quickening. But I need to write about it.
Timing is everything. How many times do we ruin a dish by leaving it too long unattended? How often do we marvel on the wonders of bumping into someone unexpectedly, that if it had been a moment later or too soon it wouldnt' have happened? A clever tactition in karate knows all too well the impact of timing. A well-timed mawashigeri to the head can be the difference between scoring a point and being foot-swept; timing is everything.
Apprently, we can see only five percent of what is going on around us at any one time; yet we believe we are aware of everything. Locked into our own small realities, what we experience is a matter of space and time; it differs totally from someone’s else’s experience. But yet - our temporal peception can alter depending on the situation; appear to slow down or speed up, creating an altogether unique experience for the person concerned.
For me last Monday night, I had the surreal experience of time slowing down so vividly that my sight and hearing became astonishingly acute, along with my sense of smell. Then - as if someone had hit the fast-forward button, everything plunged into hyper-drive (warp-drive to be precise).
After a very hot dry Dunedin day, I biked into my Monday black belt karate class after the first day back at work for the new school year.  I needed to drink more that day, but in my job as a teacher, I simply hadn’t had time to stop. I was tired, dehydrated and also hungry. I had biked to work in Anderson’s Bay from Port Chalmers where I lived, and after karate, would bike home feeling even more tired and hungry.  After a high-energy class in the roasting dojo, during which I had lost a lot of body water in sweat, I jumped on my bike to head home via the cycle way that leads almost all the way to Port Chalmers. I was feeling exuberant and energized from having completed a challenging class, but was happy to be on my way home.  I even had a slight tail wind, making the jaunt home on a quietening evening, even more pleasureable.
I find that when I enter the space of riding home on my bike, I am on "automatic". In the mornings when I ride in, I am so much more tuned in to my surroundings - usually enjoying the early morning sun and colours on the harbour; but in the evenings I am more focused on just getting home. It’s “head down bum up” as they say.  On that Monday night it was no different although I was well aware I had worked hard in karate and I was tired.  
I am not a fan of wearing headphones for music whilst doing any form of physical activity. I want to be part of what is going on around me, rather than disconnected from it. Each to their own, but I feel headphones and music detract from the very reason I am in the outdoors in the first place. However, after battling home from work every afternoon in a head wind, with the noise of wind attacking my ears, I started to wear headphones once I reached the cycle track, in order to provide a musical distraction from the wind. This became my new norm. The music was never loud and I was always able to hear cyclists approach from behind. So - as I biked home this night, I did the same as I always did - popped my headphones in once I got onto the track, and cranked the pedals. Automatic pilot kicked in and I was on my way home. 
Until the train happened.
In one crazily surreal out-of-body moment, time was absurdly slow. It took me a split second to realise why and then the deafening roar of a train horn broke through into my closed off encapsulated world, causing everything to wind down to a slow motion experience that I have never before encountered. I smelled the overwhelmingly industrial emanation of diesel and brakes against metal; I heard a woman and children screaming a few metres away from me and then I saw the train as if it had been photoshopped into my frame of reference. It was right there....and so was I
I was cycling over the rails at Ravensbourne, where there is a fence on either side that requires a level of weaving skills without having to dismount one's bike, to get through . I had caught the right handle bar on one side as I went through and had slowed down to adjust my balance before continuing across the track.  This was my warning - I ignored it.
I never saw the train. I never even heard the train. My front wheel was on the track as the train - coming from my right - was within three metres of me. 
It was like being in the Matrix movie where everything stops and is suspended.  For a split second, nothing seemed to move, then BOOM ... without even knowing what happened, my back wheel was over and I felt a blast of air and my bike shake as the train rushed past, the horn still blowing violently  As I weaved through the other fence, the overwhelming rising of the rush coursed through my veins. It felt like it started at my feet and raced up to my brain, but where ever it started, it provoked a massive vomiting fit at the feet of the woman and her two kids, who had witnessed the whole biazarre event and were standing nearby. I couldn’t stand up. I could still see and hear the train as it continued towards the city - interestingly - considering I hadn’t even seen or heard a few moments before. 
I started sobbing as I continued to empty my stomach on the path. The woman wrapped her arms around my shoulders and held onto me. Her kids - just stood there - mouths open, watching.  No one said anything for a while and I stopped vomiting but then started shaking. I considered phoning a friend who lived just up the hill but then the thought left my head as my brain was suddenly filled with images of the front of the train, the smell, the horn; and mostly the how. What just happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen?
“Oh my god that was just awful! Are you ok? Would you like me to take you home? I can take you home, where do you live? Should I call someone?” The woman was yelling at me, clearly upset.  
I told her I just needed to sit and that I would be ok. So I sat, and she sat, and her kids sat. We sat like that saying  nothing for a while. Everything was quiet. 
I declined her offer of a ride and slowly got back onto my bike and rode home very cautiously. I never even found out her name, but it struck me how kind she had been and how timing was everything; for her - wrong place, wrong time - what a scene for her children and she, to have witnessed. I was reading a book called “The Kindness of Strangers”, and I reflected briefly on how this could be a story from that book.
I cried a bit on the way home and that night I couldn’t sleep. I worried about the train driver. The next day I drove to work - I couldn’t bike. I phoned the rail company trying to locate the driver of the train that night. I wanted to both thank him and apologise to him. I had to leave a message. I hope it was passed on. I have included here a link to a clip by Kiwirail that is hard for me to watch. At around 1.15 mins into this clip, there is footage of a person cycling across the rails. This is similar to the experience I had - so close I could feel the train. Watching this makes me feel ill - it also makes me feel like an idiot.
Timing is everything. When I biked home again this week, I looked at that place and saw the signs “Look For Trains”. I stopped and got off my bike to cross the rails.  I didn’t have my headphones on - but I do not feel they were the main cause of this; I think it was familiarity - the automatic nature by which we humans go about our daily business. I just wasn’t thinking. I was aware of little else other than my desire to get home; so much so that I did not hear or see a massive fast moving train until it was a few metres away.  I do feel the headphones offered a distraction that certainly may have contributed, but being someone who is generally very aware of my surroundings, and being deep in thought at that moment, I attribute this total disengagement to the goings-on in my head at that moment; my lack of food and water; the heat and my 'auto-pilot" mode.
We only see five percent of what is around us ... Timing is everything.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Port Chalmers: the charming port

There is nothing quite like the feel of a port community. I have fond memories of visitng Lyttleton (Canterbury's port town) before and after the quakes, and feeling a sense of busyness; a kind of quasi-industriousness that permeated through the quaint quirky community. Now I am here in Port Chalmers - a mere 20 km from where I live (if that) in St Clair and yet it feels an entire world away. 
I still feel that familiar quirkiness I first experienced when in Lyttleton, a sort of rustic eclectic vibe of an ageless era that held the port in surreal suspended animation. Never changing yet ever changing. Busy. Vibrant. Colourful. Port people engaged in life.

Port Chalmers hums all day but mostly at night, as the commercial area of the port itself winds into gear. 
The town echoes with the thuds, crashes and bangs of ginormous machines; shipping containers swinging momentarily in mid-air while the empty bellies of naked ships await.  Trains roll in and out from the inner harbour port; an endless clack, clack, clack as the
night goes on oblivious to an approaching day.  Nothing stops. Not for a moment. Hundreds and thousands of dismembered trees lie sideways, stacked in neat orderly piles, each numbered, tagged, a destination in wait. How they don't get lost is anyone's guess. But so far from a forest they are - that lying in wait matters no more.
Figures in fluro vests and hard hats, scuttle around hurriedly, miniaturised against the monumental machines tasked with loading ships and keeping wharehouses full. Bright lights ensure the port is seen for miles around - a cacophony of colour - no chance of a ship missing its journeys end here.
Yet the town itself holds a quaint air from decades past. Old shops spill over with second hand and vintage goods; bespoke stores lend a unique voice to the main street and cafes attract weekend wanderers from the city. Port Chalmers - "Port" - is one of those places where a day could happily be spent wandering, eating, and poking around in numerous shops. 
I am here to dog-sit for a few days. It always feels like a holiday.  Why - when I have Dunedin at my finger tips?
Port has much to offer someone who prefers a community feel away from the dominant nuances of the city. Port has numerous walking tracks to explore, a modest but quality cafe scene, a wonderful collection of heritage buildings, picturesque marinas and jettys nearby,  interesting second hand shops, a supermarket and fuel and a library. Large cruise ships berth during summer and spring,  international ships come and go, bringing with them people from all around the world. These people come to Port - it is the first part of Dunedin they see. It may be the only part they see. They may stay a few hours or a few days - but they spend money in Port and then away they go. Gone.
It is this transience which gives Port its "porty" vibe. The transience I felt in Lyttleton. It's tangible. 
But, the community is vibrant and energetic; it has an "arty" feel to it, a place where creativity could be supported and celebrated.
This is how port towns often are. Out of the industrial nature of shipping, the noisey comings and goings, a culture is born.
Port Chalmers: culture creator.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The importance of down time

People say we are "lucky", us teachers, because we get a two week break every ten weeks.  I don't think luck has anything to do with it. By the end of a ten week teaching term, teachers are exhausted, anxious and often ill, as they head into their term break.
I am.
During my two weeks "off", I know I will mark over 60 assessments. I will go to work and plan for my first week back of term three, and I will catch up on admin jobs that my normal teaching day does not allow time for.  I will sleep in a little, might drink a glass or two of wine and may even be able to escape for a few days out of town for a break. But I will always be thinking of things that I should be doing. This is the expectation that comes with being a teacher.

I will also be trying to get over this heavy chest infection I now find myself with. When I left work on Friday, many of my fellow work-mates were sick. It's what happens at the end of a high-stress, fast-paced term.  We fall flat on our faces. Teaching requires we give, give, give of ourselves constantly. Term break should be a time to pull back, relax, take in some down time, but so often it simply isn't.
Down time is vital for our body. A constant push-push elevates stress hormones in our system and we exist on a day-to-day cocktail of cortisol and adrenalin. This is not sustainable in the long term; it also carries health consequences such as increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, sleep issues, and could at its worst and with enough exposure, even lead to cancers. 
Never ever under-estimate the physiological power of stress.
So this term break, for me, is about pushing the reset button. Eating well; getting more sleep; getting some sunshine (teachers get very little of the highly important D3's available from UVB sunslight exposure as they're always indoors); doing some exercise; catching up with friends and family; experiencing things that make me happy. Getting myself well enough to go again for another frantic ten week term.

Down time is valuable for everyone - that's what weekends are for - if people are lucky enough to get one. Finding moments to take some down time in amongst a busy, frenetic lifestyle, can be challenging at best. Here's what I recommend:
  1. If you have a lunch break, find a sunny spot on a sunny day and spend 10 minutes with the sun on your face. Even more so in winter. The power of the sun is transformational. 
  2. Stretch
  3. On a weekend - leave town for the day. Find a place to walk in nature - a beach or bush track. Have a picnic; sit in the sun; just be.
  4. Get to bed earlier than usual.
  5. Practice some form of mindfulness - being in the moment. Find a quiet place and sit for 5 minutes. Take in the sounds around you - notice them.  Let thoughts come and go. Use your breath to keep you present. If your thoughts stray, just let them go but come back to the breath.
  6. Read.
  7. Connect with people who are uplifting and good for your soul. Leave the anchors in the water. 
  8. Eat well.
  9. Take up a new activity, learn a new skill, do something that forces you to focus only on that activity.
  10. Smile.
There never seems to be enough time in the day to focus a little attention on ourselves. Before we know it, our life is whizzing by, gathering momentum with each year as if clattering towards some tumultuous event. It can almost seem out of control at times like a runaway train.
Don't be that runaway train. Take control. Take ownership of down time. Claim it.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Defying conformity: nurturing creativity for a future of innovators

"Get a hair cut and get a real job" - the famous words coined by recording artist George Thorogood - reflect a time when creativity was not considered as a serious way to make a living.  In fact, I argue that the creative industries are still considered social outliers in terms of what is deemed acceptable for our sons and daughters to be pursuing once they leave the mechanistic education factories we call "school".  
Kids are still given advice by school careers advisers to pursue the more "academic" subjects of the sciences and maths, whilst subjects rooted in creativity are often suggested as a gap-filler. I argue that in today's rapidly changing world, classical science and maths are redunandant without innovative thought and the ability to develop an idea or process through to an end point. In a way that is precisely what subjects such as maths and science do, but in a more rigid, prescribed manner.
The game-changers of this world will be those people who can conceptualise the creative process from its birth to its realisation and apply that to any given context. Creativity is the future.
Sadly many facets of society seek to suppress creative ideas - we see this across business, education (of all places) politics and even the arts itself, at times, is guilty of this. Society wants conformity and how do we conform? We all think inside the same rigid unbending box. It's safe inside there.
All innovation begins with creative ideas. Have a look around you - every single object, application on the internet, the internet itself, cars, everyday items we take for granted - have been thought of, designed and produced. 
The world cannot possibly move forward without innovation and creativity. Yet we actively suppress the seed of all creativity by suggesting it as a type of "hobby", limiting it within the workplace and schools and applying a sort of "there, there" approach to someone who has chosen to apply their out of the box thinking in a way that earns them an income (but not a "real" job).
Sadly, society does not equate creativity with intelligence. Society tends to measure intelligence through success in academic subjects.  There is research which suggests that the overlap between creativity and intelligence is greater than we realise.
Intelligence can be loosely defined as an ability to acquire and use knowledge (so is rote learning "intelligence?); whilst creativity could be understood as the ability to innovate and conceive new ideas through the mental process of anchoring existing concepts. There-in lies the catch - we need some idea of existing concepts in order to have the freedom to innovate. 
Here's a quote I love by one of the most well-known innovators and creators of all time, Steve Jobs:
"Creativity is just connecting things up. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesise new things. And the reason they were able to do it was that they have thought more about their experiences than other people".
What Jobs is alluding to here is seemingly random connections of concepts may go unnoticed by people who are not creative; whilst those who are can grasp and see those connections. They can then do something with those connections.
Creative people also have the ability to work with their ideas rather than give up once potential problems arise; so problem-solving becomes a pivotal aspect of innovation and ultimately creation.
If, however, the environment one is in, stifles or does not actively promote innovative thinking, creativity is lost. When creativity is lost, we find ourselves back inside the safe four walls of our self (and societally) prescribed box.
Creative people are curious; they're not content to see things as they are, but rather seek to see things for what they can be; they are the boundary-pushers. 
Edward de Bono said "creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way". I argue that educators have an obligation to break out of established ways of doing and being in order to truly allow kids the freedom to be innovative, not just in the arts but in all facets of their school life - from the "academic" subjects right through to physical education. It is essential.

"There is a notion that creative people are absent-minded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true for they are in another world altogether"  
Mary Oliver


Friday, June 9, 2017

Stress and Living The High Life

There's' something almost unacceptable about wanting to live a happy, fulfilled, rich life - it's almost as if there is an innate streak amongst humans, to wish some small amount of suffering on one another. I find it interesting that in this era of "mindfulness" there is always someone willing to remind you that doing anything other than working like a slave,  marinating in solid stress and stumbling home exhausted each evening, is "living the high life". 

There is enough research out there now that demonstrates people who work in or are surrounded by positive psychology, are the people with the highest levels of well-being. Yet we are very good at condemning those who aim for this but at times falter.

To live a life with authentic happiness (not one necessarily created through social status - which is transient, or wealth - which is often a result of social status), but deep, profound authentic well-being, is not something one must ask society permission for. In fact it's crucial to our survival. But - we so often scorn those who strive to  attain this. 
Yesterday I got sick. I hosted a bunch of well-intended comments on my social media page which ranged from "get well soon" to "you need to slow down" to "too much living the high life". I find it amusing how some in my world feel the need to tell me what I should be doing (clearly I am living the high life, going too fast and it serves me right for being sick), whilst others do not feel the need to apportion a sense of blame. 
I find myself feeling defensive when I read these comments, as I know what my life is like and how I have ended up sick. One word: stress.
We are told "work-life balance"; but yet if we try to gain a little of that, we are slammed down by the societal moderators out there, who bring us back to the notion that each of us is really meant to suffer - even just a little bit. Where is the kindness toward one another? Where is the support? Where is the unity toward a common sense of flourishing and well-being?
It's not there; because to pursue the things that make us each happy (in my case photography and mixing that with hiking, mountain biking), is deemed to be selfish, unnecessary and "living the high life".
These very aspects which talk to our soul, which engage us with life on this planet, which connect us more deeply and authentically to the world around us; which "blow our ears back" should never be held accountable. Hold firmly onto those things. They are the antithesis to stress and the much needed antidote to the chaos and negativity that seeps through the cracks.
Make space - let the light in - shine - apologise to no one - be sick - get well - live your life - FLOURISH.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others".

Marianne Williamson


Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Draw: why we photograph

"Why don't you just look at it instead of taking a photo?" my American friend asked after I had insisted he pull over so I could photograph a classic New England barn, surrounded by pristine new snow.
I stood there, knee-deep in the soft, light whiteness, trying to capture the barn in a way that reflected how I saw it.
It got me thinking though - his question - because so often we feel a photo must be taken at this or that place, almost as a sort of proof we were actually there.

Now - I was here - fully present, aware of the snow slowly melting into the inside of my boots, my friend anxiously waiting in the car, and the light making it all appear so flat. I took the shot anyway. I wasn't pleased with it, but I had to have it. I needed to possess that moment - right there, right then.


I think about photography a lot. I wonder - who do we photograph for? Ourselves? Others? What do we do with the photos once they become a number on our hard drive, tucked away in some folder - not unlike old photos sitting in a dusty old album. Are they ever seen again? 
I own a high-end crop sensor camera. It's not a "professional" camera by any means and I confess to absolutely wanting a really really nice camera that has more capabilities than my current model. But there's a funny little voice that says "you can't have one of those until you're GOOD at what you do!".
What is "good"?
I see tourists here in Dunedin - bus loads of them - many with high-end expensive professional level cameras. They take photos of anything and everything. Why? I think scathingly that they can't even compose a decent shot and they probably use their camera on auto settings; and their $5000 worth of camera body is wasted. 


Yet they take their photos for the same reasons 
I take mine; because the subject matter is ours for a brief moment in time. Fleetingly, we own it.


We each see a different world through the lens of our camera - yes sure you could argue that Photoshop, Lightroom and other post-production tools make image manipulation that much easier, but yet, in a similar way that a painter captures a scene through his or her own interpretation with a brush, so too the photographer creates an image that reflects his or her own creative slant on the subject using available tools - or perhaps none at all. Not every shot requires further interpretation; some require more. It's personal, you see.


But still - why do we photograph?  I know why I photograph: to create and evoke emotion; to communicate visually an idea, feeling or context; to fulfill that creative need I have always had and finally, to share how I see the world  with others.


For the tourist hurriedly snapping a photographic record of a holiday; taking the cliched iconic "been there" shots which anchor the visual account of their experience, is no less an interpretation of a context than the best photographer in the world would be capable of. Photography is compellingly subjective.
It is also compellingly addictive. I remember when I owned my cafe in Motueka; I was hunting the perfect coffee, every single moment I made one. In this sense, I am hunting the perfect image, every time I open that shutter to capture what it is aimed at. I have an idea in my head of how I want it to look - my way of seeing it - and that is what drives and draws me to keep taking photos. I want to get better at interpretation of what I see and feel from being in that place, in that moment, at that time.


I sometimes see photography as the phenomenological way of seeing - and of being in - the world. Photography for me is ontological, although some may argue how can it be, when there is a camera lens between the subject and myself? The camera lens is myself.


Friday, March 31, 2017

The Anatomy of Loneliness

Don't you get lonely?" someone recently inquired of my seemingly hermit-like, solo  existence in my small apartment by the beach. "No" - I proclaimed - "there are people who live all around me". 
On a Friday evening such as this one, mentally exhausted from dealing with teenagers all day, my retreat into my small alone-space, is a welcome respite. The notion of not having to speak to another soul again (except of my own choosing) for an entire weekend, is a welcome gift. The mental and emotional withdrawal from others, recharges my batteries and renews my energy - but lonely? I wondered.
There is loneliness - and there is being alone. At times I feel classicly "lonely" (not having another person in my immediate vicinity who gives a toss, is in a sense, a loneliness experience); and yet I have felt incredibly lonely in the company of people I know. But chronically lonely?  When I think of what "loneliness" looks, feels and sounds like, I picture sadness, as if the two are synonymous. No - I do not feel sadness at finding myself on my own; I do feel strangely at peace with this quiet, solo existence.
So it is with great pleasure that I announce to the inquiring person that not only was I surrounded by other people living in this huge old mansion-turned-apartments, but I was in fact of the other genre of "loneliness". I was the lonely of "unfrequented, remote, isolated". This, I believe, to be some sort of sub-conscious choice. Perhaps a fear of rejection; perhaps a fear of "getting in the way"; perhaps a long-engrained distrust. So - I therefore am alone; at times transiently lonely for human adult contact and conversation; but mostly lonely because I dwell in my head, in some remote, isolated place. This is what separates me. 
This is what keeps me, alone.