Too long, and I’m not sure why. It’d be easy to blame the weather—particularly the winds, which have seemed so often to come from the wrong quarter—but perhaps it’s simpler than that. Perhaps I’ve been away too much. Out in the evenings, watching films, meeting friends, exploring ideas. Maybe I simply haven’t been here for many of the good evenings when I could have sat out here, doing nothing in particular and so much that matters. In the last 4–5 months, I’ve been elsewhere a good quarter of the time—in the Ruahine; down Wellington way; in the South Island. I regret none of it, but now summer’s gone; autumn’s beginning to stretch its shadow across the land towards winter and it’s likely I’ll have few of these evenings left to enjoy. I’d like to share them with friends; here, squinting across the paddock into the sun, at the backlit trees on the terrace edge—the slow-turning leaves of black locust and the apple, the never changing foliage of manuka. Watching thistledown drift like lost feathers on a sea of light; the flickering flight of swallows; a hawk heading somewhere after another day’s floating and spiralling and scanning, falling and rising.
It’s hard during the week, though. It’s not far to drive from town to here, but far enough; for friends faced with the prospect of work the next day, a relaxed verandah session has to compete with a decent sleep and it’s easy to say, “let’s leave it for the weekend” —usually meaning Saturday. One day of seven. It seems wrong. A life is so precious and so ephemeral that to waste any of it seems an unbearable tragedy. No—it is an unbearable tragedy. Yet so many of us do bear that tragedy; most days getting up reluctantly and heading off to a job we don’t like; a job where we’re stressed; most importantly, a job that seems largely trivial and unimportant, without real meaning.
What can be done? Well, you can either change your circumstances or change the way you think. Occasionally, changing your circumstances—for example, switching jobs, moving elsewhere—can work. Often it doesn’t. Conversely, changing how you think can always work—the catch is that it’s far harder. All I can say, from my own experience, is that it gets easier with practice.
I notice a movement down near my bare feet. A little jumping spider, the house hopper Euophrys, swivels to face me. He lifts his head and the effect is remarkable—I swear he’s looking up at me, staring me in the face. Can he see that far? What does he see? What’s he thinking? How do spiders think; what’s it like to be a spider? These are questions curious kids ask and adults don’t know how to answer. I stay very still, looking back at him, trying not to stare too hard. He moves forward a little, towards my big toe. When he stops, it’s a perfect pause as if time itself has hesitated; only the flicker of his tiny white palps counters the effect. Another slight forward movement, then he jumps, quick and nimble, onto my toe. He’s so small and light I feel nothing; those eight little legs tiptoeing over my huge, clumsy toe don’t even register. He makes a small jump onto the next toe, then, presumably deciding it’s a poor hunting ground, hops back down to the verandah. I feel blessed.
Returning to that sad thought about how so much life gets wasted, I think about the recent sale of the NZ online auction, Trade Me, and the response to that news. Trade Me sold for about $NZ 700 million and the news was full of the story of cofounder Sam Morgan, who, only a few years ago, was a trying to keep warm in a shared flat. Now he’s banked something between $200–300 million and is fielding numerous offers of marriage.
Good luck to him. I have no complaints about Sam—what disturbs me is the sort of thinking (if that’s not too generous a word) the story has encouraged. Suddenly it seems everyone wants to know how he did it so they can do it too. That, or something equally successful. The tragedy is that, yet again, success is measured as money. Sam’s either hailed as a hero to emulate or he’s envied because, well, he got rich quick. That’s what’s considered significant; that’s what we should strive for. What seems to have been ignored or downplayed, even when Sam pointed it out himself, is that he enjoys what he does. To me, that’s his real success.I wonder: what if we all found a way to make $200 million within a few years? Would we be happier? Would our society be better?
On a terrace on the far side of the river a stag roars: a deep, drawn-out groan full of lust and aggression. They’re at it up in the hills too, wandering about, setting up territories, herding hinds, challenging interlopers. In that state they’re easier to hunt, more vulnerable, and the hills are full of blokes with loaded rifles and adrenaline. Autumn: season of mists and mellow fruitfulness my arse. It’s hormones and testosterone poisoning here.
I sit back in the old chair with its sun-rotted fabric and watch a silhouetted magpie hunched sharp and dark on the power line. It lifts a wing and nibbles its armpit, ruffles its feathers and hunches back down. What’s necessary for success? What does it take to be happy?
Not much, I reckon.
There is no greater sin than desire
No greater curse than discontent,
No greater misfortune than wanting something for oneself.
Therefore he who knows that enough is enough will always have enough.
— Lao Tsu: Tao te ching (46). Translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English (1972). Vintage Books edition 1989. ISBN 0-679-72434-6.
Photo 1: Amanita muscaria on the bank of Te Awaoteatua Stream, Pohangina Valley.
Photo 2: Keep out. If you know me, you know what symbols like this mean to me.
Photo 3: Writing. Based on a photo of a reflection in double glazed windows, when I was minding a house, two cats, and an indeterminate number of mice, one of which lived in the TV. The string of lights near the bottom isn't a reflection; it's the Hutt motorway, leading to Wellington City on the far side of the harbour.
Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor