26 April 2006

Searching

Wellington’s lights, a multi-coloured constellation, demarcate its life. Its human life and activity; the shape of its hills; how it challenges the dark, defiant between black water and the soft glow of cloud—cloud visible only because it’s revealed by the light of the city it constrains.

It’s the utter darkness of the harbour that pulls me in. I look at the lights and the dark beneath the line of motorway lights draws my gaze down; down and in. It’s like looking out beyond the boundary of the universe—a feeling I could fall forever, following the countless lives gone before me, vanished, gone, the purest possible aloneness. The terrible longing for extinction. Perhaps this was what Isabelle Eberhardt sought; what she had in mind when she claimed to “have learnt not to look for anything in life but the ecstasy offered by oblivion.” She destroyed herself, but it was a flood—water in the night—that finally took her life [1]. Perhaps the distinction is meaningless. What do you long for?

Dirk sleeps slumped sideways on the sofa. Sometimes he snores and his paws twitch as if he’s making little grabs at dreamed mice. I disturb him, deliberately; stroke his head, feeling the skull beneath the fur. He jerks awake, chirrups loudly and stretches—a long shudder, then he relaxes into a loud, continuous purr. Miep calls at the big patio doors so I open them and she runs inside on silent feet, a warm grey shape with no edges. Straight to her bowl. I stroke her as she eats and I get the sound of a gurgled purr mixed with crunched cat biscuits. It’s impossible to tell when my palm first touches her fur.

I saw an aeroplane fly overhead this afternoon. I looked up from the deck of this house above Eastbourne; looked up into a blue sky streaked with hazy cirrus and watched the belly of the plane, two engines carrying it on a high, slow arc towards the South. A plane flying overhead is always going away from you. I watched as the plane flew on over the gorse hills, out towards the southern horizon; I watched the plane shrink until it became only a brilliant point of light, moving almost imperceptibly. Then it was gone. Down there, down South, the sky was a grey and orange-brown haze with a faint greenish cast, a smudge of subtle colours. Hogsbacks had begun to form, some towering and massive, others classically curved and elongated, each like a slash in the sky revealing something and somewhere darker through the rent. What do you long for?

Dirk sat upright, nearby and facing my deck chair. He tucked his feet neatly together, wrapped his tail around them and closed his eyes. A formal patience, waiting to be noticed. I heard the momentary tinkle of a bell, looked around and saw Miep padding toward me. She bumped against my chair, wrapped herself around my leg a couple of times then sat in the same pose as Dirk, closer but with her back to me. A flock of finches flew past, quick, with rapid wingbeats black against the brilliant sea, their voices like the memory of Miep’s bell. Far below, somewhere near the water’s edge, oystercatchers called and I remembered standing outside on a clear, moonless night when I was still in my teens, hearing oystercatchers flying overhead, lost in the darkness, their piping sounding like something from the roof of heaven. There’s a kind of ache in that sound, something that says everything about immensity and timelessness and impermanence; about the appalling and incomprehensible brevity of lives; and about the ridiculous pomposity of too much human activity. What do you long for? The sun went down, the sky began to fade, losing colour, and the wind dropped to a drifting breeze barely strong enough to wrinkle the water. Here and there, glassy patches appeared on the harbour. I looked up into that huge, empty sky and thought, maybe this is why wolves howl.

...

Some time after 4 p.m. I packed camera, lenses, binoculars, and notebook and walked down the hill, along the foreshore towards Days Bay. Slowly; thinking how I might get photos of black oystercatchers and gulls, maybe a shag; aware I’d be shooting into the light. Difficult—but if you don’t break the rules you stay safe. After a while and a few experiments I turned back towards Eastbourne. I walked slowly, searching the shore, gazing at details. What was I looking for? I imagined someone asking me the question and wondered how I’d reply. Probably by saying something like, “I don’t know, but I will when I find it.” Can you search for something if you don’t know what it is?

I wondered about the appeal of searching. I know people—blokes, mostly—who seem not to need to look for anything, particularly answers. They seem to know them already. I wonder whether they ever wonder. Am I like that—am I too ready to state facts and deliver answers? The idea that I might be perceived like that filled me with dismay as I picked my way over the wet rocks. I tried to move with grace but felt lumpish and clumsy; an oystercatcher stood balanced on one leg on a barnacle encrusted island of rock and watched me lurch past. What am I looking for? I don’t know, but maybe I will when I find it.

Right then, trying to step carefully in the late afternoon with the sun in my eyes, I wondered whether enlightenment is all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps I misunderstand it. Perhaps I don’t know what it is. Will I know if I find it? I hopped to another rock, and realised I’m not looking for it—at least, I don’t think I am. I suspect if if I do find enlightenment, I won’t arrive there gracefully but will stumble on it. And, if enlightenment is anything like finally finding answers to the big questions, then I think I’m happy being unenlightened. I enjoy wondering; I love the possibility of not knowing. But I probably do misunderstand enlightenment. Maybe it has nothing to do with answers; maybe it’s more about working out ways to live—ways that cause no harm, bring joy, and allow you the freedom to be who you are. Nothing in that requires you to be able to provide an unassailable answer to any question—in fact, it seems more likely that a question asked will evoke a shrug and a genuine query in response. But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I prefer learning to knowledge. Maybe I’ll always be inclined to answer big questions with a shrug, saying, “I don’t know. Tell me what you think.” And, maybe I’ll always start too many sentences with “Maybe”.

I returned, unenlightened and happy. Dirk and Miep greeted me; the big house held the heat of the day. What do I long for?

Right here; right now; nothing.


Notes:
1. See Sven Lindqvist’s marvellous, unclassifiable book, Desert Divers. London, Granta. (2000). 144 pp.

Photos:
1. Lampshade.
2. Miep.
3. Dirk.
4. Dark phase variable oystercatcher, toreapango, Haematopus unicolor; Eastbourne (Wellington harbour).
5. Red-billed gull, tarapunga, Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus; Eastbourne.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor

27 comments:

Tracy Hamon said...

I long for images and words that give me paws. Excellent as always Pete.

KiwiSoupGirl said...

My thanks for including us in your space - cats are so regal in photographs - well, in "person" too! Your photographic impressions always make me chill in a wonderful way *smile*

I've always felt, as long as we have more questions than answers we remain humble and at peace in our place of learning. "Maybe" is my favourite word of all time - and to shout "I don't know" always brings me immense joy!

In gratitude for the moments...thanks Pete.

Nuthatch said...

"I suspect if if I do find enlightenment, I won’t arrive there gracefully but will stumble on it."

Those chance encounters keep us moving on. Great post, thanks, Pete.

Bill said...

"A plane flying overhead is always going away from you." Beautiful.

nightfall
a passing jet drones
into silence

Rexroth's Daughter said...

What a lovely journey, Pete. You made it easy for us to watch through your eyes as you looked outward and inward. I liked your internal dialogue. I have one that sounds so much like yours. Sitting quietly for long periods of time must produce these sounds.

I started to write a post the other day that asked, Why doesn't evolution have a goal? a point? Why don't we trend toward enlightenment? We've been in our skins a long time, and still only find a few signs of holy recognition when we look into anyone else's eyes. What if this is really all there is? Well, that would be okay too.

Wonderful photographs. You remind me that we saw an oystercatcher a while back. I had forgotten.

Clare said...

"If you seek, how is that different from pursuing sound and form? If you don't seek, how are you different from earth, wood or stone? You must seek without seeking" -- Wu-men

Great post as always Pete. And sorry RD evolution doesn't have a goal because it's driven by randomness, by variation. Enlightenment is just a human invention. And although we like to think of ourselves as the pinacle of evolution we are nothing more than a very recent, odd offshoot of a not very successful branch of the tree of life. Lucky for us.

yllstonewolf said...

a gorgeous post. i am a hungry sort - i want to keep seeking and learning - i don't want to arrive, but continue stretching and growing, and moving toward. i want to stay supple and green inside. upon learning the answer, i want to turn to other, newer questions. there will always be more questions. a striving, curious nature shows you glory in the smallest things - and puts you rightly in your place as simply a part of it all. here's to insatiable interest and unquenchable curiosity!! it's beautiful here!

pohanginapete said...

Tracy: Ha! Nice comment; thanks :^)

KSG: Yes, well seen — humility has so much to do with it. "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless" (– T.S. Eliot). Pleased you appreciate the post & photos.

Nuthatch: Thanks. I think my chances are pretty good: I do a lot of stumbling.
;^P

Bill: What a great response — love the haiku. Good to see you here.

RD: I'm sure you're right about the effect of sitting quietly for long periods. I wish more people had the opportunity — or the inclination — to do exactly that. Unfortunately, what's the most likely response when a manager sees one of her team sitting quietly, staring out the window? In that sort of environment, silence is equated with indolence; being still is being unproductive. That world, I reckon, could do with a bit of enlightenment.

Clare: Thanks for the Wu-men quote; I'll investigate further. Agree with you about our place on the evolutionary tree; however, to say enlightenment is just a human invention, while literally true, is a bit like saying the Arctic is nice. Or lamb shanks are edible. ;^P

YSWolf: Yes, me too, although I'd add appreciation to your list — time to paws (cheers Tracy) and appreciate before turning to the next question. But I think you understand that perfectly well. Thanks :^)

Clare said...

I sort of regretted the way I put that after I wrote it, and considered a follow-up. It was meant to convey that enlightenment in the spiritual sense has nothing to do with evolution, that it is very much a human invention. My particular take on it (while hinted at in that comment) really doesn't matter, as the pursuit of it matters to so many.

I'll go back to cooking now...

pohanginapete said...

Ah, yes, I see what you're getting at, Clare. I think I could easily end up even more confused and uncertain if I thought too hard about the relationship between "The" (scientific) enlightenment and enlightenment in the spiritual (for want of a better word) sense. Of course that apparent dichotomy is a dualistic, human invention, so I intuitively distrust it... hmmm, where was I? Now I'm confused. No, wait, I smell casserole... (one of my favourite forms of enlightenment). ;^P
Cheers, Clare.

Lulu said...

Oh! Gorgeous words. Deep in my heart of hearts, the terrible longing for extinction is one with the longing to be at one with everything. Like the color black.

I long to feel at home.

Brenda Schmidt said...

That's fantastic, Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Lulu: Beautifully said. I wonder... perhaps if one ever becomes one with everything, one's own extinction becomes meaningless...? Something like the joy of being unimportant, perhaps? And, I really hope you find that sense of being at home. FWIW, do know you're welcome here, and maybe you can find a small (albeit virtual) sense of home here.

Thanks Brenda! :^D

Eric said...

wow. you've got it all. great photos. great words. can't wait to start reading your back posts. what a great find on an overcast thursday afternoon . . .

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Eric! Enjoy the browsing :^)

Chris said...

Pete, your blog really is beautiful, words and photos both.

When I lived in Wellington I was similarly captivated by the relationship between the lights of the city and the darkness of the harbour and hills. I think it's most beautiful in the minutes after sunset, when the city is already lit up but the sky still glows and gives shape and colour to the landscape. The kind of scene that defies photography!

Patry Francis said...

That last line says everything. And amazingly, you leave this reader feeling the same way. Resting in the kind of perfect moment that longs for nothing.

pohanginapete said...

Chris: thanks for the generous words. I'm glad you appreciate the blog. I agree about that time just after the sun's gone down — it really is special, particularly over water.

Patry: That's a beautiful compliment — thankyou :^)

lené said...

A friend of mine used to say that I should only be able to graduate if I reach the point that I know nothing. While I'm not sure that's what you were trying to say, that's what your words stirred in me.

I appreciate your poetic sense, Pete. This was clip I most held to when reading your piece: "I tried to move with grace but felt lumpish and clumsy; an oystercatcher stood balanced on one leg on a barnacle encrusted island of rock and watched me lurch past." The symbolism of you feeling clumsy but the oystercatcher who doesn't conceive of such things the same way, standing in its purity and essence, solid and stable, is beautiful. Do they call that juxtaposition?

pohanginapete said...

I don't know what they call it Lene, but thanks for noticing it. I do suppose there's a juxtaposition there. As for knowing nothing... well, more and more I think that what's worth knowing is akin to tacit knowledge. Readiness to trot out certainties is something I'm less and less inclined to do. Perhaps.
;^P

Oh yes; and poetry seems to be far better than logical exposition at saying those important things.

Thanks Lene.

zhoen said...

You describe that cat posture quite right. Moby does that whenever we are ing the kitchen, because you never know when chicken might appear...

lené said...

I agree with your poetry sentiment, Pete. You really have a beautiful blog. Your photographs are breathtaking. The light never fails to caputure my attention. Wow.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen: Yes, anyone with a cat must know that posture. I'm looking after the big house again this weekend, and am being taken advantage of by the two cats...

Thanks Lene; I appreciate the encouragement.

:^D

Mary said...

I used the word 'meditation' about one of your previous posts, Pete, and I would use it again here. Beautiful. Thank you. I'll be back to re-read this.

And cats! Good. And what beauties they are. Is there a reason why they have Dutch names?

pohanginapete said...

Mary: Thanks :^). And yes; the owners of the house are from Holland. Although, I suppose the owners of the house are actually Dirk and Miep, but you know what I mean...

KiwiSoupGirl said...

*smile* "Dogs have owners, cats have slaves" - how true that phrase is!

pohanginapete said...

That's great, KSG. So true... ;^)