Tuesday, December 28, 2010

To the lighthouse, darkly

Kiama Lighthouse by Pants

Part 1 - The window
Moments of clarity aren't generally a feature of Pantsworld. The nearest I come is a durable and unerringly reliable flight instinct, which has been well and truly enabled by the proliferation of budget airfares. Timely consolidation is the only explanation I can offer for my relative financial security. If I had to rely on trust, reason and hard work, I'd be living in a cardboard box. Instead I live in a comfortable and roomy house with floor-to-ceiling windows and a view of the sea. Instinct is not a bad substitute for insight, if acted upon decisively.

If looking out at the world could provide guidance as to how to live in it, I'd be off fulfilling my destiny right now instead of writing this post. It isn't that simple. When I look out, I see only that there is something to be seen. I do envy people who have a life plan and/or a sense of purpose. It is tempting to believe that we are all wallowing about in a postmodernist fog of indecision but I've read enough books to gather that at least a few people know what they're talking about. My question to myself, as yet another year parks itself in a used diary, is why don't I? I like to think I know enough to at least place myself in the path of enlightenment.

I've tried to keep it simple. Easy on the Heidegger, Kierkegaard Lite, slavish devotion to ABC Radio National's The Philosopher's Zone, that sort of thing. I even read Eckhart Tolle. Books treat the symptoms but they don't cure the disease. Besides, although I'd very much like a few hints on what a well-lived life might look like, the last thing I'd want to do is to try to follow someone else's rules. I have trouble enough keeping up with motoring regulations.

Part 2 - Time Passes
The continuing source of my angst is that I am yet to find a snug fit for myself in this big ole world. It's like being in a shop with every possible jacket, except for the one that actually keeps you warm. I have fallen between two conflicting cultural stools. Having left Australia for Britain in my twenties and returned in my fifties, I find I have missed several tectonic shifts in national perception, resulting in my having no idea what everyone is on about most of the time. The perennial Australian quest appears to be a search for identity and authenticity, which is not what I'm looking for at all. I know well enough who and what I am, I just don't know what it is I'm meant to be doing.

I don't think it's a question of requiring a sense of place or home. It took me a long time to work this out because the pressure to believe in 'belonging' is relentless and moving around has been so much a part of my particular sojourn. Actually, with one or two very short-lived exceptions, I have loved the places I've ended up in. In fact, I've never actually been to a place I didn't like. I'm lukewarm where Florence is concerned but I think that's because, by Italian standards, it's a fairly ordinary place. If Florence were to relocate to, say, north-eastern Victoria, I'd probably go there every other weekend.

I was happy in Hackney, London. I'm happy in Larrikin's End, Victoria. I'm even happy in Noosa, Queensland where I'm currently holidaying, even though the surf has been rubbish and it's rained incorrigibly for the last week. For me, contentment is not related to being part of a tribe, although it would be nice to occasionally find some people to agree with. I don't want for company and I certainly don't require approval.

Neither am I dissatisfied with anything I've done in the past. My only regret is that I could have done more of quite a lot of it without breaking sweat and I sometimes wish I had. But there is no missed sleep because of it, nor feelings of guilt for that matter. The discontent comes from a lack of understanding as to how all these fragments of toil and experience go together to form something I'd like to call a 'life' but feel it's not quite worthy of the name yet. It's rather more like a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle that remains shrink-wrapped even though the picture on the box is fading with age.

Part 3 - The Lighthouse
This year I have tried to read my way clear of the worst of the confusion, I like to think with some success. Mostly I read philosophy, artists' autobiographies, books about Australian art and novels. And a little bit of poetry and popular science. Hermione Lee's biography of Virginia Woolf led me immediately to To the Lighthouse, which I studied at university but had not read since.

The painter, Lily Briscoe, (whose initials I share in my real world existence), makes a decision to separate vision from ambition. Like Woolf herself, she works not for fame and fortune but to solve the dilemma presented by her very existence. If I am here, what am I for? Lily must run the gauntlet of societal expectation and confinement. Taunted by Charles Tansley that women can't write and can't paint, she doggedly pursues 'something clear as the space which the clouds at last uncover - the little space of sky which sleeps beside the moon'. Like Lily Briscoe, I have no compulsion to compete in the market economy or hunt down the artistic holy grail of recognition. That 'little piece of sky which sleeps beside the moon' seems to me a far greater prize.

This year began with a head trip and ends with a road trip. The road trip was occasioned by the need to deliver three paintings to the family members to which they had been promised. These paintings, entitled Something in the City, I, II and III, came about accidentally. They were my response to a typically incoherent art school set task. That bothered me for the longest time but I finally got over it because everyone seems to like them, including me. I have decided to make this my 'oeuvre', at least until I can think of something I'd rather paint. Believe me, given my mental state for most of this year, this qualifies as a huzzah moment.

I hoped the slow road trip around the east coast of Australia might serve to ease the standoff extant between me and the birth-mother country for the last three years. Two weeks before Christmas, I packed up the Pantibago with a week's worth of clothes and energy bars and set off under the threat of torrential rain and flooding. My plan was to drop in on a few people and places that I probably wouldn't get to see unless I drove there and end up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, where all the immediate Pantses reside.

For eight hours I drove through thankfully light but nonetheless dreary drizzle. An entirely unseasonal and positively unAustralian fog chased me into Kiama on the New South Wales south coast. As I arrived, it enveloped the town, transforming it into Wuthering Heights. To the Lighthouse opens with a planned trip to a lighthouse being cancelled because of deteriorating weather. Brushing aside any threat of a bad omen, I made my pilgrimage to Kiama lighthouse where I was promptly drenched by the most spectacular thunderstorm. It was so intensely electric, it crossed my mind that I could be struck by lightning. It wasn't quite the artistic awakening I had had in mind. After giving me nothing more than a sound waterboarding, the tempest rolled triumphantly out to sea, leaving behind a brilliant sunset and a glimmer of belief in a particular piece of sky.

More on the road trip later...