During my near-fortnight in Oz I spent a day in Manly, a town on Sydney’s northern shore that is accessible from the city by ferry. I wasn’t sure what to expect save for the fact that there was a beach that a new colleague had described to me and an arts festival taking place during the month of September that I had read about in one of the numerous texts virtually thrust into the hands of tourists upon clearing customs, whereupon mechanisms of sorting visually separate the residents from the non-residents.* It was the 7th, a few days after I had spent time talking with elementary, secondary, pre-service teachers and meeting other university colleagues who were also involved in the small conference for which I had been invited to facilitate a workshop and give a talk; and it was a few days before a not-traditionally-monumental birthday — only notable for me because I had planned only up until this one. Everything afterward remains a complete and utter mystery. Almost.
Upon arriving in Manly, I first stopped into the Art Gallery just steps away from the ferry terminal. I might have known that in a month’s worth of events there would be a few down or slow days. The 7th was one such day. But “no worries,” as the country and its citizens seem to exclaim while embracing the unexpected, because this non-turn of events opened up my loosest of plans considerably and led me to have a most magical day, the kind that can only occur perhaps when one is traveling alone.**
Before taking my leave of the gallery I spent a short while taking in its offerings. In addition to the schedule of events related to the arts festival, the gallery also boasted an eclectic permanent and revolving collection of mostly paintings and also a few other artifacts. In the room immediately to the left of reception was set up a visual and mixed media retrospective of the evolution of the bathing suit. A notice preceded the entrance to the exhibit that warned entrants of occasional instances of nudity and near-nudity. I have to think they were referring to the images of men and women in bathing suits, unless I missed something…
The semi-permanent collection featured work by artists living in an artist colony in nearby Scotland Island. While standing in front of a photographic portrait of Venice – as the recognizable orange and yellows of the Venetian buildings fell into their canal reflections – a simple realization hit me.
As participants of an artist colony, the artists were fundamentally involved in the work of making art. And while the purposes and intentions may vary, each day these artists committed themselves to creating art simply for that purpose alone. So then I started to wonder: what must it be like to wake up each day to engage in a practice that you love?*** To fully attend to what’s happening in the moment, not necessarily for where it may lead or gains to be had. Another simple thought followed the first: why do we do what we do? By this I don’t mean the oft-concerning question of motivation or its always near semantic cousin, engagement. Rather, my observation of these artworks displayed in a gallery partially dedicated to their very existence gave me pause; how much of our daily lives are driven by where our actions may lead? To the next accolade, level of recognition, monetary remuneration, title or designation…? Certainly the “tenure track”, by virtue of its moniker alone, can feel like at times like a chaotic and traffic-laden (and other times deserted and dark) road to somewhere, with “where” not easily defined. At meetings and other types of gatherings designed to help the proverbial “us” make sense of these sensations of uncertainty and aimlessness — not that anyone would risk admitting as much out loud — the frenetic pace to somewhere-or-nowhere-in-particular was palpable. How might we change this, I asked a friend who also fell under that “pre-tenure” designation? (and what a strange designation it is, replete with the hope of becoming, one day, “post-tenure” — initiated at my institution in good spirits, I do believe, the designation functions instead like the tell tale heart in a young academic’s life…)
I’m not naively suggesting that practical considerations, such as the job security that tenure promises (in most cases) or being able to sustain oneself economically, are not real or worthy of importance. I simply worry that in constantly striving for the next thing, we forget to really see what we’re already doing, being, living. Echoes of such “next thing” thinking reverberate through young adolescents responses to questions about *what* they want to be when they grow up — e.g., words like “successful” and “famous” (no doubt a factor of our reality-tv-really-can-be-a-career-ITIS) foretell an unrelenting pursuit of those measurable markers of status that begin almost at birth. Could we change the question? Could we ask instead or perhaps alongside the “futures” question,”what kind of life do you want to lead?” not ten, twenty years from now, but now. What are we doing each day and how might our actions be contributing to or detracting from a way of being that we can imagine? Some call this mindfulness. Others have talked about how we attend to and cultivate the art of living. And still others have wondered about human flourishing. My friend O cuts right to the chase, “as far as I can tell, we have this one life. So, how are we going to live it? Each day? With how much time and space for play? To really live?” [paraphrasing, of course] I can’t help but wonder about these questions from the horizon of educator, to think about how actions, conditions, curricula, policies might be in service of flourishing and attentiveness — have no doubt that competition is not the only fuel for innovation, inspiration, creativity…
I walked out of the Manly galleries slowly, taking in the way the sunlight beamed down through the wood slats giving the illusion of a jail cell at one glance, but could also be suggestive of transparency (as this architectural wonder boasts).
From there, the day unfolded like scenes from a collection of impossibly breathtaking postcards. I made my way through a cliff walk that placed multi-colored waters next to rock formations of increasing height, where I crossed paths with a stealthy lizard and was serenaded with a steady concert of bird songs and reptilian mating calls. All the while, I held onto the notion that walking was what I was doing in the moment. Not necessarily walking to reach any predetermined location, but just meandering; and resisting the occasional impulses to hurry back to the ferry: why rush? I really had nothing and no one awaiting me. A rare occurrence, and something that it was taking all of my focused attention to remember.
And sure, I’m probably guilty of sabbatical-brain, where I can’t keep days of the week straight — a feeling I hope to be able to access from time to time when I will also very likely slip back into the game of what’s next and where to… So for now, I’ll indulge my pontificating proclivities and see what the next corner brings and continue seeking and finding others with whom to commune artfully.