The Truth Will Set You Free

Telling the truth.

It’s a basic building block of society. A moral imperative. Something we raise our kids to do; something we expect of each other. And yet, in an era where Fake News is a real and troublesome thing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then of how important telling the truth acutally is.

Truthfulness, not surprisingly, is one the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, and while I’ve written about truth before, having the opportunity to view all sorts of virtues through a different lens has kept me interested in exploring the Divine Qualities during the course of this year. And, having spent last year focusing on delight in all its myriad and unexpected forms and often finding joy the tiniest of details, it is equally unsuprising to me that a couple of things have happend to me lately that inspired me to view truthfulness via…ballet.

Yes, ballet.

Relax, please relax — I’m not about to include video footage of myself or anyone else explaining truth via interpretative dance.

Rather, the first oddly inspirational thing that happened was that I didn’t go to the Ballet, even though I had planned to see the Australian Ballet’s final Sydney peformance of Counterpointe. The truth, difficult as it was to admit to myself, was that I was simply too tired to go. Circumstances (think sick kids, a bunch of meetings, various deadlines, a whole pile of domestic detritus and an emergency call to the Fire Brigade when my car unexpectedly started spewing petrol from its undercarriage) conspired against me, and I was exhausted.

So I owned it.

And I didn’t go.

I didn’t go, even though I would have genuinely loved to. I didn’t go, despite the fact it meant I missed out on the first live performance I’d planned to see since COVID hit. I didn’t go, which means I haven’t ventured across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in well over a year.

Most importantly, I didn’t go because I was honest with myself — and, as a result, was dressed for bed before the dancers stepped on stage and was slumbering well before the final curtain fell. I deliberately chose not agonise over my decision to stay home, so I slept soundly. I did not succumb to the sickness my kids had brought home, because I consciously prioritised rest. And that meant…drumroll please…that I was free to do the things I wanted to in the days that followed.

It may not sound like much — going to bed instead of going to the ballet — but, if 2020 taught me anything, it was that the little things are often the ones that really count.

Except when you’re Rudolf Nureyev, and then the BIG things count.

And, of course, that brings me to my second inspirational thing: watching Jacqui and David Morris’ 2018 documentary Nureyev. Even though the film has its flaws (when Rachel Saltz reviewed it for the New York Times she noted in her title “His Life was High Drama: this Film Could Use More”), all of the footage depicting Nureyev is transfixing. Regardless of whether he was performing on stage, being interviewed on television, or simply walking down the street, Nureyev commanded attention — and deservedly so.

Nureyev wasn’t just a star, he was more like a comet blazing through the skies.

His story has everything: childhood poverty, Stalinist persecution, rising fame across the Soviet Union, defection to the West at the height of the Cold War, global stardom, tumultuous relationships on and off stage and, finally, death from an AIDS related illness. He was a man in motion, from the moment of his birth — on a train, en route to Siberia in 1938 — and he lived and danced with an instantly recognisable intensity. The documentary does show some archival footage of Nureyev dancing, rehearsing and teaching, and also includes some memorable still photographs taken by Richard Avedon, but somehow the audience is still left wanting more — more Nureyev, more, more more.

And yet, despite its shortcomings, a couple of moments in the film took my breath away.

The first was during an interview, when Dick Cavett asks Nureyev (resplendent in a snakeskin tunic and matching thigh-high platform boots) whether he remembers the first time he knew he wanted to be a dancer. The camera switches to Nureyev’s face, capturing the exact moment when his dark brown eyes begin to gleam as he nods his head slowly, recollecting the occasion, and no doubt the feeling, of knowing that was what he wanted to do.

The truth in this exchange — not verbalised, but demonstrated — is palpable, and beautiful.

The second was when the film explored Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961, an incredibly dramatic event not particularly well rendered visually in the documentary, but memorable because of the voiceover providing the words of Nureyev himself. Faced with the choice of returning to an uncertain future (and possible imprisonment) in the Soviet Union or remaining in Paris, Nureyev calls on the one person he thinks may be able to help him: French socialite Clara Saint, who at the time was engaged to the son of the French Minister for Culture. It is Clara who alerts the gendarmes at the airport that there is a Soviet dancer who may be wanting to defect, and it is also she who explains to Nureyev what he has to do in order to gain their protection.

You have to tell them what you want to do.

In other words: truth.

You have to tell the truth.

Nureyev then tells the French police:

I want to stay here.

And with those words, the truth set Nureyev free.

Sometimes, truth can be found in the tiniest things.

Other times, it’s in the very greatest things of all.

All or Nothing?

By some small miracle, I managed to wend my way through the shitshow that was 2020 without consuming a single drop of alcohol. It was a conscious choice, and one that I adjusted to astonishingly quickly, surprising no one more than myself.

When 2021 rolled around, however, I found myself wrestling with whether I should continue on being alcohol free, or have the occasional drink? Facing this choice, weirdly, was impacting my peace of mind more than going through 2020 (of all years) without alcohol. The prospect of having my “first drink” after more than a year of abstinence loomed large in my consciousness, turning it a much bigger deal than it actually was. Better to get it over with, I thought, than have that first drink loaded with “meaning” or “consequence” — I could still, I reasoned, go back to being alcohol free just as easily as I did the first time around.

And so, on holidays after our Christmas lockdown, I had a glass of wine. I didn’t feel the need for a second glass; in fact, I didn’t have another glass at all until some weeks later.

But then, more recently, I found myself slipping back into old habits. Having one drink on a Friday evening was followed by three glasses of wine on a Saturday night.

And so, I’ve stopped again. Point blank — because I’ve discovered that’s the best way for me to do it.

Ironically, the next Divine Quality from the Bhagavad Gita I am looking into is self-restraint, which relates specifically to physical self-restraint. I am aware the timing, given my alcohol dilemma, could not be more perfect: for me, drinking is one of the only things in my life that seems to require an all or nothing approach, and it’s probably good for me to review my relationship with alcohol through that lens.

Gretchen Rubin, after conducting extensive research into habit formation, happiness and a bunch of other interesting things, has written at length about Abstainers and Moderators — you can read more about her insights here. Simply put, some people need to give things up completely to achieve their goals, while others are able to pursue their goals while indulging moderately.

You see, most of the time I am a classic Moderator: I’m really good at savouring things and exercising deliberate self-restraint. I can buy a block of chocolate and eat it piece by piece over several weeks. I can curb my intake of all sorts of things: sugar, caffeine, wheat, whatever. I have even been known to deliberately slow my (usually breakneck) reading pace to make a book I am loving last longer. At home and at work I live by the mantra of “do what you have to do, then do what you want to do”, and as a result I get a lot done. Admittedly, sometimes there is not as much “doing what I want to do” as I would like, but after many years of being rigorously self-restrained and self-disciplined in both these spheres, I am also learning to include and prioritise self-care in my routine.

When it comes to alcohol, however, I have discovered my situation is quite different. Drinking seems to be the only thing I am unable to moderate with the degree of self-restraint I would like (and believe me, coming from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, that is a big admission). Don’t get me wrong: I don’t drink myself into oblivion; I haven’t been drunk in a long time. In fact, the vast majority of the time I don’t drink at all. But after being alcohol free for a year, I am now able to see — very clearly — what was much more hazy before: that drinking inhibits the ability of my usually vigilant inner Moderator to do its job. And when my inner Moderator is unable to perform at its peak, I find it works best for me to bring out the Big Gun: the Abstainer.

Knowing yourself, said Aristotle, centuries ago, is the beginning of wisdom.

I’m grateful I now know myself well enough to understand that in most things, it is easy for me to find and walk the middle ground, to be a Moderator. I am also glad to have discovered that alcohol is the one thing that undermines my ability to exercise self-restraint, and that my best approach with drinking is to be an Abstainer.

I have also realised I no longer need to ask myself why it is that I can successfully moderate my behaviour in almost every way, but I don’t feel like I can when I drink? I no longer need to feel shame or embarrassment that my inner Moderator gets sabotaged by alcohol — because that’s what drinking does: it removes our inhibitions. And knowing this, I can choose to approach drinking differently.

Knowing yourself takes time than we’d like to admit, coupled with a willingess to observe ourselves keenly and confront what we see — even if sometimes we’d prefer not to. But I suspect no matter how unpleasant it is to stare those hard truths in the face, it’s always worth doing in the end.

Every Single Day…

habitSome time ago, I was reading a book by Gretchen Rubin when I came across this phrase: The days are long, but the years are short.

These words resonated with me — not least because at the time that I read them, I was the mother of two pre-schoolers. My days seemed to be filled with repetitive, mindless tasks that revolved around keeping my children happy, healthy and (by obvious extension) clean, and that work — because it definitely is work — was often relentless and mind-numbing. The days were long (and the nights could be even longer), but the years were flying by with alarming rapidity.

Don’t get me wrong: being a parent is — without question — the single most rewarding role I have ever taken on, and this post is not about to descend into an extended diatribe about just how hard those long days and nights can be. (Besides, in my experience, even when a child has behaved absolutely diabolically while awake, that same child can somehow, miraculously, completely restore your faith in and love for them once they are soundly asleep — particularly if they stay that way for an extended period.)

No, the reason I recall that maddening yet magical part of my life is because I chose HABIT as Blue Jai’s Word of the Month for August.

What now? Parenting is a habit?

Not at all. But I have been reading Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before, which tackles habits and habit formation head on, and brought to my mind the wisdom of the ancients, specifically this observation from Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Now that my children are growing up and increasingly self-sufficient, I would prefer not to think about the tasks I performed with increasing Aristotelian excellence when they were smaller, save to say — as a random example — that I reckon I could wrangle just about any kid into a five-point harness car seat while blindfolded. Possibly even one handed.

habit 2Aristotle’s adage did make me think, however, about the things that I repeatedly do now — because these, my friends, are my habits. Sure, there’s all the obvious basic personal hygiene and basic living habits like showering daily, cleaning my teeth morning and night, eating a decent breakfast, that sort of thing. But what else, I wondered, do I do every single day?

Well, I read…and I write…and…if I’m totally honest I probably check my social media accounts…

I mean, what do you do every single day?!

And that brought me to another one of Aristotle’s little gems: Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.

When we know ourselves, we know what repeatedly do. We recognise our habits, good and bad, and know which of these we want to cultivate with further repetition and which we want to eliminate. One of my friends, for example, makes a habit of keeping a gratitude journal, of taking time each evening to record what she is grateful for every single day. She also encourages her children to say what they’re grateful for too, and even if they don’t yet write it down she’s hoping, by repetition, to help instil the same habit in them.

Another friend makes herself a properly brewed cup of coffee every single morning. For her, this is a good habit: not only is it something that she enjoys drinking, but she also enjoys the ritual of making it. For her, it is an important act of self care (not to mention the fact that it provides a caffienated kick-start to her day). And that’s where self-knowledge kicks in too — my friend also knows that drinking coffee all day long is not good for her (or anyone), so she relishes that morning cup all the more.

Needless to say, the same combination of repetition and self-knowledge can assist in a business setting, too. Religiously checking your business bank balance won’t improve your cashflow, for example, but billing clients regularly, offering multiple methods of payment and chasing your debtors often will all help. It’s about knowing what you need to do, and repeating the necessary actions to make those things happen.

So I ask again: what do you do every single day?

Does it match up with what you know you could be doing every day?

Because, just like when I wrote about eudaimonia and human flourishing, I think those ancient Greeks were onto something. Sure — for a modern take on it, check out Gretchen Rubin’s book (she really does unpack the whole habit bag, even if I did get slightly annoyed about her frequent references to wearing yoga pants all the time), but I think — as usual — what we’re all aiming for is what human beings have been aiming for for thousands of years. And yes, the Greeks had a word for it too:

 

habit 3

So I wish you well with all those things you do repeatedly this August, and with the habits your self-knowledge asks you to cultivate in the future.

Sophrosyne here we come!

Purple Nails

purple nails

Not my hands, but you get the general picture.

I found myself sitting in a nail bar in a suburban shopping mall the other day, snatching a few moments of time for myself following several screamingly busy weeks I had scheduled down to the last minute. The washing was on the line, drying beneath yet another blue-skied day in this bone dry, drought-stricken land. The kids had been deposited at school, one dressed for a regular day and the other for an excursion. The overseas guests who had stayed with us during a whirlwind visit had been dropped safely at the airport following a quick trip to Taronga Zoo ticking all the tourist boxes: kangaroo, koala, even a spotted quoll.

“Pick a colour,” said the nail technician, brandishing brandishing wheels of fake plastic nails painted an unimaginable variety of shades in my direction.

I attempt to comply, but I am tired. Weary. Nearly undone. Decision fatigue has set in, and instead of selecting a tried and tested shade of something sensible I find myself searching for my favourite colour — a rich, deep blue shot with pewtery grey. The colour of my bridesmaid’s dress at my wedding, a dozen years ago. The colour of the sea after a storm.  As you wish…

I find it, or something vaguely resembling it, and sit silently in my chair as my fingers soak, letting the sounds of the technicians’ murmured conversations wash over me. They are speaking a language I don’t understand, pausing every now and then to give me and the women around me simple instructions in English. Hand in the water. Out again. This I can do, in my depleted state. This is why I am here.

The technician begins applying paint to my nails.

“OK?” she asks.

I look down, and instead of a comforting shade of grey-blue twilight I see a slash of purple.

Vivid, vibrant purple.

I shrug, and find myself nodding. My simple act of self-care has gone slighty awry, but I’m too tired to care.

In the week that follows it dawns on me that I am not in possession of a single stitch of purple clothing. I also realise that the particular shade of purple my nails are now painted attracts attention. That my fingertips now convey the impression of an extroversion I can feign but do not feel.

purple boy

My new favourite book. Ever.

I retreat into myself, into the solitary pursuits that I savour — reading, writing, day dreaming and night thinking. Here I find the acts of self-care that actually restore me, and I notice one morning that my purple nails do match something after all: the cover of the book I’m reading, Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe.

I am captivated — catapulted into a world that consumes me, into writing that overwhelms me to the point that I am forced to acknowledge that I might just have a new favourite book of all time.

Boy Swallows Universe.

Girl swallows book.

Later in the evening, only hours after the nail technician has finished polishing my freshly painted purple nails to a bright sheen, I’m dropping my younger child at a birthday party. A small blonde-haired boy, about four years old, is beginning to wail: it’s his sister’s big day, and he’s feeling left out.

“Hey, matey,” I crouch conspiratorially in front of him, “I had my nails painted today, and they’re not a normal colour. They’re not red, or pink, or anything boring like that. Do you know what colour they are?”

He eyes me suspiciously for a moment, still sniffing, but the distraction is working.

“Bet you can’t guess!”

He stops crying and grasps my hands, turning them over to reveal my purple fingernails, gleaming in the dusk and the light of the bright sunshine of the smile that is now plastered across his tear-streaked face.

“You’re funny!”

Yeah, I reckon I probably am.

Funny as in ha ha sometimes, and funny as in a bit weird at others. But I’m OK with it, and I’m OK with my introversion, and my need to let the words pour out of me, and with knowing that my solace comes from solitude, and that I come from a long line of drama queens and control freaks, and despite all that — or perhaps because of it — I’m even OK with my purple nails.