Temperance – week 3

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

In the third week of my engagement with temperance, I turned my attention from food to sex – and started abstaining from porn. Whenever I have spoken to people about the list of things I proposed cutting during Lent, pornography stood out: I articulated the word somewhat faster, with a mild sense of embarrassment. What makes porn so prevalent, yet so shameful? What makes it so fascinating? This is what I tried articulating over the week.

Pornography was pervasive in my childhood. From about the age of ten, I was very aware that on the first Saturday of the month at midnight, one of the TV channels played a porn movie, and that my step-father duly recorded it. I was aware that he stored videos in the library – later, I would sneakily watch them in the afternoon when he was away. Once, at the age of twelve, while walking around with a friend, I remember stopping at a suburban supermarket to buy a treat: there, we glanced for a long while at the jacket of ‘cum for lips’ that sat at eye level in one of the aisle, giggling and aroused.

Porn offers to satisfy a certain form of cruel curiosity. Photographs of sexual organs in extreme close-up appear in two distinct domains – pornographic movies, and medical books. Pornography rips open people, like anatomy does. Porn is an act of radical unveiling. It promises a form of perfect knowledge: it captures the moment when a person is completely revealed in its most naked form. To that extent, porn is a perversion of knowledge: rather than a slow, gradual, dialectic process of encounter, it proposes a shortcut to ‘knowing, in the biblical sense’. But that moment of complete revelation always eludes us – and so we watch more, and more, and more again, in a vain attempt to seize it.

When a new technology emerges, we overestimate its impact in the short term, and underestimate its impact in the long term. To what extent does that apply to the sexual revolution – of which endemic pornography may be no more than a symptom? The way that Aquinas articulates chastity is no longer relevant: not only because he draws explicit parallels between the beautiful dishes that whet our appetite and the beautiful women that arouse our lust; but also because his framing of ‘sexual acts against nature’ no longer aligns unproblematically with our understanding of how ‘nature’ operates in the realm of sexuality. From books on the bonobos to wildlife TV series, from ethnographic reports to the Kinsey survey, we’ve developed a more sophisticated understanding of the many roles played by sex in creating and nurturing diverse types of social relationships.

In our globalised world soon due to hit 8 billion people, if sexuality is to support the survival of our species, chastity should be reframed in the following terms: what sexual behaviour is most conducive to social harmony. Part of our fascination with pornography may stem from this question. Progress in modern medicine, birth control and paternity tests, challenges previous assumptions about what is and what isn’t acceptable behaviour. So, what should we do? Should we rejoice and indulge without limits, just because we can? Or should we keep things ‘within measure’, and if so, what is this measure? While we’re figuring out these questions, porn offers a temporary satisfaction: it invites us to join a fantasy world where sexual acts occur outside of any context, and have no consequences.

A pragmatic logic underpins most support for pornography: since people want it, let’s  normalise it, rather than afflict users with guilt, and push the whole industry to some dark underbelly. Yet, on the Internet, porn exists in shady condition: who’s the owner of the many videos that circulate, soft and hard-core, professional and amateur? Were actors willing participants? Is all of it, or most of it, within the clear realms of legality? Yet somehow, either by the very nature of the thing itself, or the conditions that surround our engagement with it, these are not questions we raise: we search, we click, we watch. And that’s where much of the problem may be: not that there is something inherently bad about pornography, but that it freezes thought, and distracts us from more valuable pursuits.

The silence that covers our engagement with porn certainly contributes to these shadows. ‘The Internet is for porn’, joke the characters of Avenue Q. To what extent is this true? There is a lot of porn online, there must be physical and economic counterparts: server farms, web designers, production companies – yet I have no critical understanding of it. Don’t ask, don’t tell. The same applies at a personal level. I have read dozens of articles describing in details what food I should eat and when in order to reach various forms of personal optimum. I am quite aware of what my friends eat, and even what they drink. I know nothing of their pornographic habits, nor have I ever come across an article listing ’10 ways that pornography can help you find inner calm and increase your creative output’. We collectively Febfast and Meat-free-Mondays, but porn remains an entirely private experience.

This may be why it grates against even a very liberal understanding of chastity. To what extent will our private engagement with naked bodies on a screen contribute to social harmony? Will it bring peace through generalised sexual relief? Will it increase frustration and feed aggressive desire? Or will it isolate us, lost on a solitary quest for impossible knowledge? Without some collective discussion, we cannot answer these questions. As long as shame hampers conversation, pornography will remain problematic.

 

 

 

 

 

Temperance – week 2

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

This week, I reflected on cycles, adaptation and emptiness, as I started my second week of Lent by cutting off alcohol.

I attended a family baptism on Sunday. After the service, we went for lunch at a nearby pub. I strongly desired a burger and beer, or fish and chips and a glass of white wine – but I had to settle for a Caesar salad with no bacon or anchovies, and a glass of water. To celebrate the special occasion, I treated myself with ‘extra avocado’ for five dollars. My desire for beer and burger was part habit, part conformity: that’s what I would usually get, that’s what others were having. My abstinence was noticed, and I noticed something about our culture: in numerous occasions, we’re invited and expected to join in celebrations; but there is little collective down-time. Collective excess is a thing, collective temperance is not. Should we, therefore, aim to revive Lenten periods, embrace ‘Febfast’ and other movements that aim to make collective meaning of temperant behaviour? Or are these institutionalised rituals of fasting insufficient, because temperance is at its core an individual practice?

What we must and choose to abstain from is culturally determined. When I lived in Paris, I had a friend from North Africa, who worked as a part-time drug dealer. He was a tea-totaller, but was a daily pot-smoker, and episodic consumer of harder drugs. I used to tell him that liquor is my cultural drug of choice. Only two days into six weeks, and the temptation is there to find an ersatz of some sort.

Temperance is not easy. Wednesday marked a week of fasting – and my craving for meat and alcohol were much stronger than I anticipated – so distracting that I ended up compensating with chips and cake. Yet I did sense a greater connection to my body: it felt leaner and keener.

Fasting trains our capacity to change. It is the backbone of resistance. Lean figures evoke a measure of suspicion: Antigone, Cassius, show dangerous anorexic determination. With the cheerful plump lover of earthly pleasures, we can always find a way forward: they will round off the angles, and make concessions. But the dry, tempered body, has its sharp edge on display: some things will simply not be tolerated, in any shape or form. Temperance, in that manner, may underpin justice and fortitude. But fasting is also the first step towards potential long term change. We may dread radical transformation, but this is different: I’m not giving up anything for good over these weeks of Lent, I’m just giving up for now. Yet over that time, I will realise the possibility to do without, and when Easter arrives, make a deliberate choice, either to resume, or not. Temperance, in that manner, creates the needed space for the exercise of prudence.

This goes against the grain of the consumerist environment that I was brought up in, where hunger should be dealt with in great haste, rather than cultivated and enjoyed. In my work designing education programs, appetite is often the missing hinge: programs and resources exist to support for efficient learning – if people had a burning desire to learn, they would easily find a way. But that desire is weak. Yet I have encountered few people and even fewer institutions who clearly prioritise the kindling and nurturing of that hunger for knowledge. This is a mindset shift I would like to further focus on during my time engaging with temperance. We do not nurture hunger like we nurture satisfaction. It’s not about what we should add, but what we should take away. We’re not adding knowledge to people’s brains, we reveal an inner emptiness, and a simultaneous desire to protect it, transforming learners into conscious vessels. We create a space where the natural capacity to learn can exert itself.

Friday night drinks are a ritual way to relax. Alcohol releases tensions and loosens inhibitions. We leave our worries behind, at least for a while, enjoy the party, then sleep. I have always found it difficult to stop and pause. This is a form of gluttony, resting on the deep fear of my own inner emptiness – and so, rather than abstain peacefully, I would rather circulate through various forms of stuffing: food, wine, entertainment, knowledge. But engaging with temperance forces me to change my attitude. On Friday, I took the afternoon off, and deliberately connected with the land. After a workshop at Ivanhoe Girls Grammar, I walked along bike trails, through reserves and past a creek, stopping for Qi Gong practice. Then, in Darebin Park, I followed an indigenous spiritual healing path. I walked slowly, contemplated, felt the trees, the water, the rock. And this I realised, while pausing by a wetlands: the spaces we think of as empty are actually teeming with life, which itself feeds other life. The riverbed fills with water, which fills with plants and insects, feeding fish, birds and small mammals. Hollows become dwellings for the flows and cycles of nature. In the same way, by keeping our inner selves empty, we welcome the flows of ideas, projects, connections. We recognise and allow for circulation.We trust that the little things that will breed greater things. Temperance is this the capacity to stay still, holding ourselves open, and let life pass through us. Accepting our fluid nature. Embracing a cyclical attitude. Demonstrating faith and hope.

Temperance – week 1

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.

On my first week practicing temperance, I explored the paradoxical relationship of constraint and freedom, and started my seven-week Lent by cutting meat.

As I did on the First of January, I started on Sunday with a simple commitment to mindfulness. Mindfulness led me to deprioritise food and, as a result, I did unexpected things. After a light morning tea following a church service, rather than shape my afternoon on the basis of lunch, I decided instead that I would go to the park and do some work until I got hungry – the scone and slice of quiche from morning tea was enough for now. I had plans to complete a quarterly report project that day, with vague intention of repeating what I did for the last one: treat myself to a fancy cocktail as a way to celebrate the ritual completion of my executive summary. Guided by temperance, I went for a simple beer instead. A friend was coming over for dinner that night. I bought a chicken from the David Jones FoodCourt and put it in the oven – I had not roasted a chook for years, but haven’t lost my hand. Money saved in the afternoon was used for better quality product in the evening, and a shared experience.

Gluttony takes many forms – excessive quantities, excessive refinement, excessive speed. At the core, it is an excessive interest in food. I have been brought up in a glutton family. My grandmother used to repeat a phrase from her father: “little belly, rejoice, rejoice, every penny I make is for you.” Temperance is a serious challenge to my heritage. On Monday, waking up, I decided I would not care about food that day. The surprising result was a day indulging other obsessions. February was a professionally demanding month, and as a way to compensate, I resumed re-watching of Gossip Girl, picking up where I left in September, at Season 4(in another post, I may write why this is a favourite drama). Now, however, I had to focus on new things, and had about 10 hours of episodes left to the end of the last season, distracting me from anything else. To give myself space over the week, enjoying a gorgeous late summer day, and geared by my deliberate focus to seek freedom from food obsession, I spent a day with Gossip Girl – interrupted in the late morning by a whimsical affogato stop on Bourke Street followed by a chicken and bacon burger on Russell – then  again, in the evening, by a function followed by a home meal of smoked salmon and salami. At 11h30, I finished the last episode, and went to bed ready for a return to my PhD. Over the course of the day, I felt extremely relaxed, with not a touch of guilt from this complete indulgence.

Two characteristics make temperance difficult. The first is structural: the virtue requires balance rather than complete abstinence, and therefore includes an element of personal judgement. The second is historic: our consumerist and sexually liberated culture defines identity through taste rather than effort, and equates fulfilment with the satisfaction of our appetites, not the capacity to moderate them. The practice of temperance therefore requires that we re-learn to think of desire as otherness, and resistance as an expression of the self. It also requires that we get ready for opposition: temperance is not aligned with the spirit of the time, and if we practice too conspicuously, we may well irritate many.

Wednesday was the start of Lent. This chance alignment of the lunar calendar with the change of season encouraged me to weave Lenten abstinence into my engagement with temperance. Over the next six weeks, every wednesday, I will substract one thing from my life. Meat is the first to go. In this, temperance ties in with justice. Whenever we mindfully consume meat, we weigh our enjoyment of food against the life and suffering of another sentient being, and give the former priority. This may but reflect our status as a predator species. What I noted, however, in just one day of resolute vegetarianism, is how matter-of-fact the consumption of meat has become. This may also explain why we consume so much, in spite of its environmental impact. Avoiding meat had a clear liberating effect. As happened on Sunday and Monday, creating a constraint on food opened a space of freedom elsewhere. I marked off the day for PhD work. High level narrative construction was required – this would be better done among eucalyptus trees than in a closed office. And so, I went off on a walk from Belgrave to Ferntree Gully. I had lunch at a bakery in Upwey. There were about a dozen types of pies; only two were vegetarian. Lent had this added benefit: choosing food was made simple. I could devote my attention to more important things.

On Thursday, I reflected on the connection between food and my own body. I grew up in a family where women were both obsessed with food and constantly dieting. I inherited this tension. During a Qi Gong class on Tuesday, I had a postural breakthrough. Our instructor told us that our back should be firm, while the front part of our body should be soft. My breath seemed to be shorter than most other people in the class. Then I realised that I had been holding in my stomach, and thereby disturbing natural breathing patterns. All through Thursday, I gently patted my soft abdomen, rising in smooth rhythm – and reconciled myself to the idea of a potbelly.

On Friday, I focused again on mindful eating, reflecting on this paradox: is temperance increased indifference to food, or increased attention? Mindful eating made me better appreciate the act of bringing a grape to my mouth, touching it with my lips, cracking the skin with my teeth, the juice exploding on my tongue and palate,  and the pleasant act of swallowing. Could these sensations form a more solid ground for temperance than blindness to them?

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Girt by sea

Last night, I was awarded the title of New Australian of the Year by the Australia Day Council Victoria. I was invited to make a speech on that occasion, and chose to reflect on the traditions of hospitality that made my own migration possible. I never write speeches beforehand, but wanted to share it here – the version below is reconstructed from memory. 

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I’d like to tell you about the place that I used to call home. Imagine a place in the South of France – a broad landscape of flat, salty marshland. If you turn to the right and look out towards the sea, you will see a lighthouse, and my great-great grandfather built this lighthouse. If you turn to the left, you will see white moutains of salt by a pink lake: these are Europe’s oldest salt marshes, where my uncle used to work. If you now look straight ahead, you’ll see an old medieval town with thick walls and rounded towers. And as we go through these walls by one of the doors, I’d like to ask you to stop for a moment and look at that door, because my great-grandfather was the locksmith of the town, and he used to have a key for every city door.

Now, I’d like us to turn left inside the wall, and walk a few steps until we reach a large green metal door, with a rose bush flowing over it, and I’d like us to get in – and I know that we can, because that door is always open. And as we enter the courtyard, you will see an old lady sitting at a table, humming a song. That’s my grandmother, and she’s the reason I’m here today.

Hospitality took me here, and hospitality was the most fundamental value that my family taught me. In my grandmother’s house, the door was always open, and people would constantly come in and out, family, neighbours, old friends, and new friends. And if you stay long enough with her, my grandmother will point at the corner of the yard and say, there used to be a well there, and in that well, she says, there was always water, even in the driest season, and everybody would come in and share from it. That’s what hospitality means to me – a door that’s always open, and a well that never dries up.

Hospitality took me here. I’d like to take you now to a different place. It’s a cold evening of February, 2006, and I’m getting off the train at York train station. I’m visiting northern England for the first time, on a holiday, and I’m looking for a man with a carnation in his hand. We met through Couch Surfing, a website where people offer each other hospitality. A few hours later, we’re sitting in his room, with music playing, and he asks me: ‘shall we make love?’ – ‘Make love,’ I reply, ‘why not?’ Eleven years later, he’s the reason I’m here.

Hospitality took me here, I didn’t plan migrating to Australia. But I was ready to go. The place I described as ‘home’, that’s not where I was born. I was born in a different place, a town in North-eastern France called Strasbourg, right on the German border, a place where it gets down to minus 13 in the winter, and the snow falls, and people close their doors against the cold. I was the son of Mediterranean parents, a father from Southern France, a mother from an Italian family. I was a wog boy living on the German border. And all my teenage year, my dream was to move South, somewhere warm, with palm trees and jasmine. When I first visited Melbourne in 2007, I thought, this might be it.

I never thought I would move that far South, but I saw that I could fit in this new place. There were Mediterranean migrants like myself, Greek, Italian, Lebanese, Croatian. Meanwhile, my partner comes from a lineage of Lutheran pastors, Barossa Germans: through them, not only could I stay connected to the traditions of my teenage years in Strasbourg, but I entered an Australian that was intrinsically diverse: here were founding fathers of a State, yet clearly not from the dominant anglo-celtic tradition.

I could have been comfortable simply carrying my European heritage here – but something else happened. In fact, Australia did something quite extraordinary: it made a French intellectual realise the depth of his own ignorance. When I first visited the country, Asia hit me in the face – and I how little I knew about it. The only way for me to make sense of this new country would to learn about Asia. Luckily, I was brought up to believe that ignorance is not destiny. So I educated myself. I started teaching myself Chinese, I migrated overland taking three months to travel from Paris to Singapore, and next I knew, I was enrolled as art director in a mid-length Vietnamese action movie set in the Western suburbs of Melbourne.

There were numerous other experiences, projects, and friendships in my early year. Then it crystallised into one thing. In 2011, three years after landing in Australia, I founded a nonprofit organisation called Marco Polo Project – acknowledging my own Italian heritage – which explored new ways of bringing Chinese voices to Western readers, through the Internet. That was a difficult journey – I had no background or experience in business, and now I found myself building and running an organisation from scratch. But it worked out – six years in, the organisation still exists, and has grown. From pure online presence, we started bringing people together offline. We’ve now run more than sixty events around the world, bringing together speakers of English and Mandarin. Through this work, other opportunities opened, leadership training, start up incubators, scholarships and international delegations, and now, among other projects, I work with a Swedish Philanthropic Foundation on issues of global governance.

But Australia taught me something else. This is not a country that says ‘more, more, more’, this is a country that asks you ‘who are you?’ Australia gave me shape. It didn’t matter how many projects I conducted, if there was no meaning to them. I spent a long time reflecting on this – and in the end, I think it’s a rather simple thing. All my work centres around cross-cultural understanding. How can you get people from different languages and cultures to better understand each other? And if all I accomplish in my life is help people realise and accept that their world is not exactly the same as the world of the people around them, then I’ll have done enough.

I think this is a very Australian pursuit. Australia gave me shape. And that’s what this award represents. It’s about not my achievements – it’s about celebrating country that embraces new citizens, and welcomes their contribution. I’d like to reflect on a verse in our national anthem, a line that says, ‘Our land is girt by sea’. What does it mean to live on an island-continent surround by water? To someone whose great-great grand-father built a lighthouse, to someone whose family comes from Europe’s oldest salt marshes, to a Mediterranean wog boy, this is what it means. The sea does not separate us from the world, it connects us. Australia girt by the sea is in direct contact with the entire world. This land is a meeting place for all.

And that’s what I found here, not just a warm place with jasmine and palm trees – I think I got cheated on the heat in Melbourne, actually – but a place of hospitality. A place where the door is always open, with a well that never dries, and where people from everywhere come together, share their stories, and find their own shape. And that’s what this cup represents, and that’s what we’re celebrating today.

On wasting time

Last week-end, it felt like I had more piled up than I could possibly do: PhD confirmation coming, a full project plan due for my new role, a language event to co-design, and preparing for two weeks away.

On Monday, I cleared up the noise. I spent all Tuesday at a Red Cross Hackathon. Yesterday, I went out to work by the river, took a long walk, made time for a long Skype call with a former student in London, pitched a project at the Red Cross, and went out to a function. I just spent a couple of hours talking with a friend about her experiences in the Chinese cultural revolution. I stuck to my daily translation and writing routines. And I am on schedule for my presentation tonight. Preparing it didn’t take that long.

When I was in high school, whenever exams were coming or essays were due, my classmates would boast-complain about how late they went to bed. At the time, this always struck me as a sure sign of stupidity. I had consistently better marks, watched a lot of TV, and never stayed up late for an assignment. As I entered a more and more competitive environment, and after migrating particularly, I faltered for a while. People seemed to find me hyper-productive, but I always suspected I was lazy, or maybe they were lying about how much time they spent working.

Spending longer than needed on a task strikes me as profound and inexcusable waste. Stendhal wrote the Chartreuse de Parme in three weeks, and it’s one of the best novels in the French canon – not the most flawless, but possibly the most alive. Speed of execution might have to do with it.

Today, I read an article on how to prepare for a Ted Talk – or public speaking more generally. Three main options exist: completely wing it, improvise from a set structure, or deliver a completed text. The first usually fails, the third only comes alive if the text is perfectly memorised, the second is always the least boring, and requires very little effort – all it takes is a small measure of courage on the day, and ongoing practice over years.

Perfectionism mingled with fear is a deadly poison. As much as I could, I have tried to stay far from it. But here’s a good antidote. I’ve always cultivated multiple interests, and each came with different settings, people, opportunities, and deadlines. I had to juggle, but realised over time that, as with integrated agricultural models, I was consistently productive: things feed off each other, the soil stays fertile. Little is wasted. All it takes is balance.

 

On regular status

This morning, for the third time in a week, I spent a couple of hours in the back room of Gil’s Alley Diner. It is a large square room with tall ceilings, industrial deco style. The room has a mix of round and square wooden tables. A large metal-frame window visually connects the dining room with the kitchen. They make excellent bombolone – small Italian style doughnuts filled with a thick custard.

Today was my third time in a week, and I’m beginning to feel like a regular now. I certainly behave like one: same coffee order – long black – same seat if it’s available – a little round table close to the wall in the main room. I think I got a look of recognition today from the waitress.

With regular status comes a sense of obligation. Tomorrow, I should go back, and certainly not somewhere else. I should keep the same order, maybe vary the choice of pastry, but not go for just a coffee. When I think about it more, I sense an odd feeling that the place is now counting on me for its bottom line regularity, and for the social fabric of the day – little as I contribute, I have become part of that small community.

This feeling bothers me. I have experienced it before with other places, and each time it came creeping in, I stopped going. Worse – I felt a sense of guilt associated with the place, and after not going for a week, would feel incapable of ever going back.

I wonder where that feeling came from. Maybe the fear of dependence? Maybe the guilt of staying there for so long? Maybe resentment that, when they prepare the tables for lunch service, I’m not welcome to stay – unless I order food. I hope I can get over these feelings this time – I would like to keep going to Gil’s diner. It’s a beautiful place to work and think, and they make excellent bombolone.

On dailiness

Since the beginning of this year, I have made a shift in my writing practice. I used to believe that I should block off moments to execute a piece – short story, novel, essay. Ideas would bubble up under pressure, a form emerge, and the writing come together. External deadlines would help, and I should set up a calendar based on competitions and calls for stories.

Now, I write a page every day, and publish it myself. I have no further goal. This is not ‘a project’. Projects involve a tension, an anxiety. I imagine a future state where the piece is complete. I sense the future piece. I draft it in my head. I make a plan. I know where I’m going before I even start. In this new daily practice, I am not tensing towards a future. I am present.

Projects entail scarcity. I set a goal. Reaching it requires something I miss. I establish what that is, and I labour to get it. Daily practice engenders abundance. From hollow spaces in my day, I breed new thoughts, new sentences, new writing. Over time, they grow, fall, mingle, form a rich humus, where new flowers bloom, fast, rare, beautiful.

This requires trust. Trust in the process. Something will come. Not if I simply stand still and wait. I have to move, even without a clear end point. I listen to my internal rhythm, I follow my inner compass. Then I look back, and I understand.

This requires flexibility. Halfway through journey, I can change, take a turn, step aside, or jump. It is acceptable. Over time, through this daily repetition, I change.