Ashley Thomson is a freelance writer and editor living in Canberra, Australia. He worked as Editor-in-Chief of BMA Magazine from 2012 to early 2014 and is a regular panellist on Scissors Paper Pen’s local book review event ‘The Same Page’. His essays on the art of music journalism and life writ large have been published via numerous blogs and journals. He blogs for himself at aabthomson.wordpress.com.
My awakenings have been as plentiful and prosaic as anyone’s; alone they are snowflakes and echoes. Revealed in sets, they unmask the avalanches they started, and I consider myself lucky that the topographical changes wreaked by these avalanches have left me better equipped to interact positively with the world.
I think this is the case for most of us: awakeness stems from series of minor awakenings, things that are external, obvious and luminous one moment, absorbed, invisible, even forgotten the next. They are transitory but, if we’re lucky and attentive, compounding. The compounds they form are the stuff of people.
For instance, I’m an atheist. The awakenings that led me to understand not only that I am an atheist, but why I’m an atheist, went like this. At age twelve: my unreligious upbringing was fine, therefore life without religion can be fine. At fifteen: having studied religion, I’ve found no reason to adopt it as an adult. At twenty: I don’t know if there is a spiritual or godly presence, therefore no one else does. And at age twenty-three: I will choose to believe there are no gods because there is no evidence of gods.
All that took me almost twenty-four years, and that’s not to say it’s over. At times I aspired to other outcomes. Ages fifteen through twenty-two, I wrote the following on my life ‘to do’ list: at number one, ‘Read the Bible’; at number fifteen, ‘Try to find Jesus’; at number seventeen, ‘Pray (and mean it).’ Penned in different inks and years, the common denominator is they remain unchecked. I’ve had my doubts, but that’s the nature of awakenings: two steps forward, one something maybe. Awakenings are bidden as much as unbidden, falsified as much as genuine, pedestrian as much as profound, ignored as much as made mantras of, and if a single awakening should affect the behaviour of an individual for even one year, it’s been an extraordinary one.
A more scattershot set of awakenings led to my diet. Eight years as a vegetarian, a few as a pescetarian, and more than both as someone who either made no choices about their diet or a medley of them, led me to my own arrangement.
The first dietary awakening came when I was seven. I was on a school retreat at a yurt farm outside Goulburn, New South Wales. (I went to a rare school, one of Rudolf Steiner’s creations, until I was ten.) The caretakers at the farm took us to meet their sow; she had just had a litter of piglets. The sow was spreadeagled in the mud and the flurry of tumbling piglets were vying for a place at her teats. The man said, ‘We’re going to grow them up until they’re big and strong, just like their mother, and then we’re going to eat them.’ I cried for the next three days. The connection between meat and the splendid, unknowing vibrancy of life had been made firm.
When I went home, I insisted I was vegetarian. My parents insisted, with greater clout, that I would still eat white meat under their roof, but when I was thirteen I made the change completely, and stayed there until I was twenty-one.
When I was twenty-one, I was in a new country. Years had passed since that sow’s litter had outlived their mother and themselves been slaughtered, and I felt them acutely. I would never buy cage eggs but being vegetarian felt like an unfamiliar reflex. On my second day in the States, the two Angelenos who were to be my flatmates for the year took me to a Mexican food stand, Tito’s Tacos, in Culver City, Los Angeles. In Spanish, one of them ordered a beef burrito then asked me what I wanted. I asked, ‘Do they have anything vegetarian?’ The look he gave me was a memorable one. He said, ‘I don’t think so, man.’
Food is a cultural landmark, and in a country like the United States, where food and drink have taken on the status of a thousand micro-regional cults, I resolved not to alienate myself from it, if only for that year. I realised that doing so would colour my perception of the places I went, even subtly divorce me from them. I ordered and ate a beef burrito, and ate whatever I wanted for the year that I was there. The meals that followed this would also make plain my innate omnivorousness.
My third awakening came when I was studying in the Canary Islands to become a Divemaster. It was a three-month internship with a dive centre on Gran Canaria. During it I came into contact with divers who’d been travelling the world, dive site to dive site, for almost fifty years. Their prognosis was bleak. Every dive site in the world, they said, had undergone massive degradation; ocean warming and acidification, pollutants and rampant overfishing were to blame. It was the fishing, they said, that you noticed most; sites that used to teem were ghostly.
We would have conversations like this at the centre, overlooking the town’s harbour. Every season, said the owner, fishermen would flock to the town and take to sea to catch migrating bluefin tuna. For weeks, every day, every boat would come back loaded with the giant fish, some fully two metres in length, strung up on hooks by their tails. I saw that the tinned salmon and tuna, the smoked oysters and sushi rolls I’d convinced myself were nutritionally justified, were the furthest thing from it.
My fourth and final awakening also had its roots in the United States, although it didn’t come to fruition until recently. I had the pleasure of being a houseguest a number of times whilst in the States, and my hosts were uniformly and especially giving. From Tijuana to San Diego to Seattle to New York to Los Angeles, I was treated like a beloved son. The pleasure my hosts took in their guests’ pleasure in their food was a glow over meals. Even having travelled more than my fair share, this struck me. Consequently, earlier this year, still working through the moral and nutritional nuts and bolts of my diet, I resolved to eat anything put in front of me by a host. It is a show of such subtle, elegant, resonant gratitude and respect that I cannot undervalue it.
So, finally, I am an amalgam. I will not eat unsustainably or cruelly fished seafood. I will eat chicken, but only verified free range. And beyond that, I do not eat meat, because it is cruel, wildly unsustainable or both. The only exception, my golden rule, is that I will eat whatever I am served by my hosts.
Mignon McLaughlin wrote, ‘A successful marriage requires falling in love many times,’ and just as rediscovered love is integral to successful relationships with others, innumerable awakenings are integral to the maintenance of an individual’s relationship with themselves. There is no Shangri-La, for love or ‘awakeness’.
Many awakenings, not one, are the root cause of newly formative behaviour. Psychologist, sociologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay suggested something similar in an interview with the ABC’s Natasha Mitchell. Mackay was being interviewed about his book The Good Life, in which he proposes a radical and refreshing redefinition of what we consider ‘good’. His means of attaining this goodness was through what you might call accumulated awakening:
‘We are wonderfully complex creatures who are utterly selfish and utterly unselfish, who are capable of heroic acts of altruism, as well as just ordinary, everyday acts of altruism. We’re also capable of violence; we murder each other, we rape, we pillage. So we do wonderful things and we do appalling things because we are all these things potentially, and the question is, what will we nurture? What will we reinforce?’
It is not that awakenings are insignificant, then. Rather that the sum of our awakenings, what we nurture and reinforce, determines our ongoing degree of awakeness. And everyone’s version of awakeness is their own.
At a lecture for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman proposed the following: ‘that by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world.’ It’s a wonderful distinction – ourselves and, ourselves in – because so often our external relationships dwarf our relationship with ourselves, and it is the self that serves as Kaufman’s building block. ‘Living beings’ is another, because it doesn’t specify humankind. But there is also hesitation – ‘a change can begin to happen’ – and that is where Kaufman’s words truly hit the mark.
A smart optimist knows the bounds within which they hope, for knowing the practicalities of your desires makes them more achievable. Just the same, a self-aware individual knows not only what resides within them, but why it resides there, and over time this leads to something with which they may feel confident and comfortable. Not a label, an identity. Not a contract, an understanding. Not absolutes or compromises, but choices, many of them.
When there is so much about which to feel wrongheaded, only continuing to ‘fall in love’ with yourself, to rediscover what you think when the opportunity presents itself, is ever going to set you, in your own way, right.
Image: Arian Attar