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December 17, 2002
The Tao of Blackburn
My clearest memory of Blackburn is of arriving back there in the middle of the night. I'd been away for a year or more and had just flown in from London. I shared a taxi from Tullamarine with someone who lived a few streets away. We arrived at her house and I walked the last few hundred metres back home.
After the taxi pulled away, I was suddenly struck by the total lack of sensory input. I was in the bellbird area, which meant that there were no footpaths and no streetlights. The place was so completely silent that, for one perverse moment, I feared for my safety. There were trees everywhere, but no wind to rustle them. No cars drove, no dogs barked, no bellbirds sang. Blackburn seemed very deeply asleep. That's how I remember it, and how I remember my life there: a deep, ongoing sleep.
At the time, in my brief moments of waking, the sleeping world around me made me furious. When I was seventeen, I believed that the world owed me an interesting life. The drowsy streets of Blackburn, however, blocked my view of it, and I, an annoyed, frustrated teenager, was not pleased.
But time goes on, and then it goes on some more. And just when you get used to this arrangement, the sequels start. And eventually you arrive where you began, as T.S. Eliot said, and know the place for the first time. But even this knowledge fades, because still time moves forward.
Blackburn is where I grew up. It's a leafy suburb in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. It has two features of interest: a lake and a mountain. Unfortunately, the lake is tiny, barely more than an ambitious puddle, and the mountain is so small it's effectively invisible. In fact, it's not even a mountain. It's just a grassy slope, a minor dent, a gesture. On top of it is a monastery and a cricket oval. Neither ever attracted a crowd. I'd often walk up to the oval, the family dog in tow, and sit below the lone gum tree on Bedford Street. I'd look out over the landscape of trees, and plan elaborate strategies of escape. I called this tiny hill "Mount Box Hill South." As far as I know, I'm the only person, alive or dead, who has ever done that.
The most appealing walk in the area follows Gardiner's Creek from the lake to the mountain. Along the way are two busy roads, but once they've been left behind, tranquility returns. Parts of this walk have a curious effect on the imagination. You can get a glimpse of what the place was like before the houses were built, before the cars and driveways arrived, before boredom took these gentle hills. Blackburn, it seems, gradually formed around a piece of wilderness, and somehow a tiny piece of that wilderness remains. Even now I'd like to live in a garden, near a river, and be able to walk to a writing desk without seeing a car. It's a very Blackburn ambition.
The local Sorbonne
Blackburn also had one other, much less well known attraction. Incredible as it may seem, this complacent, comfortable suburb had a French Quarter.
Blackburn's French Quarter was my room. On one wall was a jigsaw puzzle of Notre Dame Cathedral, and below it was a bookshelf, known to the Blackburn cognoscenti as "The Sorbonne." For a few minutes in the late seventies, I even considered wearing a beret. But the seventies weren't a good time to wear a beret. The seventies weren't a good time for many things, at least for me, and mainly because I spent them in Blackburn.
One of my early escape attempts took me to the exotically named Nunawading. Nunawading's name was the only exotic thing about Nunawading. It was right next door to Blackburn, so in many ways it was just like Blackburn, only more so. It's a place of furniture warehouses and car lots. It has no mountain and no lake. Nunawading makes a pointless waste of time look like a real place. It doesn't even have a French Quarter. It has a Blackburn Quarter. The unpleasant irony is that Nunawading's Blackburn Quarter is actually Blackburn.
The art of leaving, and leaving again
Eventually, of course, I left Blackburn for good. And when I left, I really left. Leaving was so liberating that I kept repeating the experience. Wherever I went, whatever I did, I'd leave. Moving house became my career. Whenever something bad happened, I'd move. Whenever something good happened, I'd move. If I woke up and the sky was clear, or the sky was overcast, or the sky was still there, I'd move. I became a skilled practitioner of this subtle art.
Part of the motivation was fear of Blackburn, fear of complacency, fear of stillness. Staying in one place seemed boring. For a long time, all I could remember of Blackburn was a vague, ongoing feeling of despair and outrage. I'm from Blackburn, I'd say, as if admitting that I enjoyed sitting on a pile of manure, proudly waving at passersby. Once I started running from Blackburn, I kept running. I write these words in Yackandandah, hundreds of kilometres away. Still running.
Taoism is a religion of the natural world. It's about living in harmony with the elements, and balance and flow. And, like the creek that runs through its centre, Blackburn flows. It doesn't flow very fast, and it doesn't flow in a spectacular way, but it flows all the same. By the time I flowed through Blackburn, and arrived somewhere else, Blackburn had well and truly flowed through me. If there's something of the Tao in that, then so be it. If there's nothing of the Tao in that, then so be it also.
As a teenager, I wasn't interested in Taoism. What I wanted was Zen: a clear target to aim for, discipline, focus. All of these were unavailable in the Zen-free streets of Blackburn. I wandered forever through a leafy suburb, locked in a futile search for sudden enlightenment. It took a long time to stop noticing the absence of Zen and to start noticing what was there.
What was there was a lake, a mountain, a walk between them. As a teenager, it wasn't enough. As an adult, I can see that it was better than growing up in Nunawading. At any rate, much time has passed. Sequels have come and gone, and more time approaches. My fear of Blackburn, and my anger towards it, have changed. As the years have passed, they somehow turned into a few grains of compassion, a glimmer of clarity. For this is the Tao of Blackburn: anger and fear may fade, but the lake and the mountain remain.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 03:14 AM in the Reflective category | Comments (6)
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