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A farewell and the human need for ritual

As you prepare to return to China you seek a farewell ritual. As always, you are drawn to amazing hikes through unspoilt forest regions right where you live in Auckland, New Zealand.

It’s unbelievable that you live in the biggest city in New Zealand, and yet, in half an hour’s walk, you can be sitting on a cliff and nestling next to a murmuring pine tree overlooking a marsh. And the scenery is as it was a thousand years ago.

Given to meditation the way a duck takes to water, here you open to a deeper, geological time, which has more to do with space — the textures of bark, water, stone and nodding pine cones — than with the ticking handcuffs strapped to our wrists. Like most people, you are prone to stress. And the government of New Zealand has not been kind in that regard; though you “qualify” for permanent residence you remain in an indefinite queue. Oh dear.

But here, above the marsh draining into the ocean, there are no people. The sounds you could not hear before, because of the din of city streets, well up. These sounds are shy creatures; their elven hands seek to lay healing hands on eyes, ears and skin. Perhaps the first to nod discreetly and enter this space is the needlework of leaves: complex and stately as Chinese calligraphy. Many Mandarin characters are ancient pictures filled with symbolism, some half-forgotten. They are impractical in a world of instant communication so reliant on the simple alphabet. One pictogram for forest is:


Welcome to shu lin, a miniature of the shadowy outline granted to a clutch of trees.

A tweedling is ushered in. Strange calls from birds whose names you do not wish to know as those fluttering bits of feather and glitter were here long before humans and words with their burden of history and heartache barged in: the language of war and lies, colonialism and expropriation.

Your breathing becomes a heard sound: the treasure chest of lungs bringing back into the self the life it always gives back:

Say hello to an, the character for peace. In the upper part of the pictogram is a roof, above the abstract of a kneeling woman. A person secure in the shelter of a home. Anji, the silence says. Be at peace. History did it again: the an in “Tiananmen Square” twisted around with a new, brutal register in our collective memory.

Nevertheless … below are still the pursed lips of this marsh, salted with the clouds above. A massive, spreading tablecloth is noticed; on the opposite shore the woods, shu lin, go sshhhhhh and unfold in the waters, inviting you to communion. Hands to mouths, the evening stars open their eyes. Their reflections stare back up at you as the tides recede. And you recede.

This awareness gathers: that all the forest and marsh’s murmurs emerge and return to the silence. Man-made noise can never ever emerge from the stillness. That noise is perhaps

Sheng. Hard, scraping, sheng. The nail in the upper part of the character piercing the abstract of an ear. The emerging and returning ignites the old longing in you, that itch, to go back into the silence as well.

It was probably the scrape of your boot that brought you back from this reverie: another man-made sheng that does not come from the silence. Even the “chirr” made by those crickets among the pines rise and return to the quiet. Or was the sheng a childhood fear that someone is standing behind you as you squat deep in these remote woods?

You follow your footsteps home. Woods become paths, become small streets between houses and their evening odours: vegetables simmering in pans, the curry wafting from an oven. People, laughter, homes. An.

The thought of a home: it makes you blink and this “you” written here becomes an “I”, this me, again. A bald, stocky bloke “with hair in the wrong places”, as I’d chuckle to Marion.  “Yes, like on your back,” she’ll retort.

I amble “home” from the marsh down suburban streets, resisting the urge to look at the ticking handcuff on my wrist. And I marvel at the loss of ancient ritual: that which takes us to and fro in the silence, the ur-language of the world, here, always here, long before people came.

This I is petulant, needy. It looks at these empty, helpless hands which shine with a question stared at now for nearly seven years: “I have no country to belong to. Where can I belong?” Where can I belong, no longer be known as a foreigner, an alien? But now the question is no longer echoed from the old place of sadness. It is sung in astonishment.

  • This piece first appeared on the now defunct NewsTime in February 2011, just before we left New Zealand for China again. Along with other columns later on, I would like to give these pieces a more permanent home here on Thought Leader.