How to be a Hermit

Are you haunted by the prospect of social interaction? Does the very thought of navigating supermarket aisles fill you with exhaustion? Are you repelled by the idea of head-banging to riotous music in a dark and sweaty stadium? In the cacophonous hustle and bustle of the 21st century, it’s no wonder many folks shun the maelstrom of modernity and head off into the wilderness for a little peace and quiet. Whether you are considering a life of prayer and penitence, or merely seeking haven from the incessant demands of social media, the eremitic life is for you.

A hermit is a person who lives in seclusion from society. Would-be hermits (including myself) are a minority amid the sassy, gregarious crowds of modern society. The eremitic life is excellent for achieving inner peace, insight, spiritual guidance and renewed creativity. Indeed, the value of solitude is evident in all realms of life; Darwin escaped to the woods for hours and emphatically refused dinner party invitations, while Theodor Geisel (Dr Seuss) conjured up his fantastical creations in a lonely bell tower office, too afraid to meet the young children who read his books. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and Moses all experienced profound epiphanies in the wilderness, alone.

In considering the eremitic lifestyle, you should first study your personal reason for seeking solitude, from religious motivations to a desire for renewed creativity and spirituality. Secondly, you need to establish the degree of your solitude; will you burrow beneath a fort of blankets and pillows in your room or move to a cabin in the woods? Next, you should simplify your life: hurl that cellphone out the window, deactivate your Facebook account, twitter your goodbyes and throw your laptop in the washing machine. Stocking up on various necessities is preferable to suffering small talk in the supermarket, and unless you work from home, a considerable amount of money is required to sustain the eremitic lifestyle. Short of escaping to the legendary cave in the wilderness, taxes, student loans, electricity and water bills are inescapable.

Next, make sure your environment is as sustainable as possible; plant a garden, build an outhouse and invest in a bicycle. Now that you’re unlikely to be distracted by Facebook or the squalling cries of TV advertising, you will have plenty of time to develop new skills, so pick up a paintbrush, learn a foreign language, juggle or bake cupcakes. In all seriousness, learn to love yourself; you will have to get used to your own company from now on. Be wary of loneliness and if melancholy descends, don’t hesitate to reach out to like-minded people.

After reading this, you probably think that I’m a weird loner who insists on surviving in the wilderness on locusts, honey and God’s grace. I swear I’m not.  I am however a self-professed introvert who prefers the company of a good book to most people. Even if you cannot bring yourself to commit to a fully-fledged eremitic life, retreating occasionally from the responsibilities and entanglements of the world is very calming. So in the tradition of Obi-Wan Kenobi, John the Baptist and Noah John Rondeau, escape from society every so often and learn the benefits of being a hermit.

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Wandering home one evening from a particularly long day at university, I was almost run over by a pair of tousle-headed, half-washed, hoodie-wearing skateboarders, racing pell-mell down Castle St. Indignantly extracting myself from a rather thorny hedge, I caught a snippet of their conversation: “Your new board is wicked, man!” Was the skateboard in question an evil or nefarious sentient being? No; as far as I could tell, its claim to wicked was due to its brightly emblazoned deck, slick bearings and exceptional speed.

Wicked is one of those curiously enigmatic words that encompass a variety of meanings. Firstly, it may be used in reference to someone who is evil or villainous, such as our favourite fiery Dark Lord, Sauron. Wicked may also be interpreted as meaning ‘playful’ or ‘enjoyably malicious’ – a person may have a “wicked sense of humour”. Alternatively, wicked may mean something that, while not actively malicious, is still rather unpleasant. For example, when deprived of caffeine and sleep, I am known to possess a “wicked temper”. Finally, wicked has recently been appropriated as an informal slang term meaning ‘excellent’, as in the case of our two scruffy skateboarders.

Wicked derives from the Old English term wicca, which means “male witch” or “to bend easily”. In the 13th century, British candle makers used to twist their wicks before they dipped them into the candle wax, thereby ensuring that the wax adhered to the wick. The term wicked therefore came to connote ‘twisted’. Indeed, according to the Bible, wicked indicates a twisting or perversion of the righteous: “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled” (Colossians 1:21 KJV). Additionally, witchcraft was believed to be of the devil and therefore was heavily stigmatised throughout history.

Common to slang is the inversion of meaning, so that seemingly negative words become terms of approval. Connoting various forms of maliciousness from the 13th century, the inverted use of wicked was inspired when U.S Black English adopted the ironical use of ‘bad’ as meaning ‘good’ in the late 1880s. Wicked was first used in a positive sense in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920 novel This Side of Paradise: “‘Tell ‘em to play “Admiration”!’ shouted Sloane. ‘Phoebe and I are going to shake a wicked calf.’” Wicked was soon adopted by the British youth culture in the 1980s, spreading to become a globally used term.

Wicked has also given rise to a number of phrases, such as “No rest for the wicked”, usually uttered by weary-eyed, coffee slurping university students halfway through a lab report at two o’clock in the morning. This idiom is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek expression referring to the eternal torment of Hell that awaits sinners, and unsurprisingly derives from the Bible, specifically Isaiah 48:22: “‘There is no peace,’ says the Lord, ‘for the wicked.'”

There is evidently a trend towards the positive use of taboo and disquieting words within our society. In appropriating words that initially lack positive connotations (such as “sick” and “bad”) and inverting their meaning, we ensure that their usage is highly provocative. While a few old dears may persist in using wicked in the original sense (“You’ve been a wicked boy, Johnny!”) evidently the illicit thrill occasioned from using wicked in its complimentary sense is gaining momentum, much like the aforementioned wicked skateboard.

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Memories: The Mole at Aramoana

A handful of shells, three dusty pebbles and the salty sigh of the ocean breeze are all that remain of my childhood days at the Aramoana Mole. A favourite pastime of my well-meaning parents was to take our family on ‘tiki-tours’, or random explorations of the surrounding countryside. Living in Dunedin, I suppose it was only a matter of time before we ventured out into the frozen expanse of the Aramoana Mole. Swaddled up in a hectic assortment of scarves, hand-knitted jumpers and the odd rugby jacket, we headed out into the chilly unknown.

Originally called Cargill’s Pier, the Mole at Aramoana is an artificial rock wall that was constructed to prevent silting in the harbour entrance. Flanked by the skeletal wooden fingers of an old railway line, the mole extends for 1200 metres from Aramoana, keeping the channel clear through directed tidal jets. Aramoana (Maori for ‘pathway to the sea’) is a small coastal town which gained notoriety as the site of the country’s worst massacre, when in November 1990, a crazed resident named David Gray murdered thirteen people. After driving through this chillingly quiet town, it is a relief to reach the Mole. Despite the bitter wind, there is a certain peace here; a calming quality echoed in the shriek of the gulls and the pounding rhythm of the waves. The bitter legacy of David Gray cannot taint this wild place.

Despite protesting vehemently, I actually enjoyed our little excursions to the Mole. If I could ignore the biting wind and the odd urge to push my brother in to the surf, the Mole was quite compelling. Defying the pommelling gale, I would race my siblings to the very end, keeping a keen eye out for wildlife on the way (twenty points for a penguin, fifty points for a seal). Nothing could beat the heady thrill of excitement one felt when spotting a seal, or the brisk slap of the sea spray. Regardless of our parent’s anxious protests, my brother and I would climb to the very outermost rock, revelling in the delirious sense of vertigo. Under the purple skies, we challenged the tempestuous nature of the ocean.

Returning from the summery Coromandel to the great city of Dunedin last year, I felt compelled to visit the Mole. To me, the Mole at Aramoana is a last bastion of normality; a reminder of my careless childhood. With the pressing weight of responsibilities that come with growing up, returning to the Mole is reassuring, even if just to skim stones and count the odd seal.

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On Schadenfreude

Imagine, if you will, a cold, blustery day in the city. With the wind howling and the rain coming down in horizontal sheets, the interior of the bus seems positively luxurious. From your vantage point on the plush red seats, you watch as a bedraggled young man runs towards the bus stop, arms flailing and suitcase flying. Just as he reaches it however, the bus takes off, and he is left on the sidewalk; a profoundly disappointed and sopping figure. What’s that you feel; compassion? Empathy? No; instead, schadenfreude, that deliciously guilty, almost inhuman sense of glee at someone else’s misfortune.

          Schadenfreude is a loanword from German. Its literal translation being ‘Harm-Joy’, schadenfreude encapsulates perfectly that slight sense of elation one feels watching lost tourists reading maps, or stressed waitresses dropping warm soup into the lap of restaurant patrons. Tumbling ice-skaters, Kim Kardashian’s weight gain and news anchor gaffes are other instances in which one savours a gratifying sense of amusement. Schadenfreude differs from loathing or true malice in that it is not malevolent but rather mischievous in nature.  An expression with a similar meaning is Roman Holiday, derived from Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Here, an atmosphere of debauchery and sadistic delight is created when a gladiator in Ancient Rome expects to be ‘butchered to make a Roman holiday’.

According to the medieval church, ‘morose delectation’ (the Latin equivalent of schadenfreude) was a grave sin, and indeed the Book of Proverbs warns us: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth.” Why then are we thus inclined? A number of scientific studies of schadenfreude are based on the social comparison theory proposed by Leon Festinger, which claims that when those around us encounter bad luck, we appear better to ourselves. In keeping with this theory, it has been found that people with low self-esteem are more likely to feel schadenfreude than people with high self-esteem are.

         Schadenfreude, like every emotion, has the tendency to range in intensity from the benign to the outrageous. Perhaps the most harmless example of schadenfreude is the tendency to giggle when someone slips on ice. Personally, while I like to think of myself as being generally above evil intentions and pure malice, I do savour the slight amusement derived from watching my brother walk into a glass door. Far more chilling however are the more serious examples of schadenfreude: the insatiable curiosity we have for bad news in the media. Events such as fraud, embezzlement, shootings, earthquakes and tsunamis evoke within us an avid fascination, and perhaps a sense of relief that we’re not the ones suffering. While an admirable few might turn away, many watch the sad exploitation of others’ suffering from the happy comfort of their living room, unthinking, uncaring.

Although the English language does not have a word for it, schadenfreude is undoubtedly an emotion we recognise. While schadenfreude is deeply repressed within our culture for its primitive and often cruel nature, one might argue that increased awareness of schadenfreude will help us to be more compassionate and sensitive. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, “To feel envy is human, to savour schadenfreude is devilish.” In the case of a cream-pie to the face, devilishly satisfying, perhaps.

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Tattoo: The Marriage of Ink and Skin

“Show me a man with a tattoo and I’ll show you a man with an interesting past.” 
― Jack London

After a particularly rebellious morning involving  blue hair dye, a brand new nose piercing and the purchase of a pair of black leather platform boots, I found myself in the parlour of rather dingy tattoo studio. Flicking through pages of garishly coloured rose and skull designs, the cocktail of exhilaration and shame within my stomach soon proved too overwhelming, and I shamefacedly ducked out of the store. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it’s an indelible one on your body. From the flamboyant designs of the fin de siècle ‘circus freaks’ to the sprawling technicolour cherry blossoms of the Yakuza, tattooing is an ever-evolving, enigmatic and fascinating art form.

As indicated by the recent discovery of bone tattoo tools and pigments in a cave in France, humanity’s fascination with tattooing goes as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic Era. Ötzi the Iceman, a crusty mummy from the European Bronze Age represents one the first examples of tattooing. Believed to be Europe’s oldest mummy, this fantastically flaky creature was decorated with a virtual plethora of stripes, lines and cruciform marks. Considered a barbaric form of mutilation by Europeans for years, tattoos were reintroduced to the British upper-class by Captain Cook, who returned from Polynesia with a marvellously tattooed individual named Omai.

In the mid nineteenth century, tattoos were the fodder of carnival freak shows; sticky, popcorn covered children and their incredulous parents would flock to the circus to gawk at the ‘Amazing Tattooed Lady’. Briefly in vogue, ethnic tattoos among the late nineteenth-century upper-class symbolised great travel and worldliness on the part of the bearer. In the early twentieth century, tattoos were associated with the Navy and were not stigmatised. During the 1950s however, tattoos became associated with the criminal sphere, being seemingly indicative of outlaw bikers, social outcasts and the mentally ill. The ‘tattoo renaissance’ of the 1970s was due in part to improved hygiene regulation and the popularity of Polynesian and Oriental designs amongst the free spirited, flower power hippies. Once a blatant sign of rebellion and counterculture, inked skin now meets our eyes at every turn, on professional athletes, Hollywood’s darlings and even the odd university professor.

Tattoos may serve a variety of purposes, functioning as symbols of religious or spiritual devotion, marks of status or fertility, rites of passage, or decorations for bravery. New Zealand has a rich history of tattooing, especially so with ta moko, traditional Maori tattooing. According to Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, “Ta moko … is about who we are, and whom we come from. It is about where we are going, and how we choose to get there. And it is about for always, forever.” Worn as an expression of integrity, Maori identity and prestige, whakapapa and history, ta moko is believed to encapsulate one’s tapu, or spiritual being. Declining during the 20th century, ta moko has been revived as an important art form in recent times, worn as an expression of cultural pride and integrity. In my opinion, ta moko is an exceptionally beautiful and intricate art form that deserves recognition and respect for its cultural significance.

From Ancient Greece to Nazi Germany, tattoos have also been employed as a form of control over the body by the state. Adopted by the Greeks, Romans and Japanese as a punitive or proprietary action, messages such as “Stop me, I’m a runaway” and “Tax Paid” were often tattooed on the foreheads of slaves. Perhaps the most horrendous use of tattooing occurred during the Second World War, when Nazis forcibly tattooed inmates of Auschwitz in 1941 in order to identify the bodies of the registered prisoners. Nazi Germany also utilised tattoos in that SS blood group tattoos were worn by members of the Waffen-SS to identify the individual’s blood type. Ironically, these markers were used after the war as evidence of being part of the Waffen-SS, leading to arrest and prosecution in many cases.

As a form of body modification, tattooing exemplifies resistance to a culture that has commodified the body. A person’s body functions as both a symbolic representation of cultural values and an expression of individual beliefs. Skin is a medium that signifies race, gender and age; it is the intermediate between the social and the self, between personal choice and cultural inscription. Cultural stereotypes have long dictated that tattoos are marks of shame worn only by criminals, fugitives or those fallen from social grace. Indeed, Leviticus 19:28 states that: “Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh for the dead, nor print any marks upon you.” Tattoos therefore are historically perceived as the embodiment of a person’s inability to conform to the prevailing social norms, values and beliefs, as exemplified by the history of Tahitian tattoos. Prior to the colonisation of Tahiti, tattooing was a means of manipulating the level of tapu, or noa, that divided society, allowing individuals from different genders, age and classes to interact.  With the arrival of missionaries in the 1880s, tattooing became denigrated and ultimately prohibited. This art form lay dormant until the cultural revitalisation movement of the late 20th century, when it became a form of expressing a connection with the traditional culture. Indeed, many Tahitians proudly reappropriated the tattoo as a symbol of “otherness” and defiance of French Colonialism.

Consideration of the varying perception and acceptance of tattoos allows for a greater understanding of the cyclical nature of values within societies. Most tattoos possess great significance to the bearer, from a commemoration of a friend or loved one to an affirmation of cultural or tribal identity. Personally, I have no objection to tattoos; indeed, they can be a remarkably beautiful art form. The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” also rings true for tattoos; we should maintain open-mindedness regarding the character of a person, regardless of the ink on their skin.

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