Questions I’ve Asked Myself: Jaye Kranz

Ahead of The Festival of QuestionsJaye Kranz contemplates actions, reactions, the examined life ... and a freezer full of dead birds.

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

When sleep-deprived, alone, hungry, steering an unreliable car in unfamiliar terrain and about to face an uncertain future, one can feel overwrought.

I was driving a 13-hour stretch from a northern New South Wales hill town to a property on the outskirts of Sydney, every car recess and hollow crammed with belongings. I’d left late in the day, planning to stay overnight at a small town that could serve up a square meal; the kind of place that sported at least one inviting, warmly lit VACANCY sign abutting a single-story orange brick seventies-era motel.

I asked the question repeatedly. I stopped feeling vexed about the birds ... The matter was settled, between me and me

Hour wheeled over hour. No such place materialised. I missed turn-offs, vagued on signs, catching only a prevailing sense of road-sign green.

What to do?

The answer seemed to suggest it was time for a stiff turn in my life. I could begin to chart a new course, right now, without altering my driving route more than a few metres. A series of brightly lit cuboids came into view. In one involuntary motion, my right arm took charge, swung the steering wheel to the left, and delivered me to the nexus of all roadside hexahedrons: the McCafé parking bay.

I hadn’t had a coffee in seven years. Ditto sugar, dairy or wheat. I last pulled up by the light of the golden arches before I could legally drive.

I ordered a double-shot latte, a cheeseburger and an apple pie.

My situation improved after that. I arrived at my destination at 6am. A straight run. The road from A to B had never seemed so breezy.

Back then, questions and answers seemed to move in harmonious choreography. A finely cadenced combination routine; a single gambol from one to the other. Over the years, however, the chasm seems to have swelled; answers trail a distance behind questions. Somewhere, the process of bridging the divide became convoluted. Limbs tangled. The choreography descended into a lamentable freeform.

Sometimes, even the leap from question to answer was a bridge too far, and no answer would follow at all. I was asking questions of seemingly greater significance, seemingly more often than ever before, leaving a growing number of them hanging, nimbus-like. I was creating my own private microclimate. Each unanswered question like a rain cloud threatening rain, but always withheld. Just looming – all of them. The effect was dilatory. Things of utmost importance were being made to linger.

Then came the free gym trial.

I signed in at my local gym on a recent Thursday morning, redeemed my single-use voucher, had a fray with the turnstile and tried out the rowing machine. I’d never sat at a rowing machine before. The mechanics involved a large, clear cylinder full of water – presumably to evoke the physics, and peace, of a turn on the lake.

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

It was distracting. As you pulled the lever toward you, it set the water into a frenzy, accompanied by a loud, swishing sound. Newton’s third law of motion has a symmetry to it: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; you move the water backwards with your oar, and this propels the boat forward. This machine was a more abstract take on the physics, but it conveyed the core principle of transferring momentum from body to water.

Fortunately, I could still make out the podcast interview I was listening to over the sloshing. In my headphones, the poet David Whyte was extrapolating on the work of another poet, John O’Donohue. He was talking, in particular, about O’Donohue’s notion of shaping a beautiful mind.

We might foster a beautiful mind, Whyte was suggesting, by asking beautiful questions. He said, ‘The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life’.

I was intrigued by this idea and pleased, too, that it gave me cause to stop rowing, unlock my phone and punch in my own, clipped note to self:

in narrow times ask beautiful questions don’t do anything about it just do it keep asking soon shape a different life have conversations that lead you direction never seen before

I declined the gym membership but decided to trial Whyte’s idea. Perhaps I simply wasn’t asking the right questions. The exercise also appealed because there seemed to be no requirement around answers. If the question was beautiful enough, it seemed to suggest, the rest would take care of itself.

I decided to begin the exercise on a small scale, starting with the first question, however prosaic, that popped into my head that day whilst wafting through the house (with a view to extending the exercise further, in scale and import, results pending).

If the question lacked beauty, I would pose another, more beautiful one in its stead.

If the question lacked beauty, I would pose another, more beautiful one in its stead

Question One: Must I put up with a freezer full of dead birds?

My partner had been amassing a festive array of dead birds, sealing them in two layers of zip-lock bags, and stacking them delicately in our freezer so as not to crush the plumage or upset the bird’s final resting pose. She is a painter, and for a time exhibited a body of work featuring decaying fruits and dead birds – low-lit chiaroscuros set against dark backgrounds; quiet, glowing paeans to life and loss, finitude and sad beauty.

She restricted her bird collecting to those with no visible wounds, no surface blood and preferably those which, from all available evidence, had died recently, showing no obvious signs of decay. In other words, dead birds in good cosmetic condition. She’d spot them on highways. ‘There!’ I’d jerk into the emergency lane or we’d wait for the next U-turn crossing, double back, then double back again, scouring the blacktop for the tousled feathers.

If it had only been clipped by a car, it was usually fit for the freezer. Others had struck windows with too much force. Some seemed like they had fallen from the sky unscathed; baffling, immaculate deaths. Others were phoned in by friends, awaiting relocation from their freezer to ours.

The Sanyo bar freezer was able to accommodate a pink-chested galah, a wattle bird, a magpie, an eastern rosella, two species of sparrow, two species of dove, a green parrot, a few unidentified grey-brown varieties and a striated pardalote.

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

I had no truck with this while she was painting the series, but years later, it was becoming a point of contention. There was no room in the freezer for anything else. When I hit my head on a redwood beam, lacking ice of any kind, I held the bagged, frozen magpie to my head. When we moved house, the freezer was last in the truck and first out, plugged in before the birds were long defrosted.

I had begun to resent this privation. I wanted ice cubes, ice cream, freezer packs and food I could defrost when I was feeling sorry for myself. I wanted very cold gin. I would mention these things. She would concede that these were indeed things worth aspiring to, then delay, concluding with her desire to keep the birds a little longer, for when she returned to painting.

This would repeat, year upon year.

I decide to reframe Question One along Whyte’s lines. After a few homely attempts, I arrive at:

Question One, Mark Two: When it’s all said and done, will anything frozen ever have thawed the winter of the soul, the way a thing of poetic beauty might?

I ask the question repeatedly. I stop feeling vexed about the birds. I realise I’m content to forego the ice cream. The matter is settled, between me and me. I stop mentioning the subject. And, as per Whyte’s instruction, I ‘don't do anything about it’.

After what has been a hiatus of three years, my partner starts painting again.

She has settled on a new subject. It might be coincidental, but I wonder if my relinquishing loosened her hold on the birds. Or their hold on her. I come home one afternoon, and she has buried most of the birds in the park and thrown the rest in Tuesday night’s rubbish. (She regrets the latter: ‘I logically know they’re dead but I still feel bad about it.’) She has bought red rubber ice cube trays and first-aid frozen gel packs; peas and ice cream.

That night – before sleep, after hours in her studio and now very much spent – she falls on the bed, lies on her back with the dog at her side, and tells me she’s been thinking today about ‘Sailing To Byzantium’ by William Butler Yeats. She whispers a line or two to me, to the dog or to the ceiling: ‘Consume my heart away; sick with desire and fastened to a dying animal … gather me into the artifice of eternity.

I make no mention of being fastened to dead animals.

She talks about how Yeats, now in his dotage, wants to eschew ‘sensual things’ for Byzantium – the eternal, the spiritual, art. ‘He wants to become Byzantium,’ she says, ‘instead of becoming one of those dying things. But I don’t agree.'

Which is why she’s now painting an 18th-century Persian vessel, and hopes to add something from nature to the composition. She plans to go back out to the studio tonight, she says, and continue painting. She’s reinvigorated. She has paint on her fingers, nails and nose.

‘I feel like he places a higher order on those things’, she continues. ‘Of course there are ever-enduring works of art, but there’s beauty in the ephemeral too, and the very nature of being human is ephemeral. It defines us, even if we don’t like to think it does. That’s why I’m interested in juxtaposing something made by human hands that I find beautiful, with something natural that is, by definition, dying.’

She then mentions the poem 'To Autumn', Keats’s ode to mortality, as if it’s the logical antidote, the other half of the picture.

The dog nuzzles into her. She mumbles scraps of stanzas: ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness …’ There’s a long pause before ‘plump the hazel shells with a sweet kernel …’ After one last half-pat on the dog’s flank and ‘to set budding more and still more …’, she falls asleep.

I go outside to close her studio door. Before switching off the lights, I see a new painting in the works: a dimly glowing receptacle at the far end of the studio, with room in the frame for something else.

I return to the kitchen. Tomorrow I will ask another question. Then another. I will row, one to the next. Whether by Newtonian symmetry or by some physics more abstract, momentum will shift from body to water. The rain clouds might give. Somewhere between Byzantium and a sweet, ripe kernel.

But now I will eat ice cream.   

  

  

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

Illustration: Connor Tomas O'Brien

  


  

The Festival of Questions, on Sunday 15 October, is one full day of thoughtful, quick-witted and exhilarating discussions at Melbourne Town Hall.

Portrait of Jaye Kranz

Jaye Kranz is a Melbourne-based writer, documentary radio producer and musician. 

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