I was sitting in the open air cafe of the Museum for the Contemporary Arts in Sydney this week when I saw her. I wasn’t particularly people-watching, but when you’re facing the Opera House and someone walks across your line of view, well… That’s what happened.
By the way, the coffee was good, if you wondered. What’s more, the screen glare from the morning sun was just a bit too much to be doing anything that involved an actual deadline. So I sat, happily, doing nothing much else but thinking that the Museum reminds me of the Arnolfini in Bristol where I’ve been an exhibitions assistant in the past. It also reminded me of some English Language studies I did a few years ago that included ethnography with a focus on Australia. Fascinating – and sobering. So much in my life feels like it’s about exploring domination and liberation. Amid the various disasters and distractions in the world, the survival of each unique divinely human spark of identity and vitality feels to me like oxygen for a second wind; door keys to new worlds. Those kind of themes seem to run through everything I have passion and faith for. It feels to me like a strong part of our vision in the Way Station, which tends to be foremost in my thinking at the moment.
And so, sitting there, agenda-free, but with those things in my mind, I noticed her. Tall, hiding a female figure under quite a few layers of dark clothes, round sunglasses, and shortish hair that was dyed gothic black. My eyes didn’t follow her as she walked past me, but my imagination did.
She seemed to be pre-occupied and a bit downcast, but perhaps that reflection was my own memory. My mind flicked back to moments building up to my trip, when I was wondering what to wear. After all, you can’t come from the UK to Australia and not expect at least double the heat and sunshine can you? And as the temperature when I left Heathrow was a pretty unbearable 81 degrees or so, I’d been bracing myself, and working hard to avoid my usual safely anonymous, colourless wardrobe. Yet here, out in the bright Australian sun was someone draped in unapologetic black, with maybe a hint of bottle green, right here on the aspirational 4th floor, in full view of the Sydney Opera House – dark layers and all. Fair play.
I was reassured to be honest. But then a few moments later as she walked out of sight, I saw her shoes, and that was head-jarring. The whole scene changed. This was no longer someone championing anonymity and invisibility. On her feet were perfectly new, vibrantly golden trainers that sparkled in the sunshine like a diva warming up her vocals to take centre stage under some Wagnerian spotlight across the road…
Cognitive dissonance. It’s that moment when you get a nose to nose encounter with something contradictory to your normal understanding. It cannot be true, and yet it is, and as a result everything else that used to be obvious suddenly needs adjusting. It’s when you encounter someone who fits one particular box in your head, and then your mind gets blown wide open, and the boxes with it. It can leave you with a bit of a holistic clean up job afterwards because of all the subtle and nuanced ways it floors your previously fixed and inflexible ideas about the world, and teaches them a lesson they can’t forget.
My own word for cognitive dissonance is a ‘head-jarring’ moment. I think that comes from a thread of memory I have that involved a jar of nails.
In early childhood I would walk hand-in-hand on a regular basis into an old fashioned DIY/hardware shop with my dad. Dave’s DIY had been there for 20 years or more. This local Aladdin’s cave was actual Heaven for shed-building, household-maintenance spontaneous-woodworking-creative-enthusiasts like my dad. So I always brimmed with his excitement as we walked in together on a mission. Fluorescent strip lights lit the ceiling, even in the daylight, just in case. A fully powered-up electric heater stood warmly on an angle to the side, its glowing red rings reminding me of the one we’d always have to turn off to save money at home. Old, unboxed stock was crammed onto crowded rows of long wooden shelving. Eclectic, outdated parts stored as replacement fittings for the full range of domestic appliances, even those no longer sold. Several shop assistants wandered, sweeping, straightening boxes, advising customers expertly on their various construction projects. It was a fully-staffed and customer-friendly goldmine.
And I remember clearly one day, amid that dusty but richly-rewarding late 1970s retail backdrop, we walked up to the counter, and asked for just four 2-inch nails. Dave nodded immediately and chatted to Dad about the project in progress like a friend who felt the spark. He walked behind to a large glass jar. Unscrewed it. Counted them out carefully – 1, 2, 3, 4 nails. Then he whipped a paper bag from the string, and with his rough workman’s hands dropped them inside casually, still chatting, laughing. He closed it with intention, the open end folded over on the desk and creased several times to stop the four loose nails from getting lost. Then the sale was completed through the tall levers of the mechanical cash register, and the tiny but essential package handed over with a receipt, so we could get back and build the next part.
The cost was 7p.
7p? Surely the bag cost at least half of that.
My head jarred with that thought. Seriously.
It showed me how much greater value I placed on the four nails experience than the price tag suggested I should.
Not long after that time, Trojans took over from Dave’s DIY. There, the young temporary assistants only knew from a chart which featureless numbered aisle in the planet-sized warehouse to point you to. Nails? Down there. We located them: 3 inch, 4 inch.. who uses 6 inch nails legitimately nowadays, I wondered, suspiciously remembering Easter, and deciding that Dave’s DIY would never have sold those kind of nails. These nails were different. Hanging on hooks, plastic-wrapped in packs of 20 for £2.80 that couldn’t be split. The concept of buying just four nails was amusing nowadays, we learned. But they pointed out that Trojans also sold large transparent perspex storage units with drawers for housing your extra 16 nails, ready for next time. No banter at the tills. I wished for the ghost of Dave’s eyebrows to be raised with delight at hearing we were building a whole treehouse from free pallet wood. But no. That shop was closed. No conversation at all. Just the beep of electric tills and the jingle of too many nails in a stiff plastic box that swung heavy in the carrier bag, like dutiful sharp-ended silver soldiers about to go on duty for a cause they didn’t understand or care much about. Getting back in the car, Dad muttered that, never mind standardised perspex, he’d design and build his own wooden storage unit for nails, and screws. And hinges. And tools. His workshop nowadays looks like Dave’s DIY did once upon a time.
Later in my life, cognitive dissonance was summed up in a phrase I love, and which I encountered during those English Language studies I mentioned. The researcher was talking about how successful writers who communicate with personality and energy know how to ‘subvert the reader’s collocational expectations.’ (It’s a mouthful, but what a great phrase if you ever need to refer to ‘head-jarring’ under exam conditions.)
And that gets me thinking. As if writers in the story of our own lives, we have the permission, even the responsibility, to embody our authenticity and honesty in ways that will allow the world to see what we’re made of. It’s not about playing it safer, so that we’re easily read, digested and forgotten. Never misunderstood, or surprising. If we’re doing it properly, I think perhaps our everyday lives will sometimes involve some head-jarring moments of cognitive dissonance for others, and (just maybe) that’s a good thing.
Wearing our gold shoes stops the world in its tracks. It’s only too easy to look at the distractingly negative aspects of our lives, and style ourselves according to that reductive stereotype; living down to the plastic-wrapped, laughter-free label you may feel has been lumped upon you for convenience. The fear of overstepping our pay grade can get us hiding all the props and conversation topics that release joy and energy, carefully trying to avoid subverting anyone’s collocational expectations – as if head-jarring is only permitted for celebrities, the media, world leaders, and fictional characters. And Dave, who absolutely nailed it in terms of customer service.
All this reminds me that I have a few pairs of gold shoes of my own. (Metaphorical ones.) I also have diamond shoes, come to that, as well as walking boots that I’ve worn to trek the entire distance of the Kalahari Desert (metaphorically). I often prefer bare feet though, because its free and honest and grounded. But once I sang and played guitar in church in bare feet and was told it was not ladylike so I put my shoes back on and felt a bit apologetic ever since. But the Way Station is a place for shoes and feet of all sorts. We love a bit of cognitive dissonance. I think we thrive on the safety and permission to try on our wardrobe of honest shoes, and break out of the plastic packaged presets. In doing so, I hope we help ourselves, each other, and perhaps the world, toward a bigger cause of life and faith liberation.
Of all the exhibits in the Museum, the gold shoes were the ones not included on the public tour, or listed in the guide book. But they’re the one I’ll remember.