Bearing witness to the city: ‘Above & Below’

10,000 Things, Eyes, Our Stories, Posts, Zen Corners

A reflection on our recent bearing witness practice day in the Sydney CBD. These days are becoming a regular part of my practice. Each time the adventure is utterly distinct and miraculous. Slowly a community of people are coming together to explore what it might mean to bear witness – with nothing left out. Visit our calendar for news of upcoming events. 




The day is silver and Sydney is drizzling. A fine mist of rain is drifting and the roads reflect my face. Buildings fade into sky and sunlight pours onto the ground. 
As I look for somewhere dry to sit, I meet David (also known as Cassus). He has a new-to-him violin and is playing tunes from his childhood. ‘Do you know this one?’, he says grinning. It is the theme song from an old TV puppet show: Mr Squiggle. He tells me that for a few dollars I can make a video if I like.
On the way to practice, practice begins!
Four of us nestle ourselves, dry-enough, amongst the pastiche of stone pillars that mark the top of the grand entrance to the Sydney Town Hall. I sit on the white marble floor and lean my back against a bronze memorial pressed with the names of some folks who died in a World War or two. Silence becomes apparent as our small group settles in for our first sit.


The floor is cold through my jeans. The twelve bells of St Andrews Cathedral are cartwheeling their sound through us. Police sirens are smudged alongside the sound of air-conditioning units and occasional clicks of tourist cameras. Place becomes the teacher
Earlier, the architecture of this staircase whispered to me saying ‘Above & Below! Above & Below!’. The stairs of town hall flare outwards from the main building to the street – a limestone, marble, and brass drawbridge between political power, and the concrete Earth. These stairs stretch over a poorly lit lower level that provides entry to the train station below and shelter for homeless people in heavy rain.
The contrasts between the formal extravagance above and the transitional shadows below are both obvious and taken-for-granted. I wonder: Will we sit in this space below the stairs? How might people react to the damp, sour smell, and the dirt of the pebble-filled concrete? Below the stairs is not ‘comfortable’. I feel myself seeking out discomfort – or turning to face the strange (as Bowie would say). I am curious about below. 
Who is welcome on these white marble stairs, and who is at home below? These fault-lines follow me as we walk. 


We cross the street and enter the opulent antique shopping arcades of the ‘Queen Victoria Building’. In a mash-up of class and privilege, a swarm of people taking a walking tour of Sydney wrap themselves around us. We shape-shift and become tourists. Without irony or any hint of our violent colonial history, the guide notes the immense statue of Queen Victoria that sits above us on a grand plinth. A bronze likeness of her favorite dog sits nearby cunningly disguising a ventilation shaft from the carpark below. 

Level 3 of the Arcades. Shops selling pens, and crystal desk ornaments. Designer clothes and stuffed koala souvenirs. We are on something of a mission – going somewhere. I feel the group is looking for something, wrestless, even anxious. We are still learning to walk together.
Navigating a city without words and no rules is a feat of social invention. Each person reaches into their bag of history and positions themselves in the group and space accordingly: walking at the front, taking the lead, or spending time alone amongst the group. How can we walk together? 
Above: A massive mechanical clock hangs from the glass ceiling. The clock features scenes from Australian history. As we draw close I see little animated figurines. Below: Around their feet are years of dust. I wonder if the mechanical parts still work? I lean against the balustrade and read the title of the scene: ‘The taking of the children’ (a reference to generations of children stolen from families of the traditional custodians of this land). Was it too controversial to say genocide? 
The clock is gilded in real gold.
There is a piano in the distance. A redheaded teenager is playing ‘Imagine’ by John Lennon, reading the music from their iPhone. 
Pit Street Mall and the sky has cleared. The light is brilliant. Three of us walk ahead. Standing behind, I ring a pair of finger cymbals to indicate that we are finishing our walk: ding! The three keep walking. I ring the bells again – did they hear?
Shoppers around us don’t flinch. Someone smiles. Bells.
I catch up with the group. We walk four across – as one body. I pass the bells to someone else. Bells.
Shops hum and a busker sings traditional Peruvian songs. Another person is given the bells.  Bells. 
I feel a growing mass of people walking behind and with us. As though we were the front line in a great peace march. The world is shining and everything seems in-proportion. Bells. 
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