Byron Bay

Byron Times By Shelley Neller

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It is almost impossible to parody the New Age and alternative lifestylers in Byron Bay because our ordinary daily existence is frequently so "far out" (to coin a psychedelic phrase still popular in this territory), that it defies exaggerated mimicry.

Attempts to parody our local tribes only comes across as comic overkill; satire sounds stagey or superfluous, because, let's face it, we Byronites are already right at the esoteric and entertaining edge of unconventionality.

Or as one local quipped: "The truth is out there and so are we."

Having lived here since well into last century, I proffer a few favoured anecdotes to demonstrate my point.

  • In a yoga class several years ago, I heard a heavily tattooed and metal-studded student tell the teacher she could not do handstands for a few weeks because while helping her boyfriend erect their new home, one of the heavy teepee poles had fallen on her wrist.
     
  • Queuing for entrance to a group meditation of several hundred people one autumn afternoon, I got chatting to a mid-thirties man with hair down to his hips. In a sincere, mild-mannered voice, he told me that he'd been instructed by extraterrestrials not to cut his locks or the ensuing "hard" energy could harm and eventually kill him. I nodded sagely. His hair was remarkably lush and shiny, so, allowing the conversation to slide momentarily from the metaphysical to the mundane, I asked him which conditioner he used. He put his face close to mine and whispered conspiratorially that it was a secret blend of oils concocted by his ET friends.
     
  • The staff in the Byron Post Office must be among the friendliest and most efficient on the planet. However, as any tourist who has queued for stamps at the height of the season will know, the conga line for service can snake around the shop and out the door. This is what one of my friends calls the Zen corridor because it gives you the time and opportunity to practise being here now. One morning, while contemplating my own essential nature inside the "corridor", I heard a young girl greet a male friend who had just walked in. "Hi Krishna!" she called out heartily. Krishna took one look at the length of the queue, and with a twinkle in his eye, replied: "I'm not yet, but I will be when I get home."
     
  • On the footpath in Fletcher Street only a few weeks ago, I overheard a snatch of conversation between three youths in boardshorts and T-shirts. "OK," said the tallest. "First we go to Centrelink (the dole office), then the pawnbroker, then the surf shop. OK?" The other two nodded, and the trio sped off on their skateboards.

I could recount more stories, but you get the drift.

However, while much of our local lifestyle cannot be parodied, it can, if you have a yen for it, be experienced directly. You need only consult the voice of the people, The Byron Shire Echo, to make your choice. The Echo's classifieds -- from the public notices, health ads and share accommodation to the garage sales and the lost and found -- are read as assiduously as its news and features.

In the classifieds, you will find not only your average, run-of--the-mill alternative modalities such as naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, kinesiologists and clinical hypnotherapists, but also therapeutic methods such as dolphin healing energy, voice dialogue, Vedic astrology, tantric sex, floats and a whole raft of massage styles -- Hawaiian, Swedish, shiatsu, pre-natal, deep tissue, liquid bodywork, et al.

The healing business, presumably, is brisk, for as Wendell Berry once claimed: "The sufferer is by definition a customer." Byron is chokka with them. Every second urban refugee you meet has chronic fatigue syndrome and has come here to rest and recuperate. Hardly surprising, because this is a place whose general ambience and community mindset allows you to take enough time off to find out who you are apart from what you do. And not to feel guilty about it in the process.

Around here we generally don't ask people what they do, we ask them how they are. An important distinction. The former question queries a person's doingness, their productivity, that Western industrial imperative which has come to define and rank people according to its volume and intensity. The latter question merely asks after a man's or woman's wellbeing. And besides, a goodly number of Byron residents don't "do" regular nine-to-five work. A large percentage are on welfare; a certain privileged proportion lead dilettantish, hothouse lives supported by family stipends from foreign countries; and then there are those who grow "Mullumbimby Madness" (that's Byron demotic for marijuana, although it also turns up as the name of a particularly tasty pizza topping at the local Earth 'n Sea Restaurant). So, if you're new to the Rainbow Region, remember: it's not local etiquette to inquire about a resident's occupation immediately upon meeting them

But, back to the unlimited life options via The Echo... If you're feeling more outwardly bound socially, you may want to step out to a dance party, rock up to a hip hop gig, learn the salsa, Egyptian or pagan dance or -- why not? -- African drumming. You might decide to lie about your birthday and gatecrash a Scorpio cabaret party.

Or perhaps you'd prefer to attend full moon or kundalini meditations, chant in company, sit for satsang, discover Taoist secrets of love, join a psychic circle, attend a shamanic weekend, have your chakras rebalanced, participate in a pelvic floor exercise group, or stretch out at a yoga class (Iyengar, astanga, vinyasana, Oki Do, all on offer).

Need more practical or creative engagement with the world? Why not get life coaching, learn woodwork, audition for a local choir, join a landcare group to help protect coastal dunes or a rare smooth Davidsonia patch, find out where to get your Oriental rugs washed and repaired, order a cannabis cookbook or -- as entirely separate gestures, of course -- find out more about Steiner education or hire a girl clown for your kids' party?

My aim here is not to denigrate local lifestyles, but to chronicle and celebrate their diversity. As I said in my recently published book about Byron Bay, Love Letters from Mother Nature

"It is easy to take cheap shots at the self-discovery phenomenon that has been building up amongst ordinary people across the planet since the baby boomers hit the scene. It is simplistic and convenient to call people's preoccupation with self-knowledge 'narcissism'. But, as [Theodore] Roszak points out, those firing the shots ' hear the desire to be treated as special and unique and they call it self-indulgence. They bemoan the buzz-words on the surface, failing to attend the desperate need beneath. Shall we say they 'pity the plumage, but forget the dying bird?'

"Yes, I, too, cringe at the crass mass marketing of mind, body and spirit, the bizarreries, the psychobabble, the distorted distillations of deeper truths, at the proselytising New Age neophytes (and they are as rampant as lantana around here) who, uninvited, lay their poultices of newfound 'wisdom' - slap! - on the psyche of the nearest living being. Like the satirist said: 'A little learning is a dangerous thing.' Yet in this pervasive shift in societal direction, I share Roszak's view that it is of 'great political, personal and ecological value ... It is the brave beginning of a project that both the person and the planet require... If this be narcissism, make the most of it.' "

Speaking of making the most of it, I'm off to a yoga class at the Byron Yoga Arts School. Now which of the school's studios will I favour today? Studio One, located above the dole office or Studio Two, upstairs from the organic butchery?

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