You can’t really miss it – it’s right there, in the middle of a paddock just as you approach Mullumbimby from the east: the word LOVE, displayed in enormous white capitalised letters.
Though bold and certainly impressive, I’m not quite sure if this simple, yet potent, symbol is meant as a public declaration of what abounds in Mullum, or if it’s a terse instruction to try harder – or indeed, whether it’s a simple reminder of what life should be about.
Fair enough, you might think. But being a cynical old sod, I found myself wincing at this cheesy aesthetic. It reminded me of the sort of thing you might see in the Robina Shopping Centre, or above the entrance to a high-priced retreat in outer Sydney. The more I contemplated LOVE, the more I questioned its meaning, especially when applied to the good denizens of Mullumbimby.
The weird and wonderful folk
As we all know, there are many weird and wonderful folk in this neck of the woods – I’m in the weird category. We all reside in what is a complex and contradictory place; halfway between an intentional community and a psychiatric hospital. It’s why people LOVE it. After all, why hang around one of those dreary Gold Coast beach suburbs when you can pay a million bucks for a shack, and then roam the potholed streets of nirvana chatting to the locals?
Sadly though, like most towns that attract droves of pilgrims in search of paradise, Mullum is becoming something of a mystery – a parody in search of authenticity. Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE the place and many of the people in it, but as a mishmash of variegated and often transient groupings it feels more like Berlin, the city of exiles, than the Garden of Eden.
All the yoga studios, colonic irrigation clinics, astrological signs and rainbows suggest it’s Aquarius-central, albeit diluted by an influx of cashed-up retirees, eco-squillionaires, world-renowned creatives and any number of psychotherapists prepped to mop up the residues of discontent – yes, even here.
I’m not going to recite the history of Mullum – that’s been done ad nauseum, and often without any mention of the traditional custodians of this land. But it’s clear that successive migrations have shaped the town’s character.
The bold declaration of LOVE is in many ways emblematic of this character: a fusion of new age, hippiedom, Buddhism – whatever. It’s a handy gloss for a place that remains oddly oblivious to those troubling ‘shadow places’ that somehow evade our consciousness, but which define our experience of place. The horrors of invasion and colonial settlement are of course just as much part of Mullum’s history as is the overlay of ‘alternative’ lifestyles.
Really that special?
But if LOVE is meant to reflect the transcendent wonders of this place, how accurate is this claim?
I’ve lived here for nearly six years. It’s been an interesting experience. Ultimately though, it depends, doesn’t it, on who you meet and what’s going on in your own life, right? I’ve met hundreds of people here. That’s because the locals are more amenable to conversations than they are, say, in the city, and because many locals like to talk – a lot. There seems to be more time for such things.
That said, once you get into the innards of everyday relationships, you come to realise that Mullum is in many respects like any other place – despite all the kaleidoscopic colours and drum beats.
One key difference, however, is the more frequent mismatch between what people profess to be, and how they routinely behave. This applies to most of us, of course, but I think it’s more pronounced here simply because there are more ethereal claims to higher states of being. I’ve been tongue lashed on more than one occasion by supposedly peaceful, enlightened folk. I know of others who’ve come a cropper at the hands of those professing love and gratitude for all things. It’s rather bewildering.
And then there’s the invective heaped on prominent local figures in the local newspaper, with one individual taking out an advertisement to vent his spleen against the Shire’s mayor. I know of organisations that have fallen apart as a result of internal bickering, hecklers whose sole purpose is to elevate their status at the expense of speakers, groups that exclude potential members for any number of reasons, those who scream and shout at others during meetings, and so on.
There’s nothing unusual about any this. It’s called life. And for every troubling act, there is genuine kindness and compassion too. Life’s messy. But if LOVE is meant to signal some sort of exceptionalism, then it’s offkey. If it’s a call for LOVE IN ACTION BROADLY IN ACCORDANCE WITH POSITIVE INTENTION, then I’m all for it!