#30 Letter to Youth

One day someone is going to tell you to believe in yourself, even though you don’t know what that means exactly. After all, in the first place you mightn’t be so sure of what you are, never mind what it means to think of yourself as something to believe in. So here’s a bit of background. You are the last in an unbroken string of human beings stretching back 200,000 years (1). If that seems like a long time, it’s because it is. And here’s the good news; things are better today for human beings than at any other time in the 200,000 years we’ve been around, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

You might be asking, how do I believe in myself? Its a good question, and many of the people who came before you asked a similar one. They didn’t always ask out loud, but as you’ll come to understand, people do a lot of things without being able to say what it is exactly that they’re doing. Often people are trying to make things better for themselves, and for their families and communities as well. The biggest challenge to making things better is change. Because everything is always changing, kind of like the weather.

Now, there are lots of people, the earth is big, and there isn’t one way to do things. Different people have different ways of finding food and building houses, different ways of speaking and even different versions of better. So one thing we’re always working on is ways to be free. The thing to remember is this; no matter how different people seem, everyone has a place. Even you.

Part of your place is where you come from, the rest is where you’re going, in the middle is your adventure. It will cause you some pain to realise that the place you come from is not as good as it could be. That’s part of growing up, its partly why you try to make things better and partly why you are something to believe in. You’re going to have to leave that place. If you’re lucky, the people there will encourage you. One day you will return.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. You’re young, and there is no need to rush these things. Time will have its way of telling you when to move and in which direction. If you’re ever lost, sit down and listen. Take note of what is calling your attention, gather those fragments together and organise them, which might mean you write them down. Or draw them, or turn them into something that speaks to you. Then let that go, which might mean giving it away, lest you confuse yourself with it. Remember you are the process by which the place you come from turns into the place you’re going, you are not any of the things you find along the way, which is partly why you are something to believe in.

From time to time you might encounter groups of people working together to try and solve particular problems. These are causes; and you might like to get involved. Beware of causes that demand self-sacrifice, which are all causes that believe people are the problem. They are wrong. People are not the problem; people are things to believe in. Which isn’t to say that people should always be believed, because as you’ll come to understand, people are always telling stories. 

As they get older, like people, stories get shorter. Two of the oldest stories are also two of the shortest. They are as follows. First, things were better before. Second, the world is coming to an end. Pay close attention to people who tell such stories, there is a reason they're always told, partly as conditions for improvement, partly as conditions for freedom. See, just like you, freedom is something to believe in. Its not a place, its a process, just like you. Its a way forward, a course negotiated between sets of opposing values, which we call the two hands of our body politic.

The right hand is cautious, it holds onto the past, places freedom in the individual and maintains firm boundaries. The left hand keeps those same boundaries flexible, places freedom in collective responsibility and reaches for the future. Both hands are necessary, each protects the other from its particular tyranny, each reminds the other that neither is the head. We make sure neither writes the word truth with a capital T, nor makes people the problem. Such is the nature of our freedom machine, and it works pretty well.

In fact, much of what you’ll come to know will emerge from dialogue, so it helps to have friends you can believe in. That requires learning to play, and the best way to play is fair. Here’s how it works. All games have rules, even though you mightn’t know exactly what they are. You’ll know when you’ve broken a rule because the person you’re playing with looks at you funny, or maybe even tells it to you straight. That’s okay, learning the rules is part of playing the game. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is making up the rules as they go, ensuring only they get to decide who’s playing fair, it might be that person is playing a different game to you, one that only they can win. People like that can’t be trusted. If you notice that someone with whom you’re playing is breaking all of the rules all of the time, it might be because that person is also playing a different game to you, one that involves breaking the rules all the time. People like that can’t be trusted either. If you are either of those people, you will find it hard to make true friends. Either your fiends will be scared of you, or they will want to be you. You’re better off playing fair.

Lastly, things are always more complicated on the ground. Its why people keep their feet there. Its where you’ll be most of the time, stumped by ordinary complexity. Then you should know not only that you have a place but that you have a family too. Even if you don’t. I know that’s confusing. But the most important thing is to find someone in whose eyes you see something of yourself, and in whose fears you see something of your own, and to let that person be vulnerable in your presence to the complexity of on the ground experience. There is love in that, and love is something to believe in, just like you.

Its Pretty Big  (2018)

Its Pretty Big (2018)

(1) This line references a quote by Dr Jordan B Peterson. The full quote is ‘you are the last in an unbroken string of successful reproducers dating back 3.5 billion years.’ That line, along with Dr Peterson’s delineation of the psychological significance of paternal resurrection as mythological trope has been of profound significance for me in my own understanding of culture and identity.

#28 On Freedom

When I was younger I heard three stories, each in two parts. Perhaps you’ve heard them too. Its likely. Or at least versions of them in your own words. Perhaps you’ve heard about times before, when things were harmonious. About catastrophes that scarred everything and everyone. Perhaps in your midst there are witnesses to attest to the truth of these tales. Or others steadfastly committed to original words.

It was from the latter that I heard the first story. Set in a time before anyone whose ever lived can remember. About two ancestral beings who were naked and vulnerable but without knowing, so they weren't afraid. They lived in perfect harmony. And then something catastrophic happened. An evil entered and brought with it knowledge of a kind that tore everything apart. Even now upon those who’ve not forgotten what their ancestors came to know, scars remain.

The first part of the second story concerns a group. At one time slaves to a tyrannical ruler of an empire so vast as to make escape all but impossible. The lives of the slaves were difficult; yet they survived and multiplied. In their midst was a single determined voice with the power to set everyone free. Which it did.

The first part of the third story is more recent. Though fewer in number with each passing year, still among us are people who witnessed the events. Its also about a group, who for reasons unfathomable to naive conceptions of human nature, were systematically herded and exterminated by an evil that possessed an entire nation. 

As with the first two stories, the third is unforgettable. And many years later, in annual rituals of retelling, the descendants of those affected recall with bittersweet joy that their ancestors were set free by the power of belief in a transcendent voice, and the possibility of freedom. Each year they reaffirm their commitment to continued existence in spite of forces still intent on their enslavement. For all too aware are the not so naive that we remain capable of terrible cruelty; that without awareness we remain unafraid; and that without fear we remain deaf to the knocks of evil at our doors.

Maybe you’ve heard these stories. Or similar ones. About ruined childhoods, natural worlds destroyed by unnatural forces. Stories about you. Maybe you’ve seen first hand or met those who can attest. I once met a woman who inhaled longing, and when she exhaled decried the indelible marks left by her past between her ribs. I learned from her that memory is a complicated means of producing something other than facts. Stories mainly. At least in part. Often inter-generational.

These days we store the past at the tips of our fingers; we reminisce in high definition. But still, even as storage in the cloud replaces stories of before, we retain a lament for the catastrophe of prolonged exposure to the slings and arrows of time in the sun, or the moments that change everything forever. We continue to be reminded that no matter our admiration for advances in meteorology, the weather is unpredictable. And we resolve to relish moments and savour fleeting joys. We consider it wise to be grateful for what we have.

That’s as far as the first parts of stories can take us. Then come the second parts. And to be sure, without them, we would drown in unpredictable weather. The second parts are more terrifying than the first parts, more difficult too. And the reason for that is the second parts of our stories demand that we move on. That we shoulder the burden of past catastrophes as if they were matters of our individual responsibility. Perhaps more than any other, the reason the second parts are so terrifying, is that we write them ourselves.

When I was younger I was fortunate to be surrounded by people who expected me, having heard the stories of my ancestors, to write a good story of my own. The details were not important, but some general rules applied. My story should start small. And aim high. It should include others, but only with constructive intentions. At its core should be family, surrounded by community, supported by society to which is owed service, and from which nothing should be assumed given. All of the characters should strive to do good by one another, particularly in times of need. And as for my own character, he should lead the way; respect the past; be true to his word; aware of his capacity for error; guided by a transcendent voice; and sustained by unwavering belief in the possibility of his freedom.

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

Bicycle outside my shelter in the Desert (2019).

#27 [Instructions] On therapeutic relationships in education

Last week I defined the role of educators. Demonstrate understanding; provide instruction in its means; encourage its pursuit. Of the three, the second, provision of instruction, comes most naturally. Most teachers give generously of their time, spirit and knowledge. Its the backbone of the vocation. We’re a giving bunch.

So, how best to give? That’s the question.

The story goes that a man without food was close to a river. Another man approached and offered to catch him a fish. The first man was grateful and gladly accepted. With a full belly, that night he slipped into a deep sleep. He dreamed he was on a building site, surrounded by trucks loaded with bricks. There was a cement mixer and beside it a pile of yellow sand. The man was enthused. It had been years since his last employ and he longed to work again with his hands. So he looked for a shovel with which to load the mixer. But he couldn’t find one. The doors to the trucks were locked and without a knife, he was unable even to unload the bricks, which were bound with plastic straps. The man scratched his head. He woke up hungry, and his dream left him unsatisfied.

Its nothing new to say of fishing that men and women should be taught the skill rather than gifted the catch. Nor to apply that same principle to education. At least in theory, students are assessed on what they can do themselves. Teachers prepare them to demonstrate by means of assessment what knowledge they’ve acquired in the course of instruction, and provide critical feedback to identify areas in need of improvement.

But things are more complicated on the ground, in particular with regard to factors external to the teacher-student relationship, which affect the capacity of each to play their part. On the tragic end of the spectrum of externalities is what’s called complex trauma. A tangled milieu of symptoms from prolonged exposure to abhorrent behaviour in the early stages of childhood development. Students affected find regulating their emotions exceedingly difficult. Their nervous systems are continually haunted by unresolved encounters with threats to their safety and stability. They struggle to focus and socialise, often they act out. In school terms they require Special Education. In real terms they require something beyond the mere provision of instruction.

One way of thinking about what that something is, is therapy. The treatment of disorder and dysfunction sought by or for the disordered and dysfunctional. in simple terms, therapy is the process of reordering. Putting things together; organisation for functional expression. In poetic terms therapy is the way home. Over the years common threads in stories of recovery have been woven by various professionals into formalised approaches. All of them recognise a paradox in the common goal; that every one is different, and yet there are commonalities in patterns of individual development. 

So the teacher faces a challenge. How to differentiate their approach to cater for the varied needs of individuals who to differing degrees are affected by externalities that threaten to disorganise their capacity to pay attention to content on which one day they will be examined. Oomph.

The story goes that long ago, in a time before anyone who’s ever lived can remember, a time best understood as a dream, the sun and the moon made a seed. The seed lay on the ground, and was watered by the clouds. Soon it sprouted two small leaves, attached to a stem. The sun and the moon watched the small plant grow towards the sky, until one day, big enough to know, the plant opened its eyes, looked around and immediately became terrified by the height to which it had grown. “Oh no!” Cried the plant, “I’ve so far to fall!”

Hearing distress the wind arrived to offer some help. “What’s the matter?” Asked the wind. Just then a bird flew by, catching the attention of the terrified plant.
“Oh wind, I cannot possibly live this way. If only I were a bird! I’d have no need to be afraid.”
“Very well,” said the wind, and transformed the plant into a small bird.
The bird was thrilled, fascinated by its newfound perspective. It flew to new places far from home. In one such place the bird found a forest of enormous trees and landed on one of their branches.
“Oh my!” Said the bird. “How scared this tree must be!”
In reply came the voice of the tree, slow and deep. “Dear bird,” it said, “how old do you think I am?”
“Um—“ said the bird, “maybe three?”
“Ha!” Laughed the tree. “I am one hundred years old!”
“Wow!” Said the bird.
“But that’s not all,” the tree continued, “I am a tree. And trees are three hundred million years old! For three hundred million years we’ve been learning to stand tall.”
The bird was stunned. Suddenly a strong gust of wind blew through the forest. The tree swayed, and the bird fluttered from the branch, then landed again.
“Wind!” Called the bird.
“Yes?”
“I need your help again. I want to be a tree! They’ve been learning to stand tall for three hundred million years!”

What does it mean to demonstrate understanding? To be an old tree surrounded by frightened birds of nervous flutter. In that question, suspended between pillars of knowing, are stories about setting examples. When I first started working with children I thought it was their example that I should follow. The wide-eyed way they went about their games and activities, the freedom with which they expressed how they were really feeling. But as I’ve grown so I’ve leaned that wide-eyed wonder comes in different forms. And there are times to join in the fun, and times to stand back and concentrate on standing tall. 

The word that I think most aptly describes the relationship between the tree and the bird, between teacher and student, therapist and client, between those who give and the whole world; is forgiveness. And to forgive is to withhold. The prefix for- is an injunction on the root word give. To forgive is to give not. Which is different from not caring. Anyone in a position to forgive is likely to care. And perhaps only a caring person can forgive. Perhaps only a person for whom it doesn’t come naturally can create an empty space between themselves and their students, into which the latter might grow. And all the while demonstrate a capacity to remain standing, by caring for themselves. 

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

An unknown bird in Alice Springs.

#26 On Course (Back from Mexico)

We need everyone for the third, to gather. But not before the first two. Sit, listen, then gather. Impressions mainly. Whispers. Fragments. They must be taken in, listened to. But not believed. Belief is not understanding. Belief is a matter of fact, followed inevitably by ideology. The trouble with which is the nature of truth; an emergent property not contained in any one part of the story. Truth resides between lines, not in them.

Use simple terms to gather fragments. Avoid relative ones. Strive for clarity, which is to say master description. Clarity is more easily understood. To which end it helps to remember that words are in reference and among other things, we are trying to understand each other. We are also trying to answer three questions. In simple terms they are: survival; coexistence; existence. Put another way they are: How to survive and thrive? How to organise and live together? Where are we and how did we get here?

I gathered that by paying attention to the subtext of stories across cultures. Always they served those three categories of problem. Questions of a nature which ought be suspended in disbelief. Between pillars of knowing. Between internal logic and lived experience. Where a way appears to begin with why? And ends with what happened? The answer is a story to be understood. Which brings us to education.

The role of educator is to demonstrate understanding; provide instruction in its means; and encourage its pursuit by students with a shared interest in the given subject. Personally, the subject of my interest is the way home. An antidote for the lost and alone; the anxious, a method for the self expressive; the artist, and a philosophy for anyone interested.

The way home has six rooms - possibly seven. Walls and floors of simple terms with windows to stories and paintings featuring thousands of words. I recently showed a group of students around to determine whether or not I’m onto something. Turns out I am, because their work spoke for its selves. Unexpectedly the way home was also a place to hang out and make friends. Which was really cool.

Over four weeks I demonstrated my understanding in two lectures on the history and continued use of the way home. I provided a set of instructions (poetic, to allow for truth) And encouraged the students to articulate their findings in their own words. We shared an interest in home; in connecting with place; in facing anxiety and being heard. And in the end we held an exhibition.

My friends Alex and Kate filmed the whole thing and in the coming weeks I’ll share a video to illustrate what on earth I’m on about.

In the meantime a note on politics. First of all, assuming every fragment is political erases private space, and contrary to popular belief, that’s not a good idea. The only basis for effective politics is to assume we need everyone to gather and tell their stories. Which ought be understood. Not believed. Inevitably people will congregate around certain stories, warmed by their light, warned by their darkness. But such stories should never concern the state. Only their free exchange in between. Which leads to a story with a focus on economic transactions.

And finally, a generalised claim to distinguish between categories of political perspective. Those who locate responsibility in the group; and those who locate responsibility in the individual. On the ground, with regard to what ought be done about real issues, things become complicated. But who knows? I’m trying to understand.

We did it! Me and the students from ARPA following our final Exhibition  Caminando con la Naturaleza .

We did it! Me and the students from ARPA following our final Exhibition Caminando con la Naturaleza.

#25 Escuchar

The second step is to listen. Which is to say take note of invitations to be interested. Concerning ideas; often they appear old at first, couched in forgotten language. But persist. They return often, to be remembered.

If that seems complicated, consider the question - Is this Art? To which you might say, Who cares? And fair enough. But it matters to my friend Alex from the United States. He’s a kind man. A comedian. He has a knack for making light in any situation. We met in residence at Arquetopia, together with his girlfriend Kate, they planned to film a series of short videos in which Alex would look confusedly at works of art, then ask in an Australian accent, “Is this ah-t?”
Given I was the closest thing to a custodian he’d encountered, Alex gauged my approval. I said it sounded interesting, even offered to consult on matters of authenticity.

Here’s an idea. What something means has a lot to do with you. Or more accurately, what somethings means has a lot to do with what you’re up to. Because what you see is mediated by what you want - by what's driving you. Sometimes its obvious, like when you want to eat. Then what you see means food or not-food. Sometimes its less obvious, like when you want to do the right thing. Then what you see means choice. And maybe there is no right thing. But maybe there is. Maybe there are right motivations - good intentions and bad ones. All with competing interests. Which means the world appears a complicated place.

When it comes to art, some things mean beauty. At least to people driven by beauty. And because beauty is beheld in their eyes, some things mean ugly too. And some things mean so much to so many people that its tempting to think of them as truly meaningful. But what’s more likely is that those things relate very closely to motivations held very deeply in the hearts and minds of many people. 

How else to understand what took place in Puebla during a festival the other day. When thousands of men, women and children walked the streets with dolls of the baby Jesus clutched to their chests. Beautifully dressed, some in bassinets. So driven they were by devotion to the image of a perfect child. Perhaps - like so many - they were motivated by a deep desire for the return of sacred innocence left behind in childhood. Or by the anxious hope that every parent tucks into the future of every generation. Or by the desire to do right in a world that makes more obvious its demands for sacrifice than its offers of redemption. Who knows.

One thing is for sure. We learn from times when things were more difficult. When we were slaves to forces beyond our control. When only in the private space did we know the taste of freedom. And to this day that space is best understood by deference to the feminine. That aspect of our nature which makes room, and which therein sustains small hands still unable to hold it all.

One day, in the backseat, on our way home from class, Daniela and I talked about abortion. Its an imprisonable offence in Mexico. Everyone knows someone trying to make it work for the sake of children dearly loved by families rooted in old ideas. “Es complicado, she said.
Si,” I agreed.
“What do you believe?”
Mi opinion?
Si.
Es complicado,” I offered, tapping my translator. “Hay diferentes tipos de prisiones.”
Si,” she laughed. “But Mexico is very Catholic.”
Si,” I said, “I think — el papel del estado — no es morales. Es libertad.” The last word, freedom, hung in the air like an old idea.
“In Australia?” She asked.
“We try to keep estado and religion — apartado,” I replied. “Es importanto. But complicado.”
“Ah,” she managed, with a hint of longing. “Is your family Catholic?”
“No, Judio.”
And you?” She asked.
“Um, soy conectado — its easier, mas facil — to be conectado — when its not law.”
Si,” she agreed. “Mi familia es very Catholic. It was hard to — talk to them — that I don’t believe. But is better now. — And for me is important to know where I come from.”
Si,” I said, tapping at new words. “— en los raises sin aire, but sin ellos sedientos!
Si,” she smiled.
In the roots is no air, but without them we are thirsty.

This painting is in the old Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla, it depicts Saint Augustus hearing the words  tolle lege , which means  take up and read .

This painting is in the old Convent of Santa Monica in Puebla, it depicts Saint Augustus hearing the words tolle lege, which means take up and read.

#24 First Step

The first step on the way home is to sit down. By that I mean to understand. Which is to say look up at things, the way a child looks up at an adult. Open to the possibility that the adult is in possession of something the child needs to know. But unsure what that is, so the child satisfies rapacious curiosity with an endless string of questions. 

Thus the child sets an example of what it is to understand. To see from below. To avoid looking down on things lest they be consumed in shadow. The example is fair - but for adults altogether insufficient. Because there are things children haven’t the capacity to look at without being irrevocably traumatised. So adults must look elsewhere for examples of mature naivety that leads to understanding.

Tucked away through a set of old wooden doors, between two shops filled with knock-off antiques, on an unassuming street in the historic part of town, is a place called Gym Puebla. Its owned and run by a man formerly called Mr Puebla. These days its hard to understand a word he says. Each one rises on rusty wheels and pulleys from an iron belly, greased by meat and moonshine. In his chest they squeeze between walls of dried muscle and scrape against the back of his grunt-worn throat.

Gym Puebla is a ruin. Mr Puebla is an old king. Every morning - after working out - he rinses his face with tepid water and combs his hair with brylcreem. Then he stands for a while in a corner of the gym where a wooden frame houses an image of Mary seven feet from the ground. A lace curtain ensures she never learns that her neighbour is a scantly glad fitness model, nor sees any of the other pieces of motivational material on the white stone walls. Only a boxing ring, some barbells, a poster of Schwarzeneggar and Mr Puebla, who rattles mumbled incantations at her feet, and marks himself humbly in the sign of the cross.

Most days around 5pm another man visits the gym. His modest frame is athletic and woven with playful tension, belying the age his spectacles reveal. They call him the Little Clown - or at least Mr Puebla does - for he makes his way as a street performer, karaoke musician and occasional shoe shiner. He also gives instruction in Lucha Libre, which literally translated means free fight.

Each week in the town's arena, a company of heroes, underdogs, gladiators and villains don masks and backstories in pursuit of what they’re fighting for. Sometimes pride, sometimes revenge, sometimes love and sometimes honour. Always drama. The kind that pokes and prods at dormant pools of fettered emotion buried in the crowd. Exorcised and hurled in the direction of masked men and women, who by some calling have chosen this to be their art. They thrive on it and survive on it. Just like their fans.

My first Lucha training session with the Little Clown involved rolling around the perimeter of the ring, then to and from its centre in a formation called estrella, which means star. Suitably nauseous he proceeded to demonstrate for me and my friend a series of holds, trips and reversals. Each required one of us in turn to lead by subtle or exaggerated gesture, then to hand over the reigns and respond to the other’s desire. The result was a dance, the outcome irrelevant, success was measured in how.

Years ago I became obsessed with unmasking myself. I tried speaking for the voice most afraid in me, convinced by its pain that it was the most real. Or the voice most unafraid, convinced by its courage the same. I tried opening my heart, but I didn’t know how. And closing it, but that was a lonely road. I tried hiding my masks in locked drawers in dark rooms where no one could find them. But from the shadows they haunted me, and without them I had no control. So I gathered my masks together under the glow of a single flame. And I tended their cracks with oil and their coats with polish. I made sure I could see out their eyes and breathe freely through their mouths. Then I practiced them with others, as if the whole world was on my side.

At the end of the day, in the privacy of my own home, I sat down. By that I mean I understood. Which is to say I looked up. Naive, curious, full of questions. The way a child looks up at an adult. And I knew that answers were never sought in the first place. Only examples.

Mr Puebla (2019) / Photo by Alex Crawford (@zen_daddy_westcoast)

Mr Puebla (2019) / Photo by Alex Crawford (@zen_daddy_westcoast)

#22 Mexican Impression

I arrived after dark in Mexico City with one word of Spanish. That night I slept to the drone of a language tape, but the next morning I knew not one word more. En route to breakfast I looked up thank you and good morning. “Buenos dias,” I said to the short round woman made of heart and muscle. 
“Buenos dias, senior,” she replied, showing me to my seat. 
Then she said something else. I heard café, so I said, “Por favor.”
Five minutes later she returned with coffee and a plate of eggs with refried beans. “Gracias!” I played my final card.
“De nada,” she smiled. 

After breakfast I retreated to my room to write a few lines about how big the world is, how everyday people cross unimaginable distances, how once it was all within walking distance. 

Even now some distance lingers between strangers. It shrinks to a sense of relief when a shared language emerges. But where none exists it takes a sharp breath into vacuous space, all anxieties of being misunderstood expand to fill it completely. 

Around midday I decided to make an adventure of finding a cafe-bookstore I’d read about. To get there I’d have to cross the plaza Rio de Janeiro, and the enormous replica of David in its centre. Off I went.

Hundreds of years of traffic had softened the cobblestones that led to the statue. Even the soil that lined them, sparsely planted with trees and shrubs, claimed not a patch so old. In the distance I saw David. He stood in a fountain. Between us a man was sitting on the floor. His legs outstretched, his shoes beside him. Behind him his hands, arms straight, a posture reserved for short spells of relaxation. I considered he might be homeless. His clothes were dusty but I wasn't sure. For all I knew he simply preferred old stones to damp grass. And given my uncertainty - and honestly, either way - I tried to make no impression. When he spoke I pretended not to hear. I didn’t want to embarrass him with pesos if really all he wanted were directions.

I found the bookstore. Once inside I made my way bashfully down foreign spines to the English section, then to the cafe section, where the host greeted me with a question about whether I’d be sitting alone. Or so I assumed and said, “Si."

He made a gesture that I understood to mean a choice between inside and out. In response I attempted some physical comedy by sticking out my hand as if to feel the air temperature - but before I could retrieve it for laughs my obliging host understood me to have pointed to my choice.
“Perfecto,” he said, encouragingly.
Somewhat embarrassed I followed his lead and reached for the corner seat. But all at once a woman stood very close. She held a pot of tea and her smile said she had the same idea. She was gorgeous. Her long black hair was curly. Constellated freckles spread to a fade from the bridge of her nose to the swell of her cheeks. A storm raged green and blue in her eyes and each hairline fibre of iris muscle was a bolt of lightening. 
Her lips moved very fast. Probably in good humoured apology - at least four sentences worth. I smiled. My hands made clear the seat was hers. She protested - or perhaps she suggested, given our shared taste in position, we might sit and get to know each other - but valiantly I declined and hurried to another table.

Two coffees and a chapter later I rose to use the bathroom. She was still there when I returned, but further away.

**

Days later, with my Spanish somewhat improved, I traveled to Puebla. There I met former Mr. Puebla and joined his gym. A shoeshiner lit my boots on fire. I made some friends, and I found a tailor to repair an old blazer I purchased at a church market. 

More on that one day.

Subscribe
Listen

IMG_6704-min.jpg

#21 The Return

I returned from Arnhem with fragments of truth and soon after tried to separate them from their stories. But the need to prove I’d learned something made ugly and disfigured what was beautiful.

Soon I became entangled in questions about how to live and how to honour the past. In my head two stories turned over and over.

The first was about a man named Murayana. A strong man and a good hunter who traveled by listening for the sound of the didgeridoo. One day Murayana came to a place and gathered the people there for a ceremony of song and dance. Afterwards he became their leader. But as a leader Murayana was greedy and lazy. He took too much for himself and treated the people like slaves. Eventually they sent him away.

The second was the story of Noah. Noah was a righteous man who walked with God and was distinguished in his generation. One day God told Noah that a flood was coming and to build an ark. Noah listened. The ark held his family and all living things, and so ensured their survival.

One day I dreamed I was in a fine house I didn’t build, doing work I'd been assigned. It was cold and there were others but I paid little attention to them. After a long day I was handed a bowl of food. I sat in a dark room on a sofa beside a man who appeared weak, facing a television that was turned off. Like me the man added vegemite to his bolognese. 
Having finished I rose to wash my plate and went outside for fresh air. 
In a warm, sunlit courtyard was everyone else. They were smiling at a man who appeared strong, who thanked them for listening to some words he had prepared. I sat to one side feeling left behind.

I wonder whether anything ever happens one day. In those stories that seems the phrase most difficult to understand.

Meanwhile the adventure continues. Today I travel to Mexico City for a few days, then to Puebla for five weeks. I’m facilitating a project with ten students from Puebla University for the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency. My plan is to have the students create maps of their town, but instead of significant landmarks the maps will note significant encounters with sound, arranged geographically. I’m hoping that something akin to a voice emerges. Also that participants experience a change in affect, that they feel more connected. Each week I’ll meet with academic staff to evaluate the process and articulate what it means.

Along the way I'll write stories to you. 

Thank you for listening.

Subscribe

Note: The story of Murayana comes from Arnhem Land. I first heard it when I found an old recording from a project that took place at Gapuwiyak School in 2005. After that I asked some of my friends and family for more details. What I’ve written here is only a fragm

Letters Home #20 Thank You

For two weeks I've been reluctant to write, though not for a lack of ideas. I figured the best way to spend my last days in Arnhem was to set aside the demands of my thoughts to be organised into words and sentences for the simple pleasure of time with friends and family.

So right now I’m a little backed up with questions and a general lack of fluidity.

I guess I’ll have to wait and be satisfied with small portions.

In the meantime, thank you for reading these letters. Thank you for writing back with your own experiences and encouragement. From the very first week this process has been the thing that's made it possible for me to undertake the adventure, it’s been that to which I’ve turned every time I felt like turning back.

Moving forward I have some ideas for a book I’ll be working on in the coming months. Its about broken hearts and cross-cultural relationships. I hesitate to say much more, but I hope it will be helpful for those who long for cultural belonging.

I plan to have an outline and a draft of the first chapter by March/April.

I’ve also accepted an opportunity to work in Alice Springs as a Children’s Councillor next year, specifically with children and families who have been or are at risk of being separated. That starts at the end of February.

I’ll be in Sydney from next week until I travel to Mexico for the Arquetopia International Art Educators Residency in January. I’ll write again from there.

Wishing you all a happy and nourishing holiday season.

A photo of me and some kids looking for birds.

A photo of me and some kids looking for birds.

Letters Home #19 Ambivalence

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

A rock at Gali.

A rock at Gali.

A few years ago I attended a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. At the end of the seventh day I concluded that to spend another minute with myself, when I could otherwise be surrounded by friends and family - was at best absurd, at worst it demonstrated a pathological urge to prioritise my own spiritual seeking over the love of those who love me. 

It was midnight when I knocked on the door of my teacher. “I’m done,” I said. “There are more important things in life than meditating for my own good.”
My teacher showed no signs of surprise nor was he taken aback. “So,” he replied, “You’re dealing with doubt?”
Caught off guard I dug in my heels. “No,” I spat. “Not doubt. I know exactly what I need to do. I need to go home and be with my friends and family. I’m wasting my time.”
“In my experience,” he said calmly, apparently indifferent to my defensive urgency, “Your friends and family will be right where you left them. But you have an opportunity now to take advantage of the rare gift of time alone. I suggest you spend the next three days cultivating a state of mind that once returned to your family and friends will be more capable of giving and receiving love.”

I looked at him. What kind of cult is this? I thought.

Nevertheless for each of the next three days I sat silently in a room two metres by one metre for stretches of two to three hours at a time, ten hours in total per day. I desperately observed the manifest contents of my mind and body, praying for some conclusion to rush in and explain the mess of wandering thoughts and physical discomfort.

No such conclusion arrived. When it was over I felt proud for having seen it through, but no more certain as to whether it was the right thing to do. My family and friends were as I’d left them. As to whether I was more capable of giving and receiving love, I was not. It took me many months to reconcile myself with the world of giving and receiving, so stark was its contrast to the undisturbed solitude of hermetic life.

Now, three weeks before the end of my time in Arnhem, again I feel desperate for conclusions. Where is the secret wisdom to heal my wounds? What solution have I found for the intractable problems of life in remote communities? I want a cause to fight for. But I haven’t one.

Yesterday began the funeral of a twelve year old boy who died sniffing petrol. His body was carried into a temporary shelter for a ceremony of songs and dances, in his wake women threw themselves repeatedly on the ground. One man struck himself in the head with a machete. Others drew close to dress his wound and provide comfort. They didn't panic. He’d simply been moved by grief.

Meanwhile last week I took eight kids to the Gold Coast on a surf camp, generously sponsored by Surfing Australia. For four days we lived and played in a state of the art facility, helped by phenomenal coaches who celebrated the kids’ every attempt to have a go. There was none of the usual teasing or shaming that so often levels the barren playing fields in community. The kids went to bed early. They ate three meals a day. By the end they were glowing. On the last day a local group of Indigenous kids visited and performed a traditional dance to welcome us to their country. Then everyone hung out and surfed together. The local kids were polite and well adjusted teenagers. In the wash of the ocean they had found some common ground on which to stand in both worlds.

That night our kids curled up on couches together. Instead of rap music and scary movies they watched YouTube videos of traditional songs and dances from their homeland communities. A few stood up to dance along. There were tears in my eyes. 

When we returned I felt convinced that the only way for kids in remote communities to improve their lot is to leave. To find their place in a global market of sub-cultures where every interest is catered for. Is that not the unprecedented gift to humanity of the free world stumbled upon in the West?
Then came another voice. Who are you to presume to advise a person to set aside the past for the promise of a future with no guarantees? You cannot speak for that which knows by what criteria to demand certain destinies of the hearts of human beings, let alone know what substance is safeguarded by those committed to the preservation of ahistoric traditions. Look around! Somewhere in the mess between an ancient way of life that no longer sustains itself and a way of life that doesn’t fully understand, a bunch of beautiful people are growing old together!

Oomph.

Over the past five months I’ve come to know something of the breadth and depth of human suffering. I’ve glimpsed behind the eyes of every child what is also behind my own, a spark, occasionally buried so deep. I’ve come to see that trying to understand is helpful in and of itself. But trying to understand is not the same as drawing conclusions. Its merely a way. A path guided by fragments of stories scrawled in forgotten languages on scraps of paper.

Letters Home #18 Fragments

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Fragment  (Photo Credit: Mahra Villis, Nov 2018, Arnhem Land, NT)

Fragment (Photo Credit: Mahra Villis, Nov 2018, Arnhem Land, NT)

#18 Fragments

I could tell by the way I pulled grapes three at a time from their stems that something was unsettled in me. Over and Over I caught hold of the rattling fragment, desperate for some clue as to its origin. But each time I saw only a partial and misshapen memory or prophecy.

Seeking relief I sat down to articulate my disjointed thoughts. But immediately I felt tired and resolved instead to lie down and take note of my dreams. My phone rang. It was my neighbour. A poor man. He called to suggest I invite him for dinner. For all I know he had nothing to eat. But in that moment I admit I thought it better he be motivated by hunger to feed himself than disturb my puzzling over fragments. And what’s more, privately, I cursed his resignation to state-sponsored dependancy. I snapped a passively embittered excuse about all the work I had to do and put down the phone.

I dreamed I’d purchased a gun. A two-metre-long fully automatic matte black assault rife. For what possible purpose? I asked, staring remorsefully at the unboxed instrument.

The next morning I prepared a small bag for a planned overnight trip with seven children and my adopted sister to her country, a valley called Gali. She hadn’t been in twenty years. Fifty years ago her family moved to the township. Before that they lived in Gali for untold generations.

Before that, when the world was still a dream, a duck flying eastward to salt water carved the valley with each flap of its enormous wings. In its wake a river flowed and pooled in several places, one of which became a resting place for the spirits of her ancestors. 

She called out to them as we approached and turned to introduce the children. Tears were streaming down her face.

All around that sacred place we were under strict instructions not to so much as break a stick. The children obeyed with a reverence that would be entirely unfamiliar to their classroom teachers. It was unfamiliar to me. In all the time I’ve been here and all the places I’ve visited, I’d never seen it before.

Upstream we gathered wood and river sand for a damper fire. We built two more fires at either end of our camp to ward off snakes and spiders. For tinder we tore strips of stringybark.

As soon as the first cups of tea were poured a thick purple cloud drew across the sky. Drops of rain burst playfully on everything, we took them in. Then came a downpour. We huddled together in the awning of a tent, soaked with mirth, sipping sweet tea. “Yapa,” I called, using the Yolngu word for sister. She joined us after working to cover the fires with hunks of bark. “I think this place is happy to see us.”
“Yew!” she replied, brushing back wet strands of grey hair with her hands.

By sunset the rain had eased. We ate and drank our fill of damper and tea then built up the fires and prepared the children for bed. Lightening continued to flicker when everyone was safe inside their tents. I sat alone, listening to the padded drip of raindrops on the damp forest floor.

“Leave me here with the billy and a few tea bags,” my sister joked the next morning as we prepared to leave. Half-joked I think. In her smile I caught a glimpse of my unrest.

Again I tried to pin it down.
But
All I know is
Small portions - and
Scattered pieces of truth.

So I keep wandering, holding the thoughts that cross my mind to the world before my eyes. And I let that tear me apart. And the fragments I pick up and turn over and over and describe them to you. I hope they shed some light.

The Valley at Gali, Nov 2018.

The Valley at Gali, Nov 2018.

Letters Home #17 Exegesis

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

This week I started a new project, called Exegesis. Its inspired by everything I’ve been doing or trying to do. But before I get to that; a short story.

**

An old man shuffled with several heavy books down a quiet street. Two under his right arm, two under his left, one pinched in his right hand. He stopped briefly at a bench to ease and consider his burden, then continued on his way. As the old man struggled a young man watched, eventually he approached and offered to help. The old man was grateful and together they walked a few blocks to the old man’s apartment. Once inside the young man set the books on a side table and helped the old man into a chair. “I hope you don’t mind my asking a question,” the young man ventured, sensing himself in the presence of wisdom.
“Not at all,” replied the old man, still catching his breath.
All of a sudden the young man was self-conscious. It seemed absurd to lay at the feet of a man he’d never met a question he’d always wanted to ask.
“So,” said the old man, noticing the young man’s hesitation, “What is it you’d like to know?”

Unbeknownst to the young man, in a time gone by the old man was called an exegete and a homilist. He’d expounded, proclaimed and edified. Teased, pruned and tamed the verses of ancient stories whose lines frequently overgrew the sweet nectar between them. All so that others might more easily wander the garden of their genius.
But the ancient stories were predicated on the notion of Truth. And time, in its propensity to select and reject from the catalogues of ideas throughout human history, rejected Truth. Its reasons were clear. Nothing, it said, could occur contrary to the laws of nature. And besides, that there were a multitude of denominations laying claim to Truth was unequivocal evidence that whatever it was in their stories that sustained them, it had little to do with objective reality.
So the old man had been stripped of his reverie. However, unlike some of his colleagues he made no appeal to a higher court. Nor did he dispense with his verses. Instead he gave one final address to his congregation.
“My friends,” he said, “There is no greater sacrifice than a sacrifice for Truth. This we learn from Abraham, who for Truth was willing to bind his only son Isaac to the alter. So terrifying was his faith, the sages tell us, that the angels in heaven cried and their tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. Years later, as an old man, Isaac was blind and vulnerable thus to deceit. Permit me to offer an equally terrifying interpretation of this story. For the sacrifice a man makes for Truth is to denigrate all ideas but his own. To the vast majority of humankind he says, ‘I have sacrificed your ideas for Truth.’ Therefore he cannot even consider them. He is forever prejudiced. And like one who stares openly at the sun he will stare so hard at Truth that when he looks away he will be unable to see beyond its imprint. Such a man is blind. And his children will be blind as well.”
Muffled voices rippled through the congregation and threatened to boil over.
“My friends! Please, let me finish!” The old man struggled to quiet the room, it was quickly filling with unbridled emotion and unfortunately his final words were lost on many. “Let us not hold so tightly to our verses that we prevent even the tiniest drop of nectar from reaching our tongues. For it is the nectar that sustains us, and we should continue to know its taste. The same stuff flows in other stories, but not in all of them. So I implore you to look upon your work as I look now upon my own, knowing that it has barely begun.”
With that the old man left his post. In the proceeding years he set about studying the collected literary effort of humankind. What he learned frequently changed his mind. 

The young man looked in the old man’s eyes, a pair of alpine lakes crowded by fleshy peaks and valleys. 
“I’d like to know what makes a good story,” he said.
Genuinely interested, the old man replied, “What do you mean by good?”
The young man thought for a moment.
“I suppose I mean true,” he said, "But not the kind of truth arrived at by reason. Nor the kind of truth with a capital T. I mean the kind of truth contained in stories. The kind of truth arrived at by exegesis.”
“And what makes you think the truth of a story can’t be validated by reason?” the old man prodded.
“Because stories have an internal logic. They can make sense without being reasonable.”
“Then perhaps, young man, your question is about the difference between sense and reason.”
Again the young man took a moment to think. He hadn’t framed his question in that way before. Now it seemed too fundamental to pursue. He was lost for words.
“Perhaps,” the old man said quizzically, “It will help you to know this story. Its about a wayfarer, who visited a city rumoured to house an enchanted well. When he arrived in the city the wayfarer enquired at an inn and in exchange for two pints he was given a map. But after following the map for an hour he concluded it was erroneous. What did he expect from an innkeeper? the wayfarer thought. So he visited a fancy hotel, where, in exchange for a room he was given a second map. After another hour he concluded that the second map was a fraud. What did he expect from a hotelier? he thought. Then the wayfarer happened upon a street urchin, who told him in no uncertain terms that such a well did not exist. But what did he expect from an urchin? 
The wayfarer decided to visit the library, where he made copies of every map he could find and spent several days following them all to no avail. Eventually, exhausted, he determined to enlist the help of others. So he stood outside the fancy hotel and sold his maps for a dollar apiece, to cover expenses. Later that day a couple to whom he had sold a map walked by and he overheard the husband say, ‘That map was hogwash!’ to which his wife replied, ‘What did you expect from a peddler?”
The young man was wrapt with the fable but appeared confused. “I’m not sure that answers my question.” he said.
“Well,” came the reply, “What did you expect from a story?”

**

So, back to the project. Simply put its a series of group sessions focused on the exegesis of canonical stories in popular Western culture. Beginning with The Lion King. During the sessions I play twenty to thirty minutes of the film at a time then facilitate a discussion about its underlying significance, which I make poignant by using language from the kids’ vernacular.

For example, here is a snippet of truth contained in The Lion King:

To be a good king (adult) involves a lot more than simply getting one’s way all the time. A good king keeps the circle of life in balance and maintains a peaceful home. A good king is brave, but that doesn’t mean he goes looking for trouble. Being brave means overcoming shame. In that effort it helps to be light hearted, let things go and remember that all the great kings of the past are on your side. 

A king who wants nothing but to get his own way is like Scar, who acts out of jealousy and hatred. He relies on three hyenas who spend all of their time teasing, lying and playing the fool to do his bidding. Their loyalty is based solely on the fact of their being fed.

To be king is the right thing to want, what’s important is how one gets there.

How one gets there.

How one gets there.

Letters Home #16 'Bedtime Stories'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Waiting for a billy to boil.

Waiting for a billy to boil.

Half of the brain is dedicated to vision, which means the best time to tell stories is bedtime, when there’s more room to process information beyond what’s apparent. Which might also explain why people faced with complex problems tend to think for a few seconds with their eyes closed. Whatever the case, bedtime is a good time to imagine. So this week we took seven kids to Yalakun for an overnight camp.

Yalakun is a beachside outstation, two hours by four-wheel-drive on sandy, unsealed roads. Its home to a solitary Ranger and knowledge holder whom everyone calls 'the old man'. There’s an old schoolhouse - no longer in use - two bungalows, a simple shade shelter and four outhouses. In the centre of it all is a big white cross. Its a hundred meters from the cross to the beach, where we sat under the setting sun, with bellies full of kangaroo tail and damper, listening to the old man. He spoke of the land and surrounding clan groups, of the crocodiles and their habits, of the best times to fish and of the sandflies that come out when the wind dies down. 

When he retired the rest of us stayed by the fire with a billy and the rising moon. From what I could tell the chatter was light hearted, though of course I couldn’t understand. One by one the kids went to bed until there were only two. Then the conversation took a more serious turn. R— was talking. She was telling a story, that much I knew. I lay on my back and relaxed into the rhythm and cadence of her words. Occasionally a brief debate would ensue, but for the most part she talked and everyone listened.

I imagined she was telling a sacred story. Tracing the features of the land in the movements of ancestral beings, casting the silhouettes of animals into the stars and teaching how to navigate by their eternal presence. I couldn’t know, but I felt deeply the company of ancient knowledge and the comfort of family. 

When the billy hissed I made to stand up but R— put a hand on my knee. “Waku,” she said, “Will you read this aloud?” In her other hand she held a mobile phone, its light reflecting the undersides of her features, the tops of which were lit by the moon.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up and taking the phone. I straightened my back and cleared my throat, then I looked at the screen. At the top of the page was the heading, Book of Revelation, Chapter 7.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely surprised.

In Gapuwiyak one of the more unexpected, though not uncommon sounds is amplified Christian rock music. It blasts every weekend from huge speakers outside some of the houses. This week it started at seven o'clock in the morning on three consecutive days from a house at the end of my street. On the fourth day I learned that an old woman who lived in the house had passed away. The music was part of her palliative care. After she passed the roads were closed for the hearing ceremony, the first opportunity for the family to grieve. All of the women sat in the yard of her house while the men, their foreheads smeared with white paint, gathered nearby. They walked towards the women in a tight group, singing and playing clapsticks. When their song was finished the women started wailing and throwing themselves repeatedly to floor. They hit themselves with rocks and sticks in places on their bodies corresponding with their particular kin relationships to the deceased. When I asked why they hit themselves I was told that it helps to stop thinking and start crying. After the ceremony everyone sat together, listening to Christian rock. A huge white cross leaned on the wall of the house. 

Most of the adults here went to Sunday School as children. The devout sit every night in fellowship circles, praying and reading scripture, while others partake in the regular vices. There’s no longer any formal religious education so kids learn mainly at bedtime. They fall asleep to stories about God. Which all goes to say, I wasn’t surprised to be holding that phone. I read chapter seven aloud. Its part of a highly symbolic, apocalyptic story, written by someone called John at a time when Christians were under increasing pressure to worship their Roman emperor instead of their God. This is what it says.

“I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea, 'Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.' Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from the tribes of Israel… After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’

All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, saying ‘Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength be to our God forever and ever. Amen!’ Then one of the elders asked me, ‘These in white robes - who are they, and where did they come from?’ I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

“Amen!” 
I handed the phone back to R— then stood up and fetched the billy. 
“Gnama,” I said softly while pouring the tea, “What does that mean to you?”

Subscribe

Letters Home #15 'Birthday'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

The water at Ellery Creek, Alice Springs.

#15 Birthday

Last week, on the day after birthday, I was floating on my back in water cold and deep between rock-ribbed walls in an ancient gorge. Once more round the sun, my brother likes to say. Once more round the sun.

I celebrated with a few friends to the tune of Paul Kelly. We played a game with four-inch needles and pot of ink. When it was my turn I told a story about something I’d seen and wanted to keep. A snake. I drew it on the back of an envelope. Then again on my skin. Then with one hand she held my arm and with the other she dipped a needle in the pot of ink and poked at my skin.
Deeper water is calling him on
"Does it hurt?" she asked. 
“Yes,” I said, “in a good way though, not like a stubbed toe." 
A stubbed toe is loud and clumsy, annoying and difficult to accept, impossible to understand. Whereas from the very start the pain of a tattoo is forgiven, endured with grace and understood to be necessary. When it was over she smeared my skin with cool salve and asked what I thought. I said I liked it very much and I wanted more.

This week I'm back in Gapuwiyak. On the first day of school I took a group of kids to the lake. R— was there too - my adopted mum. We gathered nuts and seeds and feathers and leaves and put them in a basket. She showed me a tree whose bark makes a poison that catches fish, and another with ironwood suitable for clapsticks. Pointing to a third she said, “This tree is the tree of my tribe. The tree of your tribe. When someone in our tribe passes away we sing a song about this tree falling down. One day, waku, when you hear that song, you will know if all this is meaningful for you.” 

The next day it rained for the first time in months. The air outside was cold and perfumed. A butcherbird landed on a branch in my yard with a worm in its beak. The rain brought worms to the surface, I thought, and I suppose the butcherbird too. In the yard next door a pair of lorikeets hung from the branch of a mango tree and took turns with one of the first ripe fruits of the season. Meanwhile an old story was coming to an end. The story of a petrified infant with its eyes tight shut and no one around. 

“Where was the last place you saw it?” Tallulah asked, seated again on her moroccan pouf.
“In a softly lit room with some friends,” I said, “then again the next day in a gorge, after that in my mother's arms. And I smelled it one day in the rain.”
“What did it smell like?”
“Complicated, but also clear, sort of floral, with an earthiness and a wetness too. It was beautiful and I remember thinking I should take time to enjoy it, how soon it would end. Somehow that made it smell better.”
Tallulah smiled. She picked up one of the cloth bags on the glass table to her right and loosened the drawstring. Inside was a book, which she held in one hand and whose cover she opened with the other. “Take this,” she said, “its a book of poems by a man I think you’d like. Its called, Deeper Still.”
Tallulah turned to a page and took a deep breath, she paused, and slowly closed it again. Her fingers brushed its cover the way one brushes the hair from a child’s face to better take them in. She put the book back in the cloth bag and handed it to me. “Good luck,” she said.
“Thanks.” 
I stood up and locked eyes with her. Suddenly I had the feeling that I was dreaming. “Who are you?” I asked her eyes.
“What do you mean?” she replied.
“Never mind.”
I put the cloth bag in my shoulder bag and slung it over my shoulder. After a final exchange of grateful smiles I walked out through the beaded curtain, through the kitchen and onto the street.

Letters Home #14 'House of Tallulah (Part 2)'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Tallulah sat in half lotus on a cherry red moroccan pouf in a modest room at the back of the cafe. Odd stools and chairs, covered with candles, crowded the walls. There was a window to her left, a bookshelf to her right, behind her a large wooden chest and beside her a small glass table. Her pouf was in one hemisphere of a round mat, woven with threads of dyed pandanus, in earthy tones of green and orange. I sat in the mat’s other hemisphere - also on a pouf. 
"So, what are you looking for?” 
Her eyes were soft but offered no place to hide. They followed mine to the bookshelf, where I’d turned for time and inspiration. I read a few spines. Sacred Geometry and the Body, 24 Recipes for Grounding, Love Matters.
I paused, lost in a moment of contemplation. She noticed.
“Are you looking for love?” she asked.
“Um,” I replied, remembering something. “Actually I’m looking for the sound of my own voice.”
“I see,” she said. So, you’re not looking for love?”
“Well —” I paused and gave it some thought. “I mean I’m not not looking for love."
“When was the last time you had it?”
“Love?” I said casually, as if surprised.
“Yes,” she said, “When looking for something, it helps to know the last place you had it. Like a clue.”
“Um.” I hadn't prepared to think about love. Suddenly my stomach dropped and filled with dizzy butterflies. They were slightly nauseous. I winced and moved my hands to hold them.
“Something the matter?” Tallulah asked.
“There’s a pain in my stomach,” I said. The nausea crept to my back and shoulders then into my cheeks. Tallulah didn’t seem concerned. She paused and said softly, “Stay with it.”
I must have looked confused because she offered an explanation, “Sometimes,” she said, “when the voice is hidden, the body does the talking. Listen. What’s it saying?”
“Its saying its in pain.” I said through tight eyes.
“What kind of pain?”
“Like a puncture,” I said, “like my stomach's been punched and a sickness is oozing from the wound.”
“Mm,” Tallulah fell silent. Meanwhile the ooze dribbled into my hips. I tightened my grip and winced again.
“Its like I’m sick,” I said.
“What do you mean by ‘sick’?” she asked.
“I mean something isn’t right, like an illness. Or a disease.”
“A disease,” she echoed.
“Yeah, like I’ve caught something in my stomach. Its making me sick. Ruining my life.”
“Ruining your life?” She asked. 
I was a little surprised by my admission but took it as permission to confess. “Yes. It makes doing things hard. I can’t be totally happy or friendly when there’s this feeling making me want to do nothing but curl into a ball and go to sleep and not wake up till its gone.”
“It makes you want to curl into a ball?”
“Yeah.” I looked at my stomach.
“Would you like to try?” she asked.
“Try what?” 
“Curling into a ball.”
“Now?”
“Well from what you’re saying it sounds like there’s a pain in your stomach thats ruining your life and it wants you to curl into a ball. I wonder what would happen if you did what it wants.”
“Um.”
Tallulah smiled, “Only if you want to,” she said.
“Okay.” I agreed.
She unfolded her legs slowly, stood up and moved her stool outside the mat. She opened the chest behind her and pulled out a white crocheted blanket. “If you like,” she said, "I’ll put this blanket over you when you’re in a ball. If you feel as though you need to speak, that’s okay. If not, that’s okay too.”
“Okay,” I stood, awkwardly. I moved my stool and lowered to my knees. She seemed assured and that was encouraging. I lay on my side and wrapped my arms around my legs. The pain in my stomach pressed against my thighs. It turned over and oozed up my sternum, behind my tongue. “Ready,” I said.
Tallulah moved towards me and draped the blanket over my body so that I was completely cocooned. “I’m going to light some candles,” she said.
“Okay.” 
The lights went out. I could hear Tallulah lighting candles. Eventually she stopped and one of the stools creaked under her weight. I closed my eyes. The pain was most acute a few inches above my bellybutton. It sucked at my skin and spread out towards my sides. Then it rolled over and tugged at my jaw. It tucked itself behind my bellybutton, rising and falling with my every breath. Suddenly it sharpened and my stomach gurgled. An image flashed into the speckled blackness behind my eyes. It was a crying baby, covered in purple and white blotches, with clenched eyes. Its umbilical chord was intact and flailing. The baby was floating in a room, faintly red, but no one was holding it. No mother or father. Only a few shadows moving about in preparation. The baby was silent. Its eyes clenched tight.
“I see a baby,” I said.
“A baby?” she echoed.
“A newborn. Its afraid — its frozen with fear. Its eyes are clenched tight.”
“What does it need?”
“Um,” I started to shake. Tears welled in my eyes. They were clenched. 
“What does it need?” she repeated.
“Love,” I cried. “It needs love.”
Tallulah was silent. So was I. I sat up and put the blanket to one side. Her eyes were soft, but offered no place to hide. “I’m looking for love,” I said to her eyes. They blinked and smiled.

(not) the end.

Letters Home #13 'House of Tallulah (Part 1)'

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs. Two streets from the main drag. Two streets from foot traffic in a town of thirty thousand, it relies entirely on patronage by people who know where it is and what they’re looking for. Most are looking for the same thing. Along with the usual caffeinated beverages and baked artisanal treats, House of Tallulah is the only cafe in Alice Springs, possibly the only cafe in the northern territory of this great southern land, that also serves directions

I’d arrived in Alice a few days earlier. Fourteen hours by bus from Arnhem. I was hungry for professionally prepared food and thirsty for a varied blend of civil refreshments. My friend Reuben picked me up. He's a cowboy - but he doesn’t ride horses. He plays chess. Which isn’t to say he lacks any of the rugged qualities for which cowboys are known. Reuben combines practical knowledge of the task at hand with an eye for craftsmanship, sense for adventure, stylish garb and a cracking wit. We grew up either side of the same leafy street in suburban Perth. Reuben introduced me to Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Fifteen years later he sent me to visit House of Tallulah. “Ask for directions,” he said.

The cafe operates from a powder blue weatherboard bungalow set back thirty paces from the street. Framed portraits clad the bungalow in Christian iconography and idilic scenes from turn of the century rural dreams. A concrete footpath leads to a single front door. To the right of the path is a tall whitewood. To the left is a patch of verdant lawn large enough for two cars. The eight alfresco settings are composed of odd vintage chairs and makeshift coffee tables. Cutlery stands in salvaged tins of diced tomatoes next to short stacks of recycled paper napkins. Everything, the portraits and weatherboards, the lawn and tree, the handfuls of creamy white blossoms cast across the path by gusts of spring wind, everything is stonewashed in desert glare.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

House of Tallulah is a cafe in Alice Springs.

I walked inside, into a long rectangular room with a bench down one side. On the bench was a coffee machine and cash register. Also a glass cake stand full of blueberry muffins and ready-to-toast breakfast sandwiches. A doorframe at the back of the room led to a stainless steel kitchen and at the back of that another doorframe with a beaded curtain. Behind the bench stood three women. On the right was Liza, five-five and forty something with curly black hair, full eyebrows and leathery skin made soft by beauty cream. She wore an assortment of chains around her neck and a red silk singlet. From one of the chains hung a kookaburra’s tail feather. Her wrists were stacked with bangles and beaded bracelets and she wore a single pendant earring, a three dimensional plastic moon. On the left was Charlie, cropped grey hair and a four inch mohawk. She wore a silver ring on her right thumb and her square frame was dressed in ripped Levi’s and a tight grey t-shirt printed in bold texan typeface with the words ’NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN’.

Between Liza and Charlie, taller by a whole two feet, stood Tallulah. Everything about her was exaggerated. Her saucer-sized eyes were wide set and filled to the brim with coffee brown. She had high cheek bones and ears like conch shells. They poked through shards of maple hair that fell beside her neck and grazed her clavicles. The neckline of her camel blouse stretched shoulder to shoulder and sat low enough to reveal the creases in her underarms and a few curly maple hairs. It was embroidered with small candlesticks in threads of red and purple. They spread over her bust and cascaded to her midriff where her blouse was cut short and showed the olive skin of her belly. An oversized ruby pendant dangled from her bellybutton. Beneath that was a forest green chiffon skirt and a pair of cradled hands. Her wrists were tattooed with black and grey bands ranging from one to four centimetres. They ran all the way to the middle of her upper arms. Each a patterned mix of cross-hatch, swirls and strange letters in alien script. She wore pendant earrings, one of which was a three dimensional plastic moon. The other was a birthday candle. 

“What can we get you?” said Liza, with a smoker’s voice, rasped by inflammation at the back of her throat. I blinked - lost for words. Liza cocked her head. The thick mascara around her eyes crumpled with hints of scepticism. I turned to Tallulah. She was smiling impossibly wide, when she blinked back I swear I heard her lids collide. “Um,” was all I could manage. 
“Coffee?” asked Tellulah. Her voice was high pitched and playfully sarcastic.
I blinked again.
“Food?” she toyed with me. A chortle fled through Charlie’s nose. I shook my head. “Hmm,” she paused for effect, “How about directions?”
“Um,” I mumbled. The game was finished. Tellulah glanced at a clock on the wall behind my head. It had a porcelain face and black enamel roman numerals pointed to by plastic candlesticks. Ten o’clock.
“Perfect,” she said and stepped back, moving towards the end of the room and out from behind the bench so that she stood facing me. I looked at her bare feet. Each finger-length toe wore a gold band set with a different coloured crystal. I stared long enough to consider the shape and colour of each one. Tallulah watched me. She lifted her toes and gave them a wiggle then set them again on the floor. I looked at her face. I though she was about to laugh. But instead she blinked and said, “Come on, sweetheart.” Then she turned and disappeared into the kitchen.

I started after her but was cut short by a tap on my shoulder. It was Charlie. “Works best if we get this out of the way,” she said, calmly handing me a laminated piece of A5 recycled paper. At the top, in bold purple print was handwritten the word ‘Directions’. Under that, in the middle of the page, was written ‘$120’.
“Um,” I managed.
“No pressure,” said Charlie.
“Um,” I felt in my bag for my wallet and pulled it out. Charlie was holding a wireless EFTPOS machine.
“Cheque, savings or credit?”
“Uh, cheque, thanks.”
I typed my four-digit PIN and pressed ‘Okay’. Transaction approved. I walked in.

(not) the end.

Notes

All of the characters and events in this story are fictional.

Subscribe

Letters Home #12 "A Way Out"

Listen here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

It feels necessary to preface this letter by saying that it deals with a very sensitive theme. I realise that maybe you didn’t sign up for very sensitive themes. So I want to emphasise that it’s purely allegorical. It’s about what it feels like to consider giving up on a dream. And perhaps it’s also about the origins of ritual and prayer. This is as far as I ever imagined I’d go. What’s on the other side I don’t know. I hope you’ll find out with me. Okay, that said, here goes...

#12 “A Way Out"

This week there was a knock at my door, which was open. I said to come in. I sat opposite with my back against the wall and my knees bent so that my feet could be flat on the floor, but my toes were raised and my arms curled around my shins. The back of my neck was long and I looked down. I wore old clothes, clean but stained. My beard was unkempt. The man who came in wore stiff leather soles and his steps made a sound when he walked to a chair and arranged it across from me no more than a meter and sat down. His breathing was slow and deep. I heard it but I didn’t lift my head. 

He didn’t talk straight away. Instead he waited, long enough to draw my attention. I raised my head to see him. He was on the generous side of sixty. His hair and beard a neat collage of greys and blacks. His eyes were my father’s, bright blue - but set back so as not to be piercing. He wore a faint smile and relaxed shoulders beneath a tailored coat and trousers made of thick, durable fabric the colour of charcoal. He appeared to be wearing a uniform for a profession requiring some labour but with no risk of getting dirty.

He had my mother’s hands. Soft long fingers, skin made thin by worry. They were clasped in his lap. His right thumb kneaded the back of his left hand. “Who are you?” I said.
“That all depends.”
“Why are you here?” this time desperately. He was a fantasy, that much I knew.
“I’ve come to get you out.”
“Out of what?”
“Well clearly you’re in something,” he said, “your beard is longer than you like it to be. Your neck is stiff and you’re sitting on the floor with your arms curled around your shins.”
I took his point. “Okay,” I said, “fair enough.”

Next to the man stood a brown paper bag. He leaned over and drew from it a rope, two thirds of an inch thick, flaked ten or eleven times to form a coil. The rope itself was made of a dry fibre with a soft sheen. It had a golden appearance. We both stared and he turned it over to reveal its working end, knotted with a series of tight coils perpendicular to the bight, followed by a dinner-plate-sized eye. The man stood up. My feet flattened. I let go of my legs and pressed my back to the wall. Without turning he lifted one of his feet and stepped onto the chair. His movements had a choreographed grace about them. They were slow but efficient. When he was standing on the chair he looked up and I followed his gaze to a hook in the ceiling. I’d never noticed it before and tried to remember it. By the time my attention was back on the hook the man had tied the rope’s standing end with an elegant slipped buntline hitch. He stepped down from the chair, releasing one turn at a time, until the rope was entirely uncoiled and suspended. He sat down and stilled the rope with his left hand then retrieved it to his lap. We stared at each other. From the ceiling hung a noose.

“So?” said the man.
“So, what?” I replied.
“Its a way out.”
“Out of what?” I asked, forgetting. The man cleared his throat before he spoke. “Look,” he said, “you’ve come a long way. But its time to check in with reality.”
I blinked. He continued, “This dream of yours,” he said, “to find your voice and tell your stories and reconcile the warring parts of yourself. To speak for the complexity of things — its all just a dream.”
I stared. I wanted his help. I searched for something to hold but my memory had been replaced by that of a goldfish and each time I blinked the past disappeared.
“I —“ said with uncertainty, “I can’t remember why I’m here.”
“Never mind,” he said, “This is about the future.”
“Um —” The man grew impatient, his right thumb pressed hard into the back of his left hand forming a bow wave in the skin, which broke across his knuckles, over and over. I felt weak and small. Without an answer. I feared to find disappointment in his eyes. I feared his hands would become arthritic. I wanted to help him. For him to help me. I wanted to be out of what I was in. I was tired and torn.

“Help me!” I cried in defeat.
His hands stopped. He leaned forward and put one of them on each of my shoulders. He stood me up and slipped the noose over my head. “How do you feel?” he asked.
“Better,” I lied.
“Its only a dream,” he said. I looked in his eyes. They were my father’s. But something was missing from them. Time slowed. I looked at his hands. They were my mother’s - and yet, his mouth - I’d not noticed it before. His lips were so thin. They came to a point and the skin around them was dry and scaly.
“Who are you?” I asked his mouth.
“That all depends,” he said. His teeth were small and sharp with spaces between them. I glanced past him to the window. It was dusk. 

“I have to light a fire,” I said, “every day at dusk. And read a poem. To help me remember.” 
I reached for an old piece of paper in my pocket. Discoloured at the creases. I opened it slowly, and read it aloud.

A Prayer to Remember 
(Say these words each day at dusk before a fire.)

To something unknown and unnamed,
Something transcendent and powerful.
Something by which I am guided, and
In whose presence I am humbled.

Please.

Forgive me the days
When I don’t recall,
That a little confusion
Is part of it all.

Help me to trust
In a future unknown,
Nourished by fruits
Of the seeds I have sown.

Help me remember
The garden my heart,
The word my salvation
The water my art.

Whatever is hated,
May it be understood.
Whatever is evil,
May it give way to good.
Whatever is broken,
May you see it repaired.
Whatever is stolen,
May you see it is shared.

Please keep me protected
And in return — 
I’ll consider each moment
A lesson to learn.

I’ll take care of my body
With stretching and rest,
In all of my work
I’ll give of my best.

I’ll try be a friend
To all who I see,
No matter their baggage
Or how they treat me.

I’ll try to keep sacred
The rights of our kind,
To reep what we sow
And seek what we find.

I’ll try to remember
That I’m not alone,
Whenever I’m lost
I’ll follow you home.

(pause)

As for my dream
I’ll be unmoved by doubt,
For I know in my heart
There is no way out.

I took a full breath and looked up. The man was gone. I was out. My neck was stiff and my body ached. But my shoulders relaxed and I felt like I’d cried. I walked outside and gathered a few sticks. The air was cool and a gentle wind brushed my legs. I broke the sticks so they were all the same length. The scent of them filled my nostrils and I made a point of breathing deep. A small bat flew circles over my head chasing mosquitos. In the distance I heard clap-sticks, yidaki and singing. A funeral had begun. It would continue for the next five days with a series of rituals, songs and dances. All of the deceased's family members would participate. When it was over they’d feel comforted. Everyone would know that the spirit of a loved one was safely on its way to the earth from whence it came.

I lit my fire. While it burned I thought of all the men, women and children saying prayers to remember. I smiled and felt grateful for the wind.

Subscribe

Postscript 

Tomorrow I’m leaving for ten days vacation. God knows I need a break. My destination, Alice Springs, the home of a dear old friend and kindred spirit.

Letters Home #11 "Shame"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

In my eyes (Photo Credit: Amber from Godspeed Productions)

On the day of my first hunt I loaded into the back of a tall and boxy work horse called a troopie. Almost always white, troopies have two and a half seats in the front and a pair of bench seats in the back. The bench seats run down the sides of the cab, so for passengers in the back of a troopie the natural place to look is not the road ahead but the person across the way.

Across from me sat four men I’d never met, shoulder to shoulder, their eyes scanning. Their bodies rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road. Our eyes would meet and we'd smile and after a few such instances the man across from me spoke three words into the silent cab and everyone turned. “Where you from?” he asked.

It was an obvious question. But I hesitated long enough to notice the wind brush the hairs on the back of my neck. I reached my hand to touch them and felt shame for not knowing what to say. I smiled apologetically - I needed more time.

Suddenly the troopie braked hard and the bodies inside lurched sideways. Someone called out, “Witi!”. We turned and saw a large wallaby hop across the road behind us. In a flash one man handed another the rifle and he got out and took a few quiet steps to a nearby tree. By then the wallaby was forty metres away. The gun fired, louder than I expected, the wallaby jumped and a red mist stood where it had been. I raced towards the body with another man. When we got there he made sure it was dead and looked for his knife. I had one in my pocket so I handed it to him and he slit the animal’s throat and told me to hold it up and let the blood. I gripped its tail, warm and muscular. I pulled back its head and the last of its life spilled on the floor. Then I laid it down and the man removed its stomach and intestines and handed me back my knife. We were thrilled.

At a river we rested and washed the blood from our bodies. The wallaby was hung and butchered, each man was given his portion and more to take home. We cooked on an open fire and ate in two small circles, carving the meat on flat stones and dabbing it in salt. As it was my first hunt I was offered pieces of kidney and sections of bone containing sweet marrow. Also the end of the tail. 

“Where you from?” someone asked. I wanted to say that I’m not from anywhere. But I didn’t. We finished eating and washed again then said words of thanks to the land. We needed to find another animal to feed the families waiting at home. So we set off for a place known to buffalo, one of which can feed five families for a week.

The buffalo was pale grey with hints of blue and pink. Its horns grew straight out of its head, turning at their ends towards the sky. It took four bullets to bring it down. We approached the body with sharp knives and an axe and surrounded it like lions. We took turns and worked quickly to skin the hide. I used my hands to separate the muscles and make cuts along the seams of its rear leg. Beads of my sweat dripped into the flesh and mixed with warm dark blood from a severed artery. At one point I looked to the animal’s head. I wanted to see its eyes. But they were glazed and lifeless, indistinguishable from flesh. Eventually I managed to free the limb and hoisted it between my shoulder blades and carried it to the troopie.

When the work was done we sat in the cab, silent with exhaustion. The dusk light was golden and it lighted the four bodies across from me. I could see their bones and muscles. I could feel the warmth of their blood beneath my skin. I lowered my eyes to my legs then lifted my head and looked in the eyes of the man opposite. “Where you from?” I asked his eyes.
“Me?” they blinked.
“Yes.”
He hesitated. The light was fading now and his body was a shadow but his eyes were bright and some of that light seemed to come from inside. I spoke again, this time with my eyes, “Did you travel a long way?”
He didn’t answer. I fell silent and flexed my hands, they were coated in dry blood. I squeezed my tired thighs. “I was born in South Africa,” I said. “Though I grew up in Perth and more recently I lived in Sydney.”
His eyes listened. His body rose and fell and shuddered with every bump in the road.
“Truth is I don’t feel as though I’m from any of the places I’ve been,” I continued. “My great grandparents left Eastern Europe early in the twentieth century. I'm part of a language group called the Hebrews, destined forever to dwell in the lands of others.”
“Soon we’re going to stop and pray,” he said, this time with his mouth.
“Okay,” I said. But I needed more time. My eyes widened and moistened. My chest rose and tightened at the back of my throat. Through baited breath I said, “I know my ancestral stories and dreams. I read them and try to understand what they mean.”
His eyes were bright and some of that light was from the moon. When we got out to pray, I prayed for forgiveness.

With love,
Daniel

Subscribe

Letters Home #10 "Forgiveness"

You can listen to me read this letter here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #10 “Forgiveness"

Give me confusion and forgive me my pride,
All I wanted was improvement.
(Daniel 15:09)

Right now I’m at my desk. Its a large dining table positioned slightly off centre in a room fifteen paces by five. The table is made of wood, has a hazelnut stain, a simple box apron and four turned legs. Its not so old to demand special treatment, nor so young to be without a story. It has two chairs, one faces a window, the other - at its head - faces into the room. I sit mostly in the former, though sometimes I work in the latter - which is where I am now.

At night before bed I like to work with the front door open. That way the room fills with cool dark air and the scent of campfires. One night the porch light turned on and behind the screen door stood a tabby cat. She was ash grey with charcoal stripes and yellow eyes. I’d been writing for hours and mostly about longing so I saw in those eyes a welcome intrusion. I opened the door and she came in, circled me a few times then brushed her coat against my legs and the legs of my table. I sat on the floor and watched her with caution. She came up, rolled on her back and purred at my touch. I felt flush with warmth and I smiled. 

I told a friend about the cat. She cooed a little and said she often thought about taking in a stray cat, or a dog. There are so many around. The dogs are battered and cats make good housemates. I reminisced about my old cat called Blue, the way he used to sleep on my chest. A few weeks later my friend found a kitten and kept it. I went round to visit and the little grey huntress was chasing lizards. I laughed and cheered her on. But my friend wasn’t amused. She complained that the lizards were native and since the cat moved in she hadn’t seen so many around. I found myself siding with the cat. “Leave her be,” I said, “she lives here too."

A week later I was out bush with some Yolngu Rangers. They’re employed for the purpose of conservation and land management. In many ways they stand on rare common ground between Yolngu knowledge and Western science. We visited a dry river bed. The ground beneath our feet was broken into big chunks of caked mud. The work of feral pigs and buffalo. Years ago, the Rangers said, the river bed was flat, green and abundant with water chestnuts. Now its a salty barren badlands. 

Years ago people collected the chestnuts and found water by the sound of small birds, whose twills and chirps inspired melodies for songs, and whose movements were made into dances. Children learned the dances and recognised the birds. They passed on the knowledge and seldom went thirsty. Years later the birds flew away. Too many cats. The people kept dancing and singing. Children kept learning but they couldn’t see the birds. The old people told them how they used to find water. But the children drank from taps and were thirsty.

On World Indigenous People Day they celebrated their culture with songs and dances, stories and dreams that everyone agreed should be preserved and protected. Don’t forget who you are, the children were told, don’t forget where you come from. Be proud of your roots and your culture. Learn the stories and dreams, help pass them on. Take care of this land. And across the nation people will honour you whenever they meet. They will pay their respects to you and your elders, past present and future.

A child raised his hand. “Are their stories about cats?” he asked.
“Cats?” his teacher echoed.
“Yes, cats!” said the child. “I know to be proud of my culture and to take care of this land. So what should I do about cats?”

His teacher conferred with the Rangers. It was their job to conserve and manage the land. But the Rangers weren’t sure. They’d tried killing the cats, but people kept them as pets, so inevitably the problem outlived that solution. They’d encouraged people to keep them indoors and have them desexed. But some left them be, to hunt and prosper. After all, they lived there too. There was word of a new innovation from overseas but it would be years before the innovation itself would reach the Rangers.

The teacher returned disappointed. “I’m sorry,” he said to the child, “the Rangers aren’t sure. Yolngu knowledge has nothing to tell about cats, and Western science tells stories about future technology."

The child raised his hand, which was unusual. Both for the fact that the teacher stood right in front of him and for the unlikelihood that there might still be a question to ask. “What about Western knowledge?” said the child.
Knowledge?” replied his teacher.
“Yes!” said the child. “Does your culture have stories about cats?”

The teacher was stunned. Who am I? He thought. Where do I come from? Does my culture have stories about cats? He recalled with some difficulty a time when his culture was also made of stories and dreams. They were stories about heroes and heroins and the spirits that dwelt in unseeable spaces. But something had happened - he tried to remember - people searched for spirits but couldn’t find them. So they consulted the Rationalists, who’s job it was to reveal and manage the truth. The Rationalists had technology that could see into unseeable spaces. But they couldn’t see any spirits and soon the people stopped telling their stories. After all, they knew who they were and where they came from, but now they were somewhere new.

“I’m sorry,” said the teacher. “I don’t know any stories about cats.”
The child scrunched his face so that his lips were crumpled and his eyes scanned the air just out of reach to his left. After a few seconds deep in thought he raised his hand.
“Yes?” said the teacher.
“How about snakes?”
“Snakes?”
“Yes. Do you have any stories about snakes?”
The teacher hesitated, “I guess so… but they’re only myths.”
“Whats a myth?” said the child.
“Kind of a story. An old story - but more like a dream. It isn’t —“ the teacher stopped. There was a word on the tip of his tongue but he wasn’t quite sure what it meant. He looked at the child and took a deep breath. “Okay," he began, “I’ll tell you the story. Once there was a beautiful garden, full of plants and animals and fresh flowing water. A man and a woman lived there and took care of the land. It was a time before knowledge and the man and woman didn’t know who they were. They weren’t afraid and never went hungry. Nothing did. One of the trees in the garden was called the tree of knowledge. But the man and the woman weren’t supposed to eat from that tree."
The child was rapt. “Was there a snake in the garden?”
The teacher smiled at the child’s curiosity and felt encouraged to continue the telling. “Yes. There was a snake. It was subtle and smart, it lived in the tree of knowledge and it spoke to the woman. It told her to eat from the tree and find out who she was.”
The child raised his hand and the teacher laughed. “I think I know what you’re going to say,” he said. “You’re going to ask why she wasn’t supposed to know who she was.”
“Yes!” said the child, “Why not?”
“Well, the garden was only for people who didn’t know. If she ate the fruit, she’d have to leave.”
“So what did she do?”
“She ate the fruit.”
“And she had to leave?”
“Yes, and the man too. They left together.”
“Where did they go?”
“Well, they didn’t go anywhere. More like, they woke up.”
“You mean it was all a dream?”

The child was confused and so was the teacher. He felt some embarrassment at having told the story. Such things were no longer told to children and perhaps for good reason. Then he felt the child’s hand enter his own. It brushed the skin of his palm and was dry and soft like a petal. The child’s interest was innocent and genuine. He couldn’t know the tension these stories conjured in the hearts and minds of teachers. “You know what?” he asked.
The teacher hoped for once the child had an answer, “What?” he replied.
“I know who you are!”
Surprised, the teacher turned to the child. He wanted so desperately to know that he laughed a little and casually said, “Oh yeah?”
“Yeah! You’re the same as me. Your job is to care for the land.”
The teacher felt flush with warmth. “I guess you’re right.”
The child scrunched his face in thought. “Now if only we had a story about cats.”

The next morning I woke up and went to the shop to buy some pears. A man I know barrelled in after me and asked if I’d like to go hunting with some men. I said I would, it was my first hunt. Soon I sat by a river with kangaroo on a fire and blood on my hands. Later I stood at the home of a mythical python snake. Later still I helped skin the first buffalo I’d ever seen. On our way home we washed in the river as the sun was setting and the men suggested we say a prayer of thanksgiving, for a day so flush with life.

I can’t say who I prayed to, but I know what I prayed for. I prayed for forgiveness.

Subscribe